A Long Life In Words
Diana Athill, 1917-2019
Editor and Memoirist
At a time when most people have left the building, or are in the process of preparing to do so, Diana Athill found herself embarking upon a career of tremendous literary success in 2008 at the age of 90. Her book about old age Somewhere Towards The End became a surprise bestseller, and she a regular contributor to the papers, invited to speak on the radio, and a doyenne of many a literature festival. It won the Costa Award for biography that year and was unflinching in the way it dealt with the passage of time. In it she remarked of one elderly friend's abiding faith in the restorative power of red lipstick, observing that the way it bled into the cracks around her mouth rather left her resembling a vampire bat that'd been interrupted mid-lunch. She was equally unflattering about her own foibles, and the diminishment of any remnant of sexual cachet.
Books had been Athill's life, the editing, promotion, and the production of them at Andre Deutsch, so her new career was simply a late and logical extension of that. She had cast her meticulous eye over offerings from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, V S Naipaul, a writer whose work she greatly admired, but that feeling didn't extend towards its creator, Philip Roth Jean Rhys and John Updike. Her influence on the literary output of the last century has yet to be fully realised, and reads like a "Who's Who" of the great, the good and the gone. She didn't retire as an editor till she was seventy five years old, in fact Diana Athill never really retired.
Athill only published two works of fiction by her own pen An Unavoidable Delay, a collection of short stories in 1962, and the remarkable, if still somewhat underrated, Don't Look At Me Like That in 1967, a novel which concerns a free-wheeling girl living against the grain of conventional standards. Despite her rather reserved manner and appearance, she was unorthodox in her outlook and behaviour. Her lack of fiction allowed her to trawl her long life, and it was one cluttered with unusual incidents and characters, and these she dissected with shocking frankness. An initial literary splash was created in 1963 with 'Instead Of A Letter', a book that pre-dates by decades the confessional memoir. It concerns her failed relationship with Tony Irvine, an RAF pilot with whom she fell in love at the age of fifteen. When he married another girl she was devastated, a wound detailed years after in that book. It took her years to apparently recover, but when she did she was initially distant in relationships, and the developed a liking for, in her own words "'lame ducks" and "oppressed foreigners."
Diana Athill was born in Norfolk on 21st December 1917 into a privileged background at Ditchingham Hall which she detailed in her 2002 book Yesterday Morning, A Very English Childhood. She graduated in 1939 from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and spent the war years working for the BBC. In 1952 Athill helped Andre Deutsch found the publishing house that bore his name. This she used as the basis for her tremendously readable 'Stet' her memoir of her life as an editor, published in 2000. She successfully translated several French novels that their imprint championed. Instrumental in the late second flowering in the 1980's of the Irish novelist Molly Keane,1904-1996 who had been successful as M.J Farrell in the 1930s through to the '50s, she also had long, often difficult dealings with the writer Jean Rhys, 1890-1979, a gifted, reclusive author, but a chronic alcoholic.
Athill's private life was far from conventional. Her longest relationship was with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckford (1926-2011). It lasted a mere eight years of the forty of which he shared her Hampstead flat, at one time with his much younger girlfriend, who moved in at Athill's suggestion. She and the girl became good friends, a period which she described as being amongst the two happiest two years of her life. It was she remarked a "detatched sort of marriage." It was by the standards of the time, a progressively interracial one, and not what was expected from a woman of her background. In the early sixties she became emotionally involved with the gifted but manic depressive Egyptian novelist Waguih Ghali circa 1927-1969. It was a toxic and manipulative affair, consummated only once in a drunken fervour. He'd leave his diary open, fully aware that Athill would read his unflattering opinions of herself. Ghali committed suicide in her flat, a torrid tragedy that she would later dissect with incredible honesty in After A Funeral published in 1983. Her other strange and significant affair was with Akim Jamal 1931-73, a cousin to Malcolm X who believed he was God. Athill managed to get his autobiography From The Dead Level: Malcom X and Me published in 1971, a period briefly touched upon in the 2008 movie The Bank Job where he is played by Colin Salmon. She retraces their relationship in Make Believe which was published in 1993 and brilliantly observes his descent into madness and delusional activity. Jamal was shot dead in a Black Power factional struggle in Boston in 1973.
Athill was of the generation that still wrote and valued letters, but was far from absent from the computer world. Once in a correspondence with me about Waguih Ghali a parcel arrived in the mail. It was her own copy, and only one that she possessed of his lone novel Beers At The Snooker Club. Unsolicited, she lent it to me, aware it was then hard to find, and felt that we had corresponded sufficiently for her to entrust it to me. She also ruefully remarked that it was a shame that having once written such a wonderful book that it was a feat he would never repeat, then adding that to do it once was perhaps a sufficient achievement in itself. Read and returned in utter agreement with her assessment of the book's worth, it remains a rare and valued act of emotional charity, as well as her taking the time to cast her eye over my poems, and to respond with precise and accurate suggestions for their improvement.
In 2009 Athill was made a OBE in the New Year's Honours List, and was the subject of Growing Old Disgracefully, a BBC documentary of her life. She was described as one of the best dressed women over 50 by The Guardian in 2013. Having opted to move into a care home for for sprightly seniors in North London, she was sorry to lose so many books in order to facilitate such a drastic transition to one room living transition, but adored her new surroundings calling it, "A life free of worries and a snug little nest." Her 2015 book Alive, Alive Oh! covers this period of her life. As she passed her century she was still writing and broadcasting, a force of nature, and a trail blazer from a time when women in publishing were there to either type or make coffee. One of her many adagesm -- "Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing damage to other people" -- is rather like her books, direct and deceptively simple, but much more difficult to achieve in the process of any life, let alone one as long and productive as hers.
Her books are laced with astute observations, wry comments on the human condition, and are a crash course in brevity, and the fine art of a deceptively simple style.