Thursday 2 June 2016

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "Alive, Alive Oh! and Other Things That Matter" by Diana Athill

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 AndrĂ© 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.

This is no anguished coming-to-terms; 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 sometimes had to nurse writers through personal or professional crises). And the book 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)

I did fear the autobiographical material would be stretched rather thinly by this time though – 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, she does. "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.

Athill shows an editor’s trust in the value of precise language and a Jane Austen-like trust in the ability of abstractions to express and define thoughts and feelings, for instance when she reflects on her feelings towards her partner (who is married to someone else) when she finds herself pregnant:

"If, when I told him I was pregnant, he were to offer to leave his wife and come to me, I would be quite as anxious as I would be happy. I would not, whatever I decided, try to make him do that. Perhaps this was cowardice – a fear of actually having to face a lack of success which I thought I could envisage with equanimity. Or perhaps it was vanity – a desire to go on representing freedom, pleasure, stimulation, all the joys of love rather than its burdens. Or perhaps it was really what I would like it to be: the kind of respect for another person’s being that I would wish to have paid to my own. But there was no doubt that, if I was pregnant, life would be a great deal easier if my lover and myself were otherwise than they were." (p.67)

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 can’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.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds works as a museum education consultant and writes non-fiction. Her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums will be out in a couple of months. This looks at 36 objects in UK museums, using interviews with over 40 people who know the objects well – curators, artists, academics, users, makers and others. She blogs here:

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