Doris was​ in her early forties when I arrived in my vile mustard-coloured coat with a brown velvet collar, my first ‘grown-up’ item of clothing. It was hung in the airing cupboard alongside some marijuana that Doris had grown in the garden her first summer in the house and was now drying out. I never wore the coat again, though we did smoke the dope. Being grown up and behaving like a lady were the main words of advice my mother had had for me on the way from Brighton to North London. Not such bad advice from someone for whom every new meeting held the possibility of ‘getting somewhere’. A marriage proposal – for her or me, it didn’t matter. A fairy-like personage would recognise the dreadful way life had treated her, and make recompense with an elegant flat and a fistful of paper money, or a pot of gold. ‘Behaving like a lady’ somehow cleaned the stained glass.

There was one photo, among the many in the large cardboard box my mother gave to Bill the boilerman, in the hope that one day, after we’d been evicted and found ourselves in a grand mansion, she’d get it back, one photo that I looked at with wonder. My mother was sitting on some steps down to the sea in Monte Carlo or somewhere in the south of France. Walking down those steps to the sea was a man I’d only heard of from my mother. It was Douglas Fairbanks Jr. A playboy who lived in a mansion and played as boys with rich mothers and fathers do. My mother was posing, with one leg pointing downwards to the sea and the other playfully curled beneath her in her white playsuit. Her arms behind her back were keeping her upright, exposing her breasts. Douglas Fairbanks was looking towards her appreciatively. The photo said no more than that a famous man looked at her, as if she were a mirror in which to check he still had it.

To think, she said, when we were looking at the photo, I wasn’t born then. To think she could have had … anyone, but now she hadn’t got anything except the photos (almost certainly burned in the flats’ furnace). It was one of the photos my mother pulled out first when we sat down to review her past. All she had now, penniless and homeless, was for me to marry well somehow. Life lifted by my excellent wedding, she as a much loved mother-in-law. Into literary life? I don’t think that was what she had in mind. It was respectability, swagged curtains and martinis. But all she had was her frizzy-haired daughter with her nose stuck in a book. It was never going to happen. She must have known that. In the photo of her at her wedding my mother was as I had never seen her, incredibly beautiful. Getting married, to a handsome young man in the schmatter trade. But under the beauty, her eyes shone steely. She was on her way. It was uncanny. The beauty and the cold eyes.

This was her last chance, handing me over to a slightly famous writer. There were possibilities, but also the opportunity to get me off her hands. She wrote once or twice later to say that she was going out with a very nice Italian in the restaurant business. The picture told of a tall, dark man in his thirties, smiling at the camera with my mother behind it. In another letter she asked if I’d had any Valentine cards. She’d had ten. No, I said. I hadn’t had any. ‘No? Well. The way you look, like a dirty beatnik.’

I don’t think she thought it likely there was much room in the house, or the day, for behaving like a lady. Doris was what I’d expected of an independent woman of 43, a writer, a person with their own house and a son at boarding school. I don’t know why I expected anything of her, I hadn’t read The Golden Notebook, or any of the other books about women who actually lived lives. I sensed her confidence and sophistication. She exuded calm as we sipped the soup, though it turned out she felt nothing of the sort, as why should she, opening the door to an unmanageable waif and her mad mother who was much more in need of mothering. I keep finding myself on Doris’s side of the door, holding Grey Kitten, my hand rising, touching the lock, but not yet turning it to let the visitors (only one of whom was just a visitor) in. I must have caught something of her panic at what she had done. For me, turning up at a stranger’s house where I was to live for some time had been a pretty regular event.

When I was 44, about the same age as Doris then, with my own flat and daughter and an ex-husband who was my best friend, I had a long hard think about Doris then and what she had done. Her offer was immensely generous. If she had met me a few times, if we’d had coffee somewhere in Brighton, had me to stay for a few days, that would have made sense, but it would have raised expectations that might have been dashed. This was a rush into kindness. Perhaps all acts of generosity are that. Momentary acts. But where was the safety net for either of us?

