P.D. James

‘I have lived a very happy and fulfilled life’

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 back in the new 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 and unwisely over paying his executives.

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 P D.

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 will be 90 on August 3 and, as she sits like a small attentive bird in her sage green drawing room in Holland Park, surrounded by her bookcases, rubber plants and photographs of family and friends, you would not guess that she was approaching this grand old age. She never hesitates or has to search her memory for a word. Though she does have an elegantly handled walking stick by her side, she doesn’t appear to need it. And, as I discovered when I tried to find a free July morning in her diary, she is still an active member of the House of Lords, still writes books and still gives lectures, her next one being on a cruise to New York in the Queen Mary 2.

In light of this, it must surprise even her that she is the age she is. ‘I do have to pinch myself sometimes. There is no getting away from it, at 90 you are old, and there are differences. But I’m glad to be reaching it, if I do reach it.’ On that delicate subject, James breezily says, she doesn’t know whether there is an afterlife or not. ‘But no doubt I’ll find out one way or the other.’ Though she is an Anglican, she thinks the continuation of the genes through children is as good a form of immortality as any. Unsentimental thing that she is, she has told her family that, if it comes to it, she wants to be put out of her misery, perhaps in one of those Swiss clinics we read about.

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.

‘Women have more things in their lives than work, which is why it’s easier for them to retire. I think it’s harder for men to retire, especially government ministers. When Macmillan had to resign as prime minister due to ill health he went in for an operation and came round to see them unplugging the prime ministerial red phone by his bed. Brutal.’

A man who knows what it was like to lose the trappings of power lives a few doors down from her: Tony Benn. She sees him some mornings and, though they are on opposite sides of the fence politically, they are always friendly to one another in the street. (She doesn’t take the Conservative whip in the Lords, by the way, but is, broadly speaking, on the right. Indeed there is a photograph of her in her drawing room standing between George and Barbara Bush. And she looks pretty comfortable there.)

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 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.’ Her father was an Inland Revenue official.

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.’ Now it looks as if civil service jobs are no longer ‘safe’ jobs for life.

Having worked in the Home Office, I suggest, she must have an interesting take on the cuts debate. ‘I don’t think you can spend your way out of debt as the previous government tried to do,’ she says. ‘The principles we apply to our home finances are sound. If there is less money coming into the house you have to ask yourself what is essential. A school uniform yes, but not an expensive holiday – or a holiday at all. I can see it is difficult for the Government because you have to decide what is most important and it can be emotive. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to ring fence the health service because there is scope for saving money by reducing the number of managers without having an impact on the quality of the care.’

She knows whereof she speaks. Before the Home Office, which she joined in 1968, she worked as an administrator in the NHS, having had some experience of health care working for the Red Cross in the Second World War. 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 Second World War, her husband was a doctor in the Royal 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. Then I was put in charge of psychiatric units and I got two books out of that.’

It was at this time that she saw an advertisement for the civil service and decided to take the examination. Though she hadn’t had the chance to go to university, for financial reasons, she came third in the country. ‘I’ve still got the pre-printed letter which says: “Dear sir” and “sir” is crossed out and “Madam” has been written in by hand. It was so rare for women to take the exam.’

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.’ When she worked as a nurse she saw someone being fed through a tube.

‘I remember thinking: that would be an easy way to kill someone.’ This was the method she used to dispatch a character in her fourth book, Shroud For a Nightingale.

How does she get into the mind of a killer? ‘I think when you create a character you become that character for as long as you are writing about them. So when I am writing about a killer, I am that killer. I am in his mind, which is probably why I don’t have sadistic mass murderers as characters. They terrify me as much as anybody and I wouldn’t want to be in their minds. And, anyway, most mass murderers are mundane.

‘The Cumbrian gunman killed in a random way. He was determined to die and make sure everyone took notice, but his case is not very fascinating to a crime writer. The same is true of psychopaths. They don’t interest me as much from a crime writing point of view because they kill without recognisable motives. What is fascinating is when you have an educated, law-abiding person who steps over a line.’

