Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’

The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

A few days before her 100th birthday, Diana Athill is embarking on a new literary adventure. She has agreed to do a live webchat, answering questions from her fans in a digital present tense that barely existed when she finally decided to go into a retirement home eight years ago, let alone when she entered the publishing profession some 60 years earlier.

Her answers are characteristically splendid. On the pleasures of rereading: “Losing your memory has its advantages because sometimes you can pick up a book and not remember you’ve read it at all, and lo and behold you have.” Best advice you would give a woman about to embark on her 30s? “I should advise her to have a very good love affair, if she hasn’t had one already.”

Her hands don’t work as well as they once did, so she has given up her computer and only writes on sheets of paper in longhand, which she then has to transcribe into the readable script she developed over decades of communing with printers. This painstaking two-stage process won’t work for a webchat so someone has to type in her answers - but she’s otherwise on top form.

One questioner asks about the “positive realism” of her writing. “Well,” she responds, “I just like writing to be clear and concise. I don’t like a lot of words. This is my nature. I like to keep things simple and very much as they really are. I’m not one for fantasy and I’m not one for exaggerated writing, but this – I think – is a matter of personality. I’m not sure you can tell people how to do it. In fact I’m sure it’s a matter of personality. Style is!”

Stylishly written though her books are, keeping things “much as they are” has involved a series of memoirs that have often revealed painfully intimate details of an unconventional life. Her first, Instead of a Letter, published in 1963, recalled her ill-fated love affair at the age of 15 with an Oxford student who was hired to tutor her younger brother. It continued when she went up to Oxford herself, and abruptly ended after he was posted to Egypt as a bomber pilot and stopped answering her letters – only to break the silence two years later to tell her that he wanted to marry someone else. “My soul shrank to the size of a pea,” she wrote.

Her second memoir, After a Funeral – which was not published until the 1980s, years after she wrote it – was about the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, who killed himself in her flat in 1969. “That was a very upsetting relationship that I had to get rid of. I wrote to sort myself out,” she says.

Both memoirs, along with a novel and a short story collection, were written “in the evenings and under the desk” while she was working as an editor for the publisher André Deutsch, which unexpectedly became a powerhouse in the 50s and 60s. “We just thought we were teaching ourselves how to be publishers,” Athill says. “We didn’t think we were any more special than anyone else. We were just learning to do it rather quickly.”

Waguih Ghali
Waguih Ghali Photograph: Public domain

Jean Rhys, VS Naipaul and Molly Keane were among the writers she nurtured. Of Naipaul, who went on to accuse her of writing nothing but “feminine tosh”, she says: “To begin with I loved working with him: he was so intelligent and amusing when he was young. But as time went by he became more difficult. He was not really an easy man to get on with.”

She is more positive about Rhys and Keane, although her memories of working with them speak volumes about the complexity of the writer-editor relationship. “Molly was lovely to work with and very, very interesting, and she did need encouragement, so one did something for her, whereas Jean needed help to live rather than to write.

“When she was young she was very attractive and was rescued by chaps. When she was old she was rescued by nice, kind women like me. Sonia Orwell, Francis Wyndham and I had a Jean committee, trying to find her better places to live and to fix her money problems. She had a terrible habit of acquiring phony agents who we sorted out.”

Rhys was, she says, a good example of how a very weak person can be very strong. “She gave the impression she would be dead in a ditch tomorrow without help, and she probably would have, so you all mucked in. Molly Keane wasn’t like that at all as a person but she needed help as a writer.”

In general, she concludes: “Editors are often quite unimportant in a writer’s career. Some writers do depend a lot on the sort of flowback they get from editors but others don’t.”

It was only after she had given up the day job that her writing career shifted into top gear. “When I retired everyone said I should write about my publishing career and I said that’s not what I do. Then somehow I began having memories of things that amused me and it slowly dawned on me that I could write for fun as well as to cure myself of grief.”

The renaissance began with Stet (2000), named after an instruction to printers to ignore an ignorant editor’s correction. “This book is an attempt to ‘Stet’ some part of my experience in its original form ... All this book is, is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it,” she wrote.

