The Threads of Memory

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I remember her most vividly gliding down from the first floor of her Holland Park house on a Stannah stairlift. Generally speaking these contraptions suggest dénouement and decline. Not with P. D. James. She reached the hall with an expression of keen anticipation and great good humour – especially if I had come to chauffeur her to an evening engagement. Being driven around London at night, she used to say, was one of the great delights of her old age.

We’d met in the late 1990s through the Royal Society of Literature where Phyllis, ‘Queen of Crime’, was a much-loved trustee (‘She should be running the country,’ John Mortimer, our Chairman, used to say). She was vivacious – when amused she used literally to shake with laughter ‒ but she was also soberly aware that she might not have too many years ahead of her. ‘At seventy-seven,’ Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘it is time to be in earnest.’ And so, as her seventy-seventh birthday approached, Phyllis decided to take stock. Rather than write a conventional memoir, she chose instead to keep a diary for a year and to allow her accounts of the to-ings and fro-ings of daily life to ‘catch on the threads of memory as burrs stick to a coat’.

‘You’re not looking at me,’ the portrait painter Michael Taylor used to chide when Phyllis was sitting for him, and at the start of Time to Be in Earnest (1999) the reader feels rather the same. She kicks off with some caveats: the book will betray no confidences (though ‘some of the most interesting things I learn are said to me in confidence’), and it will not dwell on anything painful. One wonders for a while whether it will yield anything very interesting at all. But as the weeks and months pass it feels as if she grows in trust, gradually allowing her guard to drop on a long life lived with an unusual degree of fortitude.

She was born in 1920, part of a generation that grew up under ‘a pall of inarticulate grieving’

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About the contributor

Maggie Fergusson is Literary Adviser to the Royal Society of Literature. She has written biographies of George Mackay Brown and Michael Morpurgo.

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