Real Life: A beady eye on the Sixties: Diana Athill tells Tony Gould how sex and 'misplaced maternity' led to the unlikely liaisons of her middle-age

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DIANA ATHILL'S flat is at the top of a large but crumbling house on Primrose Hill. The house, built on soft, clayey London soil around 1910, is now in danger of imploding, but neither 75-year-old Athill nor her cousin who lives below can afford the work needed to prevent further subsidence; they just hope the house will stay upright long enough to see them out.

Diana Athill was for 40-odd years a partner in the publishing firm of Andre Deutsch. But her latest book, Make Believe, is about a very different world, a Sixties world in which radical black politics shade into something more sinister. Hakim Jamal was a young, black American who would have been completely forgotten but for his connection with the two Xs - the black power leader Malcolm X and his English 'disciple', Michael X, who ended up being hanged for murder in his native Trinidad. Michael's first victim was Hakim's English girlfriend, Gale Anne Benson.

It was in Athill's flat that Hakim Jamal demonstrated his hypnotic hold over the unfortunate Benson. A novelist might be tempted to make the house on Primrose Hill a symbol of Britain's decline or, more particularly, of the waning power of the upper middle class, of which Diana Athill is clearly representative.

But that would be too simple, like characterising her voice as full of 'country hice' class confidence: when you listen closely, you detect in it notes of humorous self-parody. They appear in her writing, too - though some reviewers of Make Believe have either missed that or ignored it, preferring the simplified version of a middle-aged matron making a fool of herself over an unsuitable outsider.

'I was described by one reviewer as doting, doting on Hakim, which I didn't do.' Athill is mildly indignant. 'They think, 'This poor old thing, what can she have become involved with him for, except by falling madly in love with him.' None of them seems to have heard of the beady eye.' Her eye glitters beadily as we discuss her life and work over tea and Mr Kipling cakes - to which she and her live-in ex-lover, now oldest friend, are very partial. He is the Jamaican-born playwright, Barry Reckord.

The daughter of a colonel, Athill grew up on a large Norfolk country estate. She describes her family as matriarchal: both her mother and her grandmother had to live alone for many years through widowhood, 'which they took to like ducks to water'. She thinks that the fact that she has 'never really wanted to be an appendage of a man' may be 'because the poor men in our family were rather made smaller by these dominating old ladies who lived to enormous old age'. The man she herself loved from an early age and to whom she was engaged, jilted her in a particularly cruel way. This is the pivotal episode of her first autobiographical essay, Instead of a Letter. 'To be in love and engaged at 19, and disengaged at 22, is not fatal,' she writes. But it took her years to get over it. 'I think it had an absolutely enduring effect,' she says. 'I was in love afterwards but always with the feeling that it was doomed. But you do repair - it's a repair, but a very workable repair.'

Her career in publishing came about by chance. During the war she had a fairly menial job at the BBC. Then she met Andre Deutsch at a party. He confided his ambition to become a publisher, and when he started the firm of Allan Wingate, she worked for him. Later, when they went into business together under his own name, Deutsch was the business brain, Athill the creative editor.

'People say to me, 'Oh my goodness, were you Jean Rhys's editor, Vidia Naipaul's editor?' I say, 'Well yes, I was.' But actually it's complete nonsense because you never had to touch a manuscript. You said, 'Vidia, how wonderful,' and you wrote the blurb. And with Jean, the same.'

Athill started to write by accident: a casual encounter set her off on a story. Others followed, and to her amazement she won an Observer short story competition. Instead of a Letter started off as a story about a mad governess, that refused to gel. 'Quite a long time afterwards, I found it in a drawer and I thought, I must have another bash at that story. I sat down and started writing Instead of a Letter' - she laughs - 'and I honestly have no idea how that happened.' All she knew was that every day she was impatient to continue writing. It was a unique adventure: when she was persuaded to try her hand at a novel, she found it gruelling and kept putting off writing. And after she'd completed it she gave up writing fiction. She is not ashamed of Don't Look at Me Like That: 'It's just another accomplished little novel; that's how it strikes me now.' And that might have been that - a successful career in publishing; a minor classic - but for the excesses of the Sixties.

