Victoria Lane

A life in letters

At 93, with a new epistolary memoir just published, Diana Athill remains as sharp a conversationalist as ever

A life in letters
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Diana Athill, now nearly 94, lives in what must be the nicest retirement home in London, a large red brick house at the top of Highgate village, run by a charitable trust and populated by former writers and doctors and psychiatrists. On this unseasonably warm day she has on a flowing Kenyan kaftan — the residents’ summer clothes get packed away in autumn to make space, and she is worried about what to wear if the heatwave continues. A strong, boxer’s face, direct blue eyes. She aims a hearing aid at her ear, it whistles briefly, and away we go.

Her latest book (see review, p. 38) is a kind of epistolary memoir, called Instead of a Book: her first book was Instead of a Letter, and she thinks this will be her last. ‘I depend on what’s coming in as to what is going to go out, and at this stage in life not a great deal comes in.’

The book comprises about 30 years’ worth of letters to the New York poet Edward Field (now a stripling of 87). In 1981 they struck up a correspondence about his contemporary Alfred Chester, who was published by André Deutsch and had been one of Athill’s authors until he went mad and died in his forties. She and Edward, and his boyfriend Neil, became great friends.

The letters are full of off-the-cuff brilliance. They begin by recalling Chester and his increasing instability. At one point she observes that R.D. Laing’s school of psychiatry — ‘that the mad were really sane, etc’ — was ‘heaping a great load of exhausting theory on to the helpless patients … as though they had said to patients with enteritis, “You’re quite right to vomit, the food you are being served is disgusting — go on, eat and vomit, eat and vomit, that’s what everyone ought to do with such food.” ’

It was after her retirement from André Deutsch in the 1990s (a period also covered in the letters) that her writing career bloomed extraordinarily and she became, in a very short time, a literary legend. Since Stet, her memoir of her time at Deutsch, looking after such writers as Jean Rhys, Norman Mailer and V.S. Naipaul, there has been a steady stream of publications.

She still reads constantly: ‘Because one’s memory has got rather bad, it’s wonderful, I can pick up a book that I liked in the past and it’s quite new, I’ve forgotten so much.’ She has just reread the first volume of Byron’s letters and was surprised to rediscover the early letters to Augusta Leigh complaining about his awful mother. From here we roam to the subject of genetic sexual attraction: ‘To me it always seems odd because the one physical type that I have never been attracted to has been that of my brother and father.’

As well as filling the shelves, books old and recent are heaped on the table next to her; more stacked on a chair. I see Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child — not a novel you’d necessarily find on many nonagenarians’ bedside tables, but Athill remains as broad-minded as ever. (In her letters, every mention of arthritic hips and false teeth comes as a surprise — the tone is so youthful.) She has just finished Mischa Glenny’s book on cyber crime (‘Hair-raising, horrifying… my word that’s a frightening book’) and has stopped internet banking as a result.

Although she says this is her last book, she has thought of writing something about the other residents in the home. Was it strange suddenly being thrown into communal living? ‘Right at the beginning I thought, oh my God, all these old people! Nothing but oldies, oldies, oldies. So to begin with I wasn’t expecting to make friends, but I did very quickly.’

She rues the fact that there are no men living here at the moment: ‘One does just long for a man’s voice from time to time.’ But there are interesting people with interesting stories: ‘There’s Hetty, who is coming up to her 106th birthday. She and her husband were very keen communists in their youth … I was talking to her about it not long ago and I said, “Hetty, were you terribly disillusioned when it all went pear-shaped?” She said, “Diana, I don’t like that word disillusioned — we didn’t have illusions, we had very good ideas. But I will say I was deeply disappointed.”’

Does she think about her own early years much nowadays?

‘I do think about them quite much. There was a time when I can vaguely remember thinking, why is it when one goes back to the past in one’s mind, one goes back to all the awful things? But I don’t do that any more — I go back to the nice things, of which there are many.’

She goes on: ‘Even my sad love affair right at the beginning — it did set me back very badly, but now I am very conscious that those years we spent together were extremely valuable.’ This is the affair that she wrote about in Instead of a Letter — she was 15 when they met, and later they became engaged. ‘I owe a tremendous amount to him about the way I think about life. He was completely open-minded. He quite consciously decided that when you met anybody, whether he was black, white, homosexual, heterosexual — unimportant, you met that person. And I got that from him, it was very exciting. It has lasted me all my life you see.’

He joined the RAF and the letters began to trail off, then after a two-year silence he broke off the engagement. The life she went on to have, in which there were long relationships but no marriage, was certainly less conventional than the one she would have led as an Air Force wife: ‘We would have had children — would I have ever written anything? I don’t know. The life I had as a result was of a single person, finding oneself as a person rather than just a woman, a wife, which I am in fact grateful for… but whether I would have enjoyed my other kind of life more, I don’t know.’

Anyway, in this small, sunny room, surrounded by objects and pictures that she kept when she sold her house, with purple pansies fluttering on her balcony, she seems well contented. She is looking forward to Edward and Neil’s arrival in a couple of days: the proceeds of the book, which I imagine on her insistence they have split, will pay for the visit. There is surely a clue to her equanimity in the letter where she writes to Edward to agree with him about liking men ‘who seemed perfectly ordinary’: ‘my sentiments, precisely, about life in general, which I don’t like to see pushed to fanciful extremes because it’s good enough as it is’.