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Diana Athill (n. 1917)
The New York Times
ALIVE, ALIVE OH!
And Other Things That Matter
By Diana Athill
168 pp. W. W. Norton & Company.
The title of Diana Athill’s 2009 memoir, “Somewhere Towards the End,” published when she was 91, acknowledged in her no-fuss, charming way that her final hours were drawing nigh. “Somewhere” was presumably a last glance backward at her romances with married men in her frequent role as “the Other Woman,” coupled with observations about caretaking her mother in her final days and insights on a variety of topics, from faith to fashion, from the perspective of “advanced old age.” Athill, a longtime London book editor, concluded her elegant narrative by musing on possibilities for her deathbed quotation, admitting, “Foolish though it may be, I have to confess that I still hope the occasion on which I have to say it does not come very soon.”
For Athill, being foolish has often paid off — “without the memory of that delicious passion,” she recalls of one disastrous affair, life “would have been much the poorer.” And yearning for more time, in the midst of saying farewell, proved felicitous too. Now 98, Athill has provided us with an energetic follow-up, whose title, taken from a chapter about a brief, near-fatal pregnancy, doubles as a celebration of her own vibrant spirit.
More a series of ruminations than a memoir, “Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter” serves as a companion volume to “Somewhere,” an invitation to sit a spell with an intractable and witty friend who’s pushed even further into what the poet May Sarton termed the “foreign country of old age.” We hear different versions of stories Athill has told before, like those about the “beloved ‘family’ ” she fashioned with a divorced playwright, his younger paramour and the younger woman’s own husband and children. Like a character in a novel by Jean Rhys — an author Athill edited and writes about — she had little fascination with convention. “What I was really happy with,” she declares, “was a lover who had a nice wife to do his washing and look after him if he fell ill, so that I could enjoy the plums of love without having to munch through the pudding.”
The waning of sexual heat is a major theme in “Alive,” and the fact that it’s replaced by different ardors — the contemplation of “all the most beautiful places and things that I once experienced” — speaks to the appeal of this little volume. For Athill, who would once, while “waiting to fall asleep … run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” other marvels now suffice, like recalling the “mystical experience” of her grandparents’ gardens or enjoying a “shared sense of humor” in the “retirement home for the active elderly” where she now resides. Having moved there at 92, with “a twinge of dismay at being surrounded by so many old people,” she discovered that they soon became “for each other wonderfully interesting stories.”
Mortality looms, of course, with Athill deeming it “silly to be frightened of being dead,” though admitting “anxiety about the process of dying.” She charts that process as experienced by loved ones, but doesn’t dwell on the dangers of decline. Indeed, there’s a welcome buoyancy in “Alive,” as in a delightful scene where Athill, “too physically wobbly to be of any use,” along with “nearly blind” Vera, 94, and Pamela, 94, agile enough to kneel but not to get back up without a hand, manage to plant a half-dozen roses. They emerge from the experience exhausted but triumphant.
Stanley Kunitz, who was poet laureate of the United States at 95 and died in 2005 at 100, wrote in “Touch Me,” the last work of “The Collected Poems”: “What makes the engine go? / Desire, desire, desire. / The longing for the dance / stirs in the buried life.” For Athill, whose desire still courses, albeit in new ways, being further toward the end illuminates the joy in the ordinary. As she writes in a poem at the conclusion of this book: “Why want anything more marvelous / than what is.”
Roy Hoffman’s most recent novel, “Come Landfall,” will be reissued in paperback this summer.
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill review – lessons from old age
Avoid romanticism and possessiveness: a clear-eyed view from the ‘high plateau’
Diana Athill stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being in her mid-70s, and “after a short period of shock at the fact, found it very restful”. She had become another sort of creature: an Old Woman! “It was like coming out on to a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle going on down below me.” Now, the memories of men mix in companionably with everything else: a bluebell wood at dawn, Venice, the white beaches of the Caribbean and her grandmother’s kitchen garden. “When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view, it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But … now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring.”
Athill’s new book is a further instalment of news from that high plateau of old age which she has already written about in Somewhere Towards the End and elsewhere, and it is full of clear, fresh air and bright distance. The conditions of extreme age seem to agree with her assured and reasonable temperament; there must be some stoical endurance in the mix but it is kept decently out of sight, as if it would be bad form to be anything but buoyant, at the end of such a life. Since she last reported, she has moved into a home for older people, and it is characteristic that she refuses to describe this as a decision forced on her. On the contrary, she insists, it is one of the few important things she has consciously chosen or for herself – unlike her education or her career, not having married or had children. She had thought she would hate being in a home, but realised in her early 90s that the alternative meant relying on her friends for more help than it was fair to ask, and so made up her mind.
The place she found is in Highgate in north London, with a garden, a library, a computer room and wonderful care. It is run by a charity, not for profit, and “no one has ever been asked to leave on account of running out of money”; staff are kind and always “strict about respect” – it’s like going back to boarding school, she thinks, cheerfully enough. But the rooms aren’t very big; the great wrench was having to lose most of her possessions – her “magpie’s nest of beloved things”. When she first contemplated getting rid of four-fifths of her books and three-quarters of her clothes, she couldn’t bear it: these things seemed to be her history, they seemed to be herself. The “horrible feeling came in surges, like fits of nausea”. Her nephew spent the best part of a day holding up one book after another. “In or out?” he would ask. And then once she moved into the home she made unexpected new friendships, and it was a delight to be free of domestic responsibilities. She even insists that she enjoys her wheelchair: nothing “could be more luxurious than being pushed around a really crowded and thrilling exhibition … ”. She doesn’t mention missing her books or her clothes at all. Another test, another lesson learned.
One of the chapters or short essays that make up this book is called “Lessons”; the patterns of our moral thinking are instilled in early education and although Athill grew up to interrogate the certainties of her parents, she belongs to a generation taught to keep its moral copybook. The most important lessons, she writes, are to “avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness”; in conjunction with sexuality these can be “lethal”, and she is sure that avoiding and abhorring them has helped her to have, “in spite of various setbacks”, a happy life. This pattern of testing and resilience, of falling back in a crisis on certain saving patterns of learned response, recurs in the memoirs. She has written before about a shattering love affair in her early youth, in the war – her fiance wrote to break off their engagement (he had met someone else) just before he was killed in action. With rueful amusement she speculates now that it may have been a childhood pride, internalised on seeing “how much of the world was coloured pink”, that got her through the crisis. You might grow up to be clear-eyed about the iniquities of empire, but the pride by that time is built in to your emotional life.
There may be uses, too, in the middle-class repressions that made her so impatient in her youth, when her mother pretended not to see anything she didn’t want to know. When Athill was unexpectedly pregnant in her 40s, and decided to keep the baby, she dreaded telling her mother most of all, and wrote a letter to her but delayed posting it. In the end she miscarried, and the letter was never sent. When she published her first book, she and her mother couldn’t speak about it, except through her brother. It occurs to her now, however, that the codes and the repressions have their uses. Not talking about their differences made it possible for her and her mother to be so close, in her mother’s old age. And, of course, even the blunt truth-telling of Athill’s style is its own code, its own performance of self; inside its lucidity and reasonableness we glimpse the shadows stirring, panics and shames withheld.
What might help us have such a good old age as this? Luck, of course – the great good luck of health, and keeping your wits, and having the right connections to find your way into the right old people’s home. But character, that alchemy of genes and nurture and experience and will, is crucial too – this same life story could have been told very differently, inflected through disappointment. Athill’s temperamental bias is towards taking pleasure: in clothes and food and travel and sex, and in her own intelligent penetration, in seeing things clearly. She was Jean Rhys’s publisher, of course; it’s interesting that she responded so acutely to Rhys’s quite opposite personality – fatalistic and fearful, drowning in doubt. If Athill suppresses the angsts, Rhys dissembled her force under performances of weakness. The unlikeness is even there in their physical selves: Athill statuesque and commanding, Rhys petite and flinching.
