Friday, 16 November 2007

Dreams, Strange and Sweet: Books about Communism, Lessons about Bird Watching and Life

It has been a couple of weeks since Doris Lessing was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Since I have't read her for some time, this seems an appropriate moment to take a look again at her work. My friend Ann Charney suggested The Sweetest Dream, which she said was a fine work, combining political and social history with a family drama.

So I embarked. The book begins in the early 1960s when Frances Lennox, writer, actress and ex-wife of Communist icon Johnny Lennox, holds open house in London for a group of young people while she struggles to get her sons raised and keep her mother-in-law happy. Communism has become a terrible, shameful disaster, the Cold War is raging, and somehow Frances has to keep everything afloat.

As I read I said to myself: I know these people. No matter that I was in London only once, but, as Frances finds when she gets a letter from another woman in the American South who held a similar open house for Civil Rights workers, there were women all over the world providing similar safe harbours for young people in the 1960s.

We were in Berkeley then, and our friend Marge was a similar figure. Among many other things, she introduced us to bird watching, and taught me a lesson about how to deal with the police. On our first bird watching expedition, Marge took us up to a levee along the Sacramento River. The car was wandering a bit, going rather slow, stopping whenever she spied something interesting in the water or in the air. Then suddenly we realized that a California Highway Patrolman was right behind, ready to put on his flashers and pull us over. The carload of young would-be radicals sweated a bit—the cops were not well looked upon in our circles—but Marge stopped and rolled down the window. “Hello, officer,” she said in her Alabama drawl, “beautiful morning, isn’t it?”

The officer was charmed, and told her very nicely that she should be more careful when driving and bird watching. She agreed, and waved cheerfully after him when he drove away without giving her a ticket. The four of us in the car exhaled—I don’t think we realized we were holding our breath—and Steve asked her how she could be so nonchalant with a cop. “Never hurts to be nice to them when you can,” she answered, as she reached for her binoculars again. “You never know when it might be useful to have a friend on the other side of the barricades.” She stopped the car again: “Look at that! Is it a merganser?”

Haven’t finished Lessing’s book—the last week has been very busy—but I’m looking forward to taking it up again tonight. When I’m through I think I’ll re-read another book about old Lefties and their triumphs and disillusionments: The Strangest Dream by Montreal writer Merrily Weisbord.

You gotta have a dream, you know.

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