THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

Revisiting Diana Athill

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin2 Comments

My first Calla Lily post about Diana Athill was in December, 2014, when she spoke about becoming the oldest winner of a Costa Book Award and working in publishing for 50 years with authors like Norman Mailer, Margaret Atwood and Philip Roth. 

The British literary legend is currently writing a future volume of memoir to be published just in time for her ninety-ninth birthday.

I feel it is time to revisit with her and find out how she is doing these days living in an old people’s home. 

‘I’m very excited.  I thought I’d written my last book,’ said Athill.  ‘But it’s great fun to be back at the typewriter.  Well, not a typewriter.  Actually, my horrid little laptop which I wrestle with.  It’s wretched, always letting me down.’  

Photo by Sara Lee for the Guardian

Photo by Sara Lee for the Guardian

When she was 91, Diana moved from her beloved apartment to an old person’s home as she calls it. The decision was the most painful one she had ever made.

‘Right at the beginning, I thought oh, my God, those old people!  Nothing but oldies, oldies, oldies, so I wasn’t expecting to make friends, but I did very quickly.’

She lives at the Mary Feilding Guild with 42 other residents, average age 90 or more.  She regrets the fact that there are no men living there at the moment.

‘One does just long for a man’s voice from time to time. But there are some interesting people with interesting stories,’ Athill says.

The Mary Feilding Guild

The Mary Feilding Guild

Rumour has it the Guild is harder to get into than an Oxbridge College.  Residents are carefully vetted before they are admitted.  

All residents have their own rooms, bathrooms and cooking facilities, either in the main house or one of the modern wings. There is no bingo and no being parked in front of the telly.  Everyone is free to come and go as they please and visitors can stay in the two guest rooms.  Residents spend weekends and holidays with family.

In Athill’s own words: The most painful thing I ever did was closing down my flat and moving into the Retirement Home for the Active Elderly. I did it because I was approaching 92 and having no children, loathed the idea of eventually becoming a burden on nephews and friends.  It was a sensible decision, and I knew even when every nerve was shrieking against it.  

At breakfast today I sat in my little room thinking how odd it is that I never get bored by my things.  Then I realised that nothing in the room is here out of habit or because it was given to me by dear old so-and-so, or because I couldn’t be bothered to get rid of it.  Everything, from the carpet to the biscuit tin and including of course the too-many pictures, ornaments and books, is here because however uninteresting it might be to others, I love it. 

Eva Vermandel/Countour Photos

Eva Vermandel/Countour Photos

It’s as though ‘possessing’ has been distilled down from a vague pleasure to being an intense one: less is more.  When I first saw the room in its bare state it shocked me: how could I possibly live in that tiny space?  And now I am happy in it.  This is the first good thing about this place: the little bare room you get is yours to make entirely your own.  

Space constraints also rule out a double bed.  Athill says she ceased being a sexual being some years ago.  But surely moving from a double to a single bed marks a finality.  It’s a rather sad sort of admission, she reflects. 

My great pleasure at the moment is the flowering on my balcony of my morning glories.  I sowed the seed last March, planning that they would rampage up the wall between my balcony and my neighbour’s and they have not let me down.

Snug though as I am in my room, and much as I enjoy watching the comings and goings of the many birds who visit our lovely garden, I have to say that part of our home’s charm is that we get out of it as often and easily as our personal mobility allows. 

My occupation in the last 3 weeks have included a 3-day stay in Cornwall at the Port Eliot Festival and a visit, with 2 friends I have made since coming here, to a mind-blowing Picasso exhibition at Gargosian gallery.  

Thinking about a long journey can be daunting—so much so that you can be seriously tempted to refuse it and sometimes really do.

But if you can bring yourself to set out, two things can happen: adrenalin kicks in, and everyone becomes incredibly helpful.  Once in a wheelchair, you simply flash through airports.  

Last autumn I flashed all the way to Canada and stayed high for a whole week when there, without any let-down afterwards.

That is something us oldies should bear in mind: until it becomes physically truly impossible, keep on doing things.  In my experience it always turns out to be worthwhile.