Barbara Smith remembers her friend and cousin, Diana Athill.
Dinah was a great companion. Non-judgmental, independent, not too fussed about anything and eager to try any new experience, whether a food or clothing or art or a person. She was remarkably good at enjoyment, getting the most out of everything, helped of course by those beady eyes, which she writes about and which spotted everything, sometimes to the discomfort of others but often for her own delight.
Friends and cousins, in one way or another we lived together for most of our very long lives. My first memory of her is when we were both bridesmaids at our cousin Anne’s wedding. She must have been about nineteen, and I thought her the epitome of beauty and sophistication. She announced to us all that her own wedding was going to be much much grander. Then of course the war happened.
But then, just after the end of the war, she invited me to join her in her little ground-floor flat in York Terrace just behind Madame Tussauds. Dinah’s career as prop and support to Andre Deutsch and the hundreds of writers who published with him was kicking off. The flat was dark and shabby, awaiting demolition so the rent was tiny. We took in lodgers to help make ends meet. We sometimes shared it with rats, one of which popped up in the bathroom while Di was actually in the bath. But we were proud of it, painted it with bright colours, entertained somehow, went on adventurous holidays and acquired the first of our beloved little dogs. An enormously fat former music-hall star, called Gracie Baby, lived in the basement and regaled us with wonderful music hall stories. She was kind to us but she suffered from some form of kleptomania, and we were often faced by the moral dilemma of whether to creep down to her flat and steal back our one and only milk jug or whatever.
After that Dinah joined me in the Primrose Hill house I had sort of bought in 1960. She took the top rooms and made them her own. Primrose Hill in those days was not at all grand, much nicer to live in than it is now, and we stayed there for a very long time. Eventually our priorities diverged. I had children. She had her growing fame, a new sort of writing life, her great friend and one-time lover Barry, her wonderful family of nephews. But we still saw each most days and I was fascinated by all the strange exciting things that were going on in her top flat. She was a constant reassuring presence. Incidentally she kindly abstained from writing about me or my family because, knowing her alarming frankness and her acclaimed honesty, I had told her that I would kill her if she did.
Finally, when we were pretty old, we shared the small house my mother had built in south Norfolk, very close to Ditchingham where Di had spent that idyllic childhood she writes about. We loved it there. At first we went for weekends, then more and more until, at last and much later, Di made the decision, against my advice I admit, to go and live in her excellent retirement home. Which of course turned out wonderfully for her.
Throughout all these times I have had the pleasure of watching the blooming of Dinah’s extraordinary writing gifts and their deserved recognition. I had loved her first book Instead of a Letter, and it was amazing and thrilling when she won first prize in an Observer short story competition with a tale from one of our holidays. That fired her self-confidence and from then on, though fame took time, there was no stopping her. She got joy out of the whole thing, a book going well, people loving it, her opinions in demand, great pictures of her in the papers, reading aloud in her splendid voice. Though sometimes exhausted, she found the whole business of being a national treasure amazing, and though, like Judy Dench, she laughed at it, I think she also thought it her due.
So much else to remember. In Norfolk she gardened with verve and inspiration, always very sure of her decisions, particularly when others disagreed with her. She explored various forms of art with skill and she became brilliant at needle point embroidery. The Norfolk cottage boasts several richly embroidered chairs and a couple of splendid little tapestries, one a primitive of local country life, and another of St George and the Dragon. That one bears the legend Some Damsels Prefer Dragons. I remember one absurd little incident, seventy years or so ago, when we simultaneously, on some silly, wrong impulse, misdirected the burly policemen who were chasing a villain who had broken into our York Terrace building. Perhaps Dinah, like her damsel, sometimes preferred dragons to saints and knights. I miss her.