Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill is the first book by her that I’ve read and I enjoyed it so much that I’ll definitely be seeking out her Costa Biography award winning book Somewhere Towards the End.
The book begins with a little introduction which starts: ‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just thinks’: I have forgotten who it is who is supposed to have said that, but it is a good description of a state quite often observed in a retirement home, and considered pitiable.
I knew immediately that that quote came from Winnie the Pooh ( I blame a misspent adulthood!) but I’ve subsequently discovered that L.M. Montgomery apparently used that phrase first.
Anyway by the end of this book Athill does indeed decide to go into a retirement home where you are allowed to just sit and think if that is what you feel like doing. It sounds like a remarkable place, full of interesting people and great staff, if only they were all like that.
The author was very old when she wrote this book, 97 I believe and the thing about very old ladies is that they just don’t care any more, so they just say exactly what they think and that always leads to good entertainment. In conversation with another old folks’ home resident it transpired that they both spent time thinking about all the men they had ever slept with! They found it hilarious of course. I suspect that in that position I would be thinking about all the gardens I’ve ever planned and planted up!.
But this book begins with a chapter about her grandparents’ garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk – a huge property by the sound of it. There were quite a lot of similarities between this book and Penelope Lively’s book A House Unbound, but Athill is much more forthcoming about her private life – love affairs, abortions and a miscarriage later on in life.
This is a slim volume at just 161 pages but she packs a lot into it. Growing up in rural splendour, the war, fashion, post war holidays, books, work – it’s a great read.
You can read a short Guardian interview with her here.