Diana Athill 1917-2019


Despite the fact that Diana Athill was 101 – I was genuinely sad when I heard on the radio news this morning that she had died. You can read her Guardian obituary here.

I enjoyed reading several of her books and watched a BBC documentary about her. Then she was 99 and striding out confidently on the streets of London. She was far from perfect as I’m sure she would have agreed, but she was hugely entertaining and reminded me of a friend of mine who had been from the same era.

Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill

Yesterday Morning cover

Yesterday Morning by Diana Athill was published in 2002 and it’s subtitled A Very English Childhood which no doubt is what she had but she was also part of a very privileged and well off family. She was loved and cherished, it was all ponies and servants and living in a huge house on the Norfolk estate which belonged to her grandfather. All of the cousins saw it as their home as the aunts were all married to men in the armed forces who were mainly out of the country most of the time, so the women all seemed to have gone ‘home’, well it’s one way of getting out of having to grapple with your own housekeeping and servants I suppose!

But the book begins with Diana Athill’s mother hardly being able to believe that she now has a 70 year old daughter. The mother was 92. “She was well aware of being a very old woman, but she still felt like the Kitty Athill she had always been, so it was absurd to have another old woman as a daughter.” Her mother lived until the age of 96, but Diana is still going strong, she had her 100 birthday in December.

This is another enjoyable read from Diana Athill, but it’s so sad that her entire adult life seems to have been blighted by her being emotionally damaged by being dumped by her fiance who immediately married someone else, she had loved him since she was 15. He was in the RAF during WW2 and was killed a week after that. Apparently she was afraid of being hurt again so never became very deeply involved with anyone again.

There are quite a lot of short You Tube videos of Diana Athill talking about her life and writing. She must be just about the last person alive with that sort of accent, a sort of 1930s BBC announcer voice.

Stet by Diana Athill

 Stet cover

Stet by Diana Athill was first published in 2000. She decided to write this book when she realised that when she died all of her memories would be erased. I’m glad she decided to share them although she has gone on to live another 18 years since this one was published and has written more books.

This one is about how she became an editor and helped to found the publishing house Andre Deutsch. How they went about building up the business and the problems involved. It has to be said that for her the main problem seems to have been Andre Deutsch himself, and she does say that people have asked her over the years why she put up with being so badly treated by him. I suppose it was completely different times for women and she seems to have just felt very lucky to have a job that she enjoyed. However she was paid appallingly badly, considering that she was often hailed as the best editor in London. I suspect that she had a distaste of talking about money and pay rises.

She mentions that in the 1970s she was only being paid around £10,000 a year and she never got more than £15,000. I happened to be living and working close to London in the 1970s and I was earning over £10,000 as a very lowly ‘librarian’ in the NHS.

In part two of this book Athill has written individual chapters on some of her favourite Andre Deutsch writers. Mordecai Richler, Brain Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S. Naipaul and Molly Keene. She seems to have got very involved with them and their private lives. I’m not sure how normal this is for an editor. I suspect it’s only necessary when writers are quite chaotic, as they often are.

I’ve come to realise that I’m usually better off not knowing a lot about authors I like as they’re often a disappointment to me in their personal lives. Gosh that makes me sound so judgemental and po-faced – but Jean Rhys in particular was a nightmare! It is a strange thing that quite a lot of female authors seem to have abandoned their children to almost strangers. Muriel Spark did that too and I know that Enid Blyton was interested in all children except her own, allegedly.

Anyway Stet is an interesting read although again Athill mentions Angela Thirkell as a writer that she really disliked. She says in this one that Thirkell is just embarrassing. I suspect that possibly this is because Athill’s sense of humour is very different from Thirkell’s. Or maybe she knew her and disliked her as a terrific snob, which she undoubtedly was, and also no great shakes as a mother either I think.

Anyway, I’ve wandered as is often my wont. Stet is an interesting and enjoyable read.

Library Haul

I have been doing really well recently at concentrating on reading my own books but I’ve had a terrible relapse culminating in me borrowing five books – they were all absolutely necessary though! I did have ‘borrower’s remorse’ as soon as I took them home, but I got over it.

Haul of Library Books

I went into the library only to pick up one which I had reserved – Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I wanted to read this one as I really loved his book A Gentleman in Moscow, this one is very different but still good.

Then the librarian told me that Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce was also waiting for me. I have no idea if I’ll like this one but several bloggers that I trust have enjoyed it and as the setting is London 1941 its sounds like it’ll be right up my street. I’m the first person to borrow this one too – always satisfying.

I’m working my way through Helen Dunmore’s books and Zennor in Darkness just about jumped off the shelf at me. The setting is Cornwall in spring 1917 where ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion and newspapers are full of spy stories.

Stet An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill is one I’ve wanted to read for a while but hadn’t got around to requesting it. When I visited the library in St Andrews the other day it was sitting on the shelf, obviously waiting for me.

I borrowed A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny thinking that it was her latest book but I’ve just realised that it’s one that I’ve already read and it was first published in 2006 with a different title – Dead Cold. I’m so glad that I only borrowed the book and didn’t buy it. I hate it when publishers do that and I can see no reason for it other than they want to con readers into buying the same book twice! At least that means I’ll get back to reading my own books quicker, but I had been really looking forward to being in Three Pines again for a few days. Have you read any of these ones?

