Thursday, 10 June 2010

Diana Athill OBE OMG

I had the real pleasure of meeting Ms Athill in the rather swanky surroundings of Shoreditch House and like a fool I was rendered speechless.

She was introduced as ‘Our Lady of Letters Diana Athill, O.B.E . OMG!’ and the audience clapped and hooted appreciatively. What a woman.

Stylishly dressed in a black and white long Nehru tunic, wide legged black pants and an enormous silver necklace she looked the part of the grand dame of letters. With her silver hair and walking stick it was hard to believe that she was 93.

I’d read her book the month before, indeed galloped through the large volume (at one point reading it in bed I let the large volume slip through my fingers and thought for a moment that I’d broken my nose, so large and heavy is it.) And the contents stayed with me for weeks. It’s searingly honest and touches on subjects that made me think rather uncomfortably about things that we all tend to push to the back of our mind. Death, aging, past lovers, and friends lost. That sounds gloomy. But it isn’t. Hers is a sparkling clear voice of wisdom in a wilderness of clamouring. Her life as an editor, where she seems to have practically edited everyone who is anyone of modern contemporary literature is a list of superstars. And her dealing with such fragile and monstrous (sometimes) egos is touching and revealing.

She said when being interviewed by the master of ceremonies himself – the urbane and witty Damian Barr, that one of the good things about growing older is that she doesn’t remember if she’d read a book before or not – so that she has the absolute delight of reading an old favourite as if for the first time.

How wonderful.

She was in conversation for over half an hour and held an audience of over 200 enraptured. Her talk of Jean Rhys, Molly Keane, her delight on moving into sheltered accommodation, her love of books made you feel that you had just made a new friend.

Perhaps the most moving part of the evening was when she told of her anguish at realising that she had room for only (!) 300 books in her new home. Her nephew spent three days with her, holding up books for her to decide to keep or chuck. These were not ‘just’ books to her. They were her life. And every single one was a treasured friend that represented a massive part of her life.

The personal stories she recounted in her clear voice were a privilege to hear, and when questions were being taken from the floor, for some reason I shrank from asking anything. I think I felt that the best present I could give her was not to pry any more, but to let her enjoy her applause.

I know, I know, what a fool.

A keeper, I would imagine....

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