Athill did grow up to be clear-eyed about empire. Remembering pelicans circling above the silky sea in Tobago, the fisherman’s conch shell summoning customers, and the dream forests with no dangerous animals or poisonous snakes, she is quite clear that the island isn’t paradise for those who live there, “bone-poor”, “in houses without drainage, where water had to be fetched from a standpipe”. She questions the appetite of tourists from the wealthy developed world for what is unspoiled, skewering the uneasy socialising between the black islanders and the white visitors, including herself. Athill lived for 40 years with her lover and companion Barry Reckord, the late Jamaican playwright, and no doubt that relationship sharpened her alertness to white condescension; but the unsparingness is her own, anyway. She is just as acute about class – and about how it is precisely the privilege, and the confidence it confers, that make possible the self-critique.
Like others of her background, with her passion for social justice, she wondered for a while in her youth whether communism was a solution, and confesses it was mostly laziness that held her back from joining the party. “It seemed to me that devotion to the cause would be hard work and leave little time for the pleasant frivolities which I was enjoying so much.” Her experience of living through the decades of the gradual amelioration of living conditions and growth of inequality in the UK makes her dismayed by “our present dive into poverty” and our present politics. British politicians haven’t understood, she thinks, “the difference between being at the hub of a vast empire and being a tiny island off the shores of … Europe”. She wonders if in the end we will have to settle for being a mere tax haven, for the rich of other countries – if so, then she is glad that she won’t live to find out.
• Tessa Hadley’s novel The Past is published by Cape.
Monday 23 November 2015
Alive, Alive Oh! and Other Things That Matter review – Diana Athill’s joyously knowing memoir
The nonagenerian writer’s latest book is full of vivid reflections on her life and impending death
There is one writer whose words on writing are always with me,” writes Diana Athill in her latest memoir. It is Jean Rhys’s two phrases – “I have to try to get it like it really was” and “You can’t cut too much” – that have stuck with Athill. “Those words have done a lot to keep me in order, but I can’t say that they inspired me.”
They may not have “inspired” her, but they have certainly given rise to some inspired writing. Athill’s signature is precise, crisp phrasing of the kind that has the reader scrabbling for something with which to underline it. The clean delicacy of a woodland in May is keenly felt in a description in which the “little new leaves on the branches above them were that first green, which looks as though made by light, and which will be gone in a day or two”. Leaves in Trinidad and Tobago are “like open hands, like elephants’ ears”, butterflies are a “zigzag drift”, a conch sounds like “a sea cow lowing mournfully for its lost calf”. So when she exclaims: “Oh, how hopeless it is to try to put paintings into words”, while the reader might be charmed by her frank acknowledgment of the limitations of her medium, they are also aware that if anyone can paint with words, it is Athill.
Alive, Alive Oh! represents something of a departure from Athill’s previous works, which have, on the whole, been structured around a fairly traditional narrative arc. This feels more like a collection of short stories: fragments of a life, rather than detailed memoir, which has given her the freedom to revel in the more minor details. In her chapter on the aftermath of the second world war, she writes about escaping, while on a £21 Club Med holiday, to a “tiny hidden beach”. As she was lying with her book in what she imagined was isolation, “crunch, crunch: slow – furtive? – footsteps approached”. Sitting up in dismay, she looked around, only to see nothing. She lay back down. “Crunch, crunch. This time I stood up. Still no one. Till another crunch drew my eyes down, and there was a large tortoise labouring his way through the grass towards the water.”
Athill’s dedication to getting it “like it really was” extends beyond vivid pictures of what she has seen into what she has felt and thought. As with her previous writings, we are treated to some of the frankness for which her works are rightly celebrated: she gives us her reflections on issues from colonialism (and her inescapable complicity in its continuance) to women’s shouldering of the care burden, to increasing social inequality (all the more “horrifying” to someone who has lived through the optimism of the postwar period).
But she wears her politics lightly. Athill’s moments of self-castigation (such as in her unflinching chapter on colonialism) do not grate as they might with a less skilled and honest writer. They merely serve to demonstrate that she does not exclude her own motivations and character when applying Rhys’s dictum. In this regard she rather emulates another writer she admires: “What is irresistible about Boswell,” she writes, “is his always wanting with passionate intensity to be a good man and making stern resolutions, and then recording this process with fascinated honesty, as though he were a naturalist recording the behaviour of some strange creature.”
On the subject of breaking stern resolutions, Athill’s attitude to contraception may raise a wry smile in female readers. “From time to time, at the end of an anxious month,” she writes, she had “thought of” contraception: “If I’m let off this time I’ll never be such a fool again.” Most women may not have been quite as cavalier in this regard as Athill (she used no contraception for almost two years), but certainly most of us will have made that gushing pledge to be better when a late period finally arrives – only to break it the next time we are tempted.
But Athill was a fool again, and eventually, in her 40s, she became pregnant. Her customary precision leads us through the stages. The original indecision, the wish that it would all just “go away”. The decision to have another abortion – before finally realising “I suppose I am going to have this baby after all”, impractical though it was, given she “could live comfortably on what I earned with nothing to spare” and “would like to preserve these conditions”. And then “the blood on the toilet paper”. The pain. The “dull resentment” at blood that initially trickled down her thigh, before a “cold shock at the thudding gush, the sensation that a cork had blown. ‘Oh God, oh God’, I thought, ‘I didn’t know it would be like this.’” It is one of the most compelling chapters of the book, as well as, ironically given that Athill almost died from her miscarriage, one of the most life-affirming. “‘I AM ALIVE’”, she thought as she awoke from her operation. “It was enough. It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy.”
Death stalks the pages of this memoir from the joyously knowing title onwards. Athill writes to us from her old people’s home, where death “is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now”. But despite this, her latest offering feels anything but morbid, and this has a lot to do with her attitude to death. She records her response to almost dying from her miscarriage as being a casual “Oh, well, if I die, I die”. Weak from loss of blood, she was hardly in a position to conjure profundities, but her calm in the face of death is a long-held position, for which she credits Montaigne. “I can’t remember when I read, or was told, that he considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable can’t be too bad, but it was in my early teens and it struck me as a sensible idea.
Athill explains that she shares the attitude of her fellow old people’s home occupants that a fear of death is “silly”. Death being in sight, she writes, “it has become something for which one ought to prepare”. She is reconciled to her inevitable death, and this is admirable. But I know I am not her only reader who cannot feel the same. And this latest book does not make the coming literary loss any less painful.
Alive, Alive Oh! is published by Granta
At 97, Diana Athill reflects on heartbreak, fashion and growing old
Old age is no longer a taboo topic, just one of the many subtle but significant shifts made in response to the growing ageing population, but when Diana Athill published her memoir Somewhere Towards the End seven years ago in 2008, she was just as surprised as anyone that it proved so popular.
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Sunday, June 6, 2010
If you are going to grow old - and you are - there is no better company than the British writer Diana Athill. At 90, she graced us with her memoir, "Somewhere Towards the End" which won the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) award for biography in 2009, the same year in which she was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
"Somewhere Towards the End" is a wonderful book, filled not only with the facts of her long life but also with her reflections on the events of that life. It speaks briefly about her long and fascinating career as a literary editor. For more about that, to find out what it was like to edit V.S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, John Updike, Margaret Atwood and others, I recommend her memoir "Stet," published in 2000.
Now, W.W. Norton offers us two earlier memoirs - "Instead of a Letter," written in 1962, and "After a Funeral," written in 1986. Thus, we are moving backward in Athill's life, catching up on the past that will explain her present and amazing life at age 92.
