‘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.