Diana Athill who has died today at the age of 101 was a hero of mine.
It is not just that she was a legendary editor who worked with and helped draw out the best work of some of the authors whose writing I admire – V. S Naipaul and Jean Rhys spring immediately to mind. Nor is it that as a woman she forged her own unique path and was such a lover of love, though I did love that in her too.
Principally, her hero stature relates to how she faced up to and wrote about old age and ageing. In Somewhere Towards the End, published in 2008 when she was 90, she spoke about crossing the threshold. ‘All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being 'over seventy' is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.’ That comment reminded me of an observation in Elizabeth Taylor’s brilliant novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, set in a little hotel which is a de facto old people’s home, but where others sometimes come and dine. As the aged inhabitants ‘rose, one by one, to go in to dinner, a party of middle-aged people… all instinctively sat up and straightened their backs. They tried to look more alert, and to forget their future.’
Somewhere Towards the End won the Costa biography prize, therefore putting agedness in a more central and dynamic place than the one it usually occupies. The ways in which Diana Athill assesses and sizes old age up, what she says about acceptance of reduced parameters and ‘concentrating on how to get through the present’ resonated with me at the time because I had just written a set of short stories with aged characters as the protagonists.
I had found that the theme of old age presented specific challenges. Foremost amongst these was that of holding the reader’s attention in stories where nothing much happened or, worse, where what did happen – porous old bones snapping, brain tissue dying as blood failed to get through furred-up vessels – was in itself depressing, signalled a move to an even less eventful stage of existence for the character and where there was little prospect of a ‘happy ending’. There are good reasons why the aged feature so rarely as the main protagonists in works of fiction (unless they are recalling their past). Their stage in life, their lack both of vitality and of a future, the fact that they are no longer the movers and shakers, preclude grand events and adventures. Although I was tempted to weave stories around the odd news item I clipped from the paper with extraordinary tales of derring-do amongst the aged – the ninety-year old great-grandmother who did a parachute jump for charity for example or the octogenarian who flew across the ocean to start a new life with his long-lost sweetheart - these are the exceptions. I wanted my stories to reflect the ordinariness of being old and to look, unflinchingly but not unkindly, at the everyday realities of agedness. This is what Diana Athill succeeded in doing both in her person and in her writing.
I tried too in my stories to give a taste of the small pleasures old age can afford alongside its trials, what Ronald Blythe, in his study of senescence, The View in Winter called ‘one of the most subtle pleasures of the very old, which is the utilization of one’s frailty and slightness, the knowing how short a distance one can go – and then going it.’ Some of what I discovered back then about ways people find of navigating decrepitude found an echo and a clarification in Diana Athill’s observations in Somewhere Towards the End, in particular the way in which the very reduction of the parameters in a person’s life lends a heroism, an epic quality and a savour to quite small endeavours. It is a memoir that faces the losses of ageing without sentimentality and with great humour. She was a keen gardener and describes the joy of ‘getting one’s hands into the earth, spreading roots, making a plant comfortable – it is a totally absorbing occupation, like painting or writing, so that you become what you are doing and are given a wonderful release from consciousness of self.’
I remember listening to a radio interview with her after she moved into a retirement home in North London. She spoke not of how hard it was to give up her garden but of her pleasure in filling a flower pot with earth, planting a bulb in it and putting it on her window ledge.
In my research I came across many different ways of perceiving our latter years and found in something Edith Wharton said what seemed like instructions for how to go on living a full and happy life. ‘In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.’ This aptly describes what Diana Athill exemplified for me and I thank her for it.