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!
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.
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
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.
I continued to have a few poems published in Twentieth Century magazine, and thought, mistakenly, that I might have enough poems to be able to publish a pamphlet, or a small collection. I’d also given a couple of poetry readings.
I decided I’d approach the only publisher I knew: Andre Deutsch.
As a result, I wrote to Diana to see if they would consider reading my current crop of poems. She kindly replied to me on September 14th, 1971:
‘Thank you for letting me know about your poems. I would indeed by very glad to read them’
But I never sent them to her.
I had started travelling and in 1973 my son, Alex, was born. I was too busy living , working and trying to survive. I still wrote poetry, but it was to be many decades before I came into contact with Diana again.
In the years between 1965 and 1971, I had had a rather tumultous and unsettled time.
I had bravely begun a course in Philosophy at the University of Birmingham ( it was the era of Gilbert Ryle’s ‘Concept of Mind’); had discovered that I wasn’t suited to Logic and truth tables; had dropped out, gone to work at the Victoria and Albert museum, as a museum assistant; had then left and taken a course in Fine Art at the University of East Anglia, and graduated, this time, with a 2:1.
Throughout these times, I had continued to write poetry, and had been published in a variety of little magazines: Mermaid, Scrip, Breakthru, Preface,Sun, Iconolate and Plain Poetry. I had joined the Poetry Society and met and become friends with the poets Frances and Michael Horowitz and George Macbeth at poetry readings that I attended.
Then, on Thursday, 3 July, 1969, Derwent May, the literary editor of The Listener, kindly accepted a poem of mine: ‘ Concerning the Spiritual in Motherhood’.
I was elated.
The launch went well. Andre made an appearance and a great impression on me, too, with his wonderful Continental style and charm ( he was Hungarian). He had fine, blue eyes and wore an immaculately-tailored suit. Again, he knew all our names and what we had written and was genuinely interested in us.
Certainly, the publishers had done us proud, by producing a fine hard-back book, with an introduction by Sir Herbert Read, and an elegant jacket design by Annette Green. Perhaps the directors had hoped to net a future poet laureate from among us; ( not sure that they were successful in this; but it was a brave and imaginative punt!) but, as it was, we were added to a very impressive poetry list which included volumes by Roy Fuller, Geoffrey Hill, David Gascoyne, Elizabeth Jennings, Norman Mailer, Stevie Smith, Peter Levi, Laurie Lee, David Wright and John Updike.
By the time the book was published, most of us were at university ( we were an elite and over-privileged group of young people, in those days), and our poems were immature juvenilia , but I certainly appreciated being published so young.
I wasn’t to be in touch with Diana again until 1971.
I first met Diana Athill in 1965 at the offices of Andre Deutsch at 105, Great Russell Street, and was to keep in touch with her for many years after that. However, on this occasion, I was one of a group of twenty-five Sixth Formers, who had been invited to an At Home by the directors of the publishing house to celebrate the launch of an anthology of verse to which we had all contributed: ‘Sprouts on Helicon’.
We were a very uneven group: twenty-two boys and three girls, and the only thing we had in common was that we had all been published in the journal Sixth Form Opinion.
Astonishingly, sixteen of the boys were from top-flight public schools: Bedales, Eton, Westminster and Winchester, among others; and the rest of us were from the ‘standard issue’ single-sex grammar schools of the day; with not one representative from a comprehensive.
We were asked to meet at the very grown-up time of 6-8pm ( I still have my invitation) on Wednesday, April 21st, and , as far as I can remember, no parents were present. Mine (divorced) certainly weren’t.
But Diana welcomed us all individually, with great warmth, treated us all as serious adult authors, worthy of respect, and completely ignored the fact that we were just a bunch of teenagers.
I thought she was terrific. She also looked marvellous with her corn-gold upswept hair, smart clothes and chic black horn-rimmed spectacles. She was super-organised, energetic and kind. I had never met anyone like her before.