by Simon Brett
It is frequently said that crime writers are a benign and friendly lot, and of no one was that more true than PD James. My first contact with her was in 1977 when we shared an American publisher and my debut novel was about to come out in the States. Phyllis was asked to provide a quote for the book and she very generously wrote, ‘A new Simon Brett is an event for mystery fans.’ So durable has that encomium proved that it is still printed on the back of my most recent books.
I subsequently saw more of Phyllis through various crime conventions and associations, particularly the Detection Club, of which she was an enthusiastic member, attending most of the organisation’s dinners. But I really got to know her when we co-tutored two Crime Fiction courses at Totleigh Barton in the 1980s. As anyone who has done the job knows, in those circumstances the tutors get very close indeed.
Phyllis, then well into her seventies, entered completely into the spirit of the Arvon courses, dispensing much wisdom and no-nonsense judgements to the participants. Both weeks were hugely enjoyable, I too learned a lot, and three of the aspiring writers ended up as published authors.
My fondest memory is of the second course, when we’d agreed that on the Friday night everyone would read a piece of their writing in a kind of variety bill of entertainment in Totleigh’s famous barn. Early that day Phyllis confided in me that she was thinking about reading a poem she had written. By mid-afternoon she’d said she’d definitely do it, and just before the show started she announced that she was going to sing the piece. And when it came to the point she actually added a little dance as well. One of my enduring Arvon memories is of sitting in that barn with sixteen enraptured participants watching Baroness James of Holland Park performing a song-and-dance routine about murderous events in Mayhem Parva.
Because of the seriousness and excellence of her novels few people were aware of PD James’s sharp sense of humour and, occasionally, mischief. I was once talking to her about questions that writers get asked most often and we agreed that two of the more annoying (and difficult to answer) were ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and ‘Are you writing anything at the moment?’
She then told me of an occasion when a Dutch television company had arranged to do an interview with her at her home. They said they’d arrive at eight-thirty in the morning to set up the cameras, do the interview and be away by ten. Well, they arrived on the dot of eight-thirty but then, because it was television, they spent the next hours laying out cables, trampling dirt into her carpets, moving around the precious objects on her desk to accommodate their lights and other equipment. Finally, at just after twelve, Phyllis was sat in her chair opposite the interviewer, whose first question was, ‘Tell me, Miss James, are you writing anything at the moment?’ To which the distinguished author replied, with some asperity, ‘Well, I would be.’
Phyllis’s sense of mischief was once again evident in 2007 when she involved herself in a fund-raising exercise for the Arvon Foundation. She had produced an outline for a murder mystery entertainment entitled The Trial of Belle Epoque and suggested that I should be called in to write it in a format that could be performed between the courses of a lavish charity dinner in the Great Hall of Lincoln’s Inn. That was exactly the kind of job that appealed to me and I had great fun liaising with Phyllis and the Arvon team as we got the project together. And the starriness of the line-up of actors we got for the show was a measure of the goodwill commanded by the Arvon Foundation and the name of PD James. Jerry Hall played the eponymous Belle Epoque and Jeremy Paxman was the investigating police officer. Other parts were taken by Timothy West, Prunella Scales and Art Malik. And two genuine and very-high powered QCs conducted the cross-examination which was the climax of the evening.
The names of the characters involved in this farrago were pure Phyllis. The murder victim was called Mrs Willoughby-Watchem and the cast list included Roger Butt-Groper. The chauffeur rejoiced in the name of Bigend Manifold and the presiding judge was Mr Justice Goodasyouare. Then there was the cook. Ida Custard. Fairly early on in the planning Phyllis had announced, ‘I’d quite like to play her.’ And come the evening, play her she did, wearing a shapeless velvet hat and revealing a depth of acting talent which few would have suspected. What’s more, while all of the other performers read their lines from scripts, Phyllis, then well into her eighties, had learned the entire part. The dining audience, needless to say, adored her, and happily the event raised a very substantial amount for Arvon.
P.D. James was a brilliant writer, who fully deserved her world-wide success. But she was so much more than a writer. She was a woman of enormous charm and great wisdom. When in 1989 Vaclav Havel became President of Czechoslovakia, there was much humorous discussion in literary circles about what English writer might be entrusted with running the country. I remember playing the game at a dinner party. Most of the names proposed (like Jeffrey Archer, I recall) were greeted with howls of derision. Then someone suggested PD James and the room went quiet, everyone thinking, ‘Yes, that’s really not a bad idea.’