Just over 20 years ago, on August 3rd 1997, the writer P. D. James began a one-year project, intending to keep a diary of her activities for 365 days. The complete title is Time to Be In Earnest: A Fragment of an Autobiography. Although herself a fan of reading diaries, she admitted to never keeping her own diary. Somewhat reluctant to partipate in someone writing an authorized biography, her short memoir is a begrudging nod in that direction, claiming for herself the right to write about her personal thoughts and histories. She includes personal information in brief snippets along with daily activities, so this may be the closest we get to learning about her life, aside from any unauthorized biographies. James doesn’t follow a rigorous schedule (a fact which she remarks upon at the end of the book), and there are almost as many gaps as there are entries.
The writing of this diary coincides with the publication of her then latest novel, A Certain Justice. During the year that followed its publication she embarked on multiple book tours, including one to Canada and one to the US. She also signed books at bookstores in the UK, including bulk signings for stock of 1,000 and 750 copies. On my bookshelf sits a signed first edition of A Certain Justice. Although it’s the US edition, the inlaid letter addressed “Dear Bookseller, please enjoy these signed copies…” implies James carried out stock signings in the US as well, which seems remarkable generous on her part.
In 1997 P. D. James owned a house in London, another house on the Atlantic coast in East Anglia, and an apartment in Oxford. She flitted between these three locales as well as many other places, a dizzying schedule for a full-time writer. As she’s not a driver, James relies on trains, busses, taxis, and friends to drive to engagements. This allows her to be a constant observer. Twice while on trains she complains (gently, it seems) about the noise from people on their mobile phones or audio devices. Imagine were she to take the train today, where smart phones are everywhere, and not just the nascent audio and texting devices of the late 1990s. On both occasions she wishes for a quiet compartment, which I found amusing when taking the train from London to Reading and Cardiff this summer. On those trains there was a quiet compartment, so obviously James was ahead of her time. Not just relying on public transport, she also walks along the streets of London. Her home, on Holland ParkAvenue just west of Kensington Palace and Hyde Park, means she often travels through Kensington Gardens on her way into central London.
I found it almost jarring when she mentions the Princess of Wales early in the book, wondering on the 17th of August why the public really cares about the antics of Diana and her lover. Only a few days later, on August 31, the Princess of Wales died in a car crash, spurring a waves of mourners depositing flowers outside Kensington Palace. I mention this, not because I particularly care about the British Royal family, but because 2017 is the 20th anniversary of this event, and it’s been in the news consistently over the past month. Reading James book for the first time, 20 years almost to the day she began her diary, the convergence of events is unsettling.
Throughout her entries James muses on her personal history as well as presents some thoughts on writing the detective novel. She elaborated on this in a dedicated book, Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) though much of her thoughts on the genre maybe surfaced first in her diary. On the other hand, she’s probably had thoughts about the genre and its writers for many, many years.
Often we forget that writers live their lives just like any one else, but I found it amusing to read about her travails with surly bus-drivers as she took the Number 94 bus down Bayswater Road, or shopped at Marks and Spencer for weekly groceries, or even at John Lewis, the department store that seemingly has everything, to judge by the one in Reading I walked through in 2017. Alongside these quotidian events she talks about her role at the House of Lords or jetting to Grand Cayman to visit fellow author, Dick Francis, or to visit Oxford and Cambridge, or other places in the UK. Such a busy schedule, I wonder how she ever had time to work on her fiction. She kept busy well into her 90s, although in this book she mentioned taking on fewer and fewer engagementsas she aged. As an aside, since the event took place after the publication of this book, she opened the crime section at Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross, a store I visited this past summer. It’s strange to think of James’s echoes haunting the very location where I stood and looked at her books.
This is a slim book, and as mentioned not every day of her so-called diary receives an entry. Still, James is a goddess in the field of British crime fiction, and anyone who reads her books will gain insight into the mind behind Inspector Adam Dalgliesh from these pages. Maybe one day we’ll get an authorized biography, even though P. D. James is now dead, and delve more into her mind and life, but for now this small book is a charming wonder and great way to remember her life.