Mark Greaves

‘We rot. Don’t we?’

A metaphysical conversation with Joanna Lumley

‘We rot. Don’t we?’
Text settings

Joanna Lumley and Sister Elizabeth Obbard are seated at the front of the church. Lumley is perched elegantly on the edge of her chair; Sister Elizabeth settles deep into hers, submerged under folds of habit. They are talking in front of an audience at the Carmelite church in Kensington, west London, about life as a nun. And Sister Elizabeth is being wonderfully honest. ‘The first six months were dreadful,’ she says. This was in the 1960s, when religious sisters did hard, physical work that was ‘supposed to make you humble’. Did it make her humble, asks Lumley. ‘No,’ says Sister Elizabeth, who is meek but steely. ‘It made me angry.’

The evening has been organised by Grange Park Opera, in advance of its production of Les Carmélites, a spine-chilling opera about the French Revolution that culminates in the execution of 16 nuns. The connection to Lumley is that her husband, Stephen Barlow, is conducting.

Lumley says she wanted the evening to illustrate how ‘ordinary ordinary’ a nun could be — ‘kindly, well read, easy to talk to’. I meet her a few weeks later. In between she was in New York, filming The Wolf of Wall Street, in which she kisses Leonardo di Caprio. The paparazzi took lots of pictures. ‘It’s the sound, tsk, tsk, tsk, click, of the camera that’s horrible. It’s distracting.’ The kiss, she says, irritated, had to be done ‘again and again and again’.

Lumley (who is 66) is, of course, charming and courteous and lovely. By the end of our meeting, though, I worry things have turned a bit bleak.

The life of a nun is not entirely new to her: she was educated at an Anglo-Catholic convent in Sussex. She loved it, she says, and kept in touch with all her teachers. I ask, tentatively, because I think it might be bad manners, if she believed in God when she left. ‘Well, that kind of a God...’ She suddenly sits back in her chair. ‘Well, I’ve always believed in everything. I ought to put that on the cards immediately.’ She believes, she says, in ghosts, intuition, premonitions, being able to speak to animals. And, she says in a comic weedy voice, she believes in ‘the trees’. So she couldn’t not believe in a creator. ‘But I don’t think I’m a follower of religion, if that’s what you mean.’ She cites a new book by the Dalai Lama, called Beyond Religion, which says religion is just about kindness. ‘There’s nothing else to learn, nothing else to do. Once you realise that, maybe you don’t have to do religion at all.’

I ask her if she believes in reincarnation, only because newspapers in the past have said that she does. ‘Well, we can’t not!’ she says. ‘Nothing in this room is new. Everything’s been recycled because nothing’s left the planet and nothing’s come into the planet.’

I am not sure I follow, so I ask what the process is. ‘Well, we rot! Don’t we?’ If people are burnt and their ashes scattered, she explains, the ashes might feed into a plant, the plant might get eaten and so on. ‘Everything is re-used, which is the brilliance of life I think.’

So it’s not that our spirit latches on to a new being? ‘No. I’m not sure I believe in this. It’d be rather draining if the same people kept coming round and round again.’

The conversation begins to take a darker turn. ‘The truth is,’ Lumley says, ‘it doesn’t matter what we believe. What happens happens. People only think of things to make themselves happier. Religion is just to make you feel happier. It’s a comfort thing: if you believe that on the other side there’s going to be Elvis and your parents and Beethoven, it doesn’t matter. Nobody can prove it doesn’t happen.

‘If it makes you happy, and if it makes you peaceful about death, excellent,’ she says, lightly. ‘Because you’re going to die, one thing we do know is we’re going to die, we don’t know when or how and we all hope it doesn’t hurt, but no one can mind being dead.’

I ask, because it is one of my prepared questions, if she has ever had a religious experience. ‘Not really, no,’ she says. ‘What do you mean? Some saintly presence or something?’ I mention the TV series Girl Friday, where she lived on a desert island for nine days mostly on her own. ‘No. No, I just like nature more and more. I feel completely safe with natural things, which means everything that isn’t man, mankind. I like sticks and stones and trees and birds, the ordinary pattern of how stuff lives and dies, not messed up by people.’

Later, we talk about Sister Elizabeth, and Lumley points out her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are pretty much the opposite of what modern society encourages. I ask her if she thought our behaviour had become worse since the 1960s. She says, wisely, that human nature probably stays much the same. ‘There’s honestly nothing new under the sun. That’s what I get to as I get older… The tide goes in, the tide goes out. The next tide will bring in another lot of people who do roughly the same stuff. One or two will stick out. Darwin will stick out, Shakespeare, then a jagged spike of people, the musicians, all clumped up,’ she says, acting it out with her hands. ‘Then the sea will go smooth again.’

She does believe, though, that the world has too many people. ‘If three billion’s going to become nine billion, that’s wrong. So we’ve become a plague. Which is a pity because when we’re a plague not only do we devour everything around us but we start killing each other indiscriminately.’ She speculates about the whole planet dying off, possibly through nuclear war. ‘And of course the things that wouldn’t die would be the insects or the bedbugs. They’d somehow manage. We’d spoil and wreck and kill everything. But that’s what men do, actually. For all their good stuff, all they largely do a lot of the time is go round breaking and hurting things. Because that’s what men do. Mankind does, rather. Amongst that is great kindness and sweetness and so on but the tramp of mankind’s foot is pretty alarming, I think.’

Soon after that I turn off the recorder. Lumley is jolly again, and says she hopes that she wasn’t too sanctimonious in the interview. She talks about how much she admires Leonardo di Caprio — ‘good actors are like good tennis players, they are wonderful to work with’. As she leaves, she asks that I mention Grange Park Opera, says ‘Thanks, honey!’ to my reply and skips lightly down the stairs.