Friday, 28 November 2014

Goodbye to a Great Writer

This blog was originally going to be about literary societies, but, while working on it, I heard of the death of P D James, and felt I had to write about her instead.  There is, I hasten to add, no connection that I know of between Phyllis, as we knew her (she was an honorary Fellow of St Hilda’s College, Oxford, and a frequent guest at meetings of the Barbara Pym Society) and Siegfried Sassoon.  She was born in 1920 and thus had no memory of the First World War, and she did not have her first novel published until 1962; thus there was little overlap between her literary career and Sassoon’s. 

Nor did they move in the same circles.  Phyllis Dorothy James was not from a poor family, and had a good basic education, but was nevertheless forced to leave school at the age of sixteen to go along with her father’s wishes.  Her career as an office worker was interrupted by the Second World War, in the course of which her husband, Ernest, developed a mental condition that prevented him being the family breadwinner.  She continued to work in the public sector, which (to my mind) makes it rather surprising that, when called to the House of Lords in 1991, she joined the Conservative backbenches.

I cannot claim that I knew Phyllis, and I have only read three of her books.  But I met her and heard her speak on several occasions, and I was always enthralled and full of admiration for a woman who could speak so fluently and so interestingly on different topics.  She had, I believe, told the Secretary of the Barbara Pym Society that she “liked” Barbara Pym, as have so many other eminent people.  Usually – if we can get them to speak at all – they come up with a moderately interesting account of what it is they like about Barbara Pym and how they came to read her books.  This speech was completely different, an analysis of the Pym world in great and knowledgeable depth, shedding new light on the subject and never losing the audience’s attention for a moment.

One of the most entertaining afternoons I have ever spent was at the Oxford Literary Festival in 2011, when 90-year-old Phyllis shared the stage with another outstanding novelist, Jill Paton Walsh, for a debate: Agatha Christie versus Dorothy L Sayers.  There were many reviews of the event, one of which you can read here:  Jill took Dorothy’s side, while Phyllis stuck up for Agatha.  Amusingly, both agreed that Sayers was the better writer, but Phyllis stuck to her guns on the basis that, since Agatha had sold so many more books and given so much pleasure to so many people, she must be superior overall.  The whole debate took place in a spirit of true literary appreciation, friendship and humour – there were such a lot of laughs.  The personalities of the two speakers came across very clearly, with Phyllis being particularly fun-loving and wickedly witty.  They interacted perfectly.

At question time, a member of the audience got up and congratulated Phyllis for her recent radio performance, “handbagging” BBC Director-General Mark Thompson when she was a guest interviewer on Radio 4’s Today programme.  In the course of the interview, she described the BBC as "a large and unwieldy ship” with a crew that was “somewhat discontented and a little mutinous, the ship sinking close to the Plimsoll line and the customers feeling they have paid too much for their journey and not quite sure where they are going or who is the captain".  In particular, she criticised the six-figure salaries of some BBC executives, ageism, and the general dumbing-down of the corporation’s output.  I can’t help feeling Siegfried would have admired a woman who, even in advanced age, was capable of out-thinking and out-manoeuvring her juniors.

And, just as I was about to put this to bed, I did succeed in finding a connection, albeit a tenuous one.  James was a crime writer, one of the most successful of all time.  When asked how she tackled the genre, she referred back to some ground rules laid down by a noted crime writer of the 1920s and ‘30s, Ronald Knox, and said that these still applied: “a) no information available to the detective should be kept from the reader, b) there should be no identical twins, and c) definitely no Chinamen.”

Knox, in addition to being a writer and radio broadcaster, was a Roman Catholic priest, and was the man selected by Siegfried Sassoon as his instructor in the faith when he converted in 1957.  Sadly, Knox was already too ill, and died that same year.  Siegfried chose to be buried only a few yards away from him, in the churchyard at Mells, Somerset.

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