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Having a beady eye
Diana Athill Writer
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When involved in these curious situations with people, I'm not really all that involved emotionally. I'm more curious by what's going on. I'm watching it. It's as though I was reading a very interesting book. So that I'm not really as much as kindly involved, as I appear to be. I'm more distanced.

[Q] And that's what meant by a beady eye?

That's what I mean by a beady eye.

[Q] It's very honest of you to say that, isn't it?

Well, when I write, I try, always, if possible, to get it right, how it really is. It's just everyone always goes on about this honesty thing, because I don't think there's any point in writing about yourself unless you try to get it right.

[Q] Even if it's sometimes uncomfortable?

Even if it's sometimes uncomfortable.

[Q] So is there anything about yourself that you've noticed or come to realise, that makes you uncomfortable?

Well, I think probably that there's a sort of a… a sort of… somehow, I… In Instead of a Letter, when I was trying to… at the end, thinking well now, out of this long, long… not Instead of a Letter, the last book, this long life, there must be things I regret about myself. And I say that it's a sort of… it's a sort of selfishness, basically, right at the bottom, although I can do unselfish things from time to time. A self-protectiveness, of not getting too involved. Being an observer rather than a participant, which I think is not very nice.

[Q] Aren't you a bit hard on yourself?

Hm?

[Q] Aren't you a bit hard on yourself?

Well, I don't know. I mean, one is a participant in some ways, obviously, in certain circumstances, but I think that that's probably something that I must blame myself for.

[Q] But has it had any consequences that matter?

It probably has. I mean, I think it's odd, you see. It was very, very odd that I don't regret more not having children. And I think that that is part of it. I never was, when I was young, in the least maternal. Didn't have the slightest wish to have babies, and it overtook me in my forties, when I very nearly did have a child, but had a miscarriage.

And I suppose, if I'd had that child, I should have been a perfectly good mother to it. I think I would have been, but when… having wanted it very much, as I thought, after the miscarriage, I never really have minded it. That I had a ... partly, because, you see, it nearly killed me. And the fact that I was still alive was so wonderful that it quite swept away everything else. But that always seemed to me to suggest a sort of coldness somewhere. I mean, I ought… other people, many another woman would be eating their hearts out after that. And I can't say that I did.

I know that a lot of writers say this about themselves, you know, that they can sit there watching their parents die, and they mind, but they're still observing all the time. I certainly did that. I mean, I minded my mother dying very much, but I certainly was watching it, and watching my own reactions all the time. I think writers do it and probably… probably makers of documentary films do it, too.

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: Instead of a Letter

Duration: 5 minutes

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008