Tuesday, 29 November 2011

time to be in earnest

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I am reading P D James’ memoir Time to be in Earnest: a Fragment of Autobiography. I’m still reading it, and enjoying it enormously. She has taken a refreshing approach, having resisted writing a full autobiography and using the discipline of a diary of one year from her 77th birthday in 1997 to her next birthday. The diary acts as a convenient hook for a discursive comment or memory. So, for example, she might write about sitting next to a Deputy Chief Constable at a literary dinner and move from discussion of police procedure, via her opinion of the death penalty, to her personal response as an eleven-year-old child to the news reports of the murder of a child.

Thus an autobiography of sorts emerges in an interesting non-linear way but she retains control of those elements she prefers not to write about or elaborate upon. In many ways this working method is similar to blogging (in the hands of a consummate writer).

I’ve enjoyed her detective fiction and knew something about her life before I started reading. I was aware, for example, of her difficult personal life after her doctor husband returned from the second world war so psychologically damaged that he spent the rest of his life in and out of hospital until his death at the age of 44. I knew that she took on the mantle of provider for the whole family and worked as a senior Civil Servant. What I did not realise was that, as most girls of her class and generation did, she left school at sixteen. So the enormous range of her intellect has been fed by her own experience of life and relentless reading, rather than by conventional education.

I am struck, as I read, by what a very active public life she was leading at the age of 77; a packed diary of book signings, publicity tours, talks, conferences and dinners as well as personal visits and social life. She has continued to write and publish in the years since this memoir and I am particularly looking forward to reading Death Comes to Pemberley where she bring detective fiction to Jane Austen’s world! Last year (at the age of 90) she was one of the guest editors on Radio 4’s Today programme. She interviewed the BBC Director-General Mark Thompson and gave him a rather hard time. Regular presenter Evan Davies is reported to have commented that she should be permanently presenting the programme.

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