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Sexual self-confidence

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Getting older
Diana Athill Writer
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Well, the chief thing is, I think… the only thing that is different is the degree of physical discomfort one is going through, because, and that has sort of slowly grown. I think, as from the age of 80, I began to think, really, I am getting a bit old. Before that, one hadn't really noticed any difference at all. But… well, of course I had noticed differences, but not really big ones. But once your body does start, sort of, packing up in one way or another, then you do notice it.

And my 90 thing, really, is that I have now got arthritis or something, I don't know what. I'm going to have it X-rayed. In my hips. So that most of the time, I'm in pain. And that is not very nice. And it's not very bad pain, luckily, but you know, that is something that you can't ignore, quite.

[Q] But are you in pain now?

If I think about it, I am, but if I manage to think about other… it's quite interesting, as a matter of fact. One discovers… I mean there are certain degrees of pain. Now toothache, didn't matter what I was doing, that was going to be hell. But this kind of, sort of, nagging old pain, it's amazing how, if you're really interested in something else, you forget about it. And then you stop being interested and you come back to it and it's still there. I mean, people talk about pain control. It is obviously possible to, up to a certain point, learn how to live with pain.

That and forgetting. Oh dear, forgetting. I mean, that is a terrible bore. Being really very doolally, the other day… and this is… this has happened before. I have a tap in the kitchen, which is a very, very slow tap, for the filter. And you put a jug underneath and it goes dribble, dribble, dribble, and so you let it go dribble, dribble, dribble and you turn away and do this and that and the other. And twice before, I have in fact gone away and completely forgotten about it, and come back… God, a puddle on the floor. But not a very bad one.

This time, I went away and downstairs, poor Georgia, who lives in the flat below, suddenly came tapping up, shouting, 'Diana, Diana, there's water coming through our kitchen ceiling'. And I had completely forgotten, and the whole of my kitchen was swamped with water. I mean that sort of thing is… and if it had been the first and only time, it wouldn't have been quite so distressing, but since I knew it was a risk, and I still did it, that was worrying. I didn't care for that. But…

[Q] This is short-term memory, is it?

This is short-term memory. I can always remember the long-term things, easily. But short-term memory, where I put my glasses, where I put my keys, that sort of memory. But everybody has the same problem, I think. I don't think it's necessarily the beginning of Alzheimer's. I think it's just old age. But it's a bloody nuisance. You waste an awful lot of time. I don't think I ever leave the house without having to look for my keys or thinking, oh, I'm halfway down the stairs, I haven't brought with me the letter that I want to post. That sort of thing. There are things like not being able to drink, which I've not been able to drink alcohol for a long time now. Which, to begin with, which was very sad, because I enjoyed my drink. But that really, in the end… if something like that goes against you, so that it actually makes you feel ill, you don't finally miss it, because you don't really want it anymore.

It's funny, I can remember, as a young girl, hearing my mother say to somebody that she'd got out of going to some dance, thank God. And I remember thinking, I hope I die before I reach the stage of not wanting to dance. And when you don't want to dance, in fact, you don't want to dance anymore. And so it's no hardship. And it's the same with sex, that died out. And with anything, there is a stage, to begin with, when you realise it's dying out. And you feel sad, not so much for the loss of the thing, but just because it means you're getting old. Oh dear, it means you've got to accept the fact that you're getting old. And that is a sort of hump you have to get over. But I've found that once you're over that hump, you don't really regret these losses very much. Oh, I know one I do regret, and that is music. Being deaf, which I hadn't understood in advance, does mean that your hearing becomes distorted, not just… you don't just lose it. And with my hearing aid in, I can hear music quite loudly, but it sounds awful. I mean, high notes. The violin is painful to listen to. A soprano voice used to be my favourite sort of voice to listen to, is now really not at all attractive to listen to. I can still hear the piano straight, so to speak. But the orchestra, a full orchestra, is most extraordinary. It loses its shape completely, because certain sounds come through and others don't, so it all becomes very peculiar. You keep on hearing the same high notes, they're going 'ping, ping, ping', whenever it comes. It's misery. I wouldn't dream of trying to listen to a symphony now. Or a string quartet. And now that is a loss I miss, because that's not like drink or anything. You know, that's something that would be nice, still, if I could hear it.

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: old age, pain, memory, sex, music

Duration: 6 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008