Profile: A diamond dagger that did not stab: P D James, crime writer of principle

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The Independent Online
WE open at the very heart of the mystery. Why would Baroness James of Holland Park - universally respected for her high and unbending moral standards, her devout and daily Christianity, her principled disapproval of skulduggery in high places - vote to retain John Birt as Director-General of the BBC, once details of his tax arrangements had been revealed? What convinced this pillar of rectitude to add her vote to that of the rest of the BBC's Board of Governors on Thursday?

Let us begin our investigation, as P D James herself would if this were the opening of one of her crime novels, with a sense of place. We are in the Bridge Lounge, one of the less glamorous second-floor conference rooms at BBC Wood Lane. It often smells of cooking, being a few doors down from the canteen. The decor is typical of 1960, the year BBC Wood Lane opened. It has a nondescript carpet, the odd supporting pillar and blinds rather than curtains at the windows. Designed to be as undistracting as possible, it succeeds.

Here, at 5pm on Tuesday, the members of the Board of Governors - with the exception of the conductor Jane Glover, who had a previous musical engagement - gathered. Among them was Lady James, just back from a publicity tour of the United States for the publication of her latest book, The Children of Men.

The governors were assembled in this modest room to hear the Director-General's personal accountant explain Mr Birt's financial arrangements and to ask him questions. Lady James (who happens to be the daughter of a tax official) may not have thought Mr Birt's behaviour had been wicked, but she would certainly have found it surprising, and probably inappropriate.

One of Lady James's oldest, closest friends went further. 'I would expect her to be privately appalled by John Birt's tax arrangements. She would be absolutely and completely scrupulous in paying her tax.'

After a couple of hours, Tuesday's meeting broke for some food - sent in from the BBC kitchen - then resumed for a further two hours. The governors evidently felt that they had received satisfactory answers to their questions, for they issued, unanimously, a statement of support for John Birt. Thereafter, he knew he had survived.

Lady James's moral sensitivity was tested a second time on Thursday, when all but one of the governors reassembled, this time amid the art deco splendours of Bush House, in a poky, windowless conference room on the third floor. That time they gave the nod to the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, who had given the go-ahead to Mr Birt's freelance tax status when he joined the BBC.

So when it came to the crunch, Lady James voted for Mr Birt and his mentor. Why? Time to look for clues.

Phyllis Dorothy White was born in Oxford in 1920, the first child of parents who, although they never divorced, were not happily married. It was the classic mismatch between a warm, exuberant and gregarious young woman and a rather rigid, orthodox and introverted young man.

Phyllis witnessed their rows and unhappiness as she grew up. Her great compensation lay in reading. 'I lived in a fantasy world, with imaginary companions, telling stories to my younger brother and sister,' she said in 1989. 'As soon as I knew what a book was, I knew I wanted to write.'

She was a clever girl, and lucky in finding good teachers. 'The old- fashioned grammar school that I attended from 1931-36 gave me a thorough grounding in English literature. At that time we were still being taught by spinsters - women who would have married had it not been for the slaughter of young men in the First World War - and they were extremely dedicated.'

None the less, Phyllis left school at 16 and started work, at her father's insistence, in a tax office. Still living at home in Cambridge, she met a young Anglo- Irish medical student called Connor Bantry White. She was 21 when they married.

One reason for marrying early was, she said, to get away from home. For the first three years, it was an ecstatically happy marriage. Her husband was clever, funny, charming, awesomely well- read; perhaps slightly febrile, but that could be ascribed to his Irish temperament. Two daughters, Jane and Clare, were born. Then Connor went off to war with the Royal Army Medical Corps and life was never the same again.

He returned from the war broken in mind. Young Mrs White took her sick husband and two small daughters to live with her parents-in-law in Essex. She started work as a filing clerk while at the same time getting a training as a hospital administrator.

Partly to give herself space and time in which to study, and partly because of her husband's increasingly unpredictable behaviour, she sent the girls off to boarding school. The younger was four at the time. Connor continued to suffer from a series of mental illnesses until his death (it may, she has said, have been suicide) in 1964.