Can anyone be a murderer? ‘No, I don’t think they can. We could all be guilty of manslaughter. If I saw someone attacking my children I would go for them, but that would not be premeditated murder.’ She has said in the past that she believes in ‘emotional reticence’ and finds the modern tendency to go in for hugging and counselling ‘creepy’.

But has she never seen a psychotherapist, even out of professional curiosity? ‘No, no. And because I’ve had a husband who was mentally ill, I had some experience of psychiatric clinics and wasn’t that impressed.’ Her husband, Connor Bantry White, died in 1964 at the relatively young age of 44. There has been speculation that he deliberately took an overdose of drugs mixed with alcohol, but as far as I am aware she has never commented on this.

Even now, after all these years, when I ask her what was the cause of her husband’s death, she hesitates before answering. ‘He died as a result of his mental illness,’ she says carefully. ‘And that is one of the reasons I have reservations about psychiatry. I think with other medical conditions there is a diagnosis that is understandable. With a cancerous tumour, for example, you take it out and try chemotherapy. But with mental illness you are talking about the difference between the mind and the brain. How do you treat it? Nowadays, instead of spending months and months on a couch, you are encouraged to recognise what is wrong with you and take some action. Deal with it through medication or whatever. That to me seems reasonable and logical. I’m sure clinical depression is a physical illness. A descent into hell. Not to be confused with the mild depression we all suffer from from time to time. The trouble today is that we all feel we have the right to be happy all the time, and we don’t.’

Mild depression doesn’t lead to suicide, I note. ‘Exactly. It is terrible to think that someone can feel so bad that they want to get out that way. And often it is chance. It is a rainy day and someone is left on their own. If someone had called they might not have done it. What makes me angry is the suicides of young people. These, I think, are often acts of aggression against the family. It leaves such grief behind. You would think anyone with any moral sense would stop and think what their suicide would do to their parents.’

The closest she has come to discussing her husband’s death was when she appeared on In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, and it wasn’t that close. When Dr Anthony Clare asked: ‘What happened?’ there was a long silence before James said: ‘I found him.’ And that was all she would say. In the past she has said she feels that she has a responsibility to the dead, for what her husband might not want to be told. ‘I think the more dramatic part of his life, of his illness, is for me. I don’t talk about it to my daughters and they don’t talk about it to me.’

While this wish must, of course, be respected, I think it is reasonable to ask about a reference she made to her husband’s illness in her autobiography. ‘One suffers with the patient and for oneself,’ she wrote. ‘Another human being who was once a beloved companion can become not only a stranger, but occasionally a malevolent stranger.’ In light of this, did she ever question her own sanity when she was looking after her husband? ‘No. I have a strong ego so I never questioned my sanity.’

It is perhaps not a coincidence of timing that Dalgliesh entered her life shortly before her husband left it. 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. She was still quite young when her husband died; did she ever consider remarriage? ‘No, never remarried. If I had met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would have. I had men friends and I like men generally but I never met the right one again. And I think from their point of view I would have been difficult. Always so busy. Always writing. And I have my children, who have always been important to me. An absolute delight.’

There is, she reckons, an element of selfishness to writing, because of the space you have to create. ‘There is also what Graham Greene called the splinter of ice in the heart. If I had a friend in distress I would have no hesitation in putting my arms around her to comfort her, but part of me would be observing. That happens. With some of the most difficult things that have happened in my life, part of me stands aside and watches me deal with it. In that sense my life has been a continual narrative.’

If novel writing was her second job, then being a paid up member of the great and the good must have been her third. Among other things she has been a chair of the Booker Prize, the Society of Authors and the Arts Council Literature Advisory Panel. She was also a governor of the BBC. In retrospect, does she think her interview with Mark Thompson, and the public support she had for it afterwards, was a wake up call for the BBC? Arguably, had it not been for her astonishing intervention, the BBC would not be about to reveal its stars’ salaries now.

‘I have a great deal of sympathy with people who say their salary should be private,’ she says. ‘But I don’t think that can apply to anyone paid from the public purse, whether it is a civil servant or someone paid by the license fee. We have a right to know. The problem with the BBC is that their money does not go down if the quality of their programmes goes down. You don’t have that luxury in, say, a newspaper, because if you did that year after year your circulation would go down and so would your profits.’

