As Diana Athill points out in her first chapter, book after book has been written on being young and many more on procreation, but there are few on what she calls "falling away". Far from the carefree advertising image of grey power Saga holidays, this is the process of approaching the end, with all its grisly possibilities. Athill, at least, has reached the age of 90 with precious few regrets about her life. As editor and director of the turbulent publisher Andre Deutsch, she worked with writers such as VS Naipaul and Jean Rhys – whose career she revived after discovering the destitute novelist in Cornwall. She herself has written a series of highly regarded memoirs about her life and times.
Her sex life has been eventful. She never married, after her first love ended in rejection, but there was a series of amicable affairs, brief or sustained, until she met the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord at 43. Her memoir is divided into sections, from religion (she is not a believer), health and mobility to sex. Her main regret, we learn, is that she can no longer do what she once so enjoyed: make love, listen to music (because of the distortion of deaf aids), go for walks. As she enjoyed an active sex life until she was 70, she has had less time to regret its passing than most women of her generation.
The way into old age was eased both for her and Reckord by final flings – he with Sally, a young woman who moved in with them and remained a friend after she married another man. Though Athill had no children of her own, through Sally she now has people who fulfil the role of daughter and grandchildren. Her own final affair, with Grenadan-born Sam, brought into the beginning of her old age "something belonging to younger days."
In discussing old age, "you come up against reluctance to depress either others or yourself, so you tend to focus on the more agreeable aspects of it". But a considerable part of her own old time, as for many, is taken up by the depressing task of helping people less resistant to age than herself. There is a harrowing chapter on her tussles with the NHS over Reckord's illness from diabetes and prostrate trouble. In her seventies, half her week was taken up travelling to Norfolk to care for her mother, who died at 95. Athill herself, now approaching the same age, and without the money to pay for carers for Barry, let alone herself, finds her worry is less about death than about living with the body's failures. If she hasn't the luck to fall down dead while still able-bodied, she notes, it will be the geriatric ward for her.
She takes heart from the fact that good fortune comes not only from outside, but is also built into one genetically "and the greatest good luck of all is built-in resilience". She is inspired by an interview with Alice Herz-Sommer, a Holocaust survivor who, at the age of 103, has never lost her radiant optimism. Athill, too, feels blessed with a happy nature, and admits that she has been warned by a friend about sounding complacent. But that, she says, is how she began life, and many lives seem to return to the starting point. After this honest, clear-sighted book, one can only wish that Diana Athill's resilience continues to sustain her and that there may be another memoir, though not, with luck, from the geriatric ward.
Clare Colvin's novel 'The Mirror Makers' is published by Arrow
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