As publisher-turned-memoirist Diana Athill unveils her candid, gossipy correspondence of 30 years, she talks to Mick Brown about her colourful love life, and being a literary star in her 90s. Then, in an exclusive extract from the book, she relates some of her most memorable experiences – from an endoscopy on valium to coping with only two top teeth.
By Mick Brown
If growing up is so often a process of accumulation, then growing old is a question of letting go.
When, two years ago at the age of 91, Diana Athill left the flat in north London where she had lived for more than 50 years to move into the small room she now occupies in a retirement home, the process, she admits, was “painful”.
In a life dedicated to literature, Athill had accumulated “thousands” of books, and deciding which to discard made her so ill that she thought she was going into heart failure and was rushed to hospital. A false alarm. “I felt very guilty,” she says, “but they were very sweet at the hospital. They didn’t mind about my heart being all right at all.”
Outside the rain is falling in stair rods. But in Athill’s room, all is cosiness. There is a bed, a desk on which stands her battered laptop and a comfortable armchair in which Athill sits, a handsome woman, her striking profile framed by a halo of silver hair, elegantly dressed in a brown-linen trouser suit. The two hundred or so books she eventually deemed as “necessities” are arranged in a case – the collected works of Chekhov, the letters of Lord Byron and the first editions by V S Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Margaret Atwood and Brian Moore, all of whose careers she nurtured in the 50 years she worked as an editor at the publishers André Deutsch.
“I never much bothered about getting them all signed,” she says. “I wish I had, because I left a few Naipauls behind that were signed and the bookseller who took them has sold them for a lot of money.” She laughs. “He’s done very well for me.”