Biographies are like busses, you wait for one for ages then three come along at once…
My Uncle Bobbie died earlier this year just under two weeks before his 96th birthday. It seems strange to refer to the death of a nonagenarian as a shock, but it was, because he wasn’t ill. On the morning of the day he died he telephoned his sister (also in her nineties), as he did every morning, to let her know he was ok. By tea time he was dead: it seems he simply keeled over and was dead before he hit the floor.
Not much more than a week after Bobbie’s demise, I happened to tune into Radio 4 during the broadcast of a weekly obituary programme, Last Word. It included a piece about the editor and author Diana Athill, who’d died earlier in the week at the ripe old age of 101 and – because death was on my mind – I decided to read her memoir Somewhere Towards the End, which she wrote aged 89. The book was awarded the Costa Biography Award in 2008.
The memoir is Athill’s “go at” recording the “process” of old age and dying, a process “that is often longer than our development”; as a former book editor, she’d an eye for a gap in the market: “Book after book has been written about being young, and … procreation, but there is not much on record about falling away”.
This might sound like the premise for a depressing read but it’s not. Athill is the world’s grandmother, wise, honest, and informative, sharing her “random thoughts” on a gamut of topics: clothes and cosmetics, sex – and ceasing to be a “sexual being”, religion, the “event” of death, young people, gardening, driving, becoming a carer to the “older or…less resistant to age”, books (“I have gone off novels…I no longer feel the need to ponder human relationships.”), writing, regrets, and luck/resilience.
Was I hoping for the answer to life, the universe and everything? Maybe…which is rather a heavy expectation to lay on one, little book. Athill is characteristically honest: “there are no lessons to be learned, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer.” How could there be? Death is “the commonest thing in life” and there is no getting around the fact that “the worn-out (or damaged) container of the self, together with the self’s awareness of itself: away that goes into nothingness, with everyone else’s.”
But could there be a lesson after all? Athill thinks that “once past eighty one has no right to complain about dying” and grief at the thought or your own death “is simply what one has to pay for what one has enjoyed.” In other words (assuming you’ve reached the magic 80) the more you love being alive, the more you’ll hate/dread the thought of not being alive, which means you’ve drawn the luck card in life’s lottery.
Was Bobbie was a lucky man? He served in the 2nd World War, and lived to tell the tale (more than can be said for a fair few of his generation); enjoyed life (going to church, betting on the horses, listening to Andre Rieu, supporting Everton F.C.); was loved by family and friends; dodged the indignities that frequently foreshadow death. So, yes, he was lucky, though that doesn’t negate my sadness at never seeing his smile again, or hearing another of his anecdotes (of which he had a seemingly indefatigable store).
Death is uncontrovertibly a bugger but given that “life works in terms of species rather than individuals” and we can’t live forever…may we all be lucky!
Rating: ** Worth reading