I was at least as selfish as Doris. At 44 I wanted my writer’s time, alone time, and thought my life was quite full enough, although I was never very sociable. I couldn’t think Doris had really thought it through, or if she had, she must have supposed that her command of human psychology was great enough to overcome any obstacles. Great arrogance, then, or in the mood for taking a chance. Or something else. Or nothing. I didn’t think about her taking on a needy adolescent as an act of reparation for leaving her two children. Leaving the brother and sister. Taking the child with no siblings. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that taking me in was much more painful for the children left behind. Why not one of them, both of them? Maybe they didn’t want to come. If it was making reparation, it was a reparation of her own choosing: bright, with a capacity to learn, sassy, nobody’s fool. She got that, but perhaps, like one of her characters, she supposed she could handle me. It’s true that she thought I would be going away to boarding school, like Peter. So there would only be the holidays, during which, anyway, she gave up on work to accommodate Peter’s presence. I think she really felt that she could cope with anything, anyone difficult because she wrote about such people every day, and since most of those characters were her, she would know how to manage it, and had already worked out how the relationship with me would be controlled and contained. I really don’t know what she had in mind to make it work except that we were then in 1963, and she was still in her phase of believing that everything under the sun could be dealt with if one only understood the psychology of it. Listening, interpreting. I had, and I think she had, a sense that she knew it all. She had been pals with R.D. Laing and lived some crazed years with Clancy Sigal. She had read a bunch of Pelican books on the sociology and psychology of behaviour. We all did then, they sat on bookshop shelves like a university course: Laing, David Stafford-Clark, Erving Goffman, Vance Packard, Michael Argyle, C.J. Adcock, Viktor Frankl. And more and more. They were all over the house, on tables, on the floor. She bought them, I bought them, Peter and his friends bought them. Somehow they were cheap enough for the smallest allowance. All these were read and taken in. How could you not cope with a difficult adolescent with all that under your belt?

The answer to that was: by never having one actually there all the time, who confronted you all the time, day after day, feeling she was about to be abandoned at any moment. The worst thing in the world; but it had to be tested. Even details. What would happen if I didn’t do the washing up, what if I wore my black and white make-up like war paint, obscuring my face, what if I wore skirts that were the shortest I could find and then hemmed them shorter? What did I have to do, or not do, before I was sent off to … the wilderness? Or was I just doing what all but the most placid of children did within families and checking the boundaries? Doris thought me older, perfectly able to cope with the world. I was one of those girls, more in control of myself, more a woman. I’d lived through this and that and here I was being given the opportunity to … what? She was always using the word ‘needy’, but as a criticism. I was about the neediest person in the world. She may not have known about real psychology, but needy is its Mont Blanc. It must have been awful. As I was reading pretty much the same books, Doris thought I should have learned from them how to behave. It never occurred to her that she hadn’t had any hands-on practice with real-life difficult kids, or that giving them diaphragms and no stated boundaries just upped the ante. She spoke about sex to me as if I were a grown-up friend of hers, as if an experiment of equality with other people was the answer. ‘They’ just aren’t being listened to, the reasons why ‘they’ split, why she’d stopped seeing A or B, what was the attraction of C with whom she was just off for a weekend, why he would do for a while after they returned. She spoke to me as near as possible as if I was her best friend. I don’t think Doris knew at all what was to be done with a sulky adolescent. I understand how difficult it is, I don’t think I would be able to do it, and at that point, I would have tried to find another way to help, or dropped the whole thing, just like many people would. But Doris was sure that she could.

