I think it was a character in a Stanley Middleton novel who said he was too old to risk buying unripe bananas. Publisher and writer Diana Athill had the same thought about a tree fern she ordered that arrived with just four tiny leaves sprouting disappointingly from a three-inch pot. No chance, she thought, of seeing it as it was pictured in the catalogue, in its full-grown glory. She was almost 90 when she wrote that, in this series of short (not taking any chances) essays about old age. Such a book is in itself a rare enough thing, but a book about old age written by a woman with a cold eye for reality and no time for sentimental lies is as rare as well, as rare as a thoughtful discussion about a woman's sexuality after the age of 60.
Athill's desire for sex did peter out, but not until her late sixties. At the time of writing this book, she was living with the Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, and had done since she was 43, although after some years the passion died. They remained together companionably while he had other relationships, but when she was approaching 60 she met Sam. Reckord had given her a taste for “black men”, Athill explains, and in this final affair, what she had to offer Sam was “sex that suited him”, as well as “being white and well bred”, while she took pleasure in his desire for her and the differences between them. By the time that last passion died there were no regrets either way. When the wish for sex goes, Athill says cheeringly, there is space at last to gain a glimpse of who you really are apart from erotic desire.
Candid stuff, though she has already declared in a previous chapter the non-existence of God and the untroubled conviction that death is the blank end of existence. Certainly, she shudders when she has to identify a dead body in the mortuary, but “it is simply a matter of flesh shuddering because flesh rots”. She has remained childless without it being a matter of great sorrow, although when she was accidentally pregnant at 43 she found herself putting off her usual termination because she realised she really wanted the child. Even so, when she miscarried, she claims that she felt no more than a proper degree of sadness and, perhaps, a certain relief. It is not Athill's aim to offer comfort or acceptable emotion to her readers, only to describe, and avoid lying as much as possible. She gets very close to saying the truly unsayable when she calmly announces, “Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine”, choosing instead clarity of thought over mindless fidelity. She doesn't do platitudes.
When she examines her regrets, she finds just two, each of which to some extent accounts for the boldness of her book: she has a “nub of selfishness” that has made her disinclined to get fully involved with other people, and a laziness that has meant she failed to adventure far out of her life's way. Finally, Athill accuses herself of contentment of having the kind of positive attitude to existence that comes from a generally fortunate life and the accident of being born with the right sort of genes that incline her towards positive thinking. She recognises it as the “tribal smugness” of class and race, and socially wicked, but nevertheless a gift of wellbeing that will last a lifetime. She apologises for this to the poor, the sick, the ill-educated, the miserably employed or unemployed, and those who had unsatisfactory parents. Still, she is quite pleased with life, especially since she began a belated writing career and was praised for what she produced. Her notable career in publishing continued until she was 75, and then she tried painting classes at night school (unforgivably, no longer freely available), but gave them up when she decided she would never be better than a good illustrator. Now she reads, gardens with pleasure, and refuses to give up driving because of the sense it gives the old of “you're back to normal” when the body won't let you walk without difficulty and pain.
Underlying her forthrightness, there is something that I am not quite comfortable with calling sadness, but which feels like the inescapable difficulty of being old, or perhaps just being human. At the time of writing, she is still looking after Reckord, who has withdrawn into himself after years of ill health. She doesn't like it, but is dutiful. Better to be the carer than the cared-for, she thinks. And when she acknowledges the easy-seeming deaths of her grandmother and mother, assisted by daughters, she recognises she has no child of her own to be there when her time comes. A life in publishing has not given her the financial security not to fear where she might end up if she becomes physically or mentally unable to cope, though this is really an indictment of our society rather than her childlessness.
In lieu of an afterlife, Athill suggests that whatever each human has done in life continues to exist for better or worse, whether we have “taught or tortured, built or bombed”. It is this thought, perhaps, that allows her to take delight in the several inches that the tree fern has grown during the writing of the book. “I was right in thinking that I will never see it being a tree, but I underestimated the pleasure of watching it being a fern.”
This review first appeared in the London Times.