Diana Athill: ‘Once you’ve accepted the ordinariness of death, it stops being frightening’

Diana Athill is appearing at the Hampstead and Highgate Lit Fest

Diana Athill is appearing at the Hampstead and Highgate Lit Fest - Credit: Archant

Ahead of her Lit Fest appearance editor and memoirist Diana Athill talks about love, death and the enjoyment of writing

Retirement home residents often find that time hangs heavy, but for Diana Athill it’s flying by.

Seated in her cosy room overlooking the garden at Mary Feilding Guild, the 98-year-old can’t recall whether she moved there six or seven years ago.

“It always seems like yesterday,” says the author, a brilliant advertisement for keeping mentally active in old age.

“When I heard they had a room for me, one big, the other small but looking out into the garden I didn’t even ask to see them, it had to be this one.”

The small matter of when she arrived at the Highate home is Athill’s sole lapse of memory during our genial chat.

The nonagenarian who talks about her string of acclaimed memoirs at the Hampstead and Highgate Lit Fest at JW3 on September 25, was forced to downsize when she moved from her Primrose Hill flat, but is characteristically upbeat about culling her extensive library.

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“It was always going to be a squash living in one room. My nephew came and helped. He’d hold up a book and say: ‘in or out.’

“It’s worked out well. I’ve re-read everything and it’s all good stuff. The older you get the less good your memory is and the more you enjoy re-reading old favourites.”

After 50 years editing the likes of V.S. Naipaul, Philip Roth, Stevie Smith Jack Kerouac and Jean Rhys at publishing house Andre Deutsch, Athill’s late life writing career – winning the Costa Prize for her 2008 memoir Somewhere Towards the End – came as an agreeable surprise.

Although she’s reverted to writing longhand because her fingers are “too clumsy to type” she still enjoys the process.

“I loathe my wretched computer so I have stopped using it or having anything to do with the internet.

“I dislike this feeling of being open to anybody and everything, but although I haven’t got another book to write, I love writing short pieces.

“The act of writing gets me going. I sit down in front of a piece of paper not having a clue what I am going to write.

“I get the first sentence then off I go.”

She concedes that years editing other people’s work may have honed her own writing skills.

“Once I start writing it comes pretty quickly and correctly,” says Athill who says her first novel-memoir 1963’s Instead of a Letter “just happened”.

It sprang from a heartbreaking episode when her RAF pilot fiancée left for the war while she finished her studies at Oxford.

“It was a book about a sad thing that had happened a long time ago, I hadn’t been brooding on it.

“I thought I had forgotten about it but it had been bubbling away and it bubbled up. It was a complete surprise.”

In a betrayal that still stings, she wrote for two years to a man who was courting someone else.

“He was a person who lived in the present moment with great intensity which made him lovely to be with but dangerous to be apart from. He thought he would be able to stay loyal but he couldn’t.”

Eventually his father insisted he ask Athill to release him from the engagement.

“His father said ‘Di will get over it, she’s strong’ and in a way he was right. I only took personally the way he broke it off.

“He went silent for two solid years but because he told me ‘I won’t write to you but please never never stop writing to me’ I went on writing.

“If I had any sense I would have seen what had happened but when you are young and in love you go on thinking perhaps it will be alright.”

She now realises why flying bombers and daily facing death he had found it hard to wait.

“It was perfectly alright for him to fall for someone else but he was terribly cowardly. I still find it hard to forgive him.

“He was killed soon afterwards and his poor wife was left to have a son which he never saw.”

The episode “blighted” Athill’s relationships with men and meant she forever associated love with pain.

Her memoirs record a perennial preference for being the mistress rather than the wife.

“I have fallen in love since but I thought being in love was a dangerous thing and it was a long time before I found someone I liked so much we could settle down together happily.”

Athill was born in Norfolk in 1917 and despite ill-matched squabbling parents enjoyed an idyllic childhood in her grandparents’ house Ditchingham Hall. Born into a family of academics, it unusually meant she, her mother and aunt all attended Oxford.

She muses that she may have started writing sooner had she not spent all day reading other people’s work.

“Being an editor uses up a lot of the same energy you use when you write. Had I not been an editor I might have started writing sooner because I find it such fun.”

Despite the searing honesty she brings to episodes such as a traumatic miscarriage that nearly killed her at 43, she claims never to have written anything she didn’t enjoy.

“Naipaul goes on and on about what agony writing is. Well why do it for goodness sake?” says Athill, testily.

She has personally found the process of revisiting major life events to be cathartic.

“Writing’s a very good way of getting rid of awful things. A lot of autobiographical writing one does to sort oneself out. Why else do it?

“The one thing that Jean Rhys said, ‘I wanted to get it like it really was’, was always in my head and would make me pause whenever I thought ‘you are improving on this, pull yourself together and remember it accurately’.

“You write things that are quite unflattering to yourself although you try not to do that about other people.”

Other writers may ruthlessly exploit their relationships but Athill believes “you are free to write about other people if it won’t hurt them” and says there are events and people she could only describe with the distance of time or death.

“Even then you hesitate, I have written things about my mother I could never have written with her alive and it did seem a bit awful.”

Yet she admits to a writerly detatchment that she attributes to “being born with a beady eye”.

“I have always been as much an observer as a participator. Writers often say they are aware that when sat watching their parent dying they were noticing what was happening rather than just suffering.

“It’s a bit cold blooded but it’s true.”

The miscarriage episode drew on notes scribbled soon afterwards “to get it out of my head” but at first she wrote about it in the third person.

Her 2015 short essays Alive Alive Oh! corrected that to the first person as she recorded her immense relief at waking after the operation.

“I expected it to be so shattering but because it was so awful I was amazed at this absolutely simple joy at being alive.

“It remains the most intense experience I have ever had. It was wonderful.”

She has met old age and death with the same semi-detatchment, of someone who finds it as much interesting as troubling.

“It’s a matter of temperament. I can’t explain why I am not unhappy about getting older but it helps to have thought about it and to have accepted the fact that one does die.

“It’s not an exceptional event, it’s a part of life - quite an ordinary thing. Once you’ve accepted the ordinariness of death, it stops being frightening and life becomes much simpler.

“Actually I am very fond of life but the idea that I will soon be dead is not worrying me at all.”

What is worrying is the manner of her passing. She discovered from two recent heart attacks that “it can be really quite disagreeable” and while she mulled over not pulling the emergency cord and letting the attack run its course “realised it was possible that when the time came I might really resent it.”

“What we all hope here, I can tell you, is that we will fall down plonk dead.”