Argyle Street was chosen as the main location for a film adaptation of Doris Lessings Memoirs of a Survivor. It was a blessing for many of the Street's residents as they were taken on as paid extras with access to the catering van.  The story dealt with the break-down of society where savage packs of children on the street are the only authority. The Survivor (Julie Christie) watches the downward spiral of society through her window. Opposite her window she has visions through her wall of an orderly Victorian society. Then one of the wild orphan children comes, quite naturally and unopposed, to stay with her. It is not an especially coherent plot and it is fair to say that the film of Memoirs of A Survivor perplexed audiences as much as the book has. To understand Memoirs of a Survivor I think you have to understand Doris Lessing's relationship with Jenny Diski. 


Diski wrote that in her relationship with Lessing of 50 years she never found a word that "properly and succinctly describes her role in my life, let alone my role in hers." Young Jenny was a bright but wild child, expelled from school and alienated from her parents but Doris could not be simply described as her "adoptive mother." It was through Doris's son Peter, who went to the same school, that she heard of Jenny.  

Doris wrote to Jenny who had been "parked" in the Lady Chichester psychiatric unit in Hove, after taking an overdose of nembutal following a sexual assault from her mother. She asked Jenny if she wanted to stay with her. Doris wrote it was her first house which had central heating and a spare room.   


"It wasn’t clear in the letter how long I was invited to stay for, but the notion of going to university suggested something long-term," Jenny wrote.  She arrived at Doris' dingy three-storey Georgian terrace in February 1963  

"The child was left with me in this way. I was in the kitchen and, hearing a sound, went into the living room, and saw a man and a half-grown girl standing there. I did not know either of them, and advanced with the intention of clearing up a mistake. The thought in my mind was that I must have left my front door open. They turned to face me. I remember how I was even then, and at once, struck by the bright hard nervous smile on the girl’s face. The man – middle-aged, ordinarily dressed, quite unremarkable in every way – said: ‘This is the child.’ He was already on the way out. He had laid his hand on her shoulder, had smiled and nodded to her, was turning away.  

   I said: ‘But surely ’  

   ‘No, there’s no mistake. She’s your responsibility.’  

   He was at the door.  

   ‘But wait a minute ’  

   ‘She is Emily Cartright. Look after her.’ And he had gone. 

‘Emily’s you, of course,’ Doris told me, handing me the final draft manuscript of The Memoirs of a Survivor in 1973. She always let me know when I appeared in her books, or when she used something I’d told her about, events from my past or present. She also told me who the other characters were. Not all of them had familiar real-world models, but many of the key characters in her stories and novels did, even some of the science fiction and fantasy ones. By the time she published The Memoirs of a Survivor the following year, I had been back in the bin, two different ones in London, the north wing of St Pancras Hospital for several months and, not long after that, the Maudsley for nine months. Another book, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, published in 1971, centred on the story of my relationship with one of the other patients in St Pancras, while the later book, Memoirs, concerned, in part, not just a dramatisation of my arrival at Doris’s, but also a fairly accurate and equally dramatic account of the time in my life, in the early 1970s, when Roger and I ran an ‘alternative’ school for some local kids, who had been persistently truanting and running wild and were now threatened with being taken into care.


Doris had been accepted as a writer in London literary circles and dabbled in Islamic Sufism, yoga and meditation in front of mandalas. There were literary suppers and boozy lunch-times and Doris and her waif negotiated the permissiveness of the 1960s just as the ‘survivor’ and her waif negotiated the post-apocalyptic world of passing hordes in The Memoirs of a Survivor. As Jenny and her mother pitched up at the house in Charrington St, Kings Cross, Doris handed Jenny a gray kitten (Sylvia Plath's) to look after. So now both Doris and Jenny had a waif to look after but it must be said that Grey Cat bore no resemblance to Hugo the doglike cat or catlike dog that in The Memoirs of a Survivor Emily brought with her. Lessings' observations of Jenny obviously form a core part of Memoirs.  

At the end of The Memoirs the narrator, informs us that her clearing of an apartment between the walls of her house has revealed layer after layer of former inhabitants, and brought to light a ‘bright green lawn under thunderous and glaring clouds and on the lawn, a giant black egg of pockmarked iron, but polished and glassy around which, and reflected in the black shine, stood Emily, Hugo, Gerald, her officer father, her large laughing gallant mother, and little Denis, the four-year-old criminal clinging to Gerald’s hand.’  

So the iron egg breaks at her gaze, and after some hesitation she walks into it along with Emily and her dog-cat thing; finally Gerald, Emily’s radical boyfriend who saves stray children, is dragged into the egg world by the children hanging on to his clothes. ‘And they all followed quickly on after the others as the last wall dissolved.’  

Hmm - well it was 1974 and "Pied pipers were everywhere, remaking a bad world....I made my play for a different kind of egg, acid, methedrine, dope, mescaline and all that." 


So the movie was slammed, quite cleverly, as for "egg-heads" in this review below.


This is a letter written to the Eastern Evening News on 14-10-81. 

"No thanks to Steve Harley's EEN review (Oct 9th) I went to see Memoirs of a Survivor. What a moving film and what a change to experience thought provocation from an evening at the ABC. I am heartily glad that director Gladwell did not, as Mr Hardy suggests, "add the spice necessary to make it commercially successful." Especially as "spice" usually means gratuitous sexist flesh, blood and guts, or trite romanticism.  

The EEN would do better to employ someone to honestly appraise and explain films. Hardy's "ordinary bloke's" review reads like the ranting of an inverted snob. Having admitted that he did not understand the film he proceeds to call it highbrow rubbish and, what's worse, tells us we wouldn't understand it either! I haven't a CSE to my name but could see the parallels between the flashbacks and the "present" condition, war, depression etc, that's about as irrelevant as Mr Hardy's review.  

It was not a full house on Saturday, partly thanks to Mr Hardy I'd guess, but when the film finished many of us sat and watched the last credit fade away. You could have heard a pin drop. We were thinking - yes Mr Hardy, some of us ordinary people are capable of it".  

TOM WILSON St Benedicts St Norwich 

Finally, below is a selection of photos of the filming that were sent to Doris Lessing.