Review: Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

It's a relief to find an amusing look at getting old in Diana Athill's Somewhere Towards the End, says Katharine Whitehorn

Somewhere Towards the End
by Diana Athill
192pp, Granta Books, £12.99

Diana Athill is 90 and has almost no regrets, despite having lived a life which most women of her class and era might have thought regrettable in the extreme. Her earlier books about her life - Instead of a Letter, Stet - made no bones about it: when her heart was broken by her adored fiance, she slept with just about anybody she fancied - a common enough attitude nowadays, but certainly not when she was doing it. And now, in Somewhere Towards the End, she casually asserts - today an almost equally startling confession - that she's gone off the whole thing and doesn't care.

"The spirit is willing," she said, "but the body has gone against it." For many, this would have been a matter for dismay (or, of course, denunciation of a wicked past a la Malcolm Muggeridge - the great libertine described by someone as "retreating into old age and slamming the door"). In her it produced a serene tolerance: when Barry, her longterm lover, had an affair with someone else after they'd stopped sleeping together, she not only accepted it but suggested that the girlfriend, whom she liked, should move in with them to save money, creating a cheerful menage a trois.

There's not much here about books and publishing and only casual references to her many years with Andre Deutsch, which enchanted her readers in the earlier books, though she admits she can no longer be bothered with novels: "The NW1 novels seemed to develop a slow puncture so that gradually they went flat on me." Non-fiction she still enjoys, though of a definitely literary kind - stuff about history or literature, yes; not a mention of current affairs or popular science.

She loves writing, which she has always done, she says, to come to terms with otherwise daunting things: to sort out her life. But there remain unresolved contradictions. Even after 15 books she still thinks of herself as an amateur, and there's something endearing about the fact that she, who worked at Deutsch till she was 75, who has lived in the booksy world all her working life, can be slightly alarmed and disproportionately pleased to take part in the Hay festival. Again, she thinks of herself as having no maternal instinct, but says that the few months before a miscarriage when she was carrying a child were the happiest of her life. She has always spurned the idea of wifehood - yet realises that's exactly what she finds herself in with Barry, with whom she's been for decades - and she has always rather preferred black lovers to white.

The book is about old age - illness, declining capabilities, caring or being cared for; few books on the subject manage to be amusing, but this one does. There is what must have been a really grim experience trying to get the right treatment for Barry from "the mysterious figure protected by a flock of white coats vanishing round corners" who turned into "a pleasant and reassuring man ready to answer all our questions" when they saw him privately. "Sitting face to face with the consultant our gratitude for having our questions answered as though we were rational adults was so extreme that we ceased to be anything of the sort."

When she took up drawing from the life, she writes: "I think I was the only one in the class whose aim was to reproduce the appearance of the model." She sighs for an old friend who "could never get it into her head that if she slapped on a lot of scarlet lipstick it would begin to run into little wrinkles round the edge of her lips, making her look like a vampire bat disturbed in mid-dinner". She talks of the "tribal smugness" of the world of her upper-middle-class country childhood; on religion she deplores the "junkety smugness of Eric Gill" - and hopes that she doesn't sound smug herself because, she is sure, she was born lucky.

And she still thinks so; that's the joy of it. Although she sees with grim clarity the drawbacks and horrors of old age, illness, death, what comes across most is her acceptance and interested curiosity about the condition. She knows she has to be a carer for Barry, who has become diabetic and has other health problems and won't control his diet. She dislikes being a carer very much and grumpily asks herself: "If a life so severely diminished is shortened by eating doughnuts what will it matter?" But she accepts it.

She is very good on death, having learned about it from the death of Andre Deutsch's mother and her own, whom she cared for three days a week even while working in London for the other four. Her family has mostly had easy deaths, so she hopes for the same, but is unblinkingly aware of the various miseries it can entail. Still, "the men who handle corpses", she says, "know that however nasty death may be it is too ordinary to make a fuss about." All this she expresses in verse - poetry would be too strong a word - and she seems to face up calmly to the fact that her own end can't be all that far off. Her shameless honesty about this, as about everything else, is invigorating, cheerful even. Towards the end it may be, but I doubt if this will be her last book. I certainly hope not.


Katharine Whitehorn

The GuardianTramp

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