The title "Instead of a Letter" refers to a letter her maternal grandmother wrote shortly before she died; Athill chooses the memoir to answer her grandmother's question 'What have I lived for? ... Do you really think that it has been worth something?' " Athill bravely answers those questions in this memoir where pain and heartache deaden all hope of happiness for many years. She survives, she believes, because of an idyllic childhood, a life full of books, and three years at Oxford, "a good place to wait in."
She waits at Oxford for Paul, the man she fell in love with at 15, became engaged to at 19 and was abandoned by at 22 when "I received a formal note ... asking me to release him from our engagement because he was about to marry someone else." The cad, the bounder, but no, Athill does not blame him; she decides that she was not worthy of him and so that of course he would find another. The war happens, Paul is killed. And Athill dooms herself to years of "a long, flat unhappiness," a skeleton "to be picked clean by the elements."
At this point, a bit more than midway through the book, we are genuinely sad. How, we wonder, is she going to get us out of here?
Promiscuity. That helps. Certainly takes your mind off things. In Athill's case, she sleeps with everyone who comes along and, given that there is a war on and that she is working in London, quite a few come along. "During that time, my soul shrank to the size of a pea." Unhappy comminglings, brief distractions, followed by more sleep, alone and excessive. In those few moments of energy, she forces herself to a gallery to look at pictures as she had been taught to look, while still a child, by her maiden aunt.
By some miracle, Felix appears, "anchored by marriage ..." but who "loved women so much that he could not help making them feel valuable." Her restoration begins. Not by way of tradition, however; she does not marry, she never has children. What she finds is a career, the right one for her, as an editor of books in the publishing house she and Andre Deutsch created. And she finds that she can write and that others want to read what she writes. Her writing takes a prize and happiness begins.
"After a Funeral" begins with a suicide - in her flat - of a young man she calls Didi. A more irritating person I have never met. An expatriate from a once-moneyed family in Egypt, he roams Europe, charming and living off friends and acquaintances. Ten years his senior, Athill takes him in because she has read and loved a book he wrote.
Didi is a gambler, a drinker, a womanizer and a freeloader. She realizes in short order that he is ill, that "he's a nut." Still, she cannot bring herself to bar the door. Why, we wonder, does she not rid herself of him, because not even Athill's fine writing can make Didi bearable to the reader; in his vices he becomes tedious. And then we realize that Didi is the son she never had and that she will bear even his cruelty until finally he is no more. She writes at the end: "This record has been written for him, and for people who are going to have children." Chilling.
Athill saves herself. By way of her own writing she moves from sadness into understanding and old age: "I believe that it is the impulse to write which underlies my peace of mind." For those of us who resist growing old she offers, in a recent interview, this consolation: "I think the fact that I'm in my 90s and still compos mentis, and able to write and have a nice time, is encouraging to people. They can look at me and say, 'There is somebody who is old - which I am dreading - but there, it's not so bad.' "
I, for one, feel better.
Jane Juska of Berkeley is the author of "A Round-Heeled Woman" and "Unaccompanied Women."
Sunday 13 December 2009
The doyenne of English literature has fascinating tales to tell, not least of her dealings with some of the greatest writers of the century and her own ménage à trois with a playwright and his young lover. Here she talks to Tim Adams with the same piercing candour she brings to her new volume of memoirs
Diana Athill, at 91, is widely praised for her honesty, but as with all exacting writers she is as interesting for what she leaves out as what she puts in. "Honesty is really guesswork, isn't it?" she wonders aloud. One of the things she is in denial about is being a writer at all. In her attic flat overlooking Primrose Hill in north London, the evidence is hard to ignore, however. It's on the table in front of us: Life Class, a 650-page volume of memoirs, selected from four of her books. "I hate that fat book," she says, with feeling, quietly scrutinising my reaction. "I'm just an amateur, really I am."
Athill's conviction in this assertion has its foundation in the "proper" authors she worked with in 50 years as the senior editor at the literary publisher André Deutsch: Philip Roth, Jean Rhys, VS Naipaul, Brian Moore, John Updike and many others. She remembers how the Irish novelist Moore used to tell her never to marry a writer: if he was not writing it'd be hell and he'd be wanting to shoot himself. And if he was he'd be in so deep he'd forget he had a wife. "I think," she says, brightly, "that is what convinces me that I must be an amateur. Writing is supposed to be torture isn't it? But I absolutely adore doing it."
Athill first started writing more than 50 years ago, a collection of stories, and then a memoir of her life up to the age of 42, Instead of a Letter. That book was an act of self-therapy as much as anything. It recounted, in flinty detail, the humiliating stain that had clouded her privileged youth – daughter of an army colonel, large family estate in Norfolk – and that she had been unable to erase. Athill was jilted. She had been hopelessly in love from the age of 15 with an Oxford graduate named Tony Irvine, who came to tutor her brother. By the time she was at Oxford herself, and Irvine was a pilot in the RAF, they were engaged, but the marriage was never to be. The war began, and Irvine, who had so lovingly set out the promises of their future together, abruptly stopped replying to Athill's letters. She heard nothing from him for two years, during which the pain was like "a finger crushed under the door, or a tooth under a drill", and then he wrote briefly, asking to be relieved of their engagement because he was marrying someone else. Soon after that, Irvine was killed in action. Athill subsequently lost a part of herself, for 20 years, in emptiness and disastrous affairs, 20 years in which her "soul shrank to the size of a pea". It was only through writing about it all that she surfaced again properly, found her voice. But then, just as suddenly, she gave it up.
"If I had something bad happen to me, then I needed to write so it would get better," she says now. "But then when for a while bad things stopped happening, I didn't have anything to write."
Her more recent memoirs were begun after she had left André Deutsch – who had never paid her anything much – and was pretty much penniless, living in this flat in a house owned by her cousin. She published her first, Stet, in which she told the story of her working life, nine years ago, and two more volumes – Yesterday Morning, mostly about her parents' unhappy marriage, and Somewhere Towards the End, about approaching 90 – have followed, to great and warranted acclaim. Having spent a career nurturing the careers of other writers, Athill is now in the curious position of literary celebrity herself, which, to her surprise, she hugely enjoys. She is in hot demand on the festival circuit, where people say two things to her. The first, which baffles her, is that she is "such an inspiration". The other, without fail, (and whispered) is, "Do you mind my asking, how do you keep such wonderful skin?"
The morning I visit her she is suffering with a cold, and irritated that she has had to abandon plans to fly to Canada where she was due to share a platform with the writer Alice Munro. "This is the first time I have had to cancel anything," she says. "I have been packing myself with antibiotics. But I got up yesterday and I felt so weak I knew I had to say no. So I think it is coming."
By "it" she means the end of book events and everything else, but she notes this, like she says everything, evenly and frankly and with an element of curiosity. Her singularity, as the books attest, has been hard won, but she wears it now with some pride. Her memory is her accomplishment; lapses make her anxious. She talks of a recent trip "up north to Wigton with a gang of young people" from her publisher, Granta. "We were all singing silly songs. I tried to remember "The Captain Bold from Halifax". And I couldn't get it right. But then I woke up the next morning and the whole thing was in my head." She sings it now for me in an unfaltering voice:
"The Captain bold from Halifax would leave his married quarters
To see a girl, who hanged herself, one morning with her garters.
His wicked conscience smited him, he lost his stomach daily
He took to drinking turpentine and thinking of Miss Bailey
Oh unfortunate Miss Bailey… "
It's funny what stays with us. As she is singing, I can't help feeling that Athill's own life has something of the texture of a barrack-room ballad, though she has avoided the darkest fates. Reading her memoirs in one volume is to have a sense of life as pain mitigated by time. There is a sense of wicked humour in many of her recollections, occasional bright flashes of possibility, an exhilarating sharpness to her voice, but it is the hurt, and her resilience in the face of it, that remains with you.
Athill has applied to herself one or two times Graham Greene's observation that all writers need a "chip of ice" at their heart. The question that her books never answer, quite, is whether that ice was something she was born with or learned.
