Magazine article The Spectator

The Problem of Pain

Magazine article The Spectator

The Problem of Pain

Article excerpt

BEFORE I meet P.D. James I stay up late with one of her 14 bestsellers, much warped from a poolside holiday. It's called Devices and Desires and it has the creepiest introit you have ever read. There's a girl who is walking at night along a Suffolk road having missed the last bus from the disco; and we know there is a killer on the roam, and she's jolly jumpy - and so are we all by the second page - until she sees another girl walking ahead of her, with long blonde hair and little dog and she thinks, phew, and runs up to join her.

At which point the stranger turns round and yee-ikes, she's all pale and sweaty and smells of drink - and she's not a girl at all of course.... But the bit that gets me is not so much that moment of horror, as the description of the instant of death: `And now her brain was bursting and the pain in her chest, growing like a great red flower, exploded in a silent wordless scream of "Mummy! Mummy!"'

`Ah yes,' says Baroness James with satisfaction, `the most terrifying of all my openings.' But - I hardly dare call her P.D., let alone Phyllis - but how did you come up with that red flower thing? Was it, perhaps, something you picked up when you were working in the Home Office in the department responsible for pathology?

`Oh no,' she says, `No police doctor in the world can tell you about that. When I do know, I shan't be able to write about it, shall IT The answer is that she just imagined the experience of death. It popped into her head; how, she cannot say.

`There's a kind of dichotomy with creative imagination,' she says, `because with part of my mind I am that girl and I am walking down that lane, and everything she is experiencing I am experiencing and attempting to put into words, and there's another part of my mind that is absolutely detached, which is saying, "What about trees? It's more frightening to have some bushes where people can hide. Shall I have a car coming past? Yes, I will, in this great roar and flash of noise, to show this is real life, going uncaring past."'

As for how she imagined the girl on the road, she says, it was simple. `There can't be any woman living who hasn't experienced the fear of the unknown.' Phyllis Dorothy James has just turned 80, which gives a fan an excuse to interview her.

I notice that she double-locks the door after she has let me in to her Holland Park house. Is she more fearful now than she was? 'I had absolutely no fear walking around London in the blackout during the war. The world has changed in the most extraordinary way,' she says, as she makes us coffee in the kitchen, and explains not just the prevalence of mugging, but the viciousness of the crimes.

`Men are being brought up without fathers, without adequate role models. There are these estates where there is a great deal of lawlessness, and much of it has to do with drink. It was very interesting to see how liberal we are in our attitudes to drunkenness, and the response that was shown to the PM's son.' We are altogether too soft on alcohol, says the former magistrate, since it is much more pernicious than drus.

Upstairs, we sit on the sofa, and implacably she presses a piece of shortbread on me. `Go on,' she says with muttered urgency, `get your blood sugar up.' In fact, she continues, one of the reasons women write so many crime novels is that the world is so violent and unpleasant. 'I think psychologically it's a very reassuring job, not only to read but to write, because it does affirm the sanctity of life and it is about murder coming into an ordered society and destroying it, and the restoration of order; and women have a huge psychological interest in order because of bringing children into the world.'

P.D. James was elevated to the peerage in 1991, and famously had a career in the NHS and the Home Office, and raised two daughters before, at 42, she gave the world the sleuth Adam Dalglish, who writes poetry - though exactly what kind of poetry is the one mystery never fully explained. …

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