These years of hard work, mental and emotional pain and domestic stress laid the foundation for her political views. She is an old-fashioned, right-wing Tory of the pre-Thatcher variety. She can be surprisingly unsympathetic to those hit by private misfortune. An old friend explains: 'She had to make her own way against all kinds of odds and she did, and never felt sorry for herself. She has a kind of feeling that people expect to have too much done for them.' Despite this, she is an exceptionally generous giver to charities.

Her books have also benefited. She learnt more than most people ever know about the excesses of which the human psyche is capable. All her close friends say that Connor is the only man she has ever loved; certainly there has never been a shred of gossip attached to her name. For nearly 20 years she watched her husband turn into a man who sometimes did not even recognise her, and who lived in a daily hell. She began to write, getting up at 5am, and her first book, Cover Her Face, was published two years before her husband died. At the time, it earned just enough money to buy each of her daughters a bicycle.

Meanwhile she moved steadily upwards through the civil service hierarchy, going after 19 years in the NHS to the Home Office in 1968, for four years to the police department (perfect research material for her books) and finally to the criminal policy department. She retired in 1979.

It would be hard to devise a more perfect career structure for the writer of her particular sort of moral pathology. To give just one example: when she worked as a hospital administrator, London's Tavistock clinic came within her brief. Her second book, A Mind to Murder, is certainly set there. P D James has said that she is more interested in writing a 'whydunnit' than a 'whodunnit'. She believes - it is an integral part of her Christian faith - that all people are born good, and is interested to trace by what means, and at what stage, they are made bad. She talks about the contamination of murder.

She is now, after 13 books, in the top handful of Faber authors. They have been her publishers from the outset. She has never seen any reason to change her publisher or her agent, Elaine Greene. She leaves the question of contracts, royalties and sales entirely to them and once protested that the money offered for a book was pounds 10,000 too much. Her novels now sell 75,000-100,000 copies each in hardback, and several times that number in paperback: helped by the enormous success of the television series based on them, starring Roy Marsden as her detective hero, Adam Dalgleish. She has been awarded the Crime Writers' Association's highest award, its Cartier Diamond Dagger. She is, by common consent, our leading crime novelist and millions wait agog for her next book. (It will be another Dalgleish.)

At the age of 72, these are laurels enough for anyone to rest on. But under her other, plumed, hat Lady James is also a baroness. She sits on the cross- benches: in deference, it is said, to her role as a governor of the BBC. She believes it is important to be seen as

non-political.

Despite her large and small 'c' Conservatism, she was appalled by much that happened during the Thatcher years. Her dislike of that kind of national greed and brutishness, the misuse of power and the corruption of innocence, is explored in The Children of Men. It portrays a bleak landscape 25 years after the birth of the last baby on Earth. Like all her others, it is a deeply moral book, which ends in a scene of moving and almost religious human pain and triumph.

Her daughters are married and she has six grandchildren, aged between 14 and 25. She recently bought a house in Oxford, in addition to her comfortable but not posh London house, so as to be closer to her daughter Jane. 'Phyllis does wonderful treasure hunts for her family at Christmas,' said a friend. 'They are brilliant - she will make up a little ditty with a dozen or so clues: it's all complicated and huge fun. She adores playing games and is a genius at Scrabble.'

People are unanimous in her praise. 'It sounds so odd, but I really can't think of anything against her,' said one. 'She is delightful company, very kind; not apparently secretive - and then you read The Children of Men and you look at her and think, where does it all come from?' Another said, 'She is formidable because she is so formidably talented; but her charm is that she's not formidable to meet; she's cosy.'

She is also an incisive committee member, way up there among the great and the good, with a rare sense of public- spiritedness. 'She is, in the nicest possible way, an immensely strong person with a clear, humane view of things,' says a colleague.

We come back to the original mystery: why did she throw her weight behind John Birt after the revelations, and then Marmaduke Hussey? The answer is two-fold. She is fanatically loyal; and she values order above chaos. Her own upbringing and the tragedy of her husband's illness showed her that chaos is greatly to be feared. Whatever moral absolutes she might have preferred, the practical reality was that John Birt's departure would have thrown the BBC into a period of, if not chaos, then certainly disorder. Worldly in the ways of men, Lady James settled for the practical, rather than the angelic, solution.

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