When Peter came home for the holidays, his friends came round; he was then an alpha male, tallish, good-looking, with a mother who had interesting people round at her house in London. We hung around upstairs, listening to music, talking about our worries and during supper in the kitchen some of us would continue to talk about them with Doris there. She enjoyed this role, as we see in The Sweetest Dream. The surrogate mother. The adult who understood. There were also too many interesting adolescents (and stray cats, and crazy old women from the North Wing, St Pancras knocking on the door and being given cups of tea until the police came) around for us to notice if Peter in particular was OK. He had learned from a young age how to act like one of the grown-ups. He talked forcefully but he didn’t know about much. And Doris stopped arguments between him and others (often me). ‘Oh that’s enough. You’re so boring. Let’s get on to something else.’ Soon enough Peter found himself a catchphrase: ‘What you don’t understand, Jen, is that we are both saying the same thing, and you are agreeing with me.’ Like three-year-old Jennifer in Tottenham Court Road, I wasn’t going to let that go by, and answered: ‘We aren’t talking about the same thing.’ We were irritating teenagers, in my case sitting around someone else’s mother’s table being miserable. We hated the Bomb, we hated education as it was done at school, we hated apartheid. We hated families. Doris made quantities of food and enjoyed her role as a liberal adult. Then Peter and everyone else would go back to boarding school or their homes, and I remained in Charrington Street. Peter didn’t obviously ‘present’, as they say, as a deeply troubled young man, until a few years later.

I was there all the time and had no real idea what to do. For all Doris’s talks about sex and politics, I felt there was more to know in a different way. I was on the lookout for older men (not hard to find) to teach me about adult sex, and what they knew about the world. Doris – who never explained why, despite providing me with a diaphragm in the first week or so, I wasn’t supposed to bring men home to have sex with in my bedroom – was not a very reliable source of wisdom. I was moody, which was and always had been my character, as I thought, rather than badly behaved. I couldn’t believe that Doris, who seemed to have had similar moods, wouldn’t understand. But I’m often told by the few people still around from that time that I was terribly ‘difficult’. Some of them also tell me I have got some of the details here wrong, but they are my details, my experience, and I’ve learned to trust my memory rather than theirs. I’ve tried very hard to think about what I actually did wrong: smoking, having sex, using dope, not working hard enough, staying out late at night. But I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had some or all of that from their teenagers. The question remained, the one that had been there since I first arrived: if Doris didn’t like me, what was she going to do with me? And the answer was that I’d get thrown out when I was more than Doris could stand. Doris wanted a young person she could deal with and make better with bowls of soup and for it to be understood that I’d been taken under the wing of an incredibly insightful woman. I wasn’t Laing’s sort of patient. I didn’t hallucinate, I just threw myself against the walls and discovered that they weren’t rubber, but shattered fairly easily. I was doing sex, staying out late, spending too much money on things that weren’t sensible, being moody and silent at supper parties. I argued with Peter when he was there. I don’t think it was very much more than that, this shocking behaviour. And all of it could have been fixed by telling me not to.

At any rate, she raced to get me to see a psychologist at the Tavistock Clinic and got one for Peter, too. It seems they didn’t help much with my awfulness and what was to come from Peter. She took us away from the Tavistock when she went to see Peter’s therapist and found he wanted to look into Peter’s childhood parenting. Her friend from her earlier days in London, Joan Rodker, had letters from Doris around then, which, at Doris’s request, she embargoed until after my death. Almost tragically, this very talented but blocked painter couldn’t get rid of the pain she felt at having been ostracised by Doris after she told Doris that she thought Peter was a catastrophe that wouldn’t have happened had she got him proper treatment. Even near the very end of her life, in her nineties, she wept about Peter. She offered to unembargo Doris’s letters for me, so that I could read them. But I knew pretty much what would be in them, and how little I would benefit from it. Joan agreed and said mostly they were complaints about my behaviour, the men, not working hard enough for my A-levels and most of all my ingratitude.

But​ the psychology kick was waning. There were three major external influences in Doris’s life. One was communism, which lasted until 1956 when like many people she left the Party. That period is laid out in great detail in The Golden Notebook (Joan is there, answering the phone sitting on the bottom stair by the kitchen, both in real life and in the novel): a powerful thing about Doris’s earlier novels, like The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, is that they present a period and a certain kind of thinking of the time accurately; not so much the later books, such as The Good Terrorist, which also presents people she knew, but shockingly and, I think, faithlessly disguised by using them to tell a story that she knew very little about.

