Book of the Month: The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing
In 1985, Doris Lessing was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her compelling contemporary satire. Find out more about the novel here.
Doris Lessing’s 1985 novel follows a group of radicals in London and the woman who is slowly drawn into their terrorist activities. Read the opening pages from our May Book of the Month here
In contemporary London, a loose-knit group of political vagabonds form an ill-defined and volatile underground. Drifting from one cause to the next, they occupy abandoned houses, demonstrate and picket, devise strategies to fit situations that may or may not arise. But, within this world, one small group of men and women – whose deepest conviction seems to rest in a sense of their own largely untested radicalism – is moving inexorably toward active terrorism.
The Good Terrorist was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1985 and is published in the UK by 4th Estate.
The house was set back from the noisy main road in what seemed to be a rubbish tip. A large house. Solid. Black tiles stood at angles along the gutter, and into a gap near the base of a fat chimney a bird flew, trailing a piece of grass several times its length.
‘I should think, 1910,’ said Alice, ‘look how thick the walls are.’ This could be seen through the broken window just above them on the first floor. She got no response, but nevertheless shrugged off her backpack, letting it tumble on to a living rug of young nettles that was trying to digest rusting tins and plastic cups. She took a step back to get a better view of the roof. This brought Jasper into vision. His face, as she had expected it would be, was critical and meant to be noticed. For her part she did not have to be told that she was wearing her look, described by him as silly. ‘Stop it,’ he ordered. His hand shot out, and her wrist was encircled by hard bone. It hurt. She faced him, undefiant but confident, and said, ‘I wonder if they will accept us?’ And, as she had known he would, he said, ‘It is a question of whether we will accept them.’
She had withstood the test on her, that bony pain, and he let her wrist go and went on to the door. It was a front door, solid and sure of itself, in a little side street full of suburban gardens and similar comfortable houses. They did not have slates missing and broken windows.
‘Why, why, why?’ asked Alice angrily, addressing the question, probably, to the universe itself, her heart full of pain because of the capacious, beautiful and unloved house.
She dragged her backpack by its strap after her and joined him.
‘Profit, of course,’ he said, and pressed the bell, which did not ring. He gave the door a sharp push and they went into a large shadowy hall where stairs went strongly up, turned at a wide landing, and rose out of sight. The scene was illuminated by a hurricane lamp that stood on the floor in a corner. From a side room came the sound of soft drumming. Jasper pushed open this door too. The windows were covered by blankets, leaving not a chink of light. A black youth looked up from his family of drums, his cheeks and teeth shining in candlelight. ‘Hi,’ he said, all his fingers and both feet at work, so that it seemed he was dancing as he sat, or was perhaps on some kind of exercise machine.
This smiling jolly black boy who looked like an advertise- ment for an attractive holiday in the Caribbean struck Alice’s organ of credibility falsely, and she tucked away a little memo to herself not to forget a first impression of anxiety or even sorrow, which was the real message her nerves were getting from him. She found herself actually on the verge of saying, ‘It’s all right, it’s OK, don’t worry!’ But meanwhile Jasper was demanding, ‘Where’s Bert?’
The black youth shrugged, nonchalantly, still smiling, and did not for one moment stop his energetic attack on his instruments. Jasper’s tight grip on her upper arm took her out of the room into the hall, where Alice said, ‘This place smells.’
‘Well,’ said Jasper, in the clumsily placating way she knew was meant as love, ‘I suppose you’ll put a stop to that.’
Alice knew that the two men would now talk, without concerning themselves with her, and set herself to guard her interests, while she looked out of the bow-window into the garden, where rubbish of all kinds reached to the sills
At once, feeling her advantage, she said, ‘Don’t forget you’ve been living soft for four years. You’re not going to find it easy after that.’
‘Don’t call me soft,’ he said, and kicked her on the ankle. Not hard, but enough.
This time she went ahead of him and opened a door she felt must be to the kitchen. Light fell on desolation. Worse, danger: she was looking at electric cables ripped out of the wall and dangling, raw-ended. The cooker was pulled out and lying on the floor. The broken windows had admitted rain water which lay in puddles everywhere. There was a dead bird on the floor. It stank. Alice began to cry. It was from pure rage. “The bastards,’ she cursed. “The filthy stink- ing fascist bastards.’
They already knew that the Council, to prevent squatters, had sent in the workmen to make the place uninhabitable. “They didn’t even make those wires safe. They didn’t even Suddenly alive with energy, she whirled about opening doors. Two lavatories on this floor, the bowls filled with cement.
She cursed steadily, the tears streaming. “The filthy shitty swine, the shitty fucking fascist swine…’ She was full of the energy of hate. Incredulous with it, for she had never been able to believe, in some corner of her, that anybody, particularly not a member of the working class, could obey an order to destroy a house. In that corner of her brain that was perpetually incredulous began the monologue that Jasper never heard for he would not have authorized it: But they are people, people did this. To stop other people from living. I don’t believe it. Who can they be? What can they be like? I’ve never met anyone who could. Why, it must be people like Len and Bob and Bill, friends. They did it. They came in and filled the lavatory bowls with cement and ripped out all the cables and blocked up the gas.
