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Diana Athill: A Voice

My favourite television programme of the moment (shunting Luther and The Good Wife from joint top position) is the BBC1 series, Imagine presented by Alan Yentob. Where it wins is that, without interrupting the flow, Yentob allows his interviewees to speak for themselves. He has brought us many wonderful stories of artists, photographers and sculptors, but this week’s edition had a literary theme. Diana Athill, the 92-year old editor, publisher and writer of memoirs, dipped into her past, which she says is rising up to meet her now that she nears her end. Hers was not a depressing illustration of life in a North London nursing home. It was a picture of vibrant, intelligent women who had lived a long, interesting and – in her case – unconventional lives.

“I had seen it so long as a life of failure. But now I look back – who would believe it – it was nothing of the sort.” This is somewhat of an understatement.

Like many writers, and with little formal education until the age of 14, Diana buried herself in the books she found in the shelves lining her Granny’s morning room. Sitting in her armchair, her eyes alive, she explained that so much of her experience of life that is important to her has been lived vicariously in this way. Referring to Byron’s letters, she said, “You are actually hearing a voice, still, over all those years, speaking, saying what it said, thinking what it thought. It’s magic!”

Described by many distinguished authors as the best editor they have ever worked with, Diana believes that her most important work was with author Gitta Sereny who had interviewed the commander of the Treblinka death camps. She was so affected by what she read that she wanted to leave the room. There were no adjectives adequate to describe the horrors, so it was an easy decision that they had to go – all of them. It was a case of having to present the information completely unemotionally. The result was ‘Into That Darkness.’

On being an editor, Diana described the role of one of a midwife, saying that if credit was what was required, they would have to give birth themselves.  And that is what she did.

And so Diana gave what many authors are unwilling to do. Instead of dressing personal experience up as fiction, she  had the courage to lay herself bare. She did wonder what her mother was going to say, but in that terribly English way of hers, Diana says that her mother got round the problem by not mentioning it. And just when we thought that she was scathing of this, she added, “I think it’s a brilliant technique.”

Through her memoirs we learn of her privileged childhood at the Norfolk home of her Grandmother.

Of how she was banished to boarding school at the age of 14, and of how she secretly felt that she spent far more time thinking about boys and sex and than anyone else, and so she went to great lengths to hide this.

Of how, at the age of 15, she fell in love with her brother’s tutor Paul, who was then 20 and ‘gifted at enjoying life’. Of how, in 1937 they became engaged and began sleeping together. Of how he joined the air force and was sent to Egypt. And of how, after months of hearing nothing and fearing the worst, she received a letter from Paul asking to be released from their engagement: he had met someone else. After that, she says, she stayed in bed for the next 25 years.

She remembers, once, being on a sailing holiday with an engaged couple who couldn’t keep their hands off each other and being so lonley that she felt like a skeleton, lying alone in her bunk. Promiscuity filled the emptiness. She did not go looking for it, but when it found her, she took refuge in it, and sometimes it led to wonderful things.

A brief affair with Andre Deutsch resulted in a 50-year working relationship where she worked from a broom cupboard and he from palatial offices. Margaret Atwood defines their partnership in these terms: he insulted people and she was the one who mollified them. Their first big hit was The Naked and the Dead by Norman Nailer. It had been refused by many publishers because of the realistic use of the F word. Although described by some as obscene, it wasn’t banned and it became a huge success.

A dalliance with a Jamaican playwright led to friendship. When Barry Reckord’s wife divorced him, he moved into Diana’s London flat and stayed for the next forty years. Diana embraced his young lovers, one of whom she invited to live with them, a situation which continued for six years and provided her with another life-long friend. (The locals were disapproving, imagining a menage a trois).  Those six years were perhaps the happiest of Diana’s life. When Barry became ill, it was Diana who nursed him until, at the age of 90, it became too much for her. They were ‘rescued’ by his niece who took Barry home with her to Jamaica.

There were less happy encounters too. In 1964 Diana met an Egyptian play write called Waguih Ghali. He became her lodger and her lover, but they were not suited. He was a depressive and in 1969 he killed himself in her flat. She poured the emotion that followed his death, still evident on her face, into her book, ‘Memory of the Funeral.’

Towards the end of the programme, when visiting her family gravestone, Yentob revealed that this brave, vivacious and loyal woman now has cancer. Rather than hide herself away, she has chosen to openly speak about what it means to be old today and about her attitude to death and, in doing so, is helping others. With typical British resolve, she says, “One does hope dying can be done decently.”

I can’t end on this note, so let’s go back to the beginning, to her grandmother’s house. The 92-year old Diana clutched the scroll of the banister and declared that it was excellent for sliding down. And, in the brief pause that followed, I thought there was the possibility that she and Yentob would actually do it.