Once again Diana Athill has gifted us with a (too) slim volume of memoirs and her unvarnished take on life. In her case, a long, eventful and well-lived one. We, like Oliver, want “more please” but she suggests that though not through with life, she would now rather observe it than write about it. If we’re lucky we’ll see more poetry, please.
“Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter” is part recollections of her first half century and part philosophic ruminations on lessons learned. She takes us first to her grandparents’ home Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, England with gardens and animals that have made the extended family self-sufficient. Young Diana, unlike her city peers, knows where milk and bacon come from. They are spared the direct horrors of the London Blitz but shared the national fear that only 60 miles separated England from a German invasion.
Ditchingham Hall is commandeered by the army and Diana experiences her first love affair with a married man, a young Major. Her pattern is set: she will always, by choice, be the “other woman,” in otherwise sound marriages where the romance is gone. It apparently works for all concerned. Dear Abby, is this a British phenomenon?
Her recipe for success again: avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness. This ability to see things as they are not as she would prefer them to be serves her well in her profession as a distinguished book editor. It continues to sustain her when in her ninth decade she decides to “get on with it” and move to an assisted living residence. She has devoted friends who make the transition as trauma free as possible. The most searing sacrifice: the winnowing of her extensive, beloved library. There are moments in good memoirs when the reader will identify intensely with the writer’s anguish. This was such a moment and I asked myself which of my books where the sine qua non for my existence. I was surprised at how quickly Eugene Fields’ Poems of Childhood came to mind. It is the book that set my love for poetry and the joy I feel when writing poems.
A nephew helps her make her wrenching choices as she wrestles with her magpie nest of beloved things. She has shelving built in her new small home to house the volumes she decides to keep. Her reasons in favor of Boswell’s Journals and Byron’s Letters are worthy of a grad school lecture. Boswell and Byron make the cut. Because she still drives, she becomes immediately popular.
At 95, she delights in the convenience of a wheelchair: “Nothing could be more deliciously luxurious than being pushed around a really crowded exhibition in a wheelchair. The crowd falls away on either side like the Red Sea parting for the Israelites …” How I would love to push Diana’s chair to the next painting, when of course she has fully decided to “get on with it.”
Image credit: "Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter" by Diana Athill (London: Granta Books, 2016)