The Sunday Times – July 05, 2003
- Ginny Dougary

P. D. James’s crime thrillers delve into the shadows of our consciousness, often shocking us with their unflinching, sometimes brutal, realism. But although the writer has personal experience of life’s psychological twists and turns, at 82, she remains an eternal optimist

She could hardly be more alert: mind as sharp as a cleaver, slicing into lardy thinking, fleet-footed, busy movements but with still, brown eyes. Baroness James of Holland Park, aka the august Faber thriller writer P. D. James, revered for the literary elegance with which she dispenses death, will be 83 next month and she is wonderfully, infectiously exuberant about the joy of being alive.

“I’m not fearful of death but I do love life very much. I love every day. And I hate the thought that it will end and I won’t see another spring,” she tells me. “I’m sure that people who live their lives very fully, who are vigorously alive, can feel the knowledge that it’s all going to end more fully. It is psychologically oppressive and you can wake up in the middle of the night and it can overwhelm you.”

There’s clearly no time to waste on small talk, so we jump straight into the big talk: love, mortality, sex and the nature of the soul. Is it better to be sensible to moral shortcomings than benignly laissez-faire? How do you define what it is that makes up the essential person? Do we become more ourselves as we grow older? Can you be said to have engaged completely in life if you have never allowed yourself to be overwhelmed by passionate love? This last question, in particular, is one which the writer tends to circle back to in different ways. The moment of truth for a character at the end of The Murder Room, James’s new book, is when she realises, like her receptive listener: “All love is dangerous, isn’t it?… [but]… you’re only half alive if you’re afraid to love.”

Many people who meet Phyllis (as she asks you to call her) for the first time find her surprising. Her writing has its moments of quiet lyricism – her abiding character, Adam Dalgliesh, is a respected poet, after all, as well as a detective. There is a melancholic, almost elegaic undertow to the books; a sense that our hero’s grief on losing his newborn baby and wife in one blow has never entirely lifted during all the decades we have known him since we were first introduced in 1962.

But there is also blood, sweat, semen, vomit, mucus: the physical gore of murderous death, and James is unflinching in her delivery of the detail. Here, for instance, is how she handles one corpse disposed of in Devices and Desires by her cross-dressing serial killer whose signature note is stuffing his victims’ pubic hair into their mouths: “The small bush of hair had been pushed under the upper lip, exposing the teeth, and giving the impression of a snarling rabbit.”

You don’t expect the creator of such brutal realism to be a cosy mother hen figure who lives in a pretty Georgian house, with William Morris wallpaper and Staffordshire figurines; the only clue to her darker sensibilities being an antique leather cosh she keeps strapped to the drawer knob of her bedside table. The particularities which previous visitors remarked upon – the chatelaine effect of carrying a large bunch of keys around her neck, the kindly ministrations to tuck into a plate of biscuits, the wearing of distorting thick-lensed spectacles – have disappeared.

But I had certainly imagined that because of all her achievements and honours – former BBC governor, sitting on this and that board, chairing this and that committee, the life peerage and so on – James would be tall, imposing and slightly stern. But physically, her stature is diminutive, and she bustles rather than paces. She is wearing a white T-shirt, button-down mid-calf skirt, poppy-red jacket, grey hair scraped off her head with a tortoiseshell hairband, a large engraved silver heart choker, and Birkenstock sandals.

She claps her hands in child-like glee and laughs, often, throwing her head back with gusto. When she is particularly amused – usually prompted by some observation on the absurd comedy of life – her eyes crinkle up and her whole face seems to shrink. My initial feeling is that I am in the company of one of those hospitable creatures in a children’s classic: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or The Hobbit; an impression which is reinforced by her insisting she sits bent double below me on a piano stool throughout the entire interview, while I take pride of place on the sofa.

We are talking about the various writers who have been afflicted by a morbid dread of death – Samuel Johnson, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis – and she mentions the time she interviewed Amis Snr over a bibulous lunch for the defunct London Evening News. She found it interesting, she says, that he told her how he wished he’d never broken his marriage with his first wife, Hilly, after he fell madly for the writer Elizabeth Jane Howard; this second marriage ending famously acrimoniously. James, herself a widow of some 40 years, has never felt – perhaps, she concedes, never allowed herself to feel – an all-consuming love.

“No, I’ve never felt love that has completely overcome my mind. I’ve always felt there’s some part of my mind in control. I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” she says. “I think that we can criticise wild, passionate love but probably most human beings rather want it and like it. But I was always watching what I was feeling.”

She says that from an early age, she has looked at herself go through most experiences as if she were outside herself. When life was difficult in her childhood – her parents were unhappily married; her mother suffered from mental illness and was confined to an asylum for a period – the young James’s way of coping was to pretend she was a character in a book. Her mother would accuse her of being a cynical child; the girl’s cool appraisal of her elders was deemed unseemly and unnatural. “I was born very much an observer of life,” she says. “And yet at the same time I’m very much involved in it in the sense that I love the experience of being alive and of meeting people.