By the time I arrived in 1963, Doris was looking around the specialist occult bookshops like Watkins in Cecil Court, and going to meetings of various groups that claimed they had the real truth about our planet. She did some hatha yoga and spent twenty minutes standing on her head every day, and read and spoke to fellow browsers in the bookshops. Finally she came up with a group called Subud; a ‘real’ teacher was about to arrive in England and set up teaching groups from the shards left behind in Paris and London after Gurdjieff died. This one coming – Idries Shah, as it turned out – was the real thing. A world teacher, Doris told me excitedly. I asked how she would know, but she was intuitively sure that the people at Subud had their fingers on the pulse. Still, how would she know he really was ‘the’ teacher, and not just another guru, of whom there were already some, and who would become a raga-storm as the 1960s moved towards their end? That was the point, Doris said, one would know if one allowed oneself to be insightful and not emotional. The mind had to be made ready, sensitive enough with preparation.

Mescaline was legal at the time, and the manufacturers in Switzerland were giving it away to ‘artists and writers’. I recall a long day sitting in my room listening to screams and dramatic laughter down below as two friends in the occult business took her through ‘rebirthing’. It was as scary for me as it was for Doris, I think. I wasn’t sure she wasn’t dead or mad for ever more until the next day. In the meantime, I went to school and didn’t do enough work for my A-levels, spent most of my schoolday in the café in the park opposite and met lovers at lunchtime, while Doris read and listened to teaching stories and did whatever exercises they did to open up their hearts/minds to the truth. In the evenings she would tell me the latest news from the metaphysical world.

Sufism lasted, as far as I can tell, for the rest of Doris’s conscious life. In later years she never spoke to me about ‘the work’, as it was called. I wasn’t sure whether this was from disappointment about the teaching or from her understanding that I was a failure and therefore to be kept in the dark. She told me when Shah died of heart failure in 1996, but only for my information. No questions allowed. No weeping, no distress. After all, we were all here on borrowed time, waiting for the penny to drop. Shah set up groups and organisations and Roger, our small daughter and I often spent a Saturday or Sunday first in his house in a leafy village not too far from London and then at Langton House near Tunbridge Wells, another suburb of perfect respectability. The house was, I suppose, formerly the old landowner’s house, large and walled, with outbuildings and a huge garden. Things were various. People in groups went at weekends to manicure the gardens and on Saturday night to have a group meal and listen to Shah’s table talk, which was, if you listened properly, Doris said, his real teaching. There were public lectures, generally on historical or philosophical topics. The lecturers were academics or highly regarded journalists and writers, who, as far as I know, had nothing to do with the Sufis, or even knew that they were speaking under their aegis, but were paid to lecture by the Institute for Cultural Research, set up by Shah. Sometimes I thought that there were secret Sufis, dotted around the place keeping the planet from exploding. I remember a lecture about Vico, a lecture by Richard Gregory on the physiology of perception, for all the world as if a Pelican book had come to life, and a rather baffled aged British traveller to Eastern Parts, who talked with all the ease of his upbringing of ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ while I squeezed someone’s hand in order to contain my embarrassment. A mixed bunch, but not at all uninteresting and nothing to do with the occult. There were what seemed to be Women’s Institute days, when people brought and sold cakes and biscuits, and tea was available from an urn.

We were marshalled along by Doris, sometimes instructed to take one of her irritating adoratas from California or thereabouts in our car. They spoke of Doris as if she were a source of wisdom, and her every move significant and the car journeys felt very long. But it all seemed harmless, and as I said interesting in its spotty way. Part of the teaching is that the teaching is scattered among the quotidian tasks of life. That didn’t seem too terrible an idea. My daughter enjoyed the trips to Langton, and made a firm weekly friend of a boy about the same age. They were often asked to pick out the winner of the raffle on stage. Once or twice there were full-blown parties, the first a ‘three-day party’ inside the grounds of the house, which I remember as hypnotic fun: at 3 a.m. with everything slow and sleepy, Ward Swingle, who started the a cappella group, sat down at the piano in the food tent and began to play and sing ‘September Song’. That was something.

