Diana Athill was the sharpest of wits and finest of friends | Damian Barr

The writer remembers the keen eye of a tough but inspiring editor and a warm, unshockable confidante

It is a rare and special privilege to be seen. Not simply noticed or even admired, but assessed and appreciated as you really are, flaws and all. It takes a particularly powerful and kind observer to see truly and in her 101 years Diana Athill saw everything and missed nothing. “Looking at things is never time wasted,” she wrote.

“Beady” is how she described her eyes. They were the exact blue of the Delft hyacinths she loved. She couldn’t have them in her cosy nook at the old people’s home because they made her sneeze, so in spring I’d take her miniature blue irises instead.

Growing up in Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk with nannies and ponies and her own secret garden could have led to a very narrow view. Children then were barely seen and certainly not heard. “It might have been inscribed over the nursery door ‘you are not the only pebble on the beach’,” she wrote in her Costa-winning memoir, Somewhere Towards the End – one of several volumes that make up a masterclass in revealing without flaunting. She did that thing on the page that Brits do on the beach: stripping under a towel. You knew she was naked, but never glimpsed anything, nothing she didn’t want you to.

Ours was the least likely of her many friendships: her from the country house, me from a council house; she at Oxford and me the first in my family to go to university. Then there was the age difference. But we both liked men. I was far more conventional – not for me the affairs in mansion flats. Our friendship was possible because she never glossed over our vast differences. She wanted to know what she didn’t know, and bridged chasms with the right questions.

Diana would listen sagely as I shared a problem – after all, what had she not already seen? But she couldn’t bear needless unburdening and had no time for the tell-all. Always willing to see the best but unafraid to briskly correct, she demanded the same rigorous honesty of herself. In her memoirs she followed Jean Rhys when she said a writer should “tell it just as it was”. There is no simpler, or tougher, advice. It’s what she told me when I was writing Maggie and Me.

She was the clearest of voices, sharpest of wits and finest of friends. A cool pioneer for women in publishing and a passionate advocate for outsider voices – as well as Rhys she brought us Molly Keane and Gitta Sereny. Her unfailing pen passed over the pages of Margaret Atwood, Phillip Roth and Simone de Beauvoir. A product of empire but passionately anti-colonial, she nurtured VS Naipaul, respecting the words if not always the man. Stet, her memoir of her 30 years with André Deutsch, is the naked truth about publishing – literally, when she sleeps with Deutsch: “After the theatre, we ate an omelette and went to bed together, without – as I remember it – much excitement on either side.”

Typical of her to understate her input. Nobody who has been edited by Diana doubts the value of her contribution – I’d wait in terror for her notes. Steel is more yielding. She’s at my shoulder as I write now: “More here, less there, stop being sentimental.”

Diana was reading and writing and laughing and loving until the very end. She was 101 but her real triumph was not living long, it was living gloriously. Her eyes are closed now but to see as clearly as she did we need only read her words.


Damian Barr

The GuardianTramp

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