“Every writer is an observer, and just because I have never been overwhelmed by emotion doesn’t mean that other writers haven’t. But afterwards, I think, when the overwhelming ceases and they recover from the hurt of it, they will use it in their work and probably very, very effectively.”

In the prologue to Time to Be in Earnest, the “fragment” of autobiography-cum- diary that James wrote at the end of the Nineties, she warned her expectant readers: “There is much that I remember but which is painful to dwell upon. I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right.”

How much can be guessed here from what little is said. James, of course, is a great believer in English reserve and is allergic to displays of excessive emotionalism. Her reaction to the mass-grieving which took place after Princess Diana died was to note: “I have a feeling, uncomfortable and irrational, that something has been released into the atmosphere and it isn’t benign.”

When we were talking about her unease with the touchy-feely post-Diana New Britain, she told me a story which clearly did move her. She was being driven to Oxford by a man whose wife had died of cancer, leaving him to bring up their three young children. There’s something about her manner that has always encouraged people to unburden their secret sadnesses to James and this man was no exception: “His wife had apparently had a terrible death about a year previously and I remember him saying, ‘It sounds very odd but I go to her grave and I tell her that my eldest daughter is wonderful with the two younger ones and that I’m coping,’ and he said, ‘I’m sure people would think it’s sentimental that I need to tell her how we’re getting on and that we’re managing.’ And because he was telling it very honestly and she’d died young and left these children and they were all coping for her sake, I really felt moved almost to tears,” her eyes glisten. “I felt much more than I felt when Diana died, there’s no doubt about that.”

As for her own bereavement and grief, James writes about these private emotions only at arm’s length and through the filter of fiction. “One does use one’s pain through some of the characters, very different characters from myself, but I think in quite a number of them there is pain,” she says. “And when I say that I don’t get overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain. I do feel pain. I can feel pain quite acutely. I have had a lot of pain in my life and I have felt it. And feeling fear and feeling distress and feeling lost and feeling inadequate, all these things are part of being human.”

She married Connor Bantry White, an Anglo-Irish medical student, when they had both turned 21 in the summer of 1941. They met in Cambridge where James was working as a general dogsbody at the Festival Theatre, and White was reading medicine at the university. Children came soon after, two daughters, Clare and Jane, and on completing his medical training, White went off to join the war with the Royal Army Medical Corps.

While he was away in service, the young doctor suffered a mental collapse from which he was never to recover, and spent the rest of his married life in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Sometimes he would return home unannounced and delusional, and so James decided that in these challenging circumstances, it was best to send her daughters away to a pre-prep boarding school, even though the younger of the two girls was only four.

As it now fell upon her to support the family, James went out to work as a filing clerk in the NHS (she had left school at 16 with no thought of higher education), working herself up to hospital administration, overseeing five psychiatric outpatients’ clinics, taking evening classes at the City of London College which led to a job in the Home Office, and eventually rising to a senior civil service position running the Criminal Policy Department.

She started writing in earnest in her thirties, waking at sunrise and getting down the words before arriving at the office each day, not because she needed the extra money but because she felt driven to do so. In 1962, the first of her 18 books, Cover Her Face, was published by Faber – which she says, quite rightly, now seems a bit old-fashioned and creaky – and she was on her way. Two years later, her husband died at home at the age of 44, after taking a combination of alcohol and drugs. She has said that it probably was suicide.

In her semi-autobiography, she writes: “I shan’t write about my marriage… except to say that I have never found, or indeed looked for, anyone else with whom I have wanted to spend the rest of my life.” Later, on April 1, 1998: “Connor would have been 78 today and I am trying to picture him, like me stiffer in his walk, his strong fair hair now a thatch of grey. I know that he was glad to die and I never mourned him in the sense of wishing that it had not happened. I still miss him daily, which means that no day goes by when he doesn’t enter into my mind.” And on the publication of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters – the poems about Hughes’s troubled marriage with Sylvia Plath: “No one who has never had to live with a partner who is mentally ill can possibly understand what this means. Two people are in separate hells, but each intensifies the other. Those who have not experienced this contaminating misery should keep silent.”

They were both so young when they married, the period of straightforward happiness was so short, and there were decades of difficult times when Connor was sometimes unable even to recognise his wife… I wonder how often in the 20-odd years of his illness there were glimpses of his old self, and were they enough to sustain her? “From time to time he was himself,” she says. “Briefly, yes, he was.” And did that help or not? “It gave me false hopes to begin with, I think, but the false hopes faded and then I realised that he would probably never be entirely right again.”

