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Reduced circumstances

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A mesalliance in the family
Diana Athill Writer
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I don't think we ever sort of thought what we were, but we just thought we were the best, excepting we weren't lords. We… we respected lords, rather, I think. But we mingled with them, if necessary. And in fact, you see, my uncles… my uncle married, very shockingly, an Italian. He married a Catholic lady, and she was Italian, which he could not have done if his father had been alive. They were terribly anti-Catholic. They were Low Church and I think that really… I know that his father had told terrible lies once to avoid… to make him break off being engaged to a Catholic girl when he was at Oxford. But then, when his father was dead, he instantly married this scarlet woman of Rome, really, because Nenella was not just Catholic and she was not just Italian, but she had an uncle who was a cardinal. And Nenella believed that you should marry your daughters well, if you could. She was always very, very shocked because my mother and her sisters didn't think that. They let us all wander about unchaperoned, but Nenella would never have dreamt of doing that. And did, in fact, marry both her daughters to lords. She brought it off in a big way.

As children, one thought of the people on the farm as… and their sons, as friends. But we were unaware, we didn't sort of think that these friends who we ran across the park to play with all day, we never went into their house and they never came into our house. It didn't… I don't think it occurred to them, either. I mean, we just… the lines were so laid down that those were a different sort of friends. But for instance, Andrew and I, my brother and I, absolutely worshipped the boy who was the shepherd's assistant, because he knew so much about birds and things. He was older than us. I suppose he must have been about 14 when we were, say, six and eight. But I mean, we were with him as much as we possibly could, and he was lovely. He used to collect eggs for us and he was very kind to us.

And then he vanished. And he vanished, poor boy, because his father, I think, who was the woodman, got drunk and was bullying, and he threatened his father with a shotgun, and got sent to prison. It was an awful sort of scandal. But then, years later, it was most extraordinary, really, I was, I suppose 16 or 17, and we were going… roller-skating had become our great passion. We used to go into Norwich and we used to go to the roller-skating rink, which was lovely. And there was the man who sort of looked after the roller-skates and strapped them on for you, and he was kneeling down, kneeling in front of me. I could just see the top of his head. And I said, 'Dick Webb?' I didn't know I was going to say it. And he looked up and said, 'Hello, Miss Diana'. And that was Dick Webb. And it was a very, very odd moment, because he'd been such a friend, and neither he nor I quite knew what to say.

And, you know, I said, 'It's nice to see you', or something. He said, 'Yes', and we were both quite, sort of, tongue-tied by it, and I was very upset by it, really, but glad to see that he wasn't in prison anymore. But it was a strange thing, because there was this tremendous class difference, which we used, in our childhood, to have been able to escape. And there it was.

There was a very clear distinction in our minds about… people like us were alright, people like Dick Webb, or anybody on the estate, were alright, they were fine, they were nice, you liked them. People who lived in suburbs were beyond the pale. I don't think we knew anyone who lived in a suburb, but suburban was about the worst thing you could possibly say about anybody, or anything, that it looked suburban.

And that was very strong. And one suspected that a lot of Londoners might have been rather suburban. But on the other hand, you see, then it became complicated, when you were a child, because if they were Londoners, well, they might be a bit suburban, but they were Londoners. They knew their way about this terrifying and wonderful great place. They could travel in buses by themselves. And in a way, you were awestruck by them, because when we came up to London, we always went with Mum, and she knew her way about in London, which made us admire her greatly, but we were absolutely at a loss. We were fascinated. We loved it. We went on undergrounds and up and down on moving staircases and things, but if we were left alone in London, when we were sort of nine or ten, we would have been completely, absolutely flummoxed. We would have been terrified. So that to think that these people, who lived in London, were sort of quite at home in it, made them, in a way, admirable.

Quite soon in my career, I began to think it was a lot of nonsense. But… I mean, for instance, I still recognise accents, but on the other hand, I now disregard them, but I consciously disregard them. One splendid thing, which we've now become quite used to, is 'toilet'. That would have been absolutely the pits. But now… I mean, one said lavatory or, if you were my grandmother, you would say water closet. But we did not say toilet. And it was only really I think fairly recently, by which I mean in perhaps the last 30 years ago, that one began to think, what nonsense, and really everybody said toilet, and so one might just as well say toilet, too.

[Q] Or loo.

Loo. Well, loo, of course, has turned up as being preferable. More likely… because one used to say lav, when I was at school, and loo is more like that. I still don't actually like toilet.

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: Norwich, London

Duration: 7 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008