She mentioned earlier that there were ‘differences’ in being 90, meaning physical. But what about social? How is the world of 2010 different from the world of 1930, say, when she was a 10 year-old? ‘It is a different world. When I was young our house was lit by gas. No telephone. No car. A Victorian child could have moved in with us and felt at home. Whereas if a Victorian child moved into a modern day household he would be utterly lost,’ James says. ‘Life today for a young person is all about computers and being in constant communication, with blogs and tweets, and so on. Not that that makes them any wiser.’

There is an endearing, no-nonsense briskness and good humour to PD James, one that is perhaps something of a defence mechanism (I bet she will disapprove of this cod psychology). Given that she has had to deal with considerable emotional pain, as well as the chaos of living with a mentally ill person, it is telling that she has found consolation in crime fiction, a genre that always offers resolution and creates moral order. She likes being in control and doesn’t like taking risks, which is why she has grilles on her windows and always double locks her doors, even when she is at home.

It is also telling that she has never experimented with drugs, because she finds the thought of being out of control ‘too frightening’. Her mind would no longer be her own. She drinks moderately, about one glass of wine a day, but has never been drunk.

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 conversation, too. She says ‘golly’ and ‘my dear’, but doesn’t swear.

In a review of one of her recent novels the critic Mark Lawson wrote: ‘When reading PD James you do become nostalgic for crack cocaine, anal sex and people calling each other mutha.’ ‘Well it’s not part of my world,’ she says with a laugh when I quote this to her. ‘I try to keep away from it. I can write about it if I have to but mostly my murderers are respectable, upper-middle-class people. They don’t go in for a lot of crack.’

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. Same with television. All these heaving buttocks. It’s not erotic – perhaps it is for a 12 year-old, but not to an adult.’

To mark her 90th birthday, Faber and Faber have brought out a new paperback collection of her crime novels, and very handsome they look too, with their brooding covers. 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.’

It is time to leave. She sees me to the door, unlocks it from the inside, lets me out, waves goodbye and closes the door. As I am walking away I hear the sound of the key turning in the lock once more.


Carly Simon

Coming around again: the Seventies songstress on famous friendships, affairs and therapy.

As Carly Simon is showing me around her house on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, she mentions, matter-of-factly, that it is haunted. Guests in the spare bedroom always hear the same conversation, apparently, about a record deal.

At 64 she seems little changed from her Seventies heyday, a rangy blonde in a rah-rah skirt and knee-length snakeskin boots. And those teeth still have you shielding your eyes.

Indeed, such is the warmth of her wide and white smile, I resist the urge to point out that ghosts do not exist. Besides, even a sceptic like me cannot deny that there is a metaphorical presence in this house, the ghost of a man not yet dead.

I refer to James Taylor, her ex-husband and fellow singer-songwriter and guitarist. Fellow legend, too, for the couple were rock nobility who used to hang out with film stars and presidents, who topped the charts, who appeared together on the cover of Rolling Stone.

‘James built this house in 1969,’ she says, showing me old photographs of the building site. ‘It was just a cabin in the wood and we would sleep on a pull-out couch over there.’

The house has expanded a great deal since then. It now has a recording studio, library, tennis court and a 45ft-tall watchtower that you reach by a nautical-style spiral staircase.

Today, with a dusting of snow on the surrounding fields, it feels cosy. There are candles everywhere, a log fire crackling in the grate and lentil soup cooking on the stove.

The room we are sitting in is dominated by a baby grand piano. There is a chessboard set up and an acoustic guitar propped against a rocking chair.

Her friends on the island have included Jackie Onassis and Bill Clinton. There are photographs of them but none of James Taylor that I can see.

‘James who?’ she says with a laugh.

Their marriage was one of the most glamorous, high-profile pairings of the Seventies, but it was pushed to the limits by his heroin addiction and infidelities.

When he picked up a venereal disease while on tour – ‘a road accident’, as the euphemism had it – he told her in this room.

Understandably, she didn’t take it well and swung at him with the nearest thing to hand, a guitar. When she calmed down she told him she had some news, too. She was pregnant.

They divorced in 1983 after 10 years and two children. He remarried, twice. She once, to a poet.