Did you understand what had happened to him? “Partly. I think one has to realise that it was a long time ago and now he would have had much more help and much more effective help psychiatrically compared to what he got then,” she says. “I’m not sure if I did altogether understand, but I don’t think I ever stopped loving him. You can have a love that isn’t an overwhelming love but it can be a very steadfast love.”

I had supposed that because all this heartbreak had happened long ago James would not feel discomfited talking about it, but she does: “It’s still painful and it’s distressing to the children if I talk about it too much. They do find it more distressing, more than I do, I think. My elder daughter does.” She says that they remember him, “Oh yes, with affection,” but feel that

it’s a private matter. I wonder what it was about him that made her fall in love? “Charm. He had charm and he was funny and he was a very sweet person. Yes, he was a very dear person.”

She is able to talk more freely about her decision to send the girls away when they were so young, perhaps because whatever the short-term damage or resentment at the time, the family is extremely close now. One of James’s great pleasures in life is spending weekends at the home of one daughter or the other, surrounded by grown-up grandchildren, enjoying their marvellous meals and wine and going for a good walk, preferably by the sea. Sadly, having enjoyed robust health all her life, she has just recovered from her second deep vein thrombosis so her walks are rather less vigorous. More like a 20-minute stroll, then? I ask, with an understanding look. “Oh, more than that, dear,” she says stoutly. “Probably more like an hour and a half.”

As people approach the end of their years, particularly if they believe they are going to meet their Maker, they can become beset with remorse about early episodes in their lives. There’s a striking passage in The Murder Room when Miss Strickland, who has a complicated past, talks to Dalgliesh about her last conversation with the first victim, a psychiatrist: “I said that in old age the past wasn’t so easily shaken off. The old sins return, weighted by the years. And the nightmares… For some of us that small diurnal death can be a nightly descent into a very private hell… He said that to be human is to feel guilt: I am guilty therefore I am.”

James does not appear to be overburdened by guilt, although I doubt she would tell me if she were. She does, however, suffer from terrible nightmares which she describes emphatically as “very, very, very, very weird”, which suggests there might be some anxiety lurking in the recesses of her mind. She also suffers from claustrophobia, and always has, so she is not quite as straightforwardly no-nonsense as she might first appear.

What she says about leaving her young daughters is this: “I missed them a very great deal and I felt distressed whenever I saw them and had to leave them, but I think it was the best thing because of their father’s illness. I think that parents should try not to feel too much guilt because all any parent can do is the best she can at the time. With thought, with love, and some of the decisions we make are right and some of the decisions we make are wrong, but as long as we’ve cared and we’ve bothered and we’ve taken trouble,” she mutters something I am unable to hear, and then says almost to herself. “They were happy there. It was a good school and they were happy there.

“Funnily enough, when they were at home during the long holidays, they used to wave me off when I went to work in the morning and they used to think that I wasn’t going to come home at night. I remember one of them did tell me: ‘We thought you might not come back.’ So you never know with children.”

I wonder, knowing all she does, what advice she would give to a stranger who was suffering from some terrible and seemingly inconsolable grief. “First of all, I would probably put my arms around them if they were that sort of person, and then I would say that you have to believe that in the end the pain will lessen. It may never completely go away. If you’ve lost somebody you dearly love – you’re going to miss them, the hurt will be there probably for as long as you live. But it will lessen. You will be able to come to terms with it.

“And, secondly, that you’re not alone in this. This is part of being a human being that we love people and we lose them and we suffer. It’s part of life. It’s that Blake poem, ‘Man was made for joy and woe; and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go.’ It’s a question of holding on. It’s a question of taking each day as it comes, not to torment yourself with the thought of all the years ahead. Take each day as it comes and find the courage to live that day as fully as you can. And even if they were not religious, I think I would say that if you pray for help, you will get it.”

She really does not care to revisit the days when she and her father would walk to the Gothic hospital where her mother had been placed. There is a pitiful description in Time to Be in Earnest of Dorothy James clutching at her nightclothes, begging to come home; one can well imagine the impact of this scene on her young daughter, and why it is still evoked so vividly more than half a century on. How awful that the writer’s early adult married life would be marred by visits to much the same gloomy sort of institution. It is not surprising that she only becomes reticent when drawn on such subjects. Put at its simplest: P. D. James likes to be happy and it doesn’t make her happy to talk about sad things.

It is quite a relief to move on to the less confrontational subject of sex. I read back to her a slightly surprising quote from an interview she did in the mid-Nineties: “I never really had a sex drive. I suppose I was frightened of the sex drive like some people are frightened to drink because they might never stop.” I say that it makes her sound as though she feared she might be a raving nymphomaniac, which makes her laugh hugely: “Well, I must have been out of my mind because I can’t remember ever feeling that. I would never had sexual relations and children, if I hadn’t had a sex drive.”

