Wendy Beckett: Sister act

As a TV art critic in the Nineties, she was a natural performer and an unexpected success story. But Sister Wendy Beckett prefers the solitude of her caravan and a jolly good pray. Oh, and the odd drop of Baileys...
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I like Sister Wendy Beckett enormously from the off as, most importantly, she just seems so happy to see me. True, she doesn't get out much, but even so, I do find it something of a novelty to be greeted so enthusiastically - even my own mother often pretends to be out. She clasps my hands in hers. She embraces me fully, enveloping me in her black habit (surprisingly scratchy). Her face is good and close. She is all big, owly glasses and those wonderful, rabbity teeth. She is wearing sensible, black shoes of the school uniform kind. Forgive me if I have her entirely wrong here, but even if she had a television, I'm not sure she'd ever mark up What Not To Wear in her Radio Times. Has she ever yearned to be attired in anything else at all? Something just a little more fashionable and gay, perhaps? It wouldn't have to be skinny jeans. She says no, absolutely not. She remembers, with perfect clarity, acquiring her first ever habit. "It was 26 July, 1947. I was 16. Oh, glorious, glorious day. Oh, the joy of feeling that, at last - at last! - I looked like a nun!" So she doesn't hanker for skinny jeans, no.

We meet at the Carmelite Monastery in Quiddenham, Norfolk, where she has lived for the past 36 years as a consecrated virgin. I'm guessing that a consecrated virgin is a cut above the unconsecrated sort, but I couldn't say for sure. (As a Jew, the subtleties of the church are somewhat lost on me.) I later ask if sex has ever been an issue for her. Not in the least, she says. "Many of the sisters here have made a big sacrifice. They would have liked to have had a husband and children. But I've never made that sacrifice because I never wanted that." She takes me inside, still holding my hand. I hold hers back, firmly. She is 76 and a little frail, I think, although she wouldn't want you to know as much. She is very concerned for me. "Now, after your long journey, do you need to use the necessarium?" she enquires. I say I do not need the necessarium at present, no. "Are you quite sure, sweetheart?" she asks. "I could show you where the necessarium is."

I am quite sure, I reply. I'd been minded, actually, to have a good grumble about the long journey and how early I'd had to get up (6am; bloody hell!) but then, annoyingly - as I do so like a good grumble; ask anybody - I remember that she always gets up at 1am. She says: "Well, it is usually 1am, but this morning I didn't get up until 1.30am." You lazy bugger! "I know!" She says it's no trouble, getting up that early, so she can pray entirely undisturbed. "Remember, I've gone to bed early. I get a good seven hours sleep. It's no hardship. It's a joy." She says that, once she became a nun, her mother's friends would often say to her mother: "Poor Wendy, such a hard life," to which her mother would reply, rightly in Wendy's opinion: "Poor Wendy nothing! Wendy is doing exactly what she wants to do." She used to pray on her knees but, ultimately, they became so punished, so hard and gnarled, her doctor prohibited her from further doing so. She says he said they are "like camel's knees". f

The other sisters have kindly laid a room aside for us. The other sisters all live here, in the monastery, while Sister Wendy lives entirely separately in a caravan a few minutes walk away. She hasn't taken a vow of silence or anything like that, but she has chosen to live a life of almost total solitude. Usually, she talks to no one. "I communicate with the other sisters by note." So why is she talking to me today? Because she has a couple of books out. All the sisters must do a little work of some kind, to contribute financially, and this is her work. It was the same when she was the TV art critic, not that she didn't enjoy it. She likes to perform, I think. "And I do like to share." How, I ask, have the other sisters taken to your celebrity? "They take it with amusement and sisterly interest," she says. "It's always been such a small celebrity. Mini, mini." At least you came though it, Sister Wendy, without going through drugs'n'rehab hell. She'd be frightened of drugs, she says. "I couldn't trust myself not to become unbalanced by them."