Diana Athill at Oxford just before the second world war.
Diana Athill at Oxford just before the second world war. Photograph: Ramsey and Muspratt

Yesterday Morning: A Very English Childhood followed two years later, in which she revealed that, having wearied of music, sex and alcohol, her distant past offered the greatest seduction. It begins with a conversation with her 92-year-old mother – to whose genes she credits her own longevity – and circles back to a privileged childhood of ponies and books in Ditchingham Hall, a stately home in Norfolk, which arouses mixed emotions in her today.

“I was born into a confident family that believed itself the best kind of people,” she says. “I look back on it now and find it quite abhorrent, but I do feel it was like being brought up in a greenhouse. You put down roots of confidence, so there was always this secret family assurance. I think it’s rather deplorable, except that it made life easy for me.”

Then she won the 2008 Costa biography prize for Somewhere Towards the End, in which she revealed that she had always rather preferred black lovers to white, and wrote candidly about the trials of managing the decline of her long-term partner, the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord. As the columnist Katharine Whitehorn remarked at the time, she displayed “almost no regrets, despite having lived a life which most women of her class and era might have thought regrettable in the extreme”.

Today, she does voice some regrets, albeit not ones most women of her class and era would appreciate. From an early age, she says, she started rebelling against her family’s values “but I didn’t do it openly. I went underground and lived my own life, and I sometimes blame myself for that. I think I should have fought it but I didn’t. I just snuck away.”

In particular, she never spoke openly to her mother about her 40-year relationship with Reckord: “In my family he used to be called the lodger and I never said he’s not my lodger he’s my lover. That was part of my sneaking around.” In the publishing circles in which they moved, it was a different story. “I was never given any reason to believe that it was a problem.”

At the Costa awards in January 2009, with (from left) Sebastian Barry, Michelle Magorian, Sadie Jones and Adam Foulds.
At the Costa awards in January 2009, with (from left) Sebastian Barry, Michelle Magorian, Sadie Jones and Adam Foulds. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex Features

She went on to assail the travel-writing market with an account of a 1940s trip to Florence and to plant a flag for geronto-memoir with Alive, Alive Oh!, in which she chronicled her move, at the age of 92, from her flat in north London’s Primrose Hill to the “retirement home for the active elderly” in nearby Highgate, where she now lives.

When she first moved, “active” included keeping a car, which she has since given up. “It has been far, far easier than I thought,” she says, eight years on. “My heart sank when I first saw my room because it really is very small. I think I only have about 400 books. I had a terrible time cutting them down. I had a space for about 300, but we made an extra bit of shelf.” Her beloved nephew and heir, Phil Athill, supervised the move. “He came with boxes and held up all the books one by one and I had to answer ‘in’ or ‘out’, and I think I made pretty good choices in the end because I have reread everything with pleasure. There isn’t an inch that isn’t full, but now I love it. I think that as you get older you don’t need more than one room. I certainly don’t feel inhibited by it. I love coming back to it – whenever I get out I come hiding home.”

But the story doesn’t end there. Seasoned Athill watchers won’t be surprised to hear that she is at work on a new book – a tale of upward mobility in England as demonstrated through her own family’s rise from country doctors in early 19th-century Yorkshire to wealthy Norfolk landowners. At the centre of the story is her great-grandfather, who was left £44,000 by a grateful patient at a time when doctors were not considered to be gentlemen and such a sum could buy a handsome Queen Anne mansion in a landscaped park …

In the meantime there’s her 100th birthday to celebrate on 21 December. She was not planning to make a big deal of it – there are several centenarians in the home and a well-established tradition that any birthday simply means a glass of wine all round at lunchtime. But Phil loves a party, so a party there will be a few days earlier, with all her great- and great-grandnephews in attendance.

Apart from giving up her car, how does it feel to reach her century? “I don’t feel that I’ve changed at all, though I must have done,” she says. “I’m more confident now. That’s one of the great advantages of getting older – one does grow out of minding what other people think of you.”

As for a philosophy for long life, she’s mindful that her younger brother and sister both died before her. “Up till now I’ve been so lucky and things have come out so well for me that I’ve been able to have a very relaxed philosophy, which is enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people.”

Looking around the home her writing has secured for her, with its flower-filled balcony and sweeping lawns, she has a final thought: “I can’t think many centenarians are still living by their pen.”


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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