When I meet Ben, their 33-year-old son, I see James Taylor haunts his features, too. The resemblance is uncanny, even with his Mormon beard and beanie hat.

Ben Taylor lives in a cottage in the grounds here, but still sees a lot of his father. He is even closer to his mother, but he doesn’t exactly act as a go-between, because the two do not talk.

I get the impression Ben cannot even mention his mother’s name in his father’s company.

‘It is so important that Ben has a good relationship with his father,’ Simon says. ‘Given my druthers I would have a good relationship with him, too. But I don’t seem to have any druthers about me!’

‘Oh, is that an Americanism? It means given what I would rather have, I would rather have any relationship with James – be it frustrating, mediocre, whatever – than no relationship at all, than what we have now, which is a long empty alleyway of memories leading up to a big wall of silence.’

Blimey. You can tell she wrote her own lyrics, can’t you? Ben is a musician who has the same vocal style as his father.

‘Actually, I think the more Ben sings, the less like James he sounds,’ Simon says. ‘He is an interesting combination of the two of us. His voice box is more like mine but the way his tongue sits in his mouth, and the way he pronounces words, is just like James.’

Ben has performed on and co-produced his mother’s new album. It features a couple of new songs but is mostly new acoustic versions of her old songs, reinterpreted for a voice that is about half an octave lower than it used to be.

It includes Anticipation, Coming Around Again and – how could it not? – You’re So Vain, the original of which had Mick Jagger on backing vocals and was one of the biggest-selling singles of the Seventies.

If her ex-husband haunts this house, that song must haunt her. But she doesn’t seem to mind talking about it. Indeed, it was so cold when I arrived she poured shots of apricot cognac and sang, ‘Her cognac was apricot!’ which is a decent joke, if you recall the lyrics to You’re So Vain.

There is a website dedicated to that song which lists the dozens of times she has been asked by journalists over the years who, among her many former lovers, the song was written about. Cat Stevens? Kris Kristofferson? Mick Jagger?

The usual assumption is that it is Warren Beatty. The actor did, after all, ring her to thank her for the song, because he was so vain he thought it was about him.

At the time they had their affair, she has said, Beatty was still relatively undiscovered as a Don Juan. She felt she was one among thousands – ‘It hadn’t reached, you know, the populations of small countries.’

She has always refused to say who You’re So Vain is about, quite rightly arguing that people don’t really want the truth, they prefer the riddle. I tell her I am going to be the first journalist in almost 40 years not to ask her, because I’ve already worked out the answer. It’s about Willie Donaldson, isn’t it?

She laughs. ‘Yeah, that’s it. You’ve got it! Actually, I suppose it could have been about him, in that the time period would have been accurate, and a lot of the specifics in the story might have been embellished. I mean, the Leer jet could have been a Falcon. I don’t think Willie flew by Leer jet.’

Willie Donaldson was her least-likely conquest, or rather she was his. He was perhaps best known as the satirical author of The Henry Root Letters and the man who first staged Beyond the Fringe, but he was also a serial bankrupt, crack addict and pimp, one who ended up dying in a seedy London bedsit, his computer still logged onto a lesbian porn site.

But when they met he was a glamorous, Cambridge-educated playboy and impresario who had inherited a fortune and was going out with the actress Sarah Miles.

It was 1966. London was swinging. Carly Simon was 20. Donaldson described her as ‘the answer to any sane man’s prayers; funny, quick, erotic, extravagantly talented’.

Sadly for both of them, he wasn’t exactly a sane man. Eccentric would be a better word. They got engaged, then he dumped her.

‘I was madly in love with him,’ she says now. ‘And after he broke my heart I couldn’t regain my interest in men for four years. I kept trying to understand why I found him so exotic. It wasn’t just because he had an English accent.

‘We met on July 8 and by July 20 he had moved out of his place with Sarah Miles and had moved in with me at Wilton Place. We went up to the Portobello Road to buy tea sets. It was gangbusters. Then the Dear John letter came on October 24.

‘We started to communicate again once I was married to James and he wrote back saying: “There hasn’t been a day when I haven’t thought of you.” All this tenderness poured out of him, when I was at a safe distance!’

