On the day of her 77th birthday in 1997, proving that it’s never too late to begin, acclaimed detective novelist P. D. James wrote her first diary entry—one of many she would pen over the course of twelve months in a concerted effort to “record just one year that otherwise might be lost.” In 1999, that diary was published for the world to read, offering not just a snapshot of the author’s busy life at 77, but also a collection of vividly recalled memories from her past. She wrote this particular entry on the eight anniversary of a day spent in Germany with fellow writer Ruth Rendell, months after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Diary Entry
SATURDAY, 16TH MAY
It was on this day, eight years ago, that I stood with Ruth Rendell and helped knock down a portion of the Berlin Wall. The evidence is a small piece of rubble with one smooth painted surface which rests on a shelf in my bathroom and bears in ballpoint the date, 16/5/90. The colours were a garish purple and red when I hacked the piece away with one of the chisels an enterprising German was hiring out to those who wanted to make their small mark on history. The colours have faded now and the date would have been indecipherable had I not inked over the figures a few months ago. Both Ruth and I had been to Berlin on a previous occasion to lecture for the British Council, and she and her husband Don were anxious to see the Wall coming down.
I still remember clearly my earlier visit, from 1st to 8th December in 1986. Then I stood on one of the high platforms near the Reichstag. The night was very clear and cold, the trees around totally bare. I gazed out over the Wall and the dead floodlit area beyond, imagining the watching eyes and asking myself whether the Wall would come down in my lifetime, or even in the lifetime of my grandchildren. But the city then was one of the most thrilling I have ever visited. The air crackled with a mixture of excitement and tension and no one seemed ever to go to bed. I remember one young West German writer saying that he lived in the most terrifying city on earth and could never bear to leave it. I often remember cities by the quality and distinctiveness of their street lighting: Berlin seemed a city of harsh floodlights. I stood at Checkpoint Charlie, as brightly lit as a film set, and saw in imagination the lonely hero of a Graham Greene or le Carré novel, walking with studied nonchalance along the floodlit road towards the waiting motionless figures.
I can remember what people in Berlin told me, but not their names, nor what they looked like. One, a distinguished film director, told me over dinner that his passion for cinema began as a young boy living in the British-occupied sector. His mother had to work and left him with a minder, and she would take him to the cinema as soon as it opened and leave him there, with such food as she managed to provide, until late at night when the last programme ended and he would be collected and taken home.
Another memory is of leaving my hotel room one morning and seeing a young woman dusting the wainscot in the corridor. When I said “Good morning,” she answered with a Northern English accent. I asked her what had brought her to Berlin, and she said that was a long story, one which she had obviously no intention of elaborating. When I enquired if she enjoyed working in the city, she said that she did and it was much more exciting and better in every way than the last place in which she had worked, which was terribly dull. She added, “But you won’t have heard of it, it was called Berchtesgaden.” It was the first time I realized that the location of Hitler’s mountain eyrie meant nothing to a whole new generation.
It gave me the same small shock as I experienced when I first went to Japan to open an exhibition of crime writing in Tokyo. I was told at the hotel that a group of students would very much like to meet me. About a dozen smilingly presented themselves with large gold-edged cards on which they asked me to write a message and sign my name. The message they requested was “from P. D. James to my fan club at the University of Hiroshima.”
In both 1986 and 1990 I went from the West into East Berlin. On the first occasion I had to submit to the long unsmiling scrutiny of the frontier police. On the second, Ruth, Don and I were greeted with smiles and the hope that we would have a happy day. Were they the same guards?
In 1999, P. D. James’ twelve-month diary was published as Time to Be in Earnest, its title taken from the Samuel Johnson quote, “At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest.” A really great read, even for those who are yet to read her fiction.
Copyright © P.D. James, 1999, 2015. Reproduced by permission of Greene & Heaton Ltd.
Excerpt from TIME TO BE IN EARNEST: A FRAGMENT OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY by P. D. James, copyright © 1999 by P. D. James. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights
Excerpt from TIME TO BE IN EARNEST: A FRAGMENT OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY by P. D. James, copyright © 1999 by P. D. James. Used by permission of Vintage Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. All rights reserved.
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