Margo White reviews Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill
There is a scene in Alive, Alive Oh! in which Diana Athill recounts how she, aged 97 and with the help of two 94-year-old ladies, managed to plant the six rose bushes Athill had bought to brighten up the garden of their residential home.
They organised themselves: the fittest of them, Pamela, would get down on her knees to spread out the rose roots at the bottom of the hole (previously dug by more able-bodied people), Athill sprinkled the rose food, another tipped the compost out of a bucket, and then two of them would haul Pamela to her feet — “noone in this place can get up once down” — so that she could tread the plant in. “By the time we tottered back to our rooms we were too exhausted to speak, but we were very pleased with ourselves. One good thing about being physically incapable of doing almost anything is that if you manage to do even a little something, you feel great.”
This is the fourth memoir Athill has published since she turned 80, during which time she’s also put out a collection of letters. Alive was published just before she turned 98 and living in a “home for old people”, the kind of place she has previously stated she never would. Deciding to move in was one of the biggest decisions she’s made in her life, and she almost backed out once she saw the size of the room and how much stuff, “the magpie’s nest of beloved things accumulated in a long life-time”, she’d have to do without. That panic resurfaced at intermittent times as she prepared to move, like fits of nausea, which were completely overwhelming at the time but which she learned would eventually pass as nausea does, allowing reason to re-establish its hold. “I must accept that fact, calm down and get on with it.” Which is the upbeat and sensible resolve Athill demonstrates in all her memoirs, and which is part of her appeal.
Anyway, it all worked out in the end. It’s a small room, but one with a view and a balcony in a well-kept place in north London with a library and a large garden surrounded by trees, where the staff is kind and respectful. (As she notes it might not be so pleasant if it weren’t run by a non-for-profit organisation, a charity founded by the eldest daughter of the Earl of Denbigh with the help of God and the donations of rich people.)
It helped to have her nephew around to assist with what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle; reducing her book collection from around 1000 to two or three hundred. “Every time I tried to decide I sank into a state of shaming uselessness. Philip spent the best part of a day holding up, one by one, every book in that daunting mass and saying, ‘In or Out?’, then boxing it as appropriate — something which I truly believe I could never have done on my own.”
If you haven’t read anything by Diana Athill you’re in for a treat, but while I’d recommend this one I probably wouldn’t start with it. Maybe begin with Somewhere Towards the End, which she published just before her 90th birthday and which won the Costa Prize for Biography. Or, even better, Stet (Latin for “let it stand”), which is partly about the evolution of André Deutsch, the publishing company at which she was a founding director and editor for 50 years, and partly about her relationships with some of its authors such as Jean Rhys and V [Vidia] S Naipaul. It’s honest, revealing and funny: “Whenever I needed to cheer myself up by counting my blessings, I used to tell myself: ‘At least I’m not married to Vidia’’’. While she reveals people in ways the subjects might not approve of, you know she’s only doing what Jean Rhys said a writer must do — get things down as they really were. She doesn’t pull her punches, but delivers them accurately, and you trust her aim.
Athill is great company, insightful and wise, her prose style brisk and crisp. She has written about some of the most intimate aspects of her life such as her sex life, which was very lively until her mid-70s, while still managing to protect her own privacy and dignity, and those of others.
She had a posh English upbringing (there are podcast interviews with her, in which she sounds like the Queen), but has lived an avant-garde and unconventional life, certainly for someone born in 1917. Her father lost the family money, so she learned early on that she had to earn her own keep. After getting over the heartbreak of being dumped by the man she was engaged to early on in life, she went on to have a lot of sex with lots of different men, many of them married and many of them black. Her love affair with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord lasted for eight years, and after they went off each other sexually they continued to live together as companions for 40 years, pursuing their separate love interests. When Barry moved his new girlfriend into the house, Athill welcomed her as a new and lovely friend. When the girlfriend moved out and married someone else and went on to have children, Athill was only grateful for the further extension to the family. She offers two valuable lessons for a happy life: “avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness”.
Unlike the more traditional narratives of her other memoirs, Alive, Alive Oh! reads more as a series of random reflections, and many of the chapters describe events and ruminations that she has written about elsewhere, in either more or less detail. There’s the vividly described garden of her childhood (on her grandparent’s vast Norfolk estate); the miscarriage at age 43 (when she almost died, and was so overwhelmed with joy she got to live that it eclipsed any grief she might have about the baby); a period in Tobago, in which she describes her own complicity in the colonial lifestyle (“living a dream that condemns others to exploitation”).
Her memory is astonishing, as is detail of her recollections, details that could only be recalled by someone with a ferocious intelligence and who was always acutely alert to what was going on around her, as well as in her own head.
How to live well into the late decades? Athill never talks about broccoli or walking three times a week. She puts her own good experience of aging down to an innate optimism, which she believes is in the genes; you’re either born with it or you aren’t. Rather than suggest that people should think more like her (although reading her makes you want to try) she counts her lucky stars that she was born with that capacity to see the light at the end of every tunnel. This may take the form of a wheelchair. There is nothing more “thrilling”, she writes, than being pushed around a crowded exhibition in a wheelchair with the crowd falling away on either side “like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites, and there you are, lounging in front of the painting of your choice in perfect comfort. I shall never forget the first time I fully realized how marvellous this can be. It was in front of Matisse’s red Dance, and I have never enjoyed a great painting more intensely.”
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (Granta, $33) is available at Unity Books.