Is it possible that he was being kind when he left, because he knew how self-destructive he was?

‘I don’t think so. I think in retrospect it was a good thing that I didn’t marry Willie but it wasn’t that he was being kind. I think he knew his ways were too perverse for me, that I was too much of a prude.

‘There was a story he told of my taking a bath then lying naked on the bed and saying: “What do you think?” That never happened. I have no idea why he felt the need to project that. He didn’t even have a bath tub!’

He used to call her Little Frog Footman. ‘I think it was from Cinderella. He did appreciate me. I don’t think I could have loved him as much as I did if he hadn’t brought out something that I really loved about myself. My boyfriend Richard, who you met earlier, he’s like that. He makes me feel so good about myself.’

Richard is a surgeon, a veteran of the first Gulf War, and a divorcee 10 years her junior.

He is handsome in an all-American, flinty-jawed way, and when we met he told me that, because his operations often take several hours, he likes to have music playing in the operating theatre – and yes, there is some Carly Simon on the playlist. And no, he’s not that kind of surgeon and that wasn’t how they met.

He is a leading specialist in laparoscopic surgery. Simon has had breast surgery, but it was reconstructive, following a mastectomy in the late Nineties. That must have concentrated her mind, I say, given her a stark intimation of her own mortality.

‘It sure did,’ she says. ‘One of the things about creativity is you can be in denial about these things. When I found out I had cancer, there were four hours in which I was pounding my head on the marble kitchen top saying, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” But then I felt as if this little army in uniform was flooding me. They had come to help me fight it. I felt really strong about it after that. It was one of the strongest periods of my life.’

There is a new biography of Warren Beatty, by Peter Biskind, which suggests that when he met Carly Simon in a bar and she told him about her breast cancer he looked uncomfortable and ran off. She has a copy of it on her bookshelf.

‘Oh God!’ she says, rocking back on her sofa. ‘I meant to hide that before you got here!’

The book quotes Beatty as saying he has slept with more than 12,000 women. That must make his ex-lovers feel pretty special!

‘You think? You know what? I’ve been flirting with the idea of writing an autobiography because I was talking to Mike Nichols about all these biographies coming out and he said I should never co-operate with them because look what they’ve done to Warren.

‘That book is full of inaccuracies. I haven’t read it myself but Richard read out some passages, one of them saying I cut a swathe through the famous and notorious men of my generation. A swathe? I know exactly what I did every single day because I kept a daily diary from the age of seven until 1983 when I broke up with James.’

‘I needed much more therapy than that!’

Simon had a nervous breakdown in the early Sixties, one brought on by a wine allergy. She has been seeing therapists ever since and, to this day, suffers from a debilitating stage fright, which means she hardly ever performs in public.

‘When I’m feeling anxious or depressed, I do find it helps to reach for a pen and paper. There is something about writing things down, that hand-eye combination, that makes me feel calmer.

‘Seeing things that are bothering you written down takes away their power. It gives you a perspective. Helps you contain them. The other day I was feeling so terrified and sad I had to pull the sheets over my head. I think Richard was a little shocked by my behaviour.’

Her parents seem to have been part of the problem. Her father, also called Richard, was a wealthy publisher, the Simon of Simon and Schuster. The young Carly grew up among the rich and famous of Manhattan. Not only Rodgers and Hammerstein but also George Gershwin were regular guests at the family home.

Her father died in 1960 when she was 15. ‘It was a difficult age. There was an emotional numbness surrounding his death for me that hasn’t been broken through yet. I had an even bigger reaction when I was 10 and I found out he had had his first heart attack. That demolished me. So freaked out.

‘I would knock on wood 500 times every night thinking that would keep him from dying. Compulsive behaviour. The fact that he didn’t die the first night I did it meant I had to keep doing it. I was so scared. I eventually began knocking less, getting it down to 300, then 100 in the last year, then he died.’

There were unresolved issues. ‘I wanted him to live longer so that I could see him and my mother really love each other. I couldn’t bear the thought that they didn’t have the perfect marriage, with the perfect house, and the perfect car and the perfect apple pie cooling on the window ledge.

‘My mother fell in love with someone else, you see. And when my sisters told me when I was 12 that my parents didn’t love each other, that was when I started having serious anxiety attacks.’

