Excerpt: Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Publishing legend Diana Athill has led a fascinating life, as revealed in her raucous, emotive and wise memoir. This excerpt offers a taste of this riveting read. 

Diana Athill

The author

For 50 years, Diana Athill was a distinguished publisher’s editor, working with the likes of Jack Kerouac, Jean Rhys and Philip Roth.

Yet if anything, since retiring in 1993 aged 75, she’s carved out an even more glittering career as a writer—mainly of autobiographies. (After all, she’s got quite a lot of material to work with.)  

In her new book, she reflects on the memories that have proved to be her most persistent ones. She also shows that, on the eve of her 98th birthday and living in an old people’s home, her familiar qualities are firmly in place: among them her honesty, including about her often quite racy past, and her neat way with a one-liner—a Belgian she met on holiday after the war is dismissed as “good value there (he danced a mean tango), but a great bore when he turned up later in London”.

And, even in a book concerned with memories, Athill retains the ability to accept, and usually to enjoy, whatever life is offering now—at one stage celebrating the “delicious luxury” of being pushed around a packed exhibition in a wheelchair. (“The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites.”)  One of the few moments of cantankerousness comes when she criticises people who didn’t live through the war for describing the late 1940s and 1950s as a dreary time. 

But here she is, in the introduction, explaining the main idea behind the book (not, admittedly, that she always sticks to it, because there are plenty of memories of people in the pages that follow)…

 

The excerpt

‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.’ I have forgotten 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. Disconcertingly, I recently realised that I myself (not often, just now and then) might say those very words if someone asked me what I was doing.

It is not a welcome thought, but less dreadful than it might be because I now know from experience that the state is not necessarily pitiable at all. It is even rather pleasant—or it can be. That probably depends on the nature of the person sitting.

To me it has been, because the thinking turns out to be about events in the past which were enjoyable, and when my mind relaxes itself it is those same events which float in and out of it.

 

"I had become another sort of creature: I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it."

Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, ‘Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,’ whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.

But then something odd happened. The things floating out of the past did often still include events which involved men, but just as often, and just as pleasurably, they were images of places and objects: all the most beautiful places and things I once experienced. 

About halfway through my seventies I stopped thinking of myself as a sexual being, and after  a short period of shock, found it very restful. To be able to like, even to love, a man without wanting to go to bed with him turned out to be a new sort of freedom. This realisation was extraordinary. It was like coming out onto a high plateau, into clear, fresh air, far above the antlike bustle below. It was almost like becoming another sort of creature.

Well, I had in fact become another sort of creature: I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the 97 years through which I have lived, I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind…

When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view, it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now out it comes, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring.