Ninety may be the new 70, but it is also seriously old, and no picnic. In her short, sharp, disconcerting new book, Diana Athill, the renowned editor turned writer who has just reached her 90th birthday, does not try to pretend otherwise; pretending is not, and never has been, her style. Here, she contemplates her own experience of growing older, compares it with some others, and offers a few tips to the rest of us, as we, or people we love, advance towards the minefield.
In many ways, she acknowledges, she has been, and still is, lucky. Born into a confident upper-middle-class family, imbued with what she now regards as ‘tribal smugness,’ she went to Oxford before the war and soon found the work she loved. She takes after her female relations, who have tended to remain healthy and retain their marbles. She still lives independently, in a flat at the top of a cousin’s house in north London, and drives herself up and down to Norfolk, her childhood home, despite a narrow miss on the motorway recently (not her fault, she points out). She takes full advantage of the fact that old women nowadays can wear nice clothes and flattering makeup, though she urges caution; too much red lipstick produces the effect of ‘a vampire bat disturbed in mid dinner.’
Nevertheless, getting old has meant giving up many pleasures, most of all sex. Diana Athill has touched on this deprivation before, but here she goes into more detail about her sexual history, and how (with regret) and when (in her mid-sixties) she realised that it had come to an end. After being painfully jilted before she was 20, she discovered that women, as well as men, could be ‘cheered up by sex without love’ and had a series of affairs, several of them with married men, before settling down, in her forties, with Barry, a West Indian playwright who has shared her life ever since. When their sex life faded, she accepted his need for other partners, and embarked on an enjoyable last fling. She discusses her attraction to, and for, black men with unusual, and admirable, candour.
With equal candour, she writes about the nastier, and these days far more taboo, subject of illness and physical deterioration. Having rather congratulated herself on having avoided the drearier duties of being a wife, she found herself, in her late eighties, having to deal with a bedridden, diabetic, depressed man with prostate trouble and heart failure; Barry’s illnessess, and her own unwelcome but kindly discharged obligations, are described in excruciating detail. She describes, too, her mother’s deathbed and her own first sight of a corpse in a mortuary. Diana Athill, as she explains, began writing in order to come to terms with painful experience; here, once again, it is as if by the act of writing down her shocking encounters with the horrors of decline and death she can master them.
Not everything in this book is so grim. She writes with delight about the realisation, after she retired from publishing at the age of 75, that she could produce a different kind of book (Stet, 2002) and enjoy the ‘absolutely delicious’ success it brought her; and she is bracing and encouraging about the pleasure to be had from reading, gardening, sewing and painting — activities, she concludes, can be almost as vital as relationships to the old. As for the prospect of her own death, she sensibly dwells on it as little as possible, while admitting that she dreads the geriatric ward and hopes to live long enough to see her new tree fern flourish. Meanwhile, she keeps an eye on the white vans which she has learned to recognise around the streets as those despatched to collect the bodies of the dead and deliver them to the undertakers. Her eye is as unflinching, her prose as clear and graceful as ever; her honesty is inspiring. But be careful about giving this book to your ageing relations.