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My secret life?
Diana Athill Writer
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Jeremy Lewis, who wrote a description of me as… an absolutely nonsensical description, I may say. Have you read his book about his publishing life? Terribly funny, very, very good. But his memory of me, which is based on a certain degree of truth, is that there I was, being a nice, kind, amiable, elderly, respectable English lady spinster. And then there was one day when he needed to go back to the office for some reason, and I had the key. And somehow he got… either I told him, or somebody told him, that where I was, was at a certain address where a party was going on, but that if he went there, he could collect the key from me. And he went there and he rang the bell, and the door was opened by a tall black man, and out came waves of strong smell of marijuana. And this man said, 'Oh yes, I'll get her, just a minute'. And then appeared this mysterious character in a golden dress, with long golden hair, who he didn't recognise at first, but then it turned out to be me. And that the next morning, or two days later, he thought, 'Well, this can't have been true'. But he went into my… came into my office to give me back the key, and there, hanging on the back door, was a long, golden wig. Well, one thing which is absolutely not true, is I never in my life had a long, golden wig. But I did go to a party, a very, very, very boring party, where everyone was absolutely so high that there was no… no sense could be made of anybody, and I didn't stay there very long and that was the party from which he collected the key. I was wearing a yellow dress, which I had bought. I remember the dress quite well. It was a rather shiny yellow dress. And it has occurred to me since, that at sometime about then, I had, in Selfridges, bought a fun wig. It wasn't a long golden wig, it was just a sort of curly wig, which I wore about twice. I could have been wearing it that evening. And Jeremy, who makes a good story better, had turned it long and golden. But anyway, that was his picture of me as an editor, someone who had a secret life. Which wasn't far off the truth, of course.

[Q] How do you mean?

Well, I mean I did have… my life was not really all that sedate, although I was very sedate in the office.

[Q] Drugs, do you mean, or…?

No, I smoked pot about four times, I think, in my life. And acid once, in this room, I experimented. Which I didn't, in the end, much enjoy, but I never really felt any wish to go in for drugs. No, but you know, I had lovers and I had… life went on.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Jeremy Lewis

Duration: 3 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008