The time of her life
INTERVIEW:Age is no impediment to writer Diana Athill, who has packed a lot into her 91 racy years - and believes she still has another book in her, writes Susan McKay
SHE THOUGHT HER life was over when she was jilted at 22, but now, at 91, Diana Athill is clearly having a ball. Her snow white hair is short and swept back, her eyes sparkle, and although she says she was "jolly cross" when a British tabloid put the headline, "Confessions of a promiscuous 90-year-old" on an interview with her, she admits with a broad smile that "if you write these things, you have to lump it." These things include comments such as: "We had very little in common apart from liking sex", in her account of a long affair that "ended gently" when Athill was in her seventies.
We meet in Edinburgh the night before she is to do a reading from her new book, Somewhere Towards the End. She is a little disappointed by the extraordinary, carpeted silence that prevails in her hotel, and that the few guests she has seen "floating through" seem elderly and genteel.
She has left her glasses in her room, and a recently adopted dog has eaten one of her hearing aids. "Remembering the distant past is a dawdle," she says. "It's the wretched glasses and the keys."
She enjoys performing. "I've been quite surprised at the great feeling it is," she says. "What I like best is the questions and answer part. I've discovered that I am rather good at it. I can make them laugh. It is rather corrupting," She cackles.
The book is about getting old, and Athill says she wrote it because "book after book has been written about being young, and even more about the elaborate and testing experiences that cluster around procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away." She didn't start to write books until she was in her forties; still saw middle age as being "within hailing distance" in her sixties; continued to work in a full-time job until she was 75, and didn't, definitively, feel that she had become "an old woman" until she turned 80.
The book is a moving and humorous account of old age, unsparing about its indignities, unflinching from the inevitability that the end can not be many years away, but full of joy at the way life keeps on, at the most unexpected moments, renewing itself.
Her last sexual relationship came as a surprise, when Sam - impressive looking, agreeable and sexy - "made a stately swoop" at a party. She had thought that her lovemaking days were over, she writes.
But Sam, who came from Grenada, accompanied her "over the frontier" into old age. They both had bad feet, but didn't talk about them. They kicked their shoes off, gratefully, and went to bed. The book is prefaced by a quote from a song: It aint no sin/ To take off your skin/ And dance about/ In your bones.
Athill's cut-glass accent and trunkful of words expressing cheerful stoicism betray her roots in the English upper classes, though she's been as poor as a church mouse for all of her independent life. She had a happy childhood. Her father was an officer in the British army and spent time in Abyssinia. She and her siblings grew up with the freedom to roam the grounds of her grandmother's Georgian estate in Norfolk, picking strawberries and bunches of sweet pea flowers in the gardens, damning streams. "Beauty belonged to it," she wrote. "And the underlying fierceness that must be accepted with beauty."
She was educated by "amiable and amateurish" governesses until she was 14. "Gran" read the literary classics to her, and the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments. This was where she learned about good and evil, and developed her "wobbly preference for good." She also imbibed from her family the idea that self-importance was a serious sin.
"A skinny child with a mouse-coloured bob", she was intensely romantic, and had been in and out of love several times before she fell in love with her brother's tutor at the age of 15. Tony joined the airforce on leaving Oxford university, and became a fighter pilot. They got engaged when Athill was 19, and she entertained daydreams about a glorious white wedding.
In front of her, he went off one night with another girl. Athill, humiliated, shocked and hurt, had too low an opinion of herself to ditch him and set herself to plans of "managing" him instead. The second World War took him abroad, and after two years of silence, he wrote asking her to release him from their engagement because he was about to marry another woman. "My soul shrank to the size of a pea," she would later write. He was killed not long afterwards. Athill's sense of failure persisted for 20 years.
Her first job was as a clerk, and then she worked as a researcher at the BBC. But it was when she met Andre Deutsch at a party that she found her way into the job she loved, as a literary editor at the publishing house he set up in London. The authors to whom she was a "handmaid" included Jean Rhys, Vidia Naipaul, Brian Moore and Molly Keane.
"Of all of my authors, Molly Keane was the one I loved the most," she says. "Those extraordinary Anglo-Irish people were really rather charming, but it was hard to be their child. Young men wouldn't want to dance with Molly because she was 'brainy'." Rhys was the one who needed the most attention. "Her life was entirely selfish and totally hopeless - that was how she survived. The very weak person is very strong that way."
