Tuesday 23 January 2018

Sex, murder -- but no swearing: how PD James wowed the world

As she celebrates her 90th birthday, veteran English crime novelist PD James talks to Nigel Farndale about life, death and family

For the briefest of moments, as she plays with her hearing aid, PD James resembles Mrs Richards, the gimlet-eyed battleaxe in Fawlty Towers whose demands for "a view" prompt Basil's "herds of wildebeest" speech. This is unfair -- she doesn't really need the hearing aid, she is "switching it on just in case", and she is one of the most polite people you could ever meet.

That said, James does look a little like Mrs Richards, with her white hair and erect posture, and she sounds a bit like her -- that clipped, educated, "Home Service" English of hers -- and she does have a reputation for being a formidable interrogator, as Mark Thompson, the director-general of the BBC, discovered when he agreed to be interviewed by her earlier in the year for the edition of the Today programme she was guest editing. He was well and truly filleted, left stuttering, indeed, as she accused him, with great tact and old-school courtesy, of dumbing down the BBC.

James has more than one name. She is Baroness James of Holland Park OBE, as well as Phyllis Dorothy White (James is her maiden name). When experimenting with a pen-name at the time her first novel was published in 1962, she considered Phyllis James and Phyllis D James before opting for the more enigmatic initials PD. Combined with her masculine sounding surname these have led some readers over the years to assume that PD James is a man.

Her genre, crime fiction, might be considered more manly than womanly, too, were it not for the fact that so many of the most successful crime writers have been women: from Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers to Ruth Rendell and Patricia Cornwell.

Added to all this, her best-known hero, the detective Adam Dalgliesh, is a man. When I ask her what it has been like being, as it were, inside his head for the past 47 years she chuckles and says: "Well, he is a male version of me. Brainier than me but his emotions are mine. The empathy is mental rather than physical. I never describe Dalgliesh getting up and getting dressed." So is she, like her hero, unsentimental? "Yes, I'm very unsentimental. Very."

Her most recent Dalgliesh novel was published in 2008; might there be another one? "I'm not sure yet. Life has been so busy I have only done 10,000 words in six months. I don't want the standard to drop and I don't want a reviewer to be saying 'It's a remarkable book, for a 91 year-old'. And I don't want them to say 'It's not vintage PD James'. If I'm not doing it as well as I have done it in the past, then there is no point in my doing it at all."

James turned 90 recently and, as she sits like a small attentive bird in her sage green drawing room in Holland Park, London, surrounded by her bookcases, rubber plants and photographs of family and friends, you would not guess that she had reached this grand old age. She never hesitates or has to search her memory for a word. "I do have to pinch myself sometimes. There is no getting away from it, at 90 you are old, and there are differences."

Her family -- she has two daughters, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren -- keep telling her she should slow down. "But it's not easy to slow down. There's more than one house to run and there are the finances to think about, and an awful lot of people want an awful lot of things. They have to be replied to. But I have no cause for complaint. I have lived a very happy and fulfilled life."

The author has lived in this house since 1981, shortly after she retired at 60 from her day job. That was the one at the British Home Office where, among other things, she worked as a principal in the Forensic Science Service.

I ask why she carried on with that job for so long after becoming a successful novelist. "I think it was because I was born in 1920 and grew up in the Depression when you got used to seeing notices saying: 'No hands wanted'. I remember my mother saying how lucky we were that my father was a civil servant and so his job was safe."

But life wasn't that safe: by her mid-teens her mother was in a mental hospital and James was caring for her two younger siblings. "I grew up thinking it was important to have a safe job with a cheque at the end of every month."

Before the Home Office, which she joined in 1968, she worked as an administrator in the Health Service, having had some experience of health care working for the Red Cross during World War Two. That was what she was doing when she had her first novel published at the age of 42. "I remember thinking: the years are slipping by and if I don't make a start soon I'm going to be a failed writer. There was never going to be a convenient time to get on with it."

So she had to be selfish and find the time? "I did a lot of plotting on long journeys to work but I was also doing evening classes and visiting my husband in hospital, so I didn't have much spare time. I certainly didn't tell anyone I was writing a book, apart from my husband, and he was encouraging."

During the war her husband was a doctor in the army medical corps, but he suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a psychiatric hospital. He wasn't given a disability pension because it was claimed his mental illness had not been caused by war service.

"So I had him and two daughters to support, and did evening classes in hospital administration to get my qualifications."

Retiring from the Home Office in 1979 meant she could concentrate on her "second job", as a bestselling crime novelist. "All that experience with the NHS and the Home Office, and working as a magistrate was very useful for my fiction. I couldn't have been a lady writer in a country cottage, it wouldn't have suited me."

It is perhaps not a coincidence of timing that Dalgliesh entered her life shortly before her husband died. Dalgliesh wasn't to be distracted by a family, so she killed off his wife in childbirth and had him throw himself into work as a way of escaping the loneliness.

Though she has a graceful and precise prose style, James was once described by Kingsley Amis as "Iris Murdoch with murders"; her age and her conservative world-view can make her fiction seem dated at times. Her characters do have sex though.

"Yes, they sleep together and some have been gay but I mostly leave the details to the reader's imagination. Dalgliesh sleeps with his girlfriend and is unmarried but I don't think you need to describe sex in detail."

To mark her 90th birthday, Faber and Faber have brought out a new paperback collection of her crime novels. Needless to say, there isn't any swearing in them.

"Oh, I know all the swear words, my dear," she says, "and use them myself sometimes, in private. But I see no need for them in my books."

Irish Independent

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