Might it not be true to say that you are probably more of a head person than a sexual person? “Absolutely true,” she says. “I don’t in any way dislike people who are sexual, I would just say that sex has never been so necessary to me that the need has overwhelmed me. And I would feel that if it did that would be slightly dangerous.

“I am neither sentimental nor over-emotional, but I can’t imagine saying that I feared that sex would overwhelm me. I suppose the fact that I am a head person makes it difficult to imagine how

you could be so much a slave to any

physical need.”

She admits that in all things, what she does fear is being out of control. Surely this must have had something to do with having so much responsibility thrust upon her shoulders at such a tender age. In her twenties, as a mother of two, she had to deal with what must have been at times a terrifying and confusing ordeal, while holding everything together. And, going back further, when her own mother was ill, it was Phyllis who cooked and cleaned and cared for her siblings until Dusty, the housekeeper, arrived. She has written about one particularly acute memory from that time: “It happened very soon after she [Dusty] arrived. I went up to my bedroom and there, lying folded on the sill beside the open window so that it was aired by the sun, was a clean, ironed nightdress. It is still a powerful image of conscientious caring and it lifted my heart. After trying, not always successfully, to cope with housekeeping and school, I was going to be looked after.”

A supporter of the promotion of her own sex in the secular world, in the church – as in her politics – James is a conservative traditionalist and was originally doubtful about the ordination of women. Now, however, she says, “I believe it is inevitable and right.” She has mixed views on hardline feminism but since she was attacked by a clique of male crime writers a few years ago, after a comment she made about class was misconstrued, she says she has rather more insight into why some women dislike men so much.

Her curriculum vitae includes such positions as the vice-president of Prayer Book Society, seat on Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, chair of Booker Prize, president of Society of Authors, associate fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, and so on. You don’t get much greater or gooder than that roll call, but is that why she accepts the roles? “I quite enjoy it, dear, let’s face it,” she smiles. “But I also do feel that if you’re asked to do something as a woman, even if you’re going to be more or less the statutory woman, and you’re sure that you can do it, then I think there is an obligation to do so. I like women very much and I admire my own sex very much, and you can’t complain that women aren’t sufficiently represented if when you’re offered the chance, you say no to it.”

While she would defend any woman’s right to go out to work – “I have very much sympathy for women who want a professional life; that’s the sort of woman I am myself” – James feels it quite wrong that women who opt for full-time motherhood should feel diminished by their choice. Her hackles rise particularly when career women are cavalier, or worse, about the women they pay to work in their homes: “There was one on the radio and I took a real dislike to her when she said, ‘I want someone to do my shit work.’ And I thought, ‘Well, I wouldn’t work for you, dear. If you think looking after a house and making people comfortable is shit work, thank you very much. I would hate to work for you… because what respect would I get if I did.’”

The memory of that “clean, ironed nightdress” is still clearly very much intact.

When I say that professional women still tend to do the bulk of the domestic work when they get home, she says: “That is unfair, and I feel very strongly about it, indeed. It’s interesting the way I brought up my daughters, you see. They both have husbands who would never let that happen.

“From the beginning, I led them to feel that you’re not born as a woman to spend all your life ministering to a man. You hope to meet a man that you love and with whom you can have children, but it has to be an equal partnership.”

The only time in the interview when I catch a glimpse of the occasional astringency which can inform James’s writing, is when we talk about politics more broadly. I make an unflattering remark about Margaret Thatcher (it was her successor who was responsible for James’s peerage), and the Baroness gives me a concentrated look. She wastes no time at all dispatching my suggestion that under Mrs T we were encouraged to be selfish and greedy. “I think that materialism is very much part of human nature,” she says firmly. “We all like what money brings. There are very few who won’t go after the biggest profit they can get. There are very few who will sell their houses at under their value because a poor family’s trying to buy it. Show me them, I’d love to see them. There may be some, but not many.

“It’s lovely to have Mrs Thatcher to blame for this, you see. We can tell ourselves it’s not our fault, that we’re all Thatcher’s children and she taught us to be greedy. I very much distrust that. The present Prime Minister is very fond of his rich friends. There’s no doubt that he consorts only with people who are minded about prosperity and about money. So I think there are people who are greedy under any administration, and we must take responsibility for ourselves.”

But what materialism and consumerism cannot guarantee, as we all know too well, is happiness. It is a testament to the buoyancy of the human spirit – the “holding on” – that despite all the sorrows in P. D. James’s life, there is no trace of bitterness or any feeling that she has been hard done by. Even in her darkest times, she never felt that happiness would elude her. And, as she says, it can come when you least expect it:

“You may be in the country, leaning over a fence, and there’s the smell or the sight of a bean field, and suddenly there’s that tingle of wonderful physical wellbeing, a sense of being completely at home in the world; as much at home as the bird is in the air or the fish in the water. And that’s happiness which can’t be bought or sought. It just steals upon you. Doesn’t it, dear?”

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