Athill's manner of making grand, tongue-in-cheek pronouncements recalls Naipaul, whose new biography, by Patrick French, she has just read. "It is marvellous, unsparing about what he was like. I will say, I admire Vidia for handing over all his papers to Patrick. As far as women were concerned, Vidia is appalling. I only met his poor wife Pat after working with Vidia for a year. He'd never even mentioned her. She told me he didn't like her to come to parties 'because I'm such a bore.' She was a masochist. Then Margaret, his beautiful Argentinian mistress of 25 years, learned about Nadira [Naipaul's second wife] through the newspapers. It is a terrible inadequacy in him - he can't face certain sorts of pain. But Nadira seems to be managing him rather well."
Athill can't stand romanticism now, she says. "It is so destructive." I tell her that I once heard the novelist Angela Carter say that she spent her youth searching for Heathcliff [the violently passionate anti-hero of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights] and then found out as she got older that "Heathcliffs are far too thick on the ground." Athill laughs. "Exactly," she says.
Marriage, for women, is a job, she says. Still, those who find a partner with whom to be happy for life are lucky, she says. "I often wondered what would have happened if I'd married Tony and become an RAF officer's wife. He wouldn't have been faithful and he would have been one of those men to whom what was really important was his job. I'd have found that pretty boring."
After Tony, she had many "foolish" affairs, often with married men - "threadbare rages against a cold wind." If anyone fell in love with her, she despised them. One lover killed himself, another was murdered.
In 1961, aged 43, she wrote her first memoir, Instead of a Letterand found it "tremendously therapeutic". In the same year, she met the Jamaican playwright, Barry Reckford. He was married when their affair began, and when the marriage ended - not because of her, Athill insists - he moved in with her. It was a "sort of" marriage but after eight years, he began an affair with a much younger woman. After one long night of heartbreak, with Reckford and his new lover Sally in the next room, Athill realised several things. Sally had what she would never have again - youth. She, herself, had already ceased to desire Reckford. She liked Sally. She invited her to move in, and the three lived happily together until Sally met someone else, and moved out. They are still friends.
Athill has had several abortions, and one late pregnancy that she wanted to bring to full term, but which ended in miscarriage. If she has any regrets, chief among them must be that she does not have a daughter. "Elderly people who have daughters tend to fare the best," she says. Although she says she feels guilty that she did not do enough for her own mother, she did, in fact, spend a considerable time caring for her in her last years. Her mother, like other women in her family, lived well into her nineties.
"Poor Barry", meanwhile, became more and more ill. She remembers coming home in a taxi with him from a hospital appointment during which a consultant had brutally delivered a prognosis of further steep decline. Reckford was talking about how he felt about this and Athill found herself thinking, desperately: "What about me?" Soon after this, Reckford's niece swept in from Jamaica and took him away. "I was shocked. I felt guilty. Once he'd gone, I realised it was the most profound relief. I've got a new lease of life," she says.
Inevitably, she has seen many friends and relations die, some peacefully, some after prolonged agony, some with the assistance of loved ones. Lacking the means to pay for a good nursing home, she says that a long decline will see her in the geriatric ward of a public hospital. "My ideal way to go is to drop down dead," she says, "while reading a book or looking at some lovely thing, or looking forward to a dear friend coming to dinner."
She is in no hurry. She lives in a "magpie's nest of a room" in a house full of relatives she likes, including a new baby so delightful that everyone is going around beaming at each other, she says. She has many friends, the "bestest, bestest" of them a male gay couple: "I love them, and they love me."
Though she says no one would notice unless she went around her local supermarket in a bikini, she dresses with an elegant originality and is full of praise for the kindliness of make-up. It must be used with caution, though, she advises. A friend who used to slap on the scarlet lipstick ended up looking "like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner."
"I have learned to live in the moment," she says. "I avoid worrying. It is extremely empowering to learn that you can be alone. My body is no longer interested in sex, and I can't drink alcohol any more without feeling ill. I regret these losses, but my enjoyment in other things has become more intense."
She reads, writes reviews, and thinks she may write another book. Walking is becoming problematic, but she still drives and a "darling friend" recently bought her a stairlift. She has just returned from spending a week with a friend in a cottage in the Scottish Highlands. "A delicious place, most beautiful," she says. "I'd seen it on signposts before and I wanted to see it before I die. My friend is Irish, and absolutely charming, so by the time she'd been down to the village a couple of times, we knew everyone. People say everyone is horrid to old people, but it isn't true."
She was amused to discover that the old communist daily, The Morning Star, still exists and had reviewed her book. "This chap gave a fairly brisk description of the book and then he finished off by saying that it was a sad thought that the secret of a contented old age is selfishness," she says. "I thought - oh dear. Then I thought . . .", She pauses dramatically: "Perhaps the bastard is right."
Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill, is published by Granta Books (£12.99)