In August 1947, Diana Athill travelled to Florence by the Golden Arrow train for a two-week holiday with her good friend Pen. In this playful diary of that trip, delightfully illustrated with photographs of the period, Athill recorded her observations and adventures eating with (and paid for by) the hopeful men they meet on their travels, admiring architectural sights, sampling delicious pastries, eking out their budget, and getting into scrapes.
Written with an arresting immediacy and infused with an exhilarating joie de vivre, A Florence Diary is a bright, colourful evocation of a time long lost and a vibrant portrait of a city that will be deliciously familiar to any contemporary traveller.
|Publisher:||House of Anansi Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Diana Athill was born in 1917. She helped Andre Deutsch establish the publishing company that bore his name and worked as an editor for Deutsch for four decades. Athill’s distinguished career as an editor is the subject of her acclaimed memoir Stet, which is also published by Granta Books, as are five volumes of memoirs, Instead of a Letter, After a Funeral, Yesterday Morning, Make Believe, Somewhere Towards the End, and a novel, Don’t Look at Me Like That. In January 2009, she won the Costa Biography Award for Somewhere Towards the End, and was presented with an OBE. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
‘Keep a diary for me,’ said my mother. So I did, the only one I ever wrote, and she preserved it. Here it is, res- cued from the tattered little copybook in which I wrote it, and the sometimes near illegibility of my scrawl. My mother didn’t just read it, but even edited it a little: tiny corrections in her handwriting occur here and there. My first excursion abroad to Florence, a gift to me and my cousin Pen from my mother’s elder sister, Joyce, to celebrate the end of World War II, was an Event for her as well as for me. I, of course, was thrilled by this wonderful gift, but I’m not sure I fully recognised its significance. I only gradually came to understand how impossible it is to exaggerate the importance of holidays, those two or three weeks every year when I escaped into what felt like real life.
That is not to say that the fifty-odd years I spent as a publisher living in London meant nothing: they were my raison d’être as well as the source of my bread and butter, but they didn’t answer my dreams. Holidays were seen by some of my friends as romantic chapters in love affairs, but not by me. My holidays left a love affair behind. For most of the time I was living with a moneyless man who drew the line at holidaying at my expense (and anyway claimed to see no point in visiting new places). What I was after was not a shared experience, but the excitement of discovery. I was hungry for the thrill of being elsewhere.
It was this that took me abroad. Only recently did I see how much of my own country I failed to discover because to me a holiday meant foreign travel. France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia (as it was then), the Caribbean, the USA I fell madly in love with places in all these. I remember tears in my eyes when I realised, on leaving Trinidad, that I would probably never again hear the voice of the kiskadee the bird whose call sounds so exactly like someone asking plaintively, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’il dit? Qu’est-ce qu’il dit?’ In Port of Spain it called all day long, until night fell and the barking of dogs took over. And outside the city, frogs. Don’t expect much silence in the tropics.
‘Abroad’ was more enticing than the UK because it was more of an escape after the cruel bottling up of six years of war. Nowhere here could you wake up on a train that had stopped in the middle of the night, push a blind aside, and see a lantern carried along an unknown platform by a man talking to another in an unknown language those voices, the tiny glimpse of foreign ordinariness giving you such a tingle of excitement. And next morning, if you were Italy- bound mountains sailing by, and look! A white streak a waterfall! Train journeys were more exciting than flights were going to be, and more comfortable if you could afford a bunk (only rarely did I rise to the luxury of a proper sleeper; more often I was sitting up as we did on that first journey). Just once did I experience the perfect way of travelling; driving your car onto first boat, then train, where (you were in France by now) you ate an amazingly good dinner in the station buffet before strolling to find your sleeper. Next morning, way down south, you were served breakfast on the train, then watched your car being run off its carrier, and tootled off at your leisure. You could do this going to Scotland, too but not for long: too expensive, I suppose.
Arrivals included the identifying of smells. All countries have their smells (France’s used to be Gauloises tobacco, drains and coffee), enjoyable simply for being theirs. (To be honest, Scotland has the best smell, and you must arrive by air to get it but I didn’t know that at the time of my early holidays.)
I learned to like travelling alone because you connect with strangers much better that way, but to begin with I usually went with a cousin. Cousins are the best for intimacy. Brothers and sisters are too close and friends . . . we had a good many friends, but none and I wonder whether this is a very English thing? none with whom we could talk about things that really mattered. Whereas with my beloved cousins no problem! Pen, the cousin with whom I went to Florence in this diary, was the nearest to me in age. We could hardly have been more different from one another but we travelled together as comfortably as a pair of old bedroom slippers.
She was armed with a touching naivety which made her bolder than I was in many ways. I shall never forget the amazement on the faces of a room full of Italian businessmen when, having walked the length of a street asking everyone, ‘Dov’è il Signor Amico?’ (I trailing her but busily pretending not to know her) she finally hit on his office and demanded that he give her better terms than a bank would have done for her pounds sterling. He paid up. (I can’t remember who had told Pen about him.) She also got herself shown round Bernard Berenson’s marvellous house, Villa I Tatti, which I hadn’t the nerve even to think of attempting. (Some years later Pen underwent an intense spiritual experience at Assisi, and became a Catholic finally a very happy nun.)
