Doris Lessing's London diary

An American friend is absorbed in that occupation so fascinating to all us foreigners when we first arrive in this island – an empirical study of the class system. Engaged in painting the Universities and Left Review coffee house, he often travels in paintstained clothes, when he is treated with camaraderie by workmen, and as if he does not exist by the well dressed. Back in respectable clothes, he is a sir, another person. I once wrote in a book review that the caste system in this country was as complicated as that of India. I had 37 indignant letters saying that class distinctions had been killed in the Second World War. They were all from middle class people.

A man told me this story of the last war, when he was simultaneously one of the managers of a large factory outside London and Communist Party organiser for the area. Three times a week he changed into workmen’s clothes and stood at the factory gates speechifying. The other managers, beside whom he worked all day, would drive out past him at a couple of yards’ distance, but none of them ever recognised him: they simply didn’t see him because he was wearing different clothes. And it was the same with the workmen who saw him every day in his capacity as boss. One of them did once remark that he could swear he “knew his face from somewhere”. My friend, torn apart by this Jekyll and Hyde existence, tried to explain, but the man would not believe him.


The girl at the laundry is getting married next week. She says she found him at the marriage bureau – he fits her much better than those boys she used to pick up at the Palais. She tried out seven applicants before she found one to suit. But marriage bureaux work in more devious ways than perhaps they know.

I once lived in the next room to a girl, waitress at Lyons, who was in love with the manager of the restaurant across the street. He had been playing her up, so she decided to make him jealous. She visited the bureau demanding “a handsome dark man, aged 25, five foot ten”. The lady at the bureau was distressed at Betty’s frivolous attitude, even came to visit her at home so as to explain that happy wedlock did not depend on good looks. Betty was tolerant about this, conceding that she meant well. Meanwhile, handsome dark young men came to tea with Betty on those afternoons when Steven the manager was due to pass by. Everyone’s plans miscarried. Steven was jealous, but too much so: Betty turned him down because she couldn’t be happy with a man as unreasonable as all that. Two of the bureau’s candidates took to her, but she couldn’t fully take to men who had to go through an office to find themselves girls. She married a boy she had known since childhood – tall, dark and extremely handsome, but because, she said, she was “used to him”.



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