She calls it her beady eye. "There was always a watcher somewhere in me," she says. "Before I ever dreamt of being a writer, when I was in my teens, I remember saying to somebody, 'I keep on hoping that something will one day happen to me, that will matter so much that I won't see myself as foreign to everybody.'"
The first thing her beady eye fell on was her parents, whose relationship informed all that followed. As well as being a portrait of a life in letters, Athill's writing is a careful unpicking of the emotional strictures of a particular class at a particular time. Her mother had been undone by an affair not long after she married, torn up with guilt, which she buried. She told her daughter about it the day after her husband, Athill's father, died, though Athill had found out long before.
"The worst of it was my father went on adoring her, and she would be irritated by that all the time and there would be dreadful quarrels. You have no idea how that affects children. When I was a little girl I had poor health, lots of stomach problems; later my grandmother said to me, 'You were a poorly little girl; it all made you so upset.' I had never put those things together but, looking back, she was right. You were always waiting as a child for the next time that things would blow up. Children find that unbearable to cope with."
Did the absence of love at home infect her own relationships, does she think?
"I think it did, a great deal. My mother was completely innocent when she got married. She was a normal, sexy, healthy girl but when a young man kissed her at a dance she thought she must marry him. But then it pretty quickly became clear I suppose that they weren't in the least compatible sexually. I have a feeling my father was a pretty hopeless lover, a parson's son. Poor thing. It is sad to think about, all those years together."
Her father wrote well, an elegant account for the Royal Geographical Society of a journey he took to Abyssinia. Her mother was a wonderful gardener, very good with animals and believed poetry to be a lot of nonsense.
Talking to her, reading her books, you get the sense that Athill measured much of her life against that maternal briskness. "You are not the only pebble on the beach," her mother would say. Athill's own candidness did not come easily as a result, and it was always an act of defiance. Her mother was still very much alive when she published Instead of a Letter, a book which catalogued Athill's own promiscuity and an abortion. How did she react?
"I did a rather sly thing," Athill recalls. "I had an American publisher who wanted to do it, so I did it there first, so none of her friends would read it. I sent that edition to her. And I heard nothing at all. For ages. We were going to stay together with a godmother of mine, and I planned to ask her what she thought. But I couldn't. And then I was driving her home, so I thought I would do it then. And then it was: after supper I'll ask her. During supper my brother phoned to speak to her. And she put me on the phone and he said, 'Mother was going to tell you never to publish that book, and I told her not to be so damn silly."'
And then, she says, a remarkable thing happened. They sat down and talked like two adult women about it all for the first time, the love affairs and the abortion, and Athill thought: "This is marvellous! We have made this tremendous breakthrough!"
It didn't quite work out like that. After that brief opening up, the shutters came down once more. Not another word was spoken about Athill's intimate life after that evening.
I wonder if she can see any virtues in her mother's sense of propriety, of holding things together?
"I suppose there were some but I can't see them," she says. "I always wanted to know everything."
One of the things she knows is exactly how easily candidness can shade into callousness: that is some of the shock of her books. Another relationship, with a lodger, the writer Waguih Ghali, continued even after she read his diary entry about her: "I have started to detest her… I find it impossible to live in the same flat as someone whose physical body seems to provoke mine to cringe…" Ghali killed himself subsequently in this flat.
Perhaps as a result of such experiences, Athill displays an unnerving sense of the limits of her responsibility to those she has loved. I ask her at one point what the best of times in her life have been and without hesitation she answers that it was "when I first met dear Barry and we had a lovely kind affair that went on for years".
The playwright Barry Reckord lived with Athill here for 40 years, punctuated by six years in the late 1970s when he brought his young girlfriend, an aspiring actress called Sally Cary into their home, and the three of them all lived together. If they survived that, how did Athill's relationship with Reckord end, I wonder?
"Well, of course he got so ill and so old," she says. "Now his niece is looking after him in Jamaica, thank God. For the last two years when he was here I was coming up to my 90th birthday, and all he wanted to do was lie in bed and watch sport and read thrillers, which he hated. When dear Margaret, his niece, called, it was like a miracle. He didn't want to go, and he still wants to come home. But I have pretty much stopped calling him now."
How had their relationship differed from a marriage?
"It differed right from the beginning," she says. "Our affair had been a good one and it had gone on well before he had broken up his marriage. As a consequence, by the time he moved in, the passion, so to speak, had gone. He told me right away he wouldn't marry again. I was in my late-ish 40s. Then darling Sally turned up, and we were both so very fond of her. He used to say he loved me and he loved her. I don't know if he did. She was and is one of my favourite people, though. She lived here for six years. It was perfectly easy. When she eventually went off, she met her Henry at agricultural college and got married. I think I was in a way more upset about it than poor old Barry, really."
Would she say Reckord was the love of her life?
"No, but I trusted Barry's love the most."
Even though he moved another woman into their home?
"Well, we weren't sleeping together by then. And if I wasn't sleeping with a man, I didn't see why he shouldn't want to sleep with other people. I hate possessiveness. Loathe it."
Does she construe her lack of jealousy as an acceptance of the impossibility of constant love?
"Well," she says, smiling, "loyalty is a bit overrated, I think. To make it important between men and women seemed to me foolish."
I have a sense of just a hint of long-overcome betrayal in her when she says this, but she doesn't acknowledge it herself, and maybe I'm imagining it.
As she thinks about her life, Athill is sitting in her favourite chair, surrounded by piles of letters from her past, which an American scholar has dug out of the André Deutsch archive held at a university in Tulsa. There is the prospect of a book of her correspondence with Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, to whom she was editor, confidante and "nanny". She is loving going through the letters again, missives from another life. As she shows me little extracts, I hear the cadences of her abiding sternness of will, taking on all-comers, and living to tell the tales.
Athill faces the future in this spirit. Beside the manuscripts she gestures at a letter offering her a place in a "sheltered house" in Highgate, which she is planning to take up. "It's time, I think," she says. "I had a friend there called Rose Hacker, who was the oldest newspaper columnist in London. She said I must come. I asked her about the waiting list, and she said well don't worry about that, someone's always dying…"
If she were to draw a trajectory of her life, I say, how would it go?
"Well," she says, "a goodish beginning and then it went right down, and since then it has been rising steadily." She traces her finger in the air between us. And she seems determined not to let the upward curve come to a stop.
January 30, 2010
The Saturday Interview: Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson
Martin Amis has gone totally potty, loopy,” says Diana Athill. “Of course you can’t give old people a Martini and march them into a euthanasia booth. His father went mad, maybe he has too.”
At 92, the doyenne of English literature — who moved into a retirement home at Christmas — feels obliged to speak up for the older generation. Having spent 50 years in publishing and edited some of the best writers of the 20th century — including Simone de Beauvoir, Philip Roth, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood and Laurie Lee — she is not going to let the bad boy of modern fiction criticise the elderly.
“Martin sounded hysterical, I thought he is going the way of his Dad, Kingsley, a very gifted person who went to pieces when he got older. Obviously an ageing population will produce problems, but there is no reason to get frantic about it. The elderly are not a waste of public money, more is going to have to be spent on us and people need to get used to that.”
The author of five volumes of memoirs — the most recent, Life Class, was published last month — is not against euthanasia. “I would like to think if I wanted to end my life I could. People shouldn’t have to beg to die.”
However, she says that is different from Amis’s view that people should be bumped off when they are no longer useful to society. “You have to have some control. People don’t want to be burdens, everyone I know who is old frets that their family has to cope with them but they don’t really want to die before their time.”
Animals sometimes receive better treatment than old people, she thinks. “The British like animals because they are simple creatures, they give them clothes, furniture, gourmet pet food, it’s getting ridiculous.”