It was to another cousin that I owe my other lovely Italian holidays: my cousin Toby, who bought a house near Lucca in which I stayed for six consecutive summer holidays. It was a large but simple farmhouse converted by a citizen of Lucca sometime in the eighteen-hundreds into his country villa. With his own hand he had painted the walls of his salone with scenes from the novels of Walter Scott, adding a frieze of carefully imagined ‘family portraits’ into the bargain. It was the oddest mixture of attempted grandeur and naughtiness. Toby bought the house from two old ladies who became so flustered when asked to remove its contents that they ended by begging him to keep the lot, so when I opened a drawer in my favourite bedroom out fell a bundle of Latin exercises written by a little boy in 1883, and a very long ode to the opening of the first tramway in Lucca. The bathroom attached to that bedroom took a bit of getting used to, because on its window was painted an appalling but convincing red-whiskered footman, leering at whoever was in the bath.
An astonishing thing about that house was that when- ever something was needed, it turned up. Having dug out a swimming pool at the bottom of its large and beautiful garden, Toby saw that ideally there should be a stone mask out of which the water could gush into the pool. Three days later just such a mask turned up in the potting shed, and he hardly felt surprised, so often did such things happen. It was a house in which happy years were spent, and I was lucky to see so much of it.
Naturally the charm of a place often depends on its inhabitants as well as on its beauty and intrinsic interest. Dominica, in the Eastern Caribbean, for example, an exceptionally lovely island where rainforested mountains plunge so abruptly into the sea that no road can be built to encircle it, is coloured by being Jean Rhys’s island even long after her death. She was ‘my’ author for the last fifteen years of her life very much so, because if ever a writer needed nannying because of practical ineptitude, Jean was that writer, and like it or not you became firmly linked to her. You liked it, in fact, because however maddening Jean sometimes was, she had the charm (as well, of course, as the genius) to counteract it. So getting to know the island that had meant so much to her, meant a great deal to me, the more so because her reputation in Dominica is in the hands of Lennox Honychurch, probably the most interesting and likeable man in the whole Caribbean, who, with his mother Patricia, became the most generous of friends. Patricia had built a little house in her garden her handsome botanical garden designed by her daughter which she sometimes let to tourists and in which she firmly established me as a guest. It took me less than a day to feel at home.
Indeed, I felt more than at home. I remember leaning on the counter of the local police station, waiting for my driving licence to be made valid on the island, listening to the creaking of the ceiling fan and watching the lazy circling of the flies, and being suddenly seized by the most powerful sensation of belonging: surely I had known this place all my life. And I allowed myself to imagine that a deeply buried Caribbean gene had been activated. Because Athills had, in fact, moved from Norfolk to the West Indies, probably when the once very profitable wool trade went off the boil so that young men had to seek their livings further afield. They had settled in Antigua as sugar planters, and done embarrassingly well (embarrassing not to them, but to descendants uncomfortably aware of how many slaves they must have employed). One of them, (I can’t remember how many ‘greats’ there are in our relationship) became one of the island’s leading citizens and was so pompously proud of his family that he kept a detailed record of it, which eventually came into my brother’s hands.
My brother was interested enough to study it, and noticed something odd. The man who, it seemed, must have been our direct ancestor, disappeared. If he had died it would have been recorded: he was just gone. Had he, per- haps, blotted his copybook in some way? My sister-in-law, who enjoys family histories and has a streak of the blood- hound in her, wrote to Antigua’s chief librarian and asked if anyone existed who knew a lot about Antigua’s social history. She was sent an address and followed it up. And lo! Our man had indeed blotted his copybook. He had married his mistress, and his mistress was shock! horror! one- sixteenth black. You need to know a great deal about West Indian attitudes to race in the past to understand the significance of that (one would think) wholly trivial fact. Every conceivable degree of blackness, down to the invisible, carried a derogatory label (I forget the label for one-sixteenth, but it existed), and every degree was abominated and despised. So my ancestor was Unforgiveable and was also, hurrah hurrah, the only sensible and honourable Athill in Antigua! I only wish that my teeny-weeny shadow of a black gene really was making itself felt, but fear that it is most unlikely. The feeling of ‘home’ was probably Dominica’s seductiveness at work. I’ve never met any visitor to it who has not succumbed.
Such a feeling is not essential to the enjoyment of a place: Florence didn’t feel like home. Its great charm lay in its unlikeness to home in its being so enchantingly ‘elsewhere’. And I am forever grateful that it was my very first ‘elsewhere’. None could be lovelier. I visited it only once more before its popularity began to make it so exhausting that other cities became preferable. I don’t know how it is that Venice, just as swamped by tourists as poor Florence, manages to shrug them off so much more successfully. ...