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P.D. James’s joie de vivre

Remembering the Queen of Crime

Maggie Fergusson | November 28th 2014

Yesterday afternoon, when the news came through that P.D. James had died aged 94, the image that sprang immediately to my mind was of the Queen of Crime gliding down the stairs of her green-fronted Holland Park home in a stairlift. Generally these contraptions suggest decrepitude and decline; not with her. Always immaculately dressed and coiffed, she descended to her hall with an expression of keen anticipation and joie de vivre.

Sometimes I was visiting her to discuss matters concerning the Royal Society of Literature, of which she was vice president and I'm director. We’d retire to her drawing room, and Joyce—her indispensable secretary to whom, for decades, she dictated her novels—brought us tea. On other occasions, my role was to chauffeur her to evening talks or dinners. I always tried to arrive with plenty of time in hand: being driven around London at night, she said, was one of the great delights of her later life.

I'd met her first when I started work for the RSL in its shabby-chic headquarters in Hyde Park Gardens. She was on the council, and at monthly meetings she took her place at a vast mahogany table alongside literary giantesses including Sybille Bedford and Penelope Fitzgerald. John Mortimer, our chairman, made it quite clear that Phyllis was his favourite. “She ought to be running the country,” he said.

We saw what he meant when, one evening, she presided over a discussion on censorship. When it came to questions from the audience, one formidable old lady barged in from left field. Didn’t Lady James agree that it was a great shame that the younger generation were able to achieve so little, as they spent so much of their time “copulating”? Unruffled, charming but firm, Phyllis replied that she’d had a great deal of enjoyment herself in that department, and that it hadn’t stopped her writing a good number of books.

The younger generation were close to her heart. Appalled by London prices, she opened her home to lodgers in their twenties on peppercorn rents. And when, three years ago, the RSL began sending its fellows to talk to pupils in struggling state schools, she not only helped fund the scheme, but immediately volunteered to make visits herself. She was about 80 years older than her teenage audiences, but they loved her. As a tiny child, she told them, her mother had sung her “Humpty Dumpty” —“and my immediate thought was, ‘Did he fall, or was he pushed?’” She’d wanted to be a crime writer ever since.

Somehow, over the years, Phyllis struck up a friendship with my mum. They exchanged letters, enclosing copies of their favourite poems; they chatted on the telephone about their grandchildren—and, in Phyllis’s case, great-grandchildren. It was poignant, she told Mum recently, holding her latest great-grandchild in her arms, knowing that she was unlikely to see him grow up.

A woman of deep faith, she knew she’d lived way beyond her biblical span and, as she once told me, “I feel grateful for every single day”. Her correspondence, precise and business-like, almost always concluded on a note of wonder and joy. “Our hearts are lifted in this brief but wonderful sunshine,” she ended an email on April 22nd last year. “Long may it continue.”

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