Publisher, novelist and literary editor Diana Athill has worked closely with many authors, including Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mordecai Richler, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys, and V.S. Naipaul as well as writing many books of her own. She has recently published what she says is her last book, ‘Somewhere Towards the End’, and appropriately for someone in her early nineties, the book is a reflection on the end years of her life. She says that none of the books she has written have been planned – either they happened or they haven’t. She enjoyed writing the book, says that it would have been longer ‘if there had been anything more to say’, but having talked about it at Literary Festivals, has decided that the end-years are no longer taboo as many people think. Instead there is a need for people to talk about growing old and sharing their feelings about death.
The best thing about writing the book she says was remembering past pleasures, particularly the people she has loved.
‘That of course is a pastime very common in old age, even when you are not calling it up deliberately during the writing of a book: one does spend a lot of time just doodling about in one’s memories ….it has occurred to me that possibly when you see very old people apparently just sitting and gazing into space they may in fact be having quite a nice time inside their heads’.
This business of staring into space strikes a chord for me. It happened this morning when after a bit of hard digging on my allotment, I sat and stared into the joy of an early Spring morning for rather longer than my tiredness warranted. I’ve done this before, in denial of my ingrained Protestant work-ethic conscience: doing nothing in a sort of profitable way. I have seen many elderly people in geriatric homes whose thoughts are now too far away to be gathered, and at first when this happened I feared it meant the warning signs of my own senility were approaching.
It may even be so. But I like to think ‘just doodling about’ is in fact as Diana Athill says, a ‘nice time’ inside my head.
When there are so many nasty things happening outside our heads in this fractured, it seems almost demonic age we are living through, that’s not perhaps a bad place to be.