When P D James died last year, she was mourned by fans worldwide but also by friends such as entomologist Dr George McGavin of the Department of Zoology. Here he remembers the queen of British crime fiction holding court on a cruise ship — and braving his unusual culinary fare.
By George McGavin
The Queen Mary 2 houses the biggest lecture theatre at sea. Seating five hundred people, it also doubles as a planetarium and a cinema. This is where I would be speaking. But as I soon discovered, it would not be nearly big enough to accommodate all the people who wanted to hear P D James speak about writing crime fiction.
It was here, on board the great cruise liner in August 2006, that I first met Baroness James of Holland Park. We were both taking part in Oxford University’s Discovery programme, a collaboration with Cunard to provide passengers with a series of enrichment talks by speakers in all manner of fields. We, in turn, enjoyed the luxury of a transatlantic crossing from Southampton to New York. In the late afternoon just after the champagne ‘sailaway’ party, we gathered in one of the comfortable lounges to discuss who would be speaking when and where. For P D James, it was soon clear, the larger and even more magnificent Royal Court Theatre would need to be pressed into service.
The audience started to take their seats 30 minutes early and by the time she began the place was packed. I have listened to many lectures in my life; most have been unremarkable. But Phyllis had that almost miraculous ability to captivate, entertain and inspire in equal measure. No notes, no props, no audiovisual aids, just the sound of her voice — and the audience loved every minute of it.
Among my own talks was one on insects as human food — and I had brought a box of frozen crickets, which had been stowed away in one the ship’s giant freezers for use later in the week. I was delighted that Phyllis attended, and she was typically generous with her praise. But would she try one of my stir-fried crickets? While she was happy to deposit dead bodies in all manner of locations in her books, she was not a natural risk-taker when it came to dubious-looking food.
Her friend Alixe, assisting me by circulating with a tray of the fried crickets, arrived at Phyllis’s seat. Gingerly selecting the smallest she could spy, Phyllis scrunched her eyes tightly shut, as she often did in laughter, popped it in and with one chew swallowed dramatically, while muttering “I’ll probably die!” All those in the surrounding seats laughed with delight.
After our lectures the Oxford speakers held book signings in one of the ship’s grand concourses. I might get a dozen or so people who wandered past with one of my insect books for me to sign for their grandchildren; a signing session might last twenty minutes, after which I’d be free for the afternoon. When Phyllis did a book signing it was more like a military operation.
The queue would stretch two or three deep halfway around the ship. They thronged to meet the crowned queen of crime. They wanted to say how much they loved reading her books and what they she meant to them. But above all they wanted to have a personal audience, however brief, with a famous author and great lady. Book signings can be very tiring affairs, physically and emotionally, but Phyllis was gracious and welcoming from the first to the last. The shop sold out of her books in a couple of days but it did not seem to matter as many of her ardent fans, who knew in advance she would be on board, had brought their personal copies, sometimes even a small pile of them, for Phyllis to sign.
When off duty we strolled around the promenade deck, went to shows, ate some truly excellent food and had an extremely enjoyable and relaxing time. Alixe, my wife Lois and I took Phyllis to one of the best restaurants on board for a surprise birthday party. It was joyous, enriched by her charm, wit and infectious laughter.
Early in the morning of the last day, the Queen Mary 2 passed the Statue of Liberty to its mooring in Brooklyn. Lois and I would be disembarking and flying home, but Phyllis would be going home on the eastbound crossing, and meeting many more of her enthusiastic admirers.
Some years later I went to visit Phyllis to talk about a book I wanted to write — not a scientific one but a crime thriller. She read an early draft and gave me an enormous amount of encouragement and valuable advice. ‘My dear,’ she said, ‘if you’re writing about the academic world be sure to have plenty of scheming, plotting, general ill-will and mayhem.’ It’s taking a while but the book is in a second rewrite and I’m confident it will see the light of day.
We all gathered in Oxford for Phyllis’s 94th birthday party. Alixe had ordered her favourite confection, a chocolate mousse cake from Maison Blanc. Rather than cutting it decorously as might have been expected, Phyllis produced a huge kitchen knife and, with theatrical flourish and a twinkle in her eye, stabbed it.
Phyllis was a wonderful friend and confidante and I will miss her.
Phyllis Dorothy James was born in Oxford on 3 August 1920 and died here on 27 November 2014. The author of more than 20 books — many of them adapted for film or television — she was named Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991 and she held honorary fellowships at St Hilda’s and Kellogg, among many other distinctions.
Portrait of P D James by Chris Boland via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence. Other images courtesy of George McGavin.