Review: Absolutely: A Memoir by Joanna Lumley
Weidenfeld & Nicolson. €20.99
There's nothing fake about the musings and memories of actress Joanna Lumley, writes Margaret Carragher
For women of a certain age, posing with a cigarette in one hand and a glass in another is never a good idea.
But Joanna Lumley does it anyway. Not once but several times in her lavishly illustrated new memoir the Absolutely Fabulous star of stage and screen is snapped juggling those two big no-nos. And still she manages to look, well, absolutely fabulous. How does she do it?
It helps that the lady herself is so obviously authentic and easy in her own skin: there's nothing fake or contrived here. And that transparency is never more manifest than in her writing.
An inveterate hoarder, Lumley's trove of 'stuff' amassed over a lifetime provides inspiration for the tales she so engagingly relates over 270 glossy pages.
Born in Kashmir in 1946 to an army family whose forebears for generations served in the far-flung reaches of the British Empire, Lumley's early life is of another era. Sailing between England and the Far East, as children she and her sister Aelene "washed in tin baths in sea water and showered with fresh water to wash away the salt". For two years the family was stationed in Hong Kong; for three in Kuala Lumpur.
"Malaya became my home utterly," writes Lumley, describing a life of "sultry tropical heat, sudden black thunderstorms and scarlet sunsets" where lives followed ordered paths.
"School at 8 o'clock ... until midday; then home on a road made of great chunks of crystal quartz, like stepping over diamonds ... ; a siesta after lunch, a walk to the tin mines with the dog; mucking about on the verandah or playing the wind-up gramophone until supper; then bath, reading, bed with the night sounds of Malayan creatures clicking and croaking through the closed shutters in the velvet blackness."
After such exotica, life in an English boarding school was never going to be easy, but Lumley took it gamely. Grainy images of her first school show a small Kent farmhouse with oast houses converted to circular classrooms, school desks fashioned from dining tables, and hospital-style beds crammed into spartan dormitories.
Things improved with a move to a convent school in Hastings. Lumley's recollections of her time here reads rather like Enid Blyton on speed: blazer pockets stuffed with pet mice, frizzy hair, spots, sugar-stiffened petticoats under summer dresses. At trice daily chapel "we wore chapel veils ... which we were supposed to keep neatly folded so that they could be accessed at a moment's notice, presumably for emergency praying".
Meanwhile, Sixties London beckoned, "huge and wicked like a distant stalker with sweets".
Aged 18, the aspiring MAW (model, actress, whatever) moved into a tiny flat off Earl's Court Road with no lift, no fridge and a rented gas stove -- "Paradise!"
Images from the period show Lumley, pan-sticked and panda-eyed in 'doped existentialist' mode. "I was clearly longing to look like an actress suffering from strangeness," she wryly observes.
Fast forward, as she does, haphazardly, from MAW to 21-year-old single mother, and wistful musings on the fleeting nature of childhood.
"It seems that only moments elapse between tidying up toy soldiers one day and being picked up in a car driven by your child the next."
For the most part, Lumley glosses over glittering career highlights in favour of random reminiscences of times past. Her shoulder-rubbing with Hollywood legends like Ava Gardner and David Niven, Rod Steiger and Anthony Perkins are related in little more than a paragraph; hob-nobbing with royalty and heads of state ditto; even her Ab Fab period is curiously downplayed. It's as if one mustn't boast, or namedrop -- so vulgar, darling.
By contrast, she rattles wonderfully on about her travels -- in search of the Northern Lights; to rapidly vanishing rainforests; through Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and thick Rwandan jungle to the source of the Nile.
But for all her colourful tale-telling, Lumley is at her best in random musing mode.
"Looking back, it strikes me how often in our lives we start again from scratch," she observes apropos of nothing.
"You start school as a baby aged five, and leave aged 17 going on 60. Then you start again in the wide, wide world as a green and innocent beginner, behaving like a child, with new boyfriends, and hair in bunches and immature thoughts about how the world should be run ... and slowly the world turns, and suddenly you're struggling with forms to fill in and bills to pay. Your children grow and eat like wolves; and life seems like hard work with none of the rewards you thought would come your way simply by being a grown-up. Then comes the time to retire and back you go again holding hands on the beach and laughing as you eat apples with your dentures firmly attached with glue to your gums. Then ... back to being babies again, balding and in need of care and feeding, and one day the end comes ... There has to be a way of looking at it to make a story, to make sense of it."
A world away from her Ab Fab alter ego, in Absolutely, Joanne Lumley provides a fascinating glimpse behind the cool exterior of a wry, insightful and, dare one say it, absolutely fabulous woman.
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