P.D. James, also known as Baroness James of Holland Park, was already one of my heroes. Now I admire her even more.
I've enjoyed and profited from many happy hours reading Mrs. James' elegantly written and intelligent mystery novels. She's one of the most rewarding writers to be found in bookstore mystery sections. Plus she's a living example and defender of conservatism.
From her post on the Tory side of the House of Lords she's has been an articulate spokesman for traditional values. In a speech last year she took on political correctness, asking, reasonably, how we can "be at ease with each other" if we must be continually walking on eggshells to avoid giving offense. She's put light on what she calls "the shadow side" of the leftist, post-everything approach. No fan of Cool Britannia is our Phyllis Dorothy.
Mrs. James' fiction, though always far more than genre fare, is firmly in the English mystery tradition of complex plots, lots of credible suspects, and an intelligent and ethical detective. But her stories are more than just fanciful entertainments in the Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers line. Her deft use of theme, character, and place, as well as her acute examination of contemporary society make her a serious mainstream novelist who happens to write detective novels.
These things likely account for her impressive book sales in both America and the UK, for the countless awards her fiction has won, and for the many honorary degrees she's been granted for her literary achievements. The Brits don't make as big a fuss as Americans do about a distinction between crime fiction and literary fiction. In the UK, Mrs. James is known as simply a fine novelist.
Mrs. James was much in the news last week. This is not unusual, but her claim to our attention this time had nothing to do with yet another novel, or a speech in the House of Lords. Most of the UK's major periodicals gave favorable reviews to the on-air hiding she administered last Thursday to the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson.
(A housekeeping note: Mrs. James richly deserves the title bestowed on her in 1991. But, with apologies, I'll stick with the civilian form of her name. Titles in Old Blighty have fallen on hard times when every known British rocker save Sid Vicious managed to get "Sir" tacked on the front of his name. Sir Elton, indeed.)
Mrs. James was serving Thursday as celebrity interviewer for the BBC Radio 4 Today public affairs program. (OK, programme -- geez, can't anyone over there spell? They must not have No Child Left Behind.) The subject discussed was the BBC's wildly
-generous pay scale for administrators without end, and some of that government network's dopier programs.
Now Thompson (who seems to have studied public speaking on a George W. Bush scholarship) sees his mistake in accepting the invitation. But we may forgive him for believing beforehand that Mrs. James, a former civil servant herself, a former governor of the BBC, and 90 years old at her next birthday, would be a soft touch. She was nothing of the sort. We have another Iron Lady. Without ever raising her voice, using an insulting term, or being other than polite, Mrs. James asked the right questions, and deftly countered Thompson's fatuous defense of a bloated and ideologically driven bureaucracy that falls far short of delivering value for its considerable cost.
She pointed out that the BBC has 375 executives being paid (notice I didn't say "earning") more than 100,000 pounds, and 37 of them are paid more than the 198,000 pounds per annum paid to the Prime Minister (the current holder of this office, on the available evidence, being pretty grossly overpaid himself). Thompson is raking in 834,000 pounds.
Thompson's response to all this was the usual lame chestnut that government managers must be paid very high salaries in order to "compete with the private sector" and to "get the best people." While Thompson crooned that of course working at the BBC was "a privilege," his talented people would certainly "make much more in the private sector."
Mrs. James pointed out that the private sector has been contracting, and there's considerable doubt there is demand for the huge number of highly paid BBC officials in the real world, at any price, let alone for more than what Britain's rate-payers are being held up for.
And what of some of those dodgy positions? Does the BBC really need "at annual salaries of between 182,900 and 310,000 pounds" a director of marketing, communications & audiences; a separate director of communications; a director of brand and planning; and a director of audiences? And can anyone distinguish, Mrs. James asked, what these four executives are responsible for doing?
And if the BBC's high salaries, as Thompson claims, "bring in the best people," how come the BBC features such execrable programs as (descriptions are from the show's bosses "see above re high-priced executives"): "Britain's Worst Teeth," a documentary following four twenty-somethings with awful teeth who have trouble getting dates; "Britain's Most Embarrassing Pets," starring, among others, an oversexed bearded collie named Badger, and a dachshund named Darcy who fancies his own droppings; and, this is my favorite, "Help Me Anthea, I'm Infested," where hostess Anthea Turner and an exterminator recount British homeowners' melancholy experiences with mice, rats, moles, ants, bedbugs, and fleas?
Clearly, on the evidence of this sort of fare, the BBC is infested with a lot of overpriced help with no more taste than Darcy the dachshund. Considering what he was working with, Thompson, as he hemmed, hawed, stuttered, and squirmed his way through what was probably the worst interview experience of his career, had about as much chance Thursday against Baroness James as an armadillo has against a steel-belted radial.
Mrs. James sniffed: "The BBC seems like a large, unwieldy ship, taking on more and more cargo, recruiting more officers, all very comfortably cabined, at salaries far greater than their predecessors, and with a crew somewhat discontented and mutinous; the ship sinking close to the plimsoll line, and the customers feeling they've paid too much for the journey, not sure where they're going or indeed who's the captain."
As the Telegraph put it Friday, Mrs. James said what countless Brits have been feeling about the BBC for some time. They suggested cheering could be heard throughout the land. In a Sunday editorial the Telegraph hinted Mrs. James's next novel might be entitled "Death by Interview":
What a woman! What a life! In a single slot on Radio 4's Today programme, Baroness James reminded us with shocking force of the things we have lost: common sense, decency, the right to inquire after the truth.
Perhaps one would expect the conservative Telegraph to say things like this. But the press coverage of Mrs. James' bravura performance was widespread and almost uniformly supportive of her. She was the buzz in the UK for several days. Not even the Guardian," England's NYT, could find anything snarky to say. And the Guardian, along with most of the literary left, has consistently panned Mrs. James's novels for having, in words that signify here, too many red-state values. (The pleasure conservatives can take from this is the literary left is made up mostly of writers who sell a lot fewer books than Mrs. James does.)
Does this mean that the UK, much further down the road of the nanny-state than America, has a future after all? Can we now sing, "There'll Always Be an England" and mean it? Can the sceptered isle avoid being totally run over by hustlers and yobs? Is Mrs. James the real voice of Britain rather than Cool Britannia and the other abominations of the last decade or so?
It's too soon to tell. And in any case this would be an awful lot to hang on a radio interview, no matter how finely done. But Mrs. James demonstrated that the civilized, stiff-upper-lip England so many of us appreciated, and which now appears to be, to coin an expression, gone with the wind, has not been entirely stamped out.
It's unlikely that at 89 Mrs. James will want to pursue a new career as a talking head. I for one hope she's spending most of her time on a new novel. But if she'd like to take some time away from her fictional world to come over here and strap on Obama or David Axelrod, that would be fine with me. She could doubtless leave our PBS crowd with their organic tote-bags over their heads.