For all I could see, apart from Doris going off to weekly ‘meetings’, weekends gardening and having the weekend meal, and meditating every Thursday for an hour, when I sometimes joined her in front of a mandala, it was a reasonable way to fill up a life without getting in the way of work (it was a while before the Sufi beliefs fully showed up in Doris’s books as ‘inner space fiction’). ‘It’s not meditating,’ she would say firmly as we began to breathe deeply and evenly. ‘We are still in nursery school. This is just learning to concentrate.’ This also made sense to me. We were doing elementary mindfulness as we would think of it now: counting breaths as we looked at the mandala and watching out for thoughts which we noticed and let pass like clouds, not allowing ourselves to dwell on them. I still do it (minus the mandala) under its umbrella as mindfulness. It’s handy, helps with pain and sometimes depression. At least while you’re doing it. As to the groups that Shah told Doris I wasn’t stable enough to attend, Doris never mentioned what went on in them, though she often gave out the news Shah dropped during his Saturday evening after-dinner table talk, in which there was more apparently than met the eye. Like our being overrun by the Russians and then the Chinese. Bombs would fall, civilisation would end. Quite like most TV series now, it was all quietly but firmly apocalyptic.

One hilarious day, Doris turned up with a sagging plastic bag of silver ingots. About eight of them, which she handed to me. She had also given Peter a bagful. ‘These are for when it gets really bad. People will always want silver and you can exchange it for food.’ I was stunned: people would exchange food for lumps of silver? I said that someone would need them more and I would exchange my teaching experience for a bowl of porridge and I didn’t want them. She insisted, so that my daughter and I would survive. (She must have cared for me in some way.) I used two or three as paperweights and doorstops, and within barely a month or so, the bottom fell out of silver.

Doris told me these things because she didn’t have anyone else nearby who wouldn’t laugh and she wasn’t supposed to discuss the meetings with others in the group. She said I shouldn’t tell a mutual friend of ours about the forthcoming end of the world, because it would be hard for a ‘young woman with a baby to take it’. Although ten years younger, I evidently could because I didn’t have a baby. I suppose she was right. I hadn’t had a child then. I listened and then waited for the world to end. Doris taking Russian A-level arose from this, so she could ‘read the signposts’. I declined to join her, but Peter was brought in on it. At the end of the course Doris got an A and Peter failed. Another needless cruelty. From then on Peter went deeper into fantasy, telling Doris’s admirers that he was a physicist or CEO of some groundbreaking company. He started using ‘we’ about Doris’s books and her agents and publishers. Most of her friends were now from her Russian course. When that finished, most of them stopped being visitors.

When​ I thought I’d better get off the drugs I was taking, Doris (who regarded me as Lazarus having risen from the dead at this point) offered me the small basement flat in her house. I asked about joining one of Shah’s groups. The idea of being cut loose from all my society, plus dumping mind-calming drugs, scared me. A nice study group seemed just the thing. In the druggy world, I was part of something, really for the first time. I discovered I could inject speed and sit in a room with other people and feel I belonged. Well … That was when the message came back from Shah via Doris that I was not ‘psychologically stable enough’ to belong to a group. So – oh Jesus – I had to prove my stability. This was the ‘learning to be a secretary and get a job’ period. I couldn’t think of anything more stable to do. I wasn’t much good. Deference didn’t work for me, nor did making cups of tea, or having to pretend that I had a full day’s work, when actually it could all be done in two hours and the rest of the day had to be spent pretending to be busy. Only a year or so later, tired of waiting for approbation, I thought, like many others in the 1970s, that teaching ‘hopeless’ kids in a ‘hopeless’ school was about the most useful thing I could do. I went to a teacher training college (no A-levels, or degree, so I had to get a teaching certificate) and landed in a comprehensive school in Hackney full of wild and angry young women. These days it’s a monument to good working practices, but then, when Hackney wasn’t the Hackney anyone under my age could imagine, it was more a matter of social work, ducking chairs and getting classes of thirty calm enough to listen to what sometimes appealed to them. Mostly information about their bodies and sex.

