Wednesday, 20 July 2016

#15: Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill calls Alive, Alive Oh! ‘a report on what living for 97 years has taught one rather lucky old woman’. In fact, most of that ‘report’ appeared in her six previous memoirs, covering her childhood on a Norfolk estate and personal and professional life afterwards, when she was an editor at André Deutsch for 40 years. This volume contains some extra pieces – including chapters on having a miscarriage when she was 43, politics in the West Indies and life in a residential home.

Athill’s attitude to life is gently positive, and as a writer she is refreshingly unwilling to exaggerate the bad side of her own experiences for effect. This is perhaps linked with having to be the sensible bystander when, as an editor, she had to nurse writers through personal or professional crises (in her publishing memoir Stet she mentions not unsympathetically the poet Geoffrey Hill’s admission that he was hesitating to do something which might make him happy, because it would be bad for his poetry). Elsewhere she describes an ‘object lesson’ on ‘how not to think about getting old’, which she took from observing and helping the writer Jean Rhys through various crises:

‘…she expected old age to make her miserable, and it did, although once she was immersed in it she expressed her misery by complaining about other and lesser things, the big one itself being too much to contemplate – although she did once say that what kept panic at bay was her suicide kit. She had depended on sleeping pills for years and had saved up a substantial cache of them in the drawer of her bedside table, against the day when things got too bad. They did get very bad, but after her death I checked that drawer and the cache was intact.’ (Somewhere Towards the End p.555)

What a lot is in here – particularly that wry observation at the end. But dissect and explore it over several paragraphs, or a short story? No. Stet (‘let it stand’) indeed. 

So this latest memoir is no anguished coming-to-terms – it is quite as much about the outer world of travel, friends and rose bushes as it is about moments of sense-making – or rather, it is about both together. Here is where she starts to notice the poor living conditions of many black people in beautiful Tobago:

‘But it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little wormy dust. I met Europeans who had come to run businesses in Tobago who said of the people in the villages, ‘they never do more than they absolutely have to’ – and I heard black people say it, too: black people who had escaped. The closer you looked, the more you wondered that so many did escape, because simply becoming accustomed to a life so reduced, which a person naturally has to do if it’s the only life on offer, would shrink his mind and dry up his energy.’ (p.51)

But I did fear the autobiographical material would be stretched rather thinly by this time – already in her previous memoirs the same events are sometimes touched on more than once (and some are even within the pages of this one book).

So does she have anything new to say? Yes. ‘The Decision’ is about moving into a residential home – not so much a decision actually, but a gradual change in attitude helped by seeing one of her friends move there, another unwisely sticking in her own home, and the fact that she had people to support her and was able to consider the option slowly. ‘A Life of Luxuries’ covers trusty bespoke tweed suits, ball dresses and a misjudged choice of green tulle in which to be presented to Edward VIII. ‘Beloved Books’ is about the two writers she thinks about most often now – Boswell and Byron.

So – not spread too thin, but a little fragmentary. It is a short book, and half the chapters have been published elsewhere in some form. But I don't remember reading anywhere else a personal account of life in a residential home and can’t help thinking that books from the perspective of advanced age will become much more important as we all live longer (current average life expectancy in the UK is 81.5 years, according to the Office Of National Statistics). Especially if they are written in such a wise, positive voice.

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