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My family's love of books


A long and bleak war
Diana Athill Writer
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Isn't that extraordinary, that one can have this long conversation about your life and not mention having lived through the war? Well, expecting the war was really perhaps the worst thing. I was a very convinced pacifist from school on, and the thought that this thing was coming and there was no question in one's mind, when I was at Oxford. One knew it was coming. And one tried not to think about it and to have as nice a time as one possibly could, while one could.

But there was an old boy called Garvin who wrote regularly in… The Observer, who was a real old Cassandra. I mean, not a Sunday went by when he didn't say, 'It's coming, it's coming, it's nearly here'. And my father got so fed up with it that he cancelled The Observer. It wasn't that he didn't believe it, he just… you know, he didn't want to have to go on thinking about it. And I always remember, there was a night at Oxford when there a pair of planes going over. They were bombers. And we knew enough about… because of the Spanish war, we knew enough to be able to distinguish the sound of bombers. And I thought, that's what it's going to be like. That's what's one going to hear. And it was so sort of bleak and awful, one couldn't even cry, you know, but I remember saying to one of my friends, 'I think I'll kill myself if it starts'. And she said, 'Well, why kill yourself because you might be killed'? And I said, 'It's not that, it's just the thought of the horror happening'. But of course, then it did start and one didn't kill oneself, one just did whatever came on next. One got little jobs and things. And it was a deadly bleak time. It really was. I mean, I can't remember any… people remember, sort of, wartime gaiety and things. I can't. I just remember one sweated through it and one felt it was never going to end. It wasn't that it was… I mean, there was just no way of seeing how it was ever going to end. I never thought we were going to lose it, but I did sometimes truly think, perhaps it will never end. And a cousin of mine was killed, a man who I'd had an affair with at Oxford was killed. Tony was killed. You know, everything ghastly happened. Worse things happened to other people. I was in the country quite a lot of the time, because the BBC, which I was working at, was… we were sent off down to Bletchley. And when we came back, after the first bits, and we had quite a long time when nothing happened until the… I was once, during that time, in the Blitz time, in London. And the room where I was staying for the night was blown out, only I was out in a restaurant, so I didn't have to… I wasn't there, luckily.

And then, at the time of the doodlebugs and the other bombs, the long-distance bombs, again, there was once… actually, the only time it came, sort of, really near… every night, one woke up and thought, oh God, I'm not going to do downstairs, I can't, what's the point? You know? But there was one day when the curtains suddenly, rather slowly, blew in and a china bowl that was on the windowsill went whoosh and fell on the floor and broke. And that was the nearest bombs actually came to me. So I didn't have to… and I never went and slept in the underground or anything. Just occasionally, I went downstairs to the ground floor, but it always seemed to me that that might be worse, that, you know, if the house was going to fall down, perhaps I didn't want it falling on top of me. Mostly, one just pulled the covers over one's head and shut one's eyes tight and hoped to hear the all-clear soon, and then one did. But it was dreary and awful. And even… and I remember, actually, VJ Day… no, VE Day, that was the first one. Sort of going out with somebody, I suppose with André, maybe, to sort of rejoice in Piccadilly. Not… I mean, having a problem to make myself believe that this had happened, that it was over. And I couldn't feel that it was over. I couldn't feel happy, really, because I couldn't believe it. And also, I kept on thinking, yes, but think of all the people it's not over for. Think of all those people whose sons have been killed and everything. I don't remember that as a happy night, at all. It took quite a long time for a sort of relief to come though. VJ Day, which happened later, we'd got used to the fact, and that was happy. I remember that was a lovely day, and we all went roaring down Pall Mall and yelled for the king to come on out on the… you know, and it was extraordinary. They were a huge crowd, huge crowd, and there were geraniums planted in those beds in front there, and they were all standing on all the flowerbeds, and they were all so well-mannered that they stood with their feet on either side of the geraniums. And it said in the paper afterwards that only two geraniums had been broken. That was a lovely night, because then that… one got around to… and I didn't… I know some people who, even then, were so filled with horror by the bomb, but I wasn't. I was just thinking, well, now it is over.

[Q] The atomic bomb?


[Q] Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I mean, there were other, more sensitive people, who were so horrified by that and realised the horror of it. I didn't realise the horror of it until a bit later on, when the photographs and things began coming through. But no, it was bleak. Long, long, long. It seemed incredibly long. But it was long. It was all one's 20s, gone. And people who say the 50s were difficult and appalling, they just don't remember how wonderful it was that the war wasn't going on anymore. Didn't matter what the 50s were like, they were fun.

Diana Athill (1917-2019) was a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she came to be 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: The Observer, Oxford University, VJ Day, London, Hiroshima, Nagasaki

Duration: 7 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008