The elderly should be treated as individuals, she says. “You shouldn’t expect them all to retire at a certain age, I carried on working until I was 75. One does eventually go off the boil but you shouldn’t take the pan off the hob too early.” It was, the writer says, agonising moving into a retirement home. “Quite dreadful, but now it’s rather nice. Some people here are very old indeed, but you suddenly discover they are still very interesting.”
There is a book of Montaigne’s essays on the table and Tolstoy and Trollope on her shelves. The worst thing about moving into one room, Athill says, was disposing of nearly 2,000 books. Her nephew held up each volume and said: “In or out? Will you read it again?”
“With most of them I had to admit I probably never would. The books nearly undid me. It was pure misery. As soon as it was done I was rushed to hospital. I felt so dreadful I was convinced I was having a heart attack.”
Although she never knew J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye was, in her view, a legacy that any writer could be proud of. “In the end he went off a bit, it was rather a let-down but that one book made him an important author.”
In 1966, Athill published Wide Sargasso Sea, long after the author Jean Rhys had retired. But it would, she thinks, be different to publish any manuscripts found at Salinger’s home now. “If a writer didn’t want something to be published when he is alive then I don’t think it should be published after his death,” she says, “although of course if he is sensible he burns it.”
Once you are over 90, she says, it is shocking how dependent you are on others when you fall ill. “I have no children so darling friends and my nephew had to look after me and I thought if I became more ill it would be unfair.” It is only politicians, the media (and Amis) who treat old people with disdain, according to the writer. “So many young people are much kinder than I would have been to an older person when I was in my twenties. One young girl in Camden Market called me a trendy old trout, which was rather flattering.”
But she says that the Government just thinks of cost. “Childcare is more important, we are all going to die anyway, but a lot of places for old people are too grim, too hideous, too unkind.”
Her solution is to create a minister for the elderly. “Now there are so many of us our own minister would be a good idea, so it is not all about being young and trendy.”
She doesn’t have a television. “My char gave me one years ago and I watched it for a week and was bored stiff. All I do is read.” She has been bullied into learning to e-mail. “I use Google now and I’m determined to work out how to watch the tennis on my computer,” she says.
She still writes her books longhand before transferring them to her computer. “I can still write but I do now feel old. It goes with health. When I turned 80 I began to think, ah yes I’m old because I couldn’t walk up hills. One does miss sex, too. The funny thing is that when one dreams, one is young again — I can always walk and run in my dreams. But it’s boring enough getting old without fretting.”
Ah sex, Miss Athill has written succinctly about her loves and losses, and was in many ways liberal before her time, enjoying myriad relationships and a high-flying career. Does she agree that Britain is becoming more tolerant? “I don’t think it’s getting better enough yet but it is more liberal. Racism still exists but there is far less than there was. The attitude to women has changed — not as much as it should, but a good deal of that is women’s fault. I get sick when I read magazines for little girls telling them how to get their man, it’s ridiculous.”
A feminist, she doesn’t believe men and women are identical. “Anyone who has had small children around knows that boys and girls are different. The bigger issue is that they want different things from life. You can’t get rid of the fact that physically women are designed to bear children and men are designed to trigger the child.”
That doesn’t preclude mothers from working, she says, “but women have proved that you can’t quite do it all.” When she was young, she thought she would have children, but her teenage fiancé went off to war and fell in love with somebody else. Although she was devastated at the time, she says: “If I had ended up marrying my first love and having children I’d probably never have written a word.”
After weaving through love affairs with married men, she once said that “being the other woman suited me very well”. Sex, she wrote, is “like a glass-bottomed boat” that allows you to see below the surface of a man”. We are, she thinks, in danger of becoming too prudish again, with politicians discussing the importance of marriage. “I think we go on a bit too much about the broken society and fallen morals. Even before the Sixties, lots of people were on drugs and sleeping with each other. People just didn’t talk about it.”
What has got worse, Athill believes, is the gap between rich and poor. “It’s dreadful we are pulling apart. After the war we all thought everything would be fair. I cannot bear those bankers’ bonuses. It’s shocking.”
What saddens her most is that “the crucial things” haven’t changed. “It is still not possible for what everyone feels is right to be done. There is an awful selfishness that makes us ignore what doesn’t affect us. Human beings are quite ghastly to each other. As one becomes older, one realises that but it doesn’t stop one hoping.”
Born December 21, 1917
Educated Rundon Hill School, Norfolk; Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
Career Worked for the BBC through the Second World War, then helped André Deutsch establish his literary publishing company. Retired in 1993 aged 75. She has written a novel, a book of short stories and several volumes of memoirs. Appointed OBE last year
Saturday 17 April 2010
'I had not realised that an old person can be reduced to helplessness almost overnight'
Very few events in my life have been decided by me. How I was educated, where I have lived, why I am not married, how I have earned my living: all these crucial things happened to me rather than were made to happen by me. Of course an individual's nature determines to some extent what happens, there will be an interplay of causes, probably too complex to disentangle, in which intention usually plays a part; but moments at which a person just says, "I shall now do X" and does it are rare – or so it has been in my life, anyway. Perhaps my decision to move into a home for old people is not quite the only one, but it is certainly the biggest.
This is not to say that outside events contributed nothing to it, because two of them did set the scene. The first was a visit to a friend, Rose Hacker, after I had learned that she had made such a move. This shook me, because Rose, though well over 90, was a lively and independent woman. Rose in an old people's home? It seemed unthinkable. I decided I must summon up the nerve to visit her: "summon up the nerve" because the image in my mind of such homes was a grim one.
This one, behind a high wall in Highgate, north London, was set in a large, well-kept garden surrounded by trees and appeared to be uninhabited. I realise now most of the residents were in the library, where tea is served to those who don't prefer to have it in their rooms, and that the reason there were no nurses to be seen was that there aren't any nurses: it is not a nursing home, although carers are available to those who need them. I found Rose's room and knocked on the door. Silence. So I opened it, and there was Rose, who must by then have been rising a hundred, having a nap in a splendid extending armchair.
She woke at once, unabashed, and no sooner had she greeted me warmly than she said: "My dear, you must come and live here. It is the most wonderful place." I had no intention of living in any such place, however wonderful, but I was so pleased to find her happy that I urged her to tell me more. It was run by a venerable charity with the aim of giving its residents as normal, independent and pleasant a life as possible, while at the same time providing whatever care they needed until they died. Was it expensive? I asked. £440 a week (it has now gone up to £550), and a bit more if a lot of care was needed. When I said there must be a long waiting list, Rose answered blithely: "You needn't worry about that, we're dying all the time."
I thought then only that I was relieved to find Rose so well-suited, but I suppose I must have tucked away the thought: "If one day..." And that thought was still to be there when I needed it.
The other piece of scene-setting was less agreeable. My oldest friendship, dating from the moment when we first sat down beside each other for breakfast as nervous "freshers" at Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall, was Nan Taylor, three months younger than me. Nan weathered less well than I did. A breast cancer was caught early enough for her to consider herself cured, but drastic radiation did her a good deal of harm, and she persisted in smoking heavily in spite of the horrible cough which she called "my boring old bronchitis". As she approached her 80s she became tottery, broke her hip as a result of a bad fall, and was soon reduced to immobility and incontinence. She was able to employ agency nurses to come in morning and evening, because the one thing she was determined to do was die in her own bed, but it was hard work for her friends.
There were five of us to share the burden, but for two years a burden it was. At every visit there was a nerve-racking wait: was she dragging herself precariously towards the door, or had she fallen, in which case she couldn't get up? More and more often it was the latter, whereupon one prayed that her neighbours were in, and would support one through the anxious moment of finding the crumpled heap on the floor and sorting it out. If they weren't in one had to call the police who, I must say, would rise to the occasion with surprising kindness. And once Nan was re-established in her chair and tea had been made and poured, it became with every visit less easy to penetrate her increasing deafness, and her indifference to any subject apart from querulous complaints about her carers. She had been for many years a dear, generous and entertaining friend, so we all went on being fond of her, and wanting to help, but I'm pretty sure I was not the only one whose sorrow at her death was mingled with relief. And in my case vanity (I suppose) filled me with dismay at the thought of ever inflicting such an experience on my friends.
