Of course, Doris Lessing was a person extraordinaire, as well as a cat person extraordinaire. But she loved cats too, she wrote a book called “Particularly Cats”, after all, about her cat experiences.
She died in 2013, but this is a photo of her taken in 2006, a year before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was a one-off, in the best sense – insightful, courageous, far-thinking and willing to take risks.
She could be challenging to be around for any length of time, it seems. Her cat book is a case in point: there’s no comfiness – she doesn’t put her cats to sleep when the time comes, they don’t pass on, and they most certainly don’t go to the Rainbow Bridge (which is where my cats are). No, Doris’s cats are “killed”, if its necessary.
I’m sure this has something to do with her childhood circumstances: in the inter-war period, the 1920s and 30s in what was then Rhodesia, out on a farm. It was idyllic, in her memory, but of course it wasn’t a life that would coddle a little girl.
I met her once, very briefly; she came to the Brighton Festival to give a talk on another writer, though when the talk was finished, nearly all the Q&A was about her own work. She was perfectly willing to do a signing afterwards, and she stopped in her tracks, for a moment or two. I’d brought a hard copy edition of one of her science fiction books, The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire. Its a great book, very witty, very funny, and reads a bit more like Monty Python than anything else; she was really pleased someone had brought it along. It was brilliant to bring a spontaneous flash of pleasure to those eyes!
I saw a documentary on TV about her last year, hosted by Alan Yentob, entitled The Reluctant Heroine, in which she’s described as “alarming, radical and strange” by Hermione Lee. People’s wariness around her is summed up in the film by a little exchange in her kitchen a few days prior to this, as a cat arrives at the interview wanting to be let out into the garden, and Alan Yentob picks it up:
Doris: “That cat could easily bite. She’s not a sweet little pussy.”
Alan: “No, I didn’t think she would be.”
It cracked me up …