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My parents' marital life

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Reduced circumstances
Diana Athill Writer
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I was  always known… knew, right from the very beginning, that I would have to earn my own living. I used to be told that, pretty smartly, by my father from time to time. And I thought what a bore he was saying it, but never mind. No doubt it was true.

[Q] And there was a time when you had to live in, sort of, less grand circumstances?

Oh, we always did. In our own houses, we were much less grand. And there was a time, when we were living in Hertfordshire, in a nice little house in a village called Kempton, when the bank said – my mother was extravagant, you see – the bank said: no more cheques can be cashed if we go on like this. And so the housemaid had to go and the cook had to go. We had, there, cook, housemaid, governess and a gardener. And the housemaid had to go. We had to make our own beds and do our own cooking. Not for very long. Someone was doing cooking soon, but on the other hand, we then moved to save money even more. We moved to the Hall Farm, where I suppose we paid no rent. And there we did do our own cooking for, I suppose, about two years, but gradually there was slaves available, really, on the estate. Jessie, I'm quite certain, was one who came and lived in and was a cook. I'm sure we paid her about tuppence, because she was half-witted and things. We were able to. Help was available, eventually, but there was a time, certainly, when Mum was doing all the cooking, which meant that we lived on scrambled eggs, really. And we did have roast lamb, because she knew how to put lamb in the oven. But, you know, that… and it never worried anybody very much.

I can also remember being very scared when we used to… we didn't have a fridge in those days. What we did was things had to be… there was a safe on the wall outside the kitchen, with a perforated door, and that's where the meat and things lived. And I remember being very scared when I went out to get something from it, and there was nothing left, after that. It was empty. And it suddenly occurred to me that it was actually possible to run out of food, perhaps not to have food. And the Hall, Ditchingham Hall, had a larder, an enormous room, I mean as big as this room, with black slate shelves, absolutely stuffed. I mean, there was… if the house had been besieged, it could have gone on living for months, really in what was in the larder. But we had this little square box. Well, if it was empty, it was empty. And I remember thinking: oh dear, yes, this is the reality of being poor. But of course, then not really being all that worried, because it was soon quite full again, because my mother went shopping.

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: Kimpton

Duration: 3 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008