When Shah died Doris stopped speaking about the work to me and it wasn’t clear whether it was continuing or not. I’m fairly sure I’d let her down by not devoting myself to getting right for the work. I’d given up and thought there wasn’t anything I could do where being a nutjob didn’t mosey along beside me whatever I did. Nor did I think I very much wanted to be part of ‘all that’. Online they say that Shah had said that all the teaching was in his books. So I suppose the groups went on as I’ve described, or they collapsed. Perhaps a little of both. Perhaps that was what Doris meant when she said to a friend, who passed it on, that as far as she was concerned, taking drugs and living my own life, I was already dead. Or she meant exactly what she said. There really wasn’t much in Shah’s teaching to complain about. It required some work, reading, thinking, some entertaining stories, no mention of God or Allah to frighten modern Westerners away, while providing some pleasant public functions. There was an embargo on being social with one another outside of the work, but most of Doris’s friends were now involved in the work – partly because those who sniffed at Shah as a charlatan (there were plenty about) were ousted from Doris’s address book. ‘Well, he/she had their chance,’ Doris would shrug. It felt pitiless. From time to time she would say to me, crossly, that they weren’t there to have fun together but to learn.

There was​ really only one thing that made me firmly keep away from ‘the work’. When Peter was about thirty, so in the mid-1970s, I said to Doris that Peter was in a terrible state, overweight, taking no exercise, speaking nonsense, and shouldn’t she try and get him to see someone. She said that they were all charlatans, and in any case there was nothing wrong with Peter psychologically; and then she said that Shah had specifically told her that she should leave Peter to stay home and do nothing because when he became forty he would come right. He’d seen it happen before. This, I think, remained Doris’s justification for keeping Peter in their small flat and then buying him a flat next to her larger new house. A door was knocked through between Doris’s kitchen and the hallway outside Peter’s bedroom so he didn’t have far to walk for breakfast. Peter’s fortieth birthday came and went. He became alarmingly anti-social, walked around without trousers or pants, shat where he stood or sat, abused women and generally anyone standing in his eyeline, and essentially turned into the monstrous baby that someone (he or Doris) wanted him to be. Who to blame for that? Doris and Shah – even if I have no right to be angry, even if it was my fault for ousting him from the nest, or in this case keeping him in the nest – for not even trying. And of course, it’s not my business, as I was told by Doris, who was telling everyone that it was. Going to visit her, even after she had had the stroke that left her smiley and virtually wordless, the old nameless fury bubbled up as my feet hit the pavement, walking towards their house or the hospital, and came to a peak as I rang the doorbell, latterly bringing cakes, as all her visitors did. Peter by then was diabetic and had a district nurse come in to give him insulin injections, but before her stroke, Doris was feeding him exactly what diabetics are supposed not to eat, chocolates, sticky puddings, potatoes, squash, heavy stews, cake, though later she kept the cake for herself, pulling it to her in case anyone else thought they were getting any. Once Doris had her stroke and they both had full-time carers in, they were more careful with his diet.

Shah was charismatic, attractive, charming and sometimes stern. One long weekend, before he died, I found myself surrounded by shocked people who were off to spend three days walking with their light bags towards the buried sewer pipe where Shah and a Welsh university had asked volunteers to spend three (I think) days, in order to test humidity and CO2 levels, while also being a demonstration of how small isolated groups work. When Roger said he couldn’t go I took his place. This was the occasion when Shah asked me if I thought he was a male chauvinist pig for offering to carry my bag. I was startled. Embarrassed by the phrase, which by then thankfully had disappeared. ‘No,’ I’d said. ‘I just think I should do what I can do myself. Why should anyone carry my bag if I can manage it?’ How could I talk to Shah like that, the others asked, as if I’d shown my arse to god on Mount Moriah? That was the full extent of my conversations with Shah.

