the guardian Fri 29 May 2009
Anyone who writes a book - what's more, an award-winning book - when they're pushing 90 deserves respect. I hope I'm as energetic as Diana Athill when I'm 89, with as many marbles as she clearly still has. And as honest as she is about her selfishness, her regrets and why she can't stand small children. I only wish I liked her more. She reminds me of one of those clever, genteel, be-cardiganed Anita Brookner heroines to whom sad things happen but for whom you don't feel much sympathy because they're not particularly lovable. That's unfair. Athill, whose editing career began at André Deutsch, never married but has had many loving relationships in her life, most memorably her close to 50-year one with Barry, who began as her lover, ran off with her friend Sally, but nevertheless ended up back in Athill's house, bedbound, with the author minding him. I could have done without her graphic descriptions of cleaning up after him and how she bashed her car reversing out of a cul-de-sac, but then old ladies, if she's anything like my mother, love embroidery. Why on earth didn't she read her spirited, no holds barred autobiography herself? Claire Bloom is - well, Claire Bloom, a wonderful actor, but that's the point. Athill is real and feisty with a great Miss Marple voice and, despite her modest words in the prologue, well up to it. So what's the secret of growing old gracefully? Luck, says Athill, and touch wood it seems to run in the family. Most of them stayed compos mentis to the end. "One relative aged 82, on his horse at a meet with the Norwich stag hounds talking to friends, went flop and fell off his horse stone dead in the middle of a laugh." That's the way to go. I'd better take up hunting.
the observer Sun 18 January 2009
When she won the biography category of the Costa award earlier this month, Diana Athill admitted she would like to scoop the overall prize "because I'm always terribly broke, and how wonderful it would be to get that lovely cheque". It's a typically Athillian observation: amusing, candid and betraying a total lack of self-congratulation. In Somewhere Towards the End, the book that made her the oldest recipient of a literary prize, at the age of 91, her trenchant insights into the business of getting older are shaped by exactly these attributes.
Athill indubitably knows what makes a good book: she spent five decades as the chief editor at André Deutsch, working with writers including John Updike, VS Naipul and Jean Rhys. She wrote her first book at 42 but met real critical success in her eighties with the publication of the first of five highly acclaimed memoirs, Stet, in 2000.
This collection of short essays on sex, religion, friendship and death are so deftly drawn and perceptive that one feels better simply for having read them. It is impossible not to be engaged by Athill's vigorous reflections on such unlikely topics as sore feet, septuagenarian sex and the business of working out whether one is too old to drive a car ("After all, the scars so far have been only on my car, not on people").
Athill is neither sentimental nor grandiose. She veers into description only when the occasion demands it: "Sky and water were mother of pearl and the breasts of doves, a blend of soft blues and pinks so delicate that I had never seen its like." As a keen gardener, she cultivates her sentences much as she would her herbaceous borders, whipping out the secateurs as soon as she spots a stray adjective.
The effect is one of both unflinching honesty and unexpected wit. This is, despite the subject matter, a very funny book. And on the prospects of her own demise, Athill remains matter of fact. "One doesn't necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang." Luckily for us, she shows no sign of stopping yet.
the guardian Sat 10 January 2009
By her own admission, there's no denying that moving through advanced old age is a "downhill journey", yet Diana Athill's forthright reflections on being "somewhere towards the end" are oddly uplifting. Born in 1917 and winner of this year's Costa prize for biography, she is, in her 90s, enviably unhampered by regret as she muses on the losses and occasional gains ushered in by old age - not least the gratifying thought "thank god I shan't be here to see that" when it comes to global warming. While endless books have been written about being young, there's very little on how to manage being old - despite the fact that we've contrived to extend our "falling away" so much that it is now often longer than our development. Determined to fill the gap, Athill marvels at the simultaneous capaciousness of a single life and dizzying unimportance of the individual against the history of human existence. Her sharp-witted musings on friendship, sex, sore feet, religion and death are infused with a curiosity for all that life brings and are a captivating read, whatever stage one is at.