Diana Athill

b. 1917 – d. 2019

Diana Athill was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2001.

Diana Athill remembered – by Xandra Bingley

Fifty odd years ago I used to see you in the dreary Trades Union Café by Bedford Square where poorly paid publishers like you and I ate a sandwich or an egg for lunch. We never spoke. you never looked up. You were reading André Deutsch manuscripts.

Then when you metamorphosed into a writer and I into a literary agent and we lived across the street we were friends. I never knew anyone a bit like you. You were so much yourself. Assured people are often insensitive, but you noticed every gossip and stitch and stammer. You said to me, ‘I’ll never be a novelist. I can’t be anyone else.’ I thought, how truthful.

I watched you write like you read with magical clarity. Your second book, Instead of a Letter, ended the sorrow of your broken heart. ‘I finished that book and the bloody man was completely gone. isn’t that marvellous?’ several books later you wrote Somewhere Towards the End about dying and you won the Costa Biography Award and then you were a national treasure and you loved the interviews and photographs and journeys to literary festivals and new friends.

After your first big literary festival I was mighty glad to see you drive Bluey, your little car, home up our cul-de-sac. The day you’d bought Bluey the car sales-man and I sat quivering as you wobbled and whirled a trial run up the A1. For years you accused our street neighbours of creating Bluey’s dents: ‘Oh no. Who has driven into Bluey?’ ‘I think it was you, Diana.’ ‘Oh no. Poor little Bluey,’ you’d lie and point sadly at the damage.

You’d had a surprising question at that Oxford festival. a woman said, ‘May I ask you, Miss Athill, how is it at your great age your complexion is so fine?’ I said to you, ‘What did you reply?’ You raised your arm in a high arabesque and gazed at the sky and said, ‘Tha-nk-you-Max-Fac-tor.’ I so wish I’d contacted Max Factor and in your seventies you’d become their poster girl.

In your life good luck and bad luck seemed to get rolled into one each day. You loved your high flat looking out into treetops on Primrose Hill, lent to you by your friend and cousin Barbara, a journalist and editor at The Economist who once told me, ‘I did ask Di for rent at the start but then I suppose it didn’t happen and I sort of stopped asking.’ Such luck. When you didn’t enjoy sex or vodka any more your loss seemed to you to be nothing compared to any of your friends’ problems or losses. When your hearing went it was hugely annoying, but somehow it could be fun. One day I bellowed at you in the car when you’d left your hearing aids behind ‘by mistake on purpose’, ‘Can you hear me?’ You said, ‘Yes. I can hear you rather well today. On some days it’s just burble burble burble!’ We just laughed. When you were ill I cleared out your fridge. Next day you said, ‘Darling, you’ve done something terrible, you’ve thrown out the pâté the dog has its pill with.’ ‘Well, it was growing whiskers, Di.’ ‘Oh I know,’ you said in your duchess voice. ‘that pâté was older than God.’ The best phrase ever for old food.

When I wrote a book i left my first draft with you. I found it back on my doorstep with a note: ‘I can’t read this.’ You were right. I am certain I was glad to be told by you. Now I knew I had to give up or try again. Four drafts later I risked asking you to look at it again. You called that night and said, ‘I haven’t had my supper, I haven’t taken off my coat since I came in, I haven’t answered the telephone, I’ve been reading your manuscript, it’s marvellous.’ It was a lovely moment no one else could have given me.

You were trusted by writers. It was an honour for any writer to have your opinion of their work. It was the words on the page that so delighted you. If a difficult selfish badly behaved writer who had wonderful talents came your way, it was their talent that counted. The rest was part of the story being written.

It was terrible when you had to leave your flat for the last time and as four of us went slowly down the steep stairs, you first, you stopped on a landing and looked back up at us and you said, ‘Are my love letters there?’ Your teenage great nephew held up a plastic bag and said, ‘Yes, Di, they are in here.’ Who else on their first night in their retirement home would want their love letters? Only you.


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