London Stories: In Defence of the Underground by Doris Lessing

London Stories

In Defence of the Underground took me back to my summer days in London and left me feeling nostalgic. Written in 1992, Doris Lessing’s essay is a description of a tube ride Lessing takes from Mill Lane station to Charing Cross. It’s a patchwork of her memories and observations where Lessing skillfully portrays a changing London which has warmed up to different cultures and nationalities, and it’s evident that not everyone is happy with this change. At the start of the essay, there is an old lady reminiscing and longing for the Old London, where “there were no foreigners, only English, pinko-grey as Shaw said, always chez nous, for the Empire had not imploded, the world had not invaded, and while every family had at least one relative abroad administering colonies and dominions, or being soldiers, that was abroad, it was there, not here, the colonies had not come home to roost,” and Lessing’s delightful tongue-in-cheek humor gives these mourners the brush-off they deserve.

It was wonderful to read Lessing’s praise of the London tube (except for one instance where she complains about the vandalized station lavatories and smashed windows; actions of delinquents, which I think makes it more of a reflection on youth than the underground itself), and its commuters (she writes of one rush hour evening, where three readers were engrossed in their books – Iliad, Moby Dick, and Wuthering Heights). In Defence of the Underground is from Lessing’s book London Observed which I hope to read in future.

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