Diana Athill’s last words to be broadcast from beyond the grave

Publishing doyenne tells of success tinged by heartache in film ‘to be seen after my death’

“I am Diana Athill, and if you are watching this I am no longer alive. This is my final say.”

With a flourish of self-conscious drama, Athill, the writer, literary editor and doyenne of British publishing, is to introduce her last, moving message to the world this week.

In a candid recording filmed privately six years ago on condition it would only be watched by the public after her death, Athill makes a personal statement from beyond the grave, pointing to the key moments of her life and spelling out her fears for the future of humanity.

Perhaps most strikingly, the writer, who died aged 101 in January, admits to harbouring regrets about the lasting impact on her life of an unhappy love affair. “It knocked the stuffing out of me very badly,” she says, talking about an early broken engagement to an RAF pilot, Tony Irvine, who wrote suddenly from a posting in Egypt to tell her he was marrying someone else. “It knocked my sexual self-confidence. I was invisible. I look back with quite a lot of resentment on that. I lost my 20s and 30s from that point of view and I thought of myself as a failure as a woman because of not being married.”

Filmed when Athill was 95, and seen ahead of its broadcast on Sky Arts on Wednesday, her half-hour on Final Say also stresses the joy that writing brought her later in her publishing career. Although she had worked closely with leading novelists such as VS Naipaul, Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, developing their careers as an editor at André Deutsch, Athill is clear that it was writing her own works, including the popular books Stet and Somewhere Towards the End, that gave her the greatest pleasure.

With her partner, the playwright Barry Reckord, a relationship that was never acknowledged by her parents.
With her partner, the playwright Barry Reckord, a relationship that was never acknowledged by her parents. Photograph: Final Say/Sky

“I had thought of myself as an unsuccessful woman and also an editor. Then the big thing that happened was I started writing some stories,” she says. A key moment of recognition was winning the Observer’s short story prize, something she describes as “the most wonderful thing that could possibly happen” and as proof that she could live her own life without being defined in relationship to a man. Her film takes the form of a conversation with her friend, the writer Damian Barr. “It was quite emotionally difficult,” recalled Barr this weekend. “I had to try not to get upset too often. I do remember that afterwards we went to Kew Gardens together as a kind of a treat or reward and had a lovely time.”

Barr, who had been encouraged to write books by Athill, said that although she had both spoken and written about death during her old age, she found it harder to discuss her own death than to address it as a generic theme. “But this was a last opportunity for her to talk about how she may have been misunderstood. A chance to be heard, which I think everyone needs,” said Barr.

Athill, who was born during a Zeppelin raid in 1917, grew up in upper middle-class security, enjoying a childhood in which she said she was always either reading indoors or outside riding a horse on her family’s land. Asked by Barr which part of her life she would return to if she could, she says she would like to relive the years between 10 and 18, when she was happily anticipating growing up. “I had read a copy of Marie Stopes that my mother had left out, and I read that at 11 and thought I was going to have a lovely time soon,” she says.

Athill went on to live with the Jamaican poet and playwright Barry Reckord, a relationship never acknowledged by her parents, and for a period she also shared her home with Reckord’s younger lover. In an honest assessment of her adult love life, Athill tells Barr that she found a comfortable kind of love and companionship with Reckord, but not the intensity of early romantic love. “I ended up nursing him like a devoted wife, and I wasn’t devoted at all really. It was an awful strain,” she says. Reckord died in 2011 at 85.

Diana Athill’s winning entry in The Observer’s 1958 short story competition.
Diana Athill’s winning entry in The Observer’s 1958 short story competition. Photograph: The Observer

Athill says she has little regret about never marrying and never having children. Remembering a miscarriage in her 40s, she said she got over it quite quickly. “As an old woman, I did see how useful it is to have daughters, but I have had lovely nephews instead,” she tells Barr. Reminiscing about setting up a publishing house with André Deutsch in the 1950s, Athill says she most admired the literary talent of Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, a writer who nevertheless needed constant emotional support. “She was an awful pain and she couldn’t cope with life. Someone had to rescue her and I was one of those who did. But she was very charming and very steely in her writing. She knew exactly what she wanted to do.”

Though a perennial optimist, Athill was pessimistic about how the world would fare after her death. The outlook was “very bleak”, she says, due to the threats of environmental disaster and war. Yet she could find solace in the prospect of her own death, she tells Barr, particularly since becoming a published author. “Words go on and ideas go on. If you read Byron’s letter, there he is; he is in the room with you. So you can just open a page of one of my books and there I am.”


Vanessa Thorpe arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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