Jasper stood and watched her. He was pleased. This fury of energy had banished her look, which he hated, when she seemed, all of her, to be swollen and glistening, as if not merely her face but her whole body filled with tears which oozed from every pore.
Without referring to him she ran up the stairs and he followed slowly, listening to how she banged on doors, and then, hearing nothing, flung them open. On the first-floor landing they stood looking into order, not chaos. Here every room had sleeping-bags, one or two, or three. Candles or hurricane lamps. Even chairs with little tables beside them. Books. Newspapers. But no one was in.
The smell on this floor was strong. It came from upstairs. More slowly they went up generously wide stairs, and confronted a stench which made Jasper briefly retch. Alice’s face was stern and proud. She flung open a door on to a scene of plastic buckets, topped with shit. But this room had been deemed sufficiently filled, and the one next to it had been started. Ten or so red, yellow and orange buckets stood in a group, waiting.
There were other rooms on this floor, but none was used. None could be used, the smell was so strong.
They went down the stairs, silent, watching their feet, for there was rubbish everywhere, and the light came dimly through dirty windows.
‘We are not here,’ said he, anticipating her, ‘to make ourselves comfortable. We aren’t here for that.’
She said, ‘I don’t understand anyone choosing to live like this. Not when it’s so easy.’
Now she sounded listless, flat, all the incandescence of fury gone.
He was about to start a speech about her bourgeois inclinations, as she could see; but the front door opened, and against the sunlight was outlined a military-looking figure.
‘Bert!’ he shouted, and jumped down the stairs three at a time. ‘Bert. It’s Jasper…
Alice thought maternally, hearing that glad voice ring out, it’s because of his shitty father; but it was part of her private stream, since of course Jasper did not allow her the right to such ideas.
‘Jasper,’ acknowleged Bert, and then peered through the gloom up at her.
‘Alice - I told you,’ said Jasper.
‘Comrade Alice,’ said Bert. His voice was curt, stern and pure, insisting on standards, and Jasper’s voice fell into step. ‘We have just come,’ he said. “There was no one to report to.’
‘We spoke to him, in there,’ remarked Alice, arriving beside them, indicating the room from where came the soft drumming.
‘Oh, Jim,’ dismissed Bert. He strode to a door they had not opened, kicked it open, since it had lost it knob, and went in without looking to see if they followed.
This room was as near to normal as any they had seen. With the door shut, you could believe this was a sitting-room in an ordinary house, although everything – chairs, a sofa, the carpet - was dingy. The smell was almost shut out, but to Alice it seemed that an invisible film of stench clung to everything, and she would feel it slippery on her fingers if she touched.
Bert stood upright, slightly bent forward, arms at ease, looking at her. But he did not see her, she knew that. He was a dark thin young man, probably twenty-eight or thirty. His face was full of black shining hairs, and his dark eyes and a red mouth and white teeth gleamed from among them. He wore new stiff dark-blue jeans and a close-fitting dark-blue jacket, buttoned up and tidy. Jasper wore light-blue linen trousers and a striped T-shirt like a sailor’s; but Alice knew he would soon be in clothes like Bert’s, which were in fact his normal gear. He had had a brief escapade into frivolity due to some influence or other.
Alice knew that the two men would now talk, without concerning themselves with her, and set herself to guard her interests, while she looked out of the bow-window into the garden, where rubbish of all kinds reached to the sills. Sparrows were at work on the piles, scratching and digging. A blackbird sat on a milk carton and looked straight at her. Beyond the birds, she saw a thin cat crouched under a hydrangea in young green leaf and slim coronets of pink and blue that would be flowers. The cat was watching her too, with bright starved eyes.
Bert reached into a cupboard and took out a thermos flask the size of a bucket; and three mugs.
‘Oh, you do have electricity then?’ she asked.
‘No. A comrade in the next street fills it for me every morning,’ he said.
Alice, watching the scene with half her attention, saw how Jasper eyed the flask, and the pouring of the coffee. She knew he was hungry. Because of the row with her mother, and then slamming out of the house, he had not breakfasted. And he had not had time to drink the coffee she had taken up to him. She thought, ‘But that’s Bert’s supply for the day,’ and indicated she wanted only half a cup. Which she was given, exactly as specified.
Jasper drank down his cup at once, and sat looking at the thermos, wanting more. Bert did not notice.
‘The situation has changed,’ Bert began, as if this were a continuation of some meeting. ‘My analysis was incorrect, as it happened. I underestimated the political maturity of the cadres. When I put the question to the vote, half decided against, and they left here at once.’
Jasper said, “Then they would have proved unreliable. Good riddance.’
‘What was the question?’ inquired Alice. She used her ‘meeting voice’, for she had learned that this was necessary to hold her own. To her, it sounded false and cold, and she was always embarrassed by it; because of the effort it needed, she sounded indifferent, even absentminded. Yet her eyes were steadily and even severely observing the scene in front of her: Bert, looking at her, or rather, at what she had said; Jasper, looking at the thermos. Suddenly he was unable to stop himself, and he reached for the jug. Bert said, ‘Sorry,’ and pushed it towards him.
‘You know what the question was,’ said Jasper, sour. ‘I told you. We are going to join the IRA.’