PD James remembered by Richard Coles
3 August 1920–27 November 2014
The crime writer was courteous and perspicacious – and alert for the gaps between what was said and what was done
PD James / The Art of Fiction
While studying for ordination at the College of the Resurrection in Yorkshire, the Reverend Richard Coles chaperoned the crime writer on one of her visits there.
“Call me Phyllis! While I’m here!” announced Baroness James of Holland Park on arrival at the College of the Resurrection in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, where I was studying for ordination. Better known as PD James, she had come to research life in such places for her murder mystery Death in Holy Orders. A clever choice, for life in religious communities is exacting and unsparing and as the Superior at the monastery we were attached to once said, “If there was a murder here there would be 50 suspects at least.”
Lifting the lid on the darker aspects of life therein can be risky – I have done the same in my own memoir published this year – so her presence, while exciting, was also a little discomfiting and we were on our best behaviour. So was she, unfailingly, but while toujours la politesse prevailed I could tell simply from the way she looked at people that she was alert for the gaps between theory and practice, between what was said and what was done; a characteristic one might expect to find in a crime writer.
It was my job to be her chaperone, to show her round again, to sit beside her at the principal’s table in the refectory, to be her walker at impromptu sherry parties, to deliver her to services in church, often a minefield for the uninitiated, monastic liturgies having none of the pointers to standing up and sitting down and finding your place that many seem to like. She was unfazed by these, quite content to sit and listen and pray while we got on with the chanting of the psalms and the offering of the prayers. She understood, as someone familiar with high church ways, that this division of labour was not intended to exclude but to diversify. Besides, she was there as an observer, to capture the detail and atmosphere of such places, and in the interests of research had also visited another high church college at Oxford, our great rival, so we read the book and watched the television adaptation with slightly competitive interest.
In the television version we all gave a sharp intake of breath when we saw the ordinands at her fictional college wearing white instead of black scapulars to serve in the refectory – that’s us, we exclaimed – but she also captured the febrile atmosphere not only of our college but of our rival too, vibrant with gossip and tense with odium theologicum, the professional hatreds peculiar to our calling, which so unmake the common life that we are obliged to try to live. I wondered how aggressive a combatant she might have been in those had she been a participant rather than a spectator, for she was a true conservative as well as a Conservative. But she was Phyllis, not Baroness James, on that occasion, and it is as Phyllis I will remember her; curious, courteous, perspicacious.
PD James / The Art of Fiction