Did that memory impinge upon her own marriage?

‘I think we do compensate by going off in the opposite direction. You can repeat the mistakes of your parents’ marriage or you can go out of your way not to repeat them.

‘I heard Ben say the other day that he really doesn’t want to repeat what he saw in the relationship between myself and James. Yet those little repetitions sneak up on you from behind and there you are doing the same things your mother did to your father.’

She sounds like a hopeless romantic.

‘I am. As a child I used to read Gone with the Wind over and over again. I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara. I never wanted to believe that it was possible that there could be infidelity. I never wanted to be believe that it was even possible for a man to look another way, even for a moment. My bubble of monogamy was pierced in a harsh way.’

Speaking of biographies, there was an excellent triple one which came out not long ago called Girls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon. It portrayed them as feminist icons, yet that is not how Simon saw herself at the time.

‘I wanted to be the little woman behind the man leading the academic life,’ she says. ‘I was too shy to be front of stage.

‘The other day I came across a recording I made of a night at my apartment when I was living with Kris Kristofferson. Bob Dylan had been around earlier and we were all passing around the guitar. Whenever it came to my turn I would run into the kitchen and say I’d left the coffee on the stove or something. Shyness. Scared to perform.’

Shyness? Really? Wasn’t she shy and confident at the same time? Driving with her foot on the break and the accelerator?

‘Yes, but with me it goes from one extreme to the other like a pendulum, until I become the hum of the pendulum. I stole that line from Mike Nichols. If I say anything good, I’ve probably ripped it off. You’ve got to hear this recording. Can I play it for you?’

She goes upstairs, returns with a MacBook Pro and finds the sound file. Kris Kristofferson sounds drunk when he is talking but when he is playing his guitar and singing he sounds pretty good.

Was it only the guitar they were passing around?

‘As I recall, it was more about booze that night. I did used to smoke grass though. There was a time for about two years when I would roll myself a joint every morning when I woke up.’

Ending the day with a joint, maybe. But starting it? Surely that’s a slippery slope.

‘But you get used to it. I guess I was stoned as much of the waking hour as I wasn’t stoned. I stopped it all very suddenly when I was pregnant with Sally.’

Simon began her career as part of a double act with her sister Lucy. They were called the Simon Sisters and on the cabaret circuit they opened for Woody Allen, among others.

They split up when Lucy married a psychiatrist and had a child. They still sometimes duet on the phone but it must have been hard for Lucy to watch as her sister’s solo career took off?

‘I guess it was but if she felt that, she had the good grace not to show it. She was never going to say to me, “Damn you and your number one singles”. That said, my family were all pretty piqued around the time I married James. That seemed too much for us to all of a sudden become like this royal couple. Yet it was never discussed. I still feel a little guilty about it.’

‘Because I wasn’t the one who wanted fame, but got it anyway.’

Famous people had always surrounded her, though. Is that why the Clintons and Jackie Onassis found it easy to be in her company? Because she wasn’t star struck?

‘Probably. I remember with Jackie especially…’ She trails off.

‘Sorry, but she was Jackie to me. To try and be coy about it would be even more obnoxious than sounding as if I was name-dropping. I used to take great pleasure in being relaxed in front of her and think she appreciated that because she always seemed relaxed with me.

‘I think a lot of the people in her life were emotionally uptight and not willing to share. We had a similar sense of humour and were attracted to a lot of the same people. We loved each other and I remember one of the first times we had lunch together I was really nervous because she was half an hour late.

‘She had been stuck in the elevator but she turned up as calm as anything and I was the one who was hyperventilating. I had to take a Valium washed down with gin. She thought this was funny and told me I was like a thoroughbred racehorse. High strung. Which is true.’

It is nearly dusk and Richard comes in from outside. He has been clearing wood and now has a bonfire going. Simon suggests we all go out and roast marshmallows on it. She puts on a black velvet frock-coat with a furry collar and, carrying a packet of marshmallows in one hand, picks up a guitar in the other.

Well, it is a campfire and she is Carly Simon. Somehow she manages to strum while wearing long, white silk evening gloves. A thoroughbred racehorse, indeed.