‘Francis Huxley and the ‘guiding light’ of Bach.

But now, I shall digress in my account.

In 2002, I wrote this piece, when my memory of this meeting was much fresher, I shall now recount what I wrote then.

‘My father was a friend of Francis, and they shared many interests. Primarily, a curiosity about how human beings try to make sense of the world; the spiritual journeys that we take; and the longing for transcendence and ‘meaning structure’. Francis saw my father as a one-off urbanite shaman.  But I was no match for Francis’ formidable intellect. He had the questions – but I was unable to provide the answers’.

In despair, Francis decided to show me round his splendid front room, patiently describing the various pieces and their provenance to me. I was engrossed and fascinated.  Francis appeared exhausted.  Later, he went off to make some coffee; and I was told to sit and ‘relax’ on the sofa.  As I was still considerably in awe of him, this was difficult’.

In a gentle, but rather schoolmasterly way, Francis then announced that he was going to ‘play me some music’, and that I must listen to it very carefully.  I noticed that in his living room he had the latest, most up-to-date state-of-the-art sound system available at the time: equipment straight out of  Hi-Fi News.

Gingerly, I lay back against the velvet upholstery, and waited. The it began: the gloriously optimistic first movement of Bach’s Cantata 140 – Wachet Auf! – with its tremendously upflifting ‘Chorus’.

It was the first time in my life of twenty-five years that I had heard such music. My very first Bach cantata. I was entranced, and totally enraptured by the ‘chorale melody’.

Francis smiled wearily at me.

To him, I must’ve appeared to be a lightweight; a mere tyro.  A twentieth-century girl more used to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, although, in fact, I had been collecting recordings of  music by,   Beethoven, Dvorak , Sibelius and other compusers since I was ten years old.





‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I did write back to dear Diana, but, this time, I didn’t receive a reply.

I knew that she had moved from her flat into a marvellous ‘care’ home for elderly, literate women.  Perhaps my cards and letters didn’t reach her. I wish I had persisted, but my news at the time wasn’t very cheerful.  I was very involved then in caring for my beloved husband, who was very ill, and finally died in 2010.

I also continued to care for my mother, who died in 2017, aged ninety-nine.

I have read all the obituaries to Diana, and learned even more about her and her life.

It is a little poignant for me that she died on January 23 rd  – my mother’s birthday.

Because, in a way, Diana was my ‘writing’ mother.  I regard her as a role model, an inspiration and an example that it is never too late to have a successful writing career, and that gaps in one’s writing life are inevitable when ordinary demands, such as work, childcare and family matters take over.

Diana – for your kindness and encouragement to me over a lifetime – I salute you!



‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

‘Dear Sprout – How lovely to hear from you!  And how happy I feel after reading your generous appreciation of my book, for which I thank you.

What a pity you weren’t at Charleston. It was such a beautiful day, the house and garden at their best, and Katherine W and I had an almost overwhelming reception from that huge tentful of people, all of whom seemed to be beaming at us and ready to roll in the aisles laughing at our feeblest jokes.  We ended up very pleased with ourselves and each other.  Although Hay is meant to be more important, and can be v. enjoyable, I don’t think it will be better than Charleston.  I go to it the day after tomorrow – and it does have the advantage of being quite near where my sister lives, so I’ll stay with her for a few days.  Then there’ll be a gap, then Dartington – then a longer gap – the Edinburgh. And that will be that.  I shall miss the shots of adrenaline one gets from these jaunts, although they are rather exhausting.  Granta is quite pleased with the book’s sales…and I am agreeably astonished.

I wonder what form your blossoming has taken. More poetry? Or something quite different?  Do write and tell me, if you have the time.

With best wishes

Diana Athill

PS Interesting to hear that Camden’s doing well by your mother, because it can’t be too long before it has to ditto for me!!


‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I was delighted to receive Diana’s comments of my poems.  I think that she much preferred fiction to poetry, so was even more happy that she had liked a few of them.

I feel Diana’s death very keenly.  She was a remarkable woman – one of the greatest editors ever, who overcame heartbreak in her youth, worked until she was 75, and then powered on – in her retirement – to write  a series of lovely, life-affirming books, such as her meisterstuck  ( in my opinion) – Somewhere Towards The End (2008), written when she was nearly ninety!.

I read it in one sitting. Un-put-downable, and again wrote to congratulate her. I also told her a little about the trials and tribulations of caring for my mother – born in 1918 – and similar in age to Diana.

This was her reply:




‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

Shortly after receiving Diana’s letter, I sent her a piece I had written about my having met the poet, Stevie Smith in 1970, which I hoped she would enjoy reading.

I received this reply, on a lovely card showing a reproduction of Mary Cassatt’s The Lamp.  Diana was an accomplished artist, as well as a sublime author.

‘Dear Amanda – Thank you for writing again. It’s v. pleasant to think of you and your friends thinking of me. And I loved your meeting with Stevie – could see her so clearly in your description.

I ought to have written earlier about your poems – sorry! Such idleness! I’m too old now to ‘feel’ love poems, happy or sad ( been there, done that!) but I liked Mr Greenwood very much, and the Norwich Floods, and indeed several of the others.  I agree with Graham Ackroyd about their Chinesey quality of spare precision.

What an interesting far-flung life you have!


Diana    19.10.01

‘Diana Athill and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

I had just read the sublime Stet: An Editor’s Life (2000) by Diana, so I wrote to tell her how much I had enjoyed it.  On 15.9.2001 I received the following  reply from her , written in her beautiful hand-writing from her flat at 7, Elsworthy Terrace, NW3.

‘Dear Amanda,

I was delighted to get your letter and am so glad that you liked Stet – and that you have had your poems published.  I shall order a copy at once.

I’ve no copy of Sprouts,either.  Having never had enough shelf-space at home, I always used my office as a depository for my own copies of AD books without thinking twice about it.  When the end came – help! I’d have had to move house if I took them all with me.  Leaving so many behind was the only really sad thing about that final departure. So I can’t contribute to any attempt to find out how the sprouts blossomed.

Am tickled to see that Waterloo, like Granta, follows the present fashion in typographical design in making the titles and authors all but invisible in the cause of Elegance.

‘Typographers’ navel-gazing’ is what Andre used to call such tricks. And I do think that in your case they have overdone it!

With best wishes




‘Diana Athill’ and ‘Sprout’. A Friendship.

The years passed by, but in 1995, aged 50, I left my job in English-language teaching, and  then worked for Trinity as an examiner. With Trinity, I worked in Italy, Spain and across the UK. I also took off for a trip to Barrow, in Alaska. This freedom and movement fired up my writing, and the poems started to flow again.

By 2001, I had enough poems for publication. Alan Ross – the best of editors ( as good as Diana!) in London – very generously took five poems of mine for the last two editions of London Magazine, before he died on February 14th 2001 of a heart attack.  I feel that the cheque that he sent to  me was one of the last he wrote.  He had been a mentor to me – by post – as he helped me along with my poems, editing and refining them. I had been sending them to him for over thirty years until I was finally accepted.

Shortly after this, my first slim volume of poems  The Appropriate Country  was published by Waterloo Press, with the careful encouragement of my marvellous editor, Simon Jenner.

I still had Diana’s address and was determined to write to her – and send her a copy.