Tributes pour in from West Hampstead following death of Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing at a book reading at West End Lane Books. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Doris Lessing at a book reading at West End Lane Books. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Tributes have poured in from West Hampstead friends, residents and shopkeepers following the death of Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing.

The much-praised literary figure and West Hampstead resident, who died peacefully at her home in Gondar Gardens, aged 94, was considered one of the most prominent, outspoken and controversial writers of the 20th century.

Penning more than 50 novels ranging from psychological thrillers to science fiction, she gained notoriety for her first novel The Grass is Singing (1950) and later The Golden Notebook (1962).

At 88 she became the oldest person to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, with The Swedish Academy recognising that she had “with scepticism, fire and visionary power, subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”.

Despite winning arguably the biggest literary prize in the world, friends say she remained down to earth and rooted to her community in West Hampstead.

“On the one hand, she was the towering intellect that she was, but to us she was just a great companion,” said agent, long-time friend and former Hampstead resident Ann Evans.

“You could talk to her about anything, ranging from the intelligent to just trivial gossip. She just loved talking. We were all so fond of her – loved her, even.”

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Born in Iran and raised in Rhodesia – now Zimbabwe – Ms Lessing left school at 13 and continued to educate herself by reading the works of Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

She moved to London after the Second World War with her mother, who became a nurse at the Royal Free Hospital in Pond Street, Hampstead.

Describing her first impressions of the city as being “grey” with “undrinkable coffee [and] no decent food”, her love for the area came as post-war London was rebuilt and ‘‘the colour returned”.

Finding a cafe serving coffee to her standards, she became a regular at Dominique’s in West End Lane, which later moved to South End Road, Hampstead. The cafe even featured in one of her short stories, The New Cafe.

“I would see her almost every day with her son Peter when I was young,” said Noushin Sorayyapour, whose father owned Dominique’s.

“But what I will remember most about her was her taking the time to read the poetry I had written when I was a child.

“She had given me such great advice that I went on to win a Young Writer of the Year Award when I was aged 11.

“I was in awe that someone as important and talented as her would take the time to read my writing, but that’s who she was.”

As tributes continued to flow from her publishers, who described her as a “visionary writer” with a “fierce intellect”, there has been an inevitable renewed interest in her work by fans and newcomers alike.

West End Lane Books, where she would regularly come to give readings and sign copies of her work, has noticed a “significant spike” in people buying her books.

Speaking to former Ham&High journalist and Guardian literary editor Claire Armitstead during a 2007 visit to Burgh House in New End Square, Hampstead, the author said it was her science fiction that was “my best writing”.

Ms Lessing is survived by her daughter Jean and granddaughters Anna and Susannah.