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill

 Somewhere Towards the End cover

Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill was published in 2008 when the author was 89 and she was getting to the stage when her life was becoming ever narrower and she was realising that there were some wishes that were just never going to come to fruition, such as – she was never going to be able to own a pug, she was too old to be able to give them the walks and the care that they need, she says ‘I would so like to to begin that process all over again with a little black-velvet-faced pug – but no! It can’t be done.’ Each to their own I thought, I think those dogs are like marmite, you either love or hate them.

To begin with I thought that this book might be one of those name dropping ones because in no time flat she was mentioning Jean Rhys, but it was just that she had a close professional relationship with her as Athill was an editor at Andre Deutsch, and Rhys had a terrible fear of death and inevitably death is one of the main topics in this book. You would think that that subject could be depressing but it’s actually quite an uplifting book. She was apparently often described as “the finest editor in London”.

I found this to be a fascinating and at times really funny book. She’s quite brutally honest about her relationships with men, and she has much the same feelings about religion as I have. She had no religion, was an atheist but had a Christian upbringing, so had a clear view of right and wrong. However she was one of those people who did whatever she wanted and to hell with anyone else, so her sense of morality where relationships were concerned was pretty low.

‘So we, the irreligious, live within the social structures built by the religious, and however critical or resentful we may be of parts of them, no honest atheist would deny that in so far as the saner aspects of religion hold within a society, that society is better for it. We take a good nibble from our brother’s cake before throwing it away.’

Diana Athill might have thought she was somewhere towards the end of her life but in fact she still had another ten years of it to go and of course wrote another three books after this one. This book was nominated for the biography category of the Costa book awards. In fact I thought that she had died recently but it seems that she is still alive and kicking aged 99.

One thing that really annoyed me was that she mentions that although she had worked with the publisher Andre Deutsch from the beginning, she was very poorly paid. She said she understood that he deserved to take more money out of the company as it had been set up using his money, but she couldn’t afford to buy a house despite having worked for him for donkey’s years – and he refused to pay her any more. Honestly, publishers are just the limit. I bet he wouldn’t have tried that on if she had been a man! Of course in the 1960s and 70s even professional women couldn’t get a mortgage from a bank or building society, if they wanted to buy a house they had to save like mad for years, it’s amazing how much life has changed since those days.

I’m now looking forward to reading Diana Athill’s other books. You can read an interview with her here.

Alive, Alive Oh! by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! cover

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.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill

This is a book I borrowed from the library, purely because it’s a Persephone really although I vaguely recognised the name of Diana Athill. It turned out to be a collection of twelve short stories, the third one of which, called The Return won her first prize of £500 in an Observer competition in 1958, an awful lot of money in those days.

The stories are about relationships between men and women and although they were written 50 odd years ago it’s striking how the women are just like women nowadays except they sometimes wear long evening gloves. Their attitudes to the men in their lives seemed very modern, to me anyway the stories didn’t seem dated but I suppose that might say more about me than the stories.

They’re mainly written from the woman’s point of view and are at times funny and always observant about ‘types’. It’s so easy for each generation to think that they are the ones to have really discovered sex but these stories prove that it was all going on even before the 1960s, which is always put forth as the time when everything changed in society and morals went to hell in a handcart.

Anyway the book was an enjoyable read which has made me want to seek out Athill’s memoirs. She was born in 1917 and after graduating from Oxford she became a literary editor and helped Andre Deutsch set up his publishing company. She worked closely with lots of authors: Jean Rhys, John Updike, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Brian Moore and Simone de Beauvoir, to mention a few, not a bad bunch!

Library Haul and Scones

I had another bash at baking scones today. They’re something that I just can’t get right, usually they could be used as ice hockey pucks. This afternoon’s date scones are edible but they aren’t the lovely light consistency that I’m looking for and they didn’t rise much as usual, I think Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood would say that they’ve been ‘overworked’ – don’t know what else it can be.

Anyway to cheer myself up I went to the library. The main library is going to be closed for a year I think, whilst it’s refurbished so I haven’t been to a library for about six weeks. One of the many empty shops in the high street has been turned into a small library for the duration, it’s better than nothing! Actually I think it’s a good idea as the original library building isn’t exactly central and there are loads of people in the town who have never darkened its door. They just may get some new readers in Kirkcaldy!

I came out with:

The Odd Women by George Gissing. I think it was Anbolyn of gudrun’s tights who read this one recently and it was recommended in the introduction to Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude. By the way, in case you don’t know yet, Anbolyn has done another ‘flit’ actually and virtually and her new place is looking spiffing!

Star Gazing by Linda Gillard – I’ve enjoyed her previous books.

Beatrice Goes to Brighton by M.C. Beaton – which I hope is going to be a hoot. I think this is one which Jo at The Book Jotter enjoyed.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse by Diana Athill. I know nothing about this book and I chose it simply because it’s a Persephone, so it’ll be interesting to see what it’s like.

Now why did I borrow four books when I have loads of books of my own which I should be reading?! Oh yes, it was to cheer myself up after yet another scone failure. Does anybody have a foolproof scone recipe?