The stay in the sewer pipe was interesting mainly for the almost clockwork way in which everyone behaved according to the textbooks: leadership locking of horns from alpha males, women presiding over making the place nice and getting the ‘food’ ready (pot noodles mostly). It was another by-law of the work that it wasn’t to be judged by its followers, but it did for me. On the last day, when suggestions for improvements were being listed, one of the women suggested it would be a good idea if women wore pink and men wore blue. ‘So we can tell them apart,’ I muttered, having no inkling of the coming genderqueer furore, and then bit my tongue. One thing you don’t do in small secluded groups is show dismay. It was to circumvent any aggression, she said. I certainly needed colour coding, my aggression levels were going through the steel roof. I wrote her suggestion down in the diary I’d agreed to keep and mentally disappeared into a novel. Where was the wisdom in these people who had been going to groups and meditating for decades before Shah arrived? If you can’t tell anything about a mystical group by its adherents, how else are you to judge it? Of course there were the silent Sufis, living in the world (not of it) making sure that things didn’t get out of hand, which was why, Doris said, the Cold War had not erupted into a killing fest. Also, the crumbs under my bed keep the elephants away.

What I started disliking more and more about the Sufis was that sense of belonging to an elite, of a small group of people – most of them privately educated and wealthy – who thought they had access to a secret that others didn’t, and who were smiling patronisingly as one smiles at a child. Rather like the Sufi who, on hearing of Doris’s death just weeks after Peter’s, told me that at last they were together for ever. That was a shocker. Peter was never to get away from his mother, not even in eternity. I disliked this petty confidence so much that I had already given strict instructions to people around me that Doris was not to be allowed anywhere near my deathbed, even if it meant barricading the doors. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Here I am, on my death sofa, with Doris gone before, and in Cambridge, where any other deathbed-lovers from my time with the Sufis would have a slightly more difficult job getting to me.

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Vol. 38 No. 1 · 7 January 2016

Jenny Diski seems to have had a mixed time with Idries Shah’s ‘Sufis’ (LRB, 17 December 2015). What she disliked ‘more and more’ about them ‘was that sense of belonging to an elite … who thought they had access to a secret that others didn’t’. She also refers to ‘the Sufi who, on hearing of Doris’s death just weeks after [her son] Peter’s, told me that at last they were together for ever.’ No Sufi, by the sound of it; more agony aunt. It sounds as if she encountered only one actual Sufi, Shah himself.

Shah didn’t work with other Sufis at Langton Green, his home in Kent. It would have been pointless. In the Middle East and beyond, people at various times invited to participate in study activity would have been termed ‘dervishes’ or ‘darwishes’ (from the Persian, a seeker, someone at the door, an entrance to something or somewhere). Here, they were called students. He, Teacher – never guru. Gurus were a bane of his life, for the confusion caused, and the source of a good few of his jokes. Unlike the guru, the Sufi’s objective, always, is to get the student to a point where they can go it alone, having developed the necessary mental skills in an ancient, practical form of psychology – and intuition. Sufis say: ‘When the work is completed, the workshop is dismantled.’ The aim of the guru in the flowing robes and preposterous beard, by contrast, is a following of unquestioning disciples for life, if bankably possible.

So, the people Diski disliked were neither Sufis nor an elite in the customary sense. Doris Lessing, whom I met a number of times in the 1960s and early 1970s, had not I think become a Sufi, and referred to Shah as ‘my teacher and my friend’. Shah, as with Sufis throughout history, had students from among society’s most materially unexceptional and often the surprisingly young. What he sought was potential. Given his task of spreading Sufism at all reachable levels of society, he did indeed draw about him groups of men and women of social influence, not all of them as students, to help advance his ‘brief’. That this worked is clear from the international spread of his university lectureships and in the reach of his more than thirty published works, sold in a dozen translations and in their millions.

Seán Gallagher

Vol. 38 No. 2 · 21 January 2016

Regarding Jenny Diski’s view of Sufis, I think she’s right (LRB, 17 December 2015). Regarding Seán Gallagher’s view of Sufis, I think he’s right. Regarding those who regard my views as inconsistent, I think they’re right too.

Peter Evans
Roydon, Essex

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