The sisters have put on coffee, and have made a cake. "Now, are you going to have a slice of cake, sweetheart? I think it's banana. It may be caraway." In a minute, maybe, I say. I'll just get myself sorted here. "You just say when you are ready for a piece of cake," she says. I will, I say. You'll be the first to know if I need either cake or the necessarium, and that's a promise. "Good, good," she says. "Oh," I then exclaim, "I nearly forgot. I've bought you a present." I give her the present. It is a bottle of Baileys. I say I hope I haven't done wrong here, but someone told me you are rather fond of it. Happily, I have done right, for once (a miracle! Already!). "What a lovely, lovely present," she exclaims. "You are so, so kind. I don't pour it into a glass, you know. I just take a couple of sips every now and then when I feel faint." Sister Wendy, you swig from the bottle? "I do, I do!" I also give her the newspapers I'd read on the train. She is excited about this, too. Usually, she only reads yesterday's newspaper. She gets up at 1am, prays until 6am, then comes up to the monastery's deserted kitchen to collect her day's food - always the same: two Ryvitas, Philadelphia cream cheese, the sisters' leftover vegetables from the night before - and the previous day's newspaper, now the other sisters have finished with it. She likes to read about sport best. Horse-racing is her favourite - "I love the beauty of the horses" - but she also likes snooker, golf and bowls. She's not mad about tennis. "I don't like the confrontation." She has tried to like football. Delia Smith is her very good friend and she has tried to like it for Delia's sake. She did watch a bit of the World Cup, because she was working and found herself in a hotel when it was on. And? "It was so dull and unintelligent. However, because it matters so much to Delia and she is so good to us, I do try to take an interest." She also says that on major feast days she may have a fish finger. She says she eats the same thing and wears the same clothes every day "because it just simplifies life so."

We are here, ostensibly, to discuss the two books: Sister Wendy on Prayer and Speak to the Heart, a collection of 100 poems, all of which she has personally selected. It takes in everyone from Keats and Wordsworth to Plath and Larkin. I think she'd probably argue that prayer and poetry have quite a few similarities going for them, the most pertinent being that analysis is not the key. You must simply submit; must simply bathe in whatever meaning it might have for you. She has always been big on prayer and big on reading, while I'm quite big on reading and very small on prayer, being a non-believer and all that. (But I don't think we will have that discussion. What is she going to say? "Well, Deborah, I can see that you are right and I've been wrong all along! Off with the habit, on with the skinny jeans, let's go to Stringfellows and get unbalanced on drugs!") Has she ever had even a squeak of doubt, though? Never, she says. "I could believe that I don't exist, or that you don't exist, but God? God who is all truth and love? No. That seems to me more real than I am."

And as for the reading, well. She has always been very, very big on reading. She remembers being about nine and bringing a friend home to play, which she assumed meant reading privately in separate rooms. "My mother, to her horror, heard me say: 'Mother, this is Shirley. Shirley, this is your book and this is mine...'" She hates the name Wendy, by the way. "It's a trivial little name. I think mother called me Wendy because she thought I would be small and pretty. She was probably rather taken aback when she got this lump of a child who did nothing but read." She would prefer to have been called Clare. "I think Clare is a beautiful name. Beautiful."

She was born in South Africa in 1930, but moved to Edinburgh shortly afterwards while her father trained to be a doctor. Although the family moved back to South Africa a few years later, her first memory dates from Edinburgh. "I remember looking down and seeing green grass and white daisies. I've always been grateful because it is such a lovely first memory." She then says that all her earliest memories "seem to be about places and things. There are very few people, which I don't think is an admirable trait. I am rather ashamed about that." But at some level, I say, you must be very interested in people or you wouldn't read so much. She says: "When I was a novice the novice mistress said to me: 'Wendy, you are the only person I've ever met who f doesn't need people. You are not interested.' I said to her: 'Sister, I am interested. I love reading novels.' She said that's not people, that's fiction you can control, that's people you don't have to get involved with. Now, I've tried to ask God to give me a loving heart and not a cold heart, but I don't think I've actually made very much progress."

Hang on. Whoa. You think you have a cold heart? "Yes, but I fight against it. I reject it in my will but it is what I am by nature. But God loves his cold-hearted children too, so long as I try not to act upon it. You'll help yourself to cake when you want it, won't you?"

I don't know about this cold-hearted business. Has she effectively shut herself away all her life because she fears what she might be, deep down? I ask if she's ever done anything truly wicked. Yes, she says. Like what, I ask. "Well," she replies, "one thing I remember very distinctly - oh, I'm so full of shame - is that when I was a little girl at school one of the other girls was having a party and didn't actually invite me but I made my mother buy a present and went along. It didn't occur to me that she didn't want me." Recalling this incident, she says, still makes her "wake in the night and blush". Sister Wendy, I say, if you don't go to heaven, there is seriously no hope for the rest of us. She says there is worse. As a child she was dispatched to boarding school where she was later joined by her younger sister, Pamela. "And I wasn't good to her. I should have looked after her, you see, but I took no notice of her. It's a perfect example of what it means to have a cold heart. Pamela now says: 'But Wendy, I didn't expect you to be kind to me', which is even worse, really. I hope that all the coldness will burn away as I totter towards the heavenly gates."