Like many of us, she has an ambivalent attitude to that increasingly unreal decade: 'I remember when everyone was experimenting happily away and smoking a lot of pot and things, which I hadn't the slightest wish to do, I used to feel 'I ought to be letting myself go more' and I can't, and I never will.' But with Hakim Jamal she came pretty close, though she kept a beady eye on herself as well as on him: 'What I should be blamed for in the relationship is a sort of coldness. I was perfectly safe: my age, my class, my status, my everything made me secure. I think I'm right in saying that I wasn't slumming, it was a genuine interest. But I wasn't going to get hurt in that relationship. Neither was he: he was going to get hurt in life, but not by anything to do with me.'

Hakim Jamal was born Alan Donaldson in the black ghetto of Roxbury in Boston, and grew up delinquent. Under the influence of Malcolm X, whom he idolised, he threw off his addiction to drink and drugs and put on the mantle of Black Power. He came to England theoretically in order to set up a school for blacks on the lines of the Malcolm X Montessori School in Los Angeles. Athill got to know him through editing and helping him write his autobiography, From the Dead Level. But it was not exactly a case of a susceptible white woman being swept off her feet by a handsome black man. 'I've never been romantic about sex actually. When I wrote that it would be fun to go to bed with him, that is precisely what I meant,' she says, and laughs.

She had known many black people before Hakim, and on some - notably Michael X, whose book her firm had published against her advice - she had cast an extremely beady eye. And she was already involved in her love affair with Barry Reckord. So it was not Hakim's blackness so much as his deprived background that caught her interest: 'To me he was just a tremendously disadvantaged American.'

Curiosity, then - 'and sex and a good deal of liking' - was what motivated Athill to develop an intimate relationship with Hakim. But after a bit, Hakim began to reveal disturbing symptoms of paranoia. Athill was prepared to put up with him calling himself God, but she was worried by the increasing intensity of his delusions and the part they played in his mutually destructive love affair with Gale Benson.

The squalid climax of the story - Gale's murder in Trinidad in 1972 at the behest of Michael X - takes place offstage, as it were, after the couple have moved out of Athill's orbit (though Hakim continued to write anguished, mad letters to her until he himself was shot a year later in his native Boston). The whole grisly episode so obsessed V S Naipaul that he wrote a novel based on it, as well as a long essay in which he dismissed Gale Benson in a phrase: 'the great uneducated vanity of the middle-class dropout.' Diana Athill, who calls Guerrillas 'a fascinating novel,' takes issue with him over his portrayal of Benson. 'He emphasised the thing that I was saying about myself: the security and that she was, as it were, slumming. That girl was far too mad for that to be true. He'd never met her; I'd met her . . .'

Athill wrote her account immediately after Benson's murder in Trinidad 'because it haunted one, the thought of what had happened to her, and the horror of to what extent Hakim had been . . . responsible: whether he'd killed her, whether he'd known. Now I'm pretty certain, I'm sure he did know.' She had an opportunity to publish the book 10 years ago, but decided against it.

'I was a sucker for oppressed foreigners,' Athill cheerfully admits. Waguih Ghali was another such: a Cairo English school-educated Copt, author of an excellent novel called Beer in the Snooker Club - and a tormented man. 'I was only saved by the skin of my teeth from being in love with Waguih,' she told me. 'It's only when you begin to realise how sick a person is that it does have a curative effect on love, or it did with me.'

Athill thought she was helping a talented but troubled man, valuing his friendship, and changing gear 'from the amorous to the maternal' when she realised that Ghali did not return her feelings. But Ghali became increasingly depressive and dependent on a woman towards whom, in his diary, he expressed a physical distaste bordering on loathing. It says as much for Athill's tolerance as for Ghali's indigence that he remained in her flat until he ended his life with a fatal overdose.

Now she looks back on 'this quite short part of my life in which I was drawn to disturbed people' as an out-of-character phase of 'misplaced maternity'. But this Sixties-ish aberration has given us two books which, if not as fine as Instead of a Letter, are still valuable human documents.

Looking out of the window on Primrose Hill, I found it hard to imagine this flat as the setting for anything so dramatic as Ghali's suicide or Jamal's raving. After taking leave of the very poised Diana Athill, I found it even harder to imagine that she could have anything to do with either.

'Make Believe' is published by Sinclair Stevenson at pounds 13.99

(Photograph omitted)