In the winter of 2008 I went down with flu, and was soon reduced to such a state of inertia that I no longer reached for the glass of water beside my bed which I knew I ought to be drinking, nor could I summon up the energy to telephone anyone. Eventually a dear friend, Xandra Bingley, happened to telephone me, after which she fed and cared for me with the most generous willingness and good humour until I was better. There was no question of Xandra making heavy weather of it, and I felt nothing but the purest gratitude and relief, but later I remembered that post-Nan dismay. Nan's decline had been gradual, so I had not realised until now that an old person can be reduced to helplessness – can reach the stage of having to be looked after – almost overnight. If I'd had children I suppose I would have accepted, albeit reluctantly, that it could be done by them, but by one's friends? Very occasionally, and if one were able to reciprocate, perhaps; but if it was likely to become more frequent, if it was possible that one might soon become as dependent on their help as Nan had been? No! And how, having reached my 90s, could I fool myself into thinking that I was not moving into that territory? It was then that I decided to call Rose's home and ask them to send me their brochure.
As a result I visited their office and ended by saying that I would like to be considered as a resident if a room came free in about a year's time. I was able to feel that I had made what was probably a sensible decision but was not tied down to it. So for the next 12 months, on the rare occasions when I did think about it, I was able to feel that moving into an old people's home was a comfortably distant event.
By that time I knew a good deal about the home – the Mary Feilding Guild. I learned that the quality of the care was wonderful, and that their rooms were tiny. Visiting Rose, I had not been particularly struck by her room's smallness, I suppose because I had not yet envisaged living in such a room myself, but now I had talked to someone who had just moved in and who was still vividly aware of what she had given up in order to be there, and it was alarming.
You were not, of course, a prisoner in your room. You lunched in the dining room, and at tea-time had the choice between a tray in your room or having it in the library. There was also a computer room and various utility rooms, including kitchens with ovens for those who wanted to cook. And the garden was large and very pleasant. It would, I saw, be like going back to live in college. Except that when you went to college you had no accumulation of possessions to be sacrificed.
It was that which made it such a violent shock when the letter came saying that a room was now available. It was one of their best rooms, with big windows looking out over the garden and a balcony large enough for several flower pots and a chair. But it would hold a single bed, a desk, two chairs plus a desk chair – and that was that. The built-in storage space for clothes would hold – perhaps – a quarter of those I possessed; there was only one wall about 12 feet long for pictures. And what would I do about my books?
I came home, sat down in my little sitting room, looked round at the magpie's nest of beloved things accumulated in a long lifetime, and felt: "But this is me." The extent to which a personality depends on the space it occupies and the objects it possesses appeared to me at that moment overwhelming. How could I perform an act of what amounted to self-destruction? The answer was: I can't! I can't and I won't, I'd rather die.
At that stage it would have taken only one word of encouragement from one person, and I would have called the Guild and told them I had changed my mind. I did not get that word. The two people I relied on most for support, my nephew Philip Athill and Xandra, had agreed that in deciding to move to a home I was doing a sensible thing, and I knew both of them felt relief at that decision, as I would have done in their position. Both, when they saw that now I might panic out of it, were perceptibly disturbed at the possibility, again as I would have been. They were not being selfish or unkind. They were simply aware that over their full and busy lives hung the possibility that affection might plunge them into a very onerous responsibility. Of course they didn't want this to happen. It was their reaction that made me suppress the panic.
This horrible feeling came in surges, like fits of nausea – just as excruciating and irresistible, so that while it was going on I was entirely possessed by it; and like fits of nausea, it passed. It was a relief, gradually to realise this: that what one had to do was hold tight and wait it out, whereupon reason would re-establish its hold: a sensible decision did not become less sensible when it finally led to the action decided on. I must accept that fact, calm down and get on with it.
This became less painful when I discovered to my surprise that getting rid of possessions by giving them to friends or members of my family who would, I was sure, enjoy them turned out to be easy – even a positive pleasure; but unfortunately my books were too many to be disposed of in that way. Some could be given, but most had to be dealt with in bulk. I finally managed it. Philip spent the best part of a day holding up, one by one, every book in that daunting mass and saying, "In or Out?" then boxing it as appropriate. But even with a lot of help, just before the final move I experienced a physical collapse serious enough to lead to a night in hospital, which I'm now sure was the result of stress.
That peculiar little physical collapse seemed to rid me of an accumulation of misery at one go. Almost at once on arrival at the home I knew that it was going to suit me. And sure enough, it does. A life free of worries in a snug little nest (my room really is charming), good friends among my neighbours, freedom to do everything I'm still capable of doing, and knowing one will be beautifully looked after if necessary: what could be better? .
21th April 2010
Very few events in my life have been decided by me. How I was educated, where I have lived, why I am not married, how I have earned my living: all these crucial things happened to me, rather than were made to happen by me.
Of course, an individual's nature determines to some extent what happens, but moments at which a person says 'I shall now do X' and actually does it are rare - or so it has been in my life, anyway.
Perhaps my considered decision to move into a home for old people is not quite the only one, but it is certainly the biggest.
This is not to say that outside events contributed nothing to it, because two of them did set the scene. The first was a visit to a friend, Rose Hacker, after I had learned that she had made such a move.
This shook me, because Rose, though well over 90, was a lively and independent woman. Rose in an old people's home? It seemed unthinkable.
I decided I must summon up the nerve to visit her: 'summon up the nerve' because the image in my mind of such homes was a grim one.
This one, behind a high wall in Highgate, North London, was set in a large, well-kept garden and appeared to be uninhabited.
I realise now that most of the residents were in the library, where tea is served to those who don't prefer to have it in their rooms, and that the reason there were no nurses to be seen was that there aren't any nurses: it is not a nursing home, although carers are available to those who need them.
I found Rose's room and knocked on the door. Silence. So I opened it, and there was Rose, who must by then have been rising 100, having a nap in a splendid extending armchair.
She woke at once, unabashed, and no sooner had she greeted me warmly than she said: 'My dear, you must come and live here. It is the most wonderful place.'
I had no intention of living in any such place, however wonderful, but I was so pleased to find her happy that I urged her to tell me more.
It was run by a venerable charity with the aim of giving its residents as normal, independent and pleasant a life as possible, while at the same time providing whatever care they needed until they died.
Was it expensive? I asked. Four hundred and forty pounds a week (it has now gone up to £550), and a bit more if a lot of care was needed. When I said there must be a long waiting list, Rose answered blithely: 'You needn't worry about that, we're dying all the time.'
I thought then only that I was relieved to find Rose so well-suited, but I suppose I must have tucked away the thought: 'If one day...' And that thought was still to be there when I needed it.
The other piece of scene-setting was less agreeable. My oldest friendship, dating from the moment we first sat down for breakfast as nervous 'freshers' at Oxford's Lady Margaret Hall, was Nan Taylor, three months younger than me.
Nan weathered less well than I did. A breast cancer was caught early enough, but drastic radiation did her a good deal of harm, and she persisted in smoking heavily in spite of the horrible cough which she called 'my boring old bronchitis'.
As she approached her 80s she became tottery, broke her hip as a result of a fall, and was soon reduced to immobility and incontinence.
She employed agency nurses to come in morning and evening, because the one thing she was determined to do was die in her own bed, but it was hard work for her friends.
There were five of us to share the burden, but for two years a burden it was. At every visit there was a nerve-racking wait: was she dragging herself precariously towards the front door, or had she fallen?
