Diana Athill made her name in the publishing houses, and in 2016, at the age of 98, she decided that it was time the publisher became the published. The book in question was a slim diary that she had kept almost seventy years before, an account of her trip to Florence in 1947. She was never, she admits, a compulsive chronicler: she wrote it at the behest of her mother, who had begged her “Keep a diary for me”. Nowadays, we invite our loved (and unloved) ones into our holidays through Instagram stories, yet Mrs Athill’s entreaty still seems quite novel, far bolder than a simple plea for letters. There is a big difference between “Write to me” and “Write for me”.
Back then, of course, one reached Italy by train or boat: Athill and her cousin Pen took the former, which at forty hours sounds like a pretty grim affair. They share their compartment with an Italian mother and her baby, whose “dirty nappies were hung on the rack to dry and then used again”. Nor is incontinence just for infants, as they discover when they arrive: “Pen has had the collywobbles today, although she has eaten exactly the same as I have and…I often lace my Chianti with the Arno”. Oh, what times, what customs, I smile as I idly open the Google searchbar. To my horror, I learn that the river still provides 90% of Florence’s tap water. “It seems very well filtered”, Athill promises.
Plus ça change, the more Florence stays the same. Those familiar with the city will enjoy the detective work occasioned by Athill’s vaguer notes, which require some piecing together. The “rather slummy part, where workmen sit in the doorways busily carpentering genuine antiques” must be San Frediano, because it opens up on the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. Nor have Florence’s visitors changed much over the last seventy years, as shown by “a most useful Englishman” who is soon revealed to be “a photo-fiend, who travels solely in order to take photos which he can show to helpless visitors”.
But who can blame him? There’s so much in Florence that begs the camera, and so little that can survive it. Athill’s own black-and-white snaps are well chosen: they focus on the details, a fruit vendor on a street corner, or a hole-in-the-wall serving drinks. Any grand bella vista, such as the famous view from Piazzale Michelangelo, is almost always diminished by the lens; and as for works of art, forget it. You really can’t photograph the Fra Angelico frescoes in the monastery-museum of San Marco, which Athill finds open at the fourth attempt. They have “a sort of early May morning freshness about them and the people all seem as though, if you watch them a moment more, they will complete the gestures they are making”. (The only thing that she sells short is their Daliesque freakiness, with no mention of the disembodied demonic heads that circle and snap at a crucified Christ). “We have felt about so many things ‘It would have been worth coming to Florence just to see that’ – but of Fra Angelico it is superlatively and utterly true”.
Of course, Athill’s register is of its time, which is part of its charm. There are all the “rathers” and the “jollys” and the “oh bliss! oh rapture! oh poop poop!” that we might expect. Still, they come as a surprise to anyone (admittedly, there can’t be many) who have read extracts of her letters to the late Sir Geoffrey Hill, a famously rebarbative poet who first published through André Deutsch, where Athill worked. “Your points a) and b)”, she replied to Hill’s list of grievances, “seem to me – I’m sorry – irrelevant”. Publishers are by necessity a hard-nosed breed, and the people at Granta who priced this 64-page volume at £9.99 are as brazen as any. But some books are expressly written with money in mind, and A Florence Diary is not one of them.
A Florence Diary is published by Granta and is available here.