Brand building through storytelling

Diana Athill’s guide to old age

The way some people carry on, you’d think old age was the well deserved affliction of the lazy and the clueless. Crow’s feet, turkey neck? Get yourself to a surgeon, honey. Aches and pains got you down? Tsk tsk. Guess you’ve been neglecting yoga. And as for that stillness in your bedroom of late, better hustle that man of yours to the doctor. There are pills for his ailment, you know!

It’s no longer just the usual suspects, with their products to sell and lifestyle pages to fill, who beat the drum for eternal youth. Maverick scientists predict the defeat of old age by technology—none more insistently than Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University, who has gone so far as to say that “most people now 40 years [old] or younger can expect to live for centuries.”

Diana AthillLet me mull that over while I stretch my complaining, middle-aged upper back. If I’m turning 60 this year, do I still qualify as middle-aged? Humour me, please. I may not have the chance to play fast and loose with the human life span but by God, I’ll take what liberties I can with the English language. And meanwhile I can’t avoid this elemental truth: I’m headed for one of two fates. I’ll either die prematurely or I will grow old. So I’m thankful to have found a mentor in the unwelcome art of cronehood—Diana Athill, the legendary British editor-turned-author, whose bracing memoir Somewhere Towards the End I now regard as so essential, I wouldn’t dream of sharing my copy.

Athill wrote this book in her 90th year, and she makes it abundantly plain that 90 is not the new 50. Sore feet, thin hair, cataract surgery, waning energy…every day reminds her that time is running out. Her invalid partner, Barry, needs constant attention and rarely speaks except to ask what’s for dinner or when she’ll take him to the library. “A considerable part of my own old time is taken up by doing things or (worse) failing to do things for people older, of if not older, less resistant to age than myself,” she observes with uncomplaining stoicism.

Meanwhile she has found compensations. Now 91, she still gardens, sews and relishes the company of much younger friends. She reads avidly—but to learn, not to lose herself in a story, as she did when younger. Looking back from the vantage point of old age, she has finally realized she did not lead “a life of failure” (how dismaying that the editor of V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys once entertained such thoughts). And what made this revelation possible was the discovery, in her 80s, that she could write—two books published within two years, an experience she calls “absolutely delicious” (her italics).

Reading Athill’s latest is like sharing a big chintz couch and a pot of tea with a seasoned, straight-talking, endlessly diverting friend whose conversation ranges effortlessly from religion (fairy tales, in her view) to her own death (“Whatever happens, I will get through it somehow, so why the fuss?”). Like other feisty old dames, she no longer cares what other people think of her. She is gloriously frank on the subject of her sexual past—not because she revels in the prurient but because physical love once mattered so much to her and then, astonishingly, no longer mattered at all.

Young AthillHere speaks a woman who had many affairs, quite a few of them with married men, yet never chose to marry herself (she actually liked sending her lover home to a wife who would wash his socks). A woman who calls fidelity a “feudal” notion, proposing “kindness and consideration” as the true watchwords for lovers. A woman who, in her 60s, lost interest in sex. She was living with Barry, a man of undiminished libido. When Barry fell in love with Sally, an appealing and companionable younger woman, Athill flinched, then reverted to why-the-fuss mode. She invited Sally to move into their home and was sad to see her new friend leave to look after an elderly parent.

Years later, she has dedicated this latest book to Sally, her husband and their children. Athill never had children herself, and doesn’t regret their absence. But as she puts it, “…although I have not in fact got a daughter and grandchildren, I have got people who are near to filling these roles.”

I can’t think of any question more intriguing than why we take the paths we do, and what it means that we happened to go one way rather than another. Not many people have the nerve to share that story, or even to believe that others might find it enlightening. Athill herself was raised with this mantra: Do Not Think Yourself Important. Yet here she is, a self-described “oldie,” reflecting out loud so that fretful baby boomers like me can get our minds off wrinkles and onto more substantial concerns.

I had read this book twice before it struck me that Athill, a classic beauty in her youth, says nothing at all about spots or saggy bits. What an eloquent silence. And of course she is beautiful still, with regal bearing and penetrating eyes that look out on what is past, or passing, or to come.

Click here to read my previous post on feisty old dames.


Posted by Rona

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