More and more often it was the latter, whereupon one prayed that her neighbours were in, and would support one through the anxious moment of finding the crumpled heap on the floor. If they weren't in, one had to call the police who, I must say, would rise to the occasion with surprising kindness.
And once Nan was re-established in her chair and tea had been made and poured, it became with every visit less easy to penetrate her increasing deafness, and her indifference to any subject apart from querulous complaints about her carers.
She had been for many years a dear, generous and entertaining friend, so we all went on being fond of her, and wanting to help, but I'm pretty sure I was not the only one whose sorrow at her death was mingled with relief. And in my case vanity (I suppose) filled me with dismay at the thought of ever inflicting such an experience on my friends.
In the winter of 2008, I went down with flu, and was soon reduced to such a state of inertia that I no longer reached for the glass of water beside my bed which I knew I ought to be drinking, nor could I summon up the energy to telephone anyone.
Eventually, a dear friend, Xandra Bingley, happened to telephone me, after which she fed and cared for me with the most generous willingness and good humour until I was better.
There was no question of Xandra making heavy weather of it, and I felt nothing but the purest gratitude and relief, but later I remembered that post-Nan dismay. Nan's decline had been gradual, so I had not realised that an old person can be reduced to helplessness almost overnight.
If I'd had children I suppose I would have accepted, albeit reluctantly, that it could be done by them, but by one's friends? Very occasionally, and if one were able to reciprocate, perhaps it might.
But if it was likely to become more frequent, if it was possible that one might soon become as dependent on the help of friends as Nan had been? No! And how, having reached my 90s, could I fool myself into thinking that I was not moving into that territory?
It was then that I decided to call Rose's home and ask them to send me their brochure. As a result, I visited their office and ended by saying I would like to be considered as a resident if a room came free in about a year's time. I would pay for the rent with the royalties from my books.
I was able to feel I had made what was probably a sensible decision, but was not tied down to it immediately.
So for the next 12 months, on the rare occasions when I did think about it, I was able to feel that moving into an old people's home was a comfortably distant event.
By that time, I knew a good deal about the home - the Mary Feilding Guild. I learned that the quality of the care was wonderful, and that their rooms were tiny.
Visiting Rose, I had not been particularly struck by her room's smallness, I suppose because I had not yet envisaged living in such a room myself. But now I had talked to someone who had just moved in and who was still vividly aware of what she had given up to be there, and it was alarming.
You were not, of course, a prisoner in your room. You lunched in the dining room, and at tea time had the choice between a tray in your room or having it in the library.
There was also a computer room and various utility rooms, including kitchens with ovens for those who wanted to cook. It would, I saw, be like going back to live in college. Except that when you went to college you had no accumulation of possessions to be sacrificed.
It was that which made it such a violent shock when the letter came saying that a room was now available. It was one of their best rooms, looking out over the garden and a balcony large enough for several flower pots and a chair. But it would hold a single bed, a desk, two chairs plus a desk chair - and that was that.
The built-in storage for clothes would hold, perhaps, a quarter of those I possessed. There was only one wall about 12ft long for pictures. And what would I do about my books?
I came home, sat down in my little sitting room, looked round at the magpie's nest of beloved things accumulated in a long lifetime, and felt: 'But this is me.'
I'd lived in my flat in London for more than 50 years - it belonged to a cousin of mine, so I didn't need to worry about selling it. But the extent to which a personality depends on the space it occupies and the objects it possesses appeared to me at that moment overwhelming.
How could I perform an act of what amounted to self-destruction? The answer was: 'I can't! I can't and I won't, I'd rather die.' At that stage it would have taken only one word of encouragement and I would have called the Guild and told them I had changed my mind. I did not get that word.
The two people I relied on most for support, my nephew Philip Athill and my friend Xandra, had agreed that in deciding to move to a home I was doing a sensible thing, and I knew they both felt relief at that decision, as I would have done in their position.
Both of them, when they saw that now I might be panicked out of it, were perceptibly disturbed, again as I would have been. They were not being unkind. They were simply aware that over their full and busy lives hung the possibility that affection might plunge them into an onerous responsibility.
This horrible feeling I had came in surges, like fits of nausea - just as excruciating and irresistible. And like fits of nausea, it passed. It was a relief, gradually to realise this: that what one had to do was hold tight and wait it out, whereupon reason would re-establish its hold.
This became less painful when I discovered to my surprise that getting rid of possessions by giving them to friends or family members turned out to be easy - even a positive pleasure.
Only my books were too many to be disposed of in that way. My nephew Philip spent the best part of a day holding up, one by one, every book in that daunting mass and saying 'In or Out?', then boxing it as appropriate.
But even with a lot of help, just before the final move I had a physical collapse serious enough to lead to a night in hospital, which I'm now sure was the result of stress.
That peculiar little physical collapse seemed to rid me of an accumulation of misery at one go. Almost at once, on arrival at the home last December, I knew that it was going to suit me. And sure enough, it does.
A life free of worries in a snug little nest (my room really is charming), good friends among my neighbours, freedom to do everything I'm still capable of doing, and knowing one will be beautifully looked after if necessary: what could be better?
21 Aug 2010
Why I love living in a retirement home
by Diana Athill
The most painful thing I ever did was closing down my flat and moving, on December 15 last year, into the “Retirement Home for the Active Elderly” run by the Mary Feilding Guild in Highgate. I did it because I was rising ninety-two and, having no children, loathed the idea of eventually becoming a burden on nephews and friends. Though I say it myself, it was a sensible decision, and I knew as much even when every nerve was shrieking against it. But the extent to which it was sensible -- that I learnt only when I had done it -- and the right word for it became not “sensible”, but “lucky”.
At breakfast today I sat in my little room thinking how odd it is that I never get bored by my things. Then I realised that nothing in the room is here out of habit, or because it was given me by dear old so-and-so, or because I couldn’t be bothered to get rid of it. Everything, from the carpet to the biscuit tin and including of course the too-many pictures, ornaments and books, is here because, however uninteresting it might be to others, I love it. It’s as though “possessing” has been distilled down from being a vague pleasure to being an intense one: less is more. When I first saw the room in its bare state it shocked me: how could I possibly live in that tiny space? And now I am happy in it. This is the first good thing about this place: the little bare room you get is yours to make entirely your own.
The second good thing is ….. well, when the hot water went off a few days ago, for a second it was “Oh my God, I must find a plumber”. Then lovely calm welled up: I didn’t have to lift a finger, I could be sure that other people were coping and would do it without delay. The days of domestic crises are over for good, as are the days of food shopping (unless I want to), gas bills, council tax paying, indeed of every kind of demand except for paying my telephone and newspaper bills. Everything else is “all in”, and because this place is run by a non-profit-making charity, “all in” at a cost considerably less than that of many retirement homes. It took a month or so for the full luxury of this to sink in.
The third good thing (third only in the time it took to grasp it -- it ought to head the list) , is that the people working here, first to keep us comfortable as we go about our more or less normal lives, later to care for us when care becomes necessary, are without exception kind and good. How does the management find and keep so many people who really do like and respect the residents and want to help them if they need it? I don’t know, but it does -- and how I wish I didn’t fear that in this respect it is unusual. It ought to be taken for granted in any kind of care home, but if you imagine yourself faced with trying to guarantee such care, you see soon enough that it calls for exceptional qualities. And I and the good friends I’ve made here, are in a place where those qualities prevail.
So, given that I still keep my car and can buzz about wherever and whenever I wish, it is not surprising that I’m now sure I did the right thing.
My great pleasure at the moment is the flowering on my balcony of my morning glories. I sowed the seed last March, planning that they would rampage up the wall between my balcony and my neighbour’s, and they have not let me down. It’s true that each flower lasts for only half a day, but being so ephemeral makes their ravishing beauty more breath-taking. There is no other blue so pure and radiant.
