Diana Athill and what you remember when you are almost 100


Photograph courtesy of Maxine Moss: Diane Athill OBE, 2011. 

The other day I finished reading my first memoir. It was quite an exciting experience. Since watching Legend with Tom Hardy and seeing my East London neighbourhood restored to the 1960s on film, I was curious about the life of Londoners before the house prices rose. And by a series of events, I found myself at a late evening of the London Review Bookshop. From the exposé with memoirs and biographies, I picked up “Alive, Alive Oh! and Other Things That Matter” by Diana Athill. She was 97 when she published the memoir last year. An impressive age.

This is not a review of the book and I will try not to spoil it for you. But I think regardless of the age you are at, it is definitely a book to read. It is relatively short and very light. I breezed through, and consider that I am a slow reader.

Athill talks about a few very personal experiences that she remembers quite vividly. For the time she was young, it was her traveling that made up the memories. She remembers the men she loved or cared for in her life. For when she was older, a severe miscarriage experience found space in her emotive memory.

I agree with Athill that life doesn’t always teach us good lessons. It really depends on the particular circumstances and the people we meet. Learning to mistrust might be both good and bad. The memories she has of her life and her decisions have led her to conclude that the two things she learned and served her well were avoiding romanticism and possessiveness. Whilst I do agree with the latter, I might still be too naïve or just coming from a very passionate family that I cannot imagine my life without a bit of romanticism.

I don’t know how long I will be able to live, or what I will do in the years between now and then. But what I do know, after reading this book, is that I want to do something worth sharing. Like Athill, I want to learn from my experiences and actually work that learning into my life. I know this is quite cliché, and many people throw the phrase around, but will keep trying. It is indeed harder to apply in practice what you have learned. And as people, we are really bad at it. We tend to forget and we tend to turn back to our old beliefs, hoping that people we interact with will be the ones that will change to accommodate us and our habits.

Well, let me tell you, a 97-year old woman, who has lived through both world wars, the few very well documented economic crisis of the past century, and who has seen technology develop from almost nothing, is quite sure that it is really up to us to trial, fail and learn.

Finally, I want to pick up on a very interesting point that Athill briefly discusses in her memoir: the use of the word ‘sexy’ to define women’s clothing. It is curious how garments evolved as a result of the increased tolerance to this once unusual and vulgar attribute. Although we all kind of know that, as women, we put on clothes to look beautiful, Athill remarks that the whole discourse of ‘sexy’ actually added sexuality into the mix. Picking on this point, it is no wonder how we ended up with today’s trifling pieces of fabric called female clothing; whereas the men’s are still fully covered if not more than before. I mean look at the evolution of the basketball and football shorts.