(Granta, £12.99, 169pp)
As Diana Athill points out in her introduction, an old person is not just a deteriorating body but “a mobile reservoir of experience.” She has drawn from the reservoir in previous books, such as Stet, on her life in publishing. Now she has explored its depths in this latest memoir, based on her childhood memories. She explains her motivation as wishing to save something of the accumulation essential to herself from vanishing in a puff of smoke from a crematorium chimney, a feeling shared with many writers of autobiographies.
There is a hint of irony in the sub-title, as if acknowledging the rejection today of those qualities which are seen, pejoratively, as Very English. In Diana’s case, this meant spending much of her childhood at her grandparents’ spacious 18th century house in Norfolk, staffed with butler and maids. It meant riding to hounds on Thelwell ponies, listening to Henry Hall’s dance band on the wireless, and dressing up in cast-off clothes found in the attic for impromptu plays in which Diana, the eldest, played the princess. It was the sort of upper middle-class existence that has almost vanished, for it wasn’t only about comfort and financial security, but about a code of behaviour designed to be character-forming in the great English virtues of will power and self-control. Diana and her siblings, a younger brother and sister, resented the rules no more than any other tiresome but inevitable thing, such as thistles in grass or pebbles on beaches. “It seemed natural to me that I should be made to conform to certain patterns of social behaviour, just as it seemed natural that I had to sit down to lessons, like it or not.”
Under the idyllic childhood lurked a tension that manifested itself in attacks of colitis. It wasn’t until she was grown up and again suffering from colitis during the air raids that she realized that she had been literally stomaching the rows between her parents. Her mother, led to believe that a girl would only kiss a man she was to marry, assumed that when, at the age of 19, a nice young man kissed her and proposed marriage, that this was falling in love. The wedding night was a disaster. Later, she fell in love with another man, and was seen, by chance, with him by her sister who sneaked to their parents that Kitty was having an affair. Forbidden by her father to see her lover again, on pain of being cut off from the family, she had a nervous breakdown and had to go into a nursing home for a “sleep-cure”, in which she was heavily sedated for several days, a common way of dealing with emotional crises in the 1920s. Thereafter, having known sex with a man she loved, she loathed being touched by her husband. She remained with him through those English qualities of will power and self-control, but the result was endless rows that were emotionally disturbing to the children.
The book begins and ends with the present. The first chapter deals with the death of her mother at the age of 96, and Athill’s reactions to her own ageing process. Now 84, she feels the same as before being old, except for not being able to do an increasing number of things. She can no longer drink alcohol, walk fast or far, enjoy music (because of the inadequacy of hearing aids), or make love. She would have been appalled if someone had listed them twenty years ago, but now “it seems to me that once one has got over the shock of realizing that a loss is a symptom of old age, the loss itself is easy to bear because you no longer want the thing that has gone. Music is the only thing I would really like to have back.”
Athill’s uncompromising honesty in describing her feelings both as a young girl and an old woman makes her memoir universal. The humiliations of being young, the fear of looking silly, will strike a chord with anyone who remembers growing up. Nostalgia for the past is balanced by her clear-sighted view of exactly how it was.