My other flowers, in the boxes hanging on the balcony railing, began by being slightly embarrassing because they are the biggest, fattest kind of begonia and I was raised by a fastidious mother who saw begonias as vulgar. But so, I now say defiantly, was Mae West! This is the first year when I have allowed myself to revel in the begonia’s luscious lack of subtlety which is so like hers, and I now intend to go on revelling.
Snug though I am in my room, and much as I enjoy watching the comings and goings of the many birds who visit our lovely garden (Highgate is a bosky part of London with plenty of Nature going on it it), I have to say that part of our home’s charm is that we can get out of it as often and easily as our personal mobility allows.
When I can no longer drive my car I expect I shall get a little electric buggy. Last week, when one of them overtook me on the village’s pavement, I heard myself say to my companion “I’m going to have one of those when I’m old” -- a good example of how, if you are not severely handicapped, you go on feeling your usual self in spite of the years.
My occupations in the last three weeks have included a three-day stay in Cornwall at the Port Eliot festival and a visit, with two of the friends I have made since coming here, to a mind-blowing Picasso exhibition at the Gargosian gallery. The festival is a charming one, rather slap-happy and home-spun in atmosphere but with an underlying framework of excellent management, and I was allowed to stay in a most beautiful hotel from which you could look out across the River Tamar over what seemed to be the whole of Devon, with Dartmoor on the horizon.
That hotel represented one of the privileges of old age. I don’t suppose that any of the speakers at the festival were in tents (unless they chose to be), but few were put up in the Pentillie Castle, and of those who were, none were treated with such exceptional kindness as came my way. Surprisingly, being very old makes outings, and even long journeys, pleasanter than they ever were before.
Thinking about a long journey can be daunting -- so much so that you can be seriously tempted to refuse it and sometimes really do. But if you can bring yourself to set out, two things always seem to happen: adrenalin kicks in, and everyone becomes incredibly helpful. Once in a wheel-chair, you simply flash through airports. This time I flashed to Cornwall and back (not in a wheel-chair but in the cars of kind people), and last autumn I flashed all the way to Canada, and stayed high for a whole week when there, without any let-down afterwards.
That is something all us oldies should bear in mind: until it becomes physically truly impossible, keep on doing things. In my experience it always turns out to be worth while.
October 10, 2010
By SARAH LYALL
LONDON — Last year, when she was 91, the editor and writer Diana Athill moved from her beloved apartment into an “old person’s home,” as she calls it. It was the most painful decision she had ever made, and it might have been a terrible diminishment, the reduction of a long, full life into something small enough to fit into a tiny room off a communal corridor.
But it turned out not to be that way at all.
“You gradually become aware of how liberating it is,” Ms. Athill said. “Not a single domestic worry do I have.” That means no more shopping, no more electricity bills, no more laundry. And it means, she wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph, a rethinking of her relationship to her belongings.
“Everything, from the carpet to the biscuit tin and including of course the too-many pictures, ornaments and books, is here because, however uninteresting it might be to others, I love it,” she wrote. “It’s as though ‘possessing’ has been distilled down from being a vague pleasure to being an intense one. Less is more.”
Ms. Athill’s room turns out to be charming, with big windows through which the sun poured the other day. She has snow-white hair swept back from a broad, amused face; beautiful pink skin; and the plummy, proper voice of an old-fashioned aunt in a black-and-white movie, which makes a nice contrast to her sometimes wicked observations.
She holds a formidable place in the London literary world. Legendary for her ability to handle difficult manuscripts, not to mention difficult writers, she was one of the founding directors of the independent publisher André Deutsch (it has now been subsumed into Carlton Publishing Group) and worked for nearly 50 years with authors like V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Margaret Atwood.
She left the job at 75 and could have slipped quietly into retirement. Instead she found a second career, as a writer.
Since turning 80 Ms. Athill has published three memoirs about her life and her work, using crystalline, unflinching prose that seeks not to sugarcoat, but to get to the truth of things. All have drawn adoring reviews and good sales. The most recent, “Somewhere Towards the End” (W. W. Norton & Company), an unsentimental look at growing old that confronts issues like sex and dying and that came out when she was 90, was a best seller, winning both the Costa Biography award here and the National Book Critics Circle award in autobiography in the United States.
People tend to tell Ms. Athill that she is an inspiration, a word that gives her the willies. But her matter-of-fact, hopeful depiction of life as an elderly woman presents an encouraging antidote to the accounts of writers like Philip Roth, with their self-pitying fetishization of physical decline.
“I think getting old very often is horrible, really,” Ms. Athill said. “But if you’re lucky, if you keep your health, if your aches and pains are not too bad, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a perfectly agreeable life, in many ways, discovering new and nice things.”
Ms. Athill’s life has been unconventional, courageous, and for decades, she felt, clouded by shame. As she described in “Instead of a Letter,” which was published when she was in her 40s but recently has been reissued, she became engaged to her first love, a young man who went off to war and then, inexplicably, fell silent. She heard nothing from him for two years, feeling a pain like “a finger crushed under the door, or a tooth under a drill,” Ms. Athill wrote, until he announced that he was marrying someone else. He was killed soon afterward, consigning her to the peculiar humiliation of feeling both rejected and without the standing even to mourn properly at a time when marital status meant everything.
There followed years of misery, in which her “soul shrank to the size of a pea,” she wrote. She was saved by work; becoming an editor brought her a new kind of joy. And though she embarked on numerous love affairs, she turned down all offers of marriage, remaining faithful, really, only to her job. “I had been so damaged in my sexual self that if a man wanted to marry me, I thought there was something wrong with them,” she said during the interview.
Ms. Athill’s writing is characterized by an extraordinary generosity of spirit. She refuses to feel sorry for herself, always finding a way to redeem even the most distressing circumstance.
In reflecting on her life, she wrote that André Deutsch, her employer and friend, paid her a pittance, barely enough to live on. She took in a tempestuous, manic writer she calls Didi, who subjected her to the endless ups and downs of his paranoiac personality, recorded in his journal that he was disgusted by her (she reads the passage, in one of the more unsettling parts in her book “After a Funeral”), and then killed himself in her house.
Her longtime lover, the playwright Barry Reckord, moved in with her and then, their relationship having evolved into something more like friendship, brought his young girlfriend in too, for six years in the 1970s. They all got along famously. “He was very against possessiveness, and so was I,” Ms. Athill explained.
Ms. Athill’s gift is the ability to examine events and motivations in the round, to get to the heart of them without sparing her own feelings. Writing of “Instead of a Letter,” the British author Ian Jack said that “the reader feels that what he is reading is as true a portrait of the writer and her experience as any words on paper can achieve.” By using such precision, “by letting us see how she appeared to others,” Mr. Jack wrote, Ms. Athill “opened up what could have been a narrow story of injury and self-absorption into a book that takes pleasure in the world.”
Ms. Athill protests that she is not generous, but rather has what Graham Greene described as the “sliver of ice” that resides in the heart of writers, the thing that allows them to examine events with forensic analysis.
“I’m really very interested in what is happening, even when it involves oneself,” she said. “One’s watching all the time.”
And now Ms. Athill is watching herself live in a home for the elderly. She still writes every day and has an idea or two in mind for a book, though she is not sure she will write another one. She has friends, nephews, a car, an active life on the literary-festival circuit.
And she has enjoyed meeting the other residents. “One of the things about this place is that they’re not snobbish class-wise, but snobbish jobs-wise,” she said. “They choose people who had interesting careers.” Most of her neighbors, she said, “are pretty philosophical about dying, pretty well accept the fact that they won’t be here much longer.” As for herself, “I’d like another two years,” she said.
“One of the things I think I owe to that early unhappiness, it was a hard lesson, was that I learned that I could be alone,” she said. “I can. I like my own company.”
T e l e g r a p h
11 Jan 2011
‘Life Class: The Selected Memoirs of Diana Athill’ is published by Granta (£12.99)
Read this article here