So Passes the Glory
The decades-long friendship of editor and memoirist Diana Athill and poet Edward Field, commenced in 1980, produced hundreds of pages of artful, literate, high-spirited conversation. This edited selection begins with a letter from 2003 in which Athill confers on Field permission to publish her letters, and then retraces correspondence that occurred between the pair from March 2000 to August 2001. The “Barbara” mentioned is Barbara Smith, a longtime writer for the Economist and mutual friend whose illness is discussed. (“Vanessa” is Smith’s daughter.) “Barry” is Jamaican playwright Barry Reckord, Athill’s companion. Wherever possible—meaning whenever they were available and not much changed from the version Athill intended to print—her original letters have been reproduced here as facsimiles, for which we express gratitude to Edward Field. As she admits, Athill herself was not a keeper of letters. Therefore, few of Field’s letters not composed on a computer remain, which accounts for the absence of facsimiles of his own correspondence from this period.

From Diana Athill

These letters belong to my dear friend the poet Edward Field, to whom they were written. He kept them and decided that he would like to see them published. Usually when someone’s letters are published the writer is dead. In this case there was a problem: Edward is seven years younger than I am, but since I’m ninety-four that doesn’t make him young. If he waited until I was dead he might be dead, too. Since these letters record something precious to me—a friendship that has given me, and still gives me, much pleasure—I knew I would like them to be in print.

An important gain from being old is that one ceases to be a sexual being, though this may be less true of men than it is of women (indeed, in some ancient men a sort of freakish sexuality seems to intensify). For me, anyway, age has brought the end of it, so I have become free to love men without wanting to go to bed with them, which is surprisingly delightful. Having someone congenial to share experience with makes things more interesting, funnier, sometimes easier to bear. It is the essence of a friendship, and once past middle age one doesn’t often find a new person to add warmth and color to existence in this way. Getting to know Edward and his partner, Neil Derrick, in the early 1980s was an extraordinary piece of luck.

The nature of their life together is partly determined by the fact that in 1972 Neil was diagnosed with a brain tumour, the removal of which left him blind. Their friends marvel at the stoicism with which Neil endures his inevitable lack of independence, and the generosity with which Edward makes light of being depended on. Between them they divest the situation of anything unusual or poignant, becoming just two people whose company is exceptionally enjoyable; but when one stands back and looks at them from a distance one sees two different kinds of heroism which happen by great good fortune to interlock, and the sight does one good.

I suppose I was drawn so quickly into friendship with Edward because he is a person who “speaks right out,” and is at the same time lovable (of course “speaking right out” would not be a recommendation if the person were horrid!). An open nature invites an open response: right from the start I knew that to Edward I could say anything, and this it was that made these letters fun to write. It also makes them a true portrait of a happy relationship, for which reason, although I know it may seem odd to allow this publication while I am still alive, I am happy to do so. ––DA
Photo © Rankin
Facsimiles of Diana Athill letters courtesy of Edward Field; Edward Field letters courtesy of Edward Field.
All Diana Athill letters excerpted from Letters to a Friend by Diana Athill. Copyright © 2011 by Diana Athill. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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