Perhaps she requires God to love her because she can't succeed in loving herself. Given the opportunity, she will certainly do herself down. For example, after two years as a novice she went, as a nun, to Oxford University to study English, eventually emerging with Oxford's highest accolade, a congratulatory first. (Apparently, Professor JRR Tolkien led the applause at her viva voce.) But when I ask her when she first realised she was very clever, she says she isn't. She was only sent to Oxford because she couldn't do anything else. "When I was a novice the mistress of studies said to me, can you cook? I said, no. She said, can you sew? I said no. She said, have you got any artistic ability? I said no. As there was nothing for me, being so very untalented, I had to go to Oxford."

But you were a clever child, right? "I always came near the top and I always did my work but I didn't take a lot of trouble. I could do it very quickly. I remember when I was eight or nine, I'd been off school for several days and when I returned there was this history test. I ran my eye very quickly over the chapters we were meant to have been reading and when the results came out I'd come second. I can remember going out at playtime and thinking: 'God has been so good to me. I'm never going to have to put in all the hard work my friends do.' I'm not particularly clever, but I'm quite good at exams. I can put it all in the shop window and it looks impressive, but there is not much behind." Wendy, I say, I'm all shop window with nothing behind. Most days, even, the shop window is pretty empty and scrappy. Most days, you'd think the shop had folded years ago. She says: "Nonsense. You are very clever." I protest, rightly. She says: "I read your Ian Paisley interview." I say: "Oops." She says: "People like Paisley barricade themselves against the truth because they are frightened. Many religious people will be horrified when they die and God explains to them that they've actually blotted him out." Phew. She isn't, like most churchy people, bigoted in the least. She's all for gay partnerships. She believes contraception is simply a matter of time.

I think I might be tiring her out. She's always had a weak heart and I notice that, at times, her breathing seems a little tricky. Of course, none of this prevents her from being a total card, or flirting quite outrageously with the photographer: "I'll do whatever you want, darling boy. Now, dear David, you will have some cake, won't you? Is it banana? Caraway! I thought so!"

She's a terrific performer. In her telly days she was even known as "one-take-Wendy". Still, I wonder if she fears death. Sorry, but I can't think of a better way of putting it. Do you fear death, Sister Wendy?

"I have no fear whatsoever," she says, "do you?" I say I don't think I want to be there when it happens, if you get my drift. She says she wants to very much be there when it happens. "I don't want to waste my death. I don't want to slip across. I want to be conscious. I want to say: 'This is death and I give it to you, God.' This, to me, is a far more real way of dying than just being in a coma and slipping. Don't take this amiss. But I think if you're afraid of death, you're afraid o f life. It is, after all, the experience. Remember what Henry James said on his deathbed: 'Here it is at last, the distinguished thing.'" However, that said, "I'm not longing for death. I'm a great one for hoarding books I want to read. I've got a pile I'm keeping for Christmas and so I don't want to die until I've read them. They all look so good. I enjoy life, but believe firmly that when we die we will pass into a joy that we simply can't imagine."

What if girls who gatecrash other girls' parties aren't allowed in? "I think everybody goes to heaven. Even the blackest-hearted, when they die, will see the truth and say: what a fool I was." She adds that one of the promises of the Bible is that when you go to heaven, God will reveal your true name to you. She is hoping for Clare. "I have said, please God, not Wendy again!"

She is quite worn out now. "I am beginning to droop a little," she says. "Might I suggest you have enough, or do you have any more fascinating questions in that satchel of yours?" I call a taxi. We discuss books while we wait. Her favourite authors are Proust, Thomas Mann, Henry James, Jane Austen. Plus, "coming down from those lofty heights I greatly enjoy Agatha Christie. When I was a child I used to go to the library after school, get two Agathas out and bring them back the next day." We talk a great deal about poetry. She thinks Shakespeare's sonnets, Keats's odes and Milton's shorter works are "the greatest works of our literature and probably the greatest works of any literature."

I visit the necessarium before I go, if only to make her happy. She gives me a large slice of cake and three apples from the garden for the journey. She embraces me warmly as I leave, says what an absolute pleasure it has been to meet me. She doesn't get out much, like I said, but I'm sure it's true all the same.

Sister Wendy Beckett's two new books, 'Speaking to the Heart: 100 Favourite Poems' (Constable) and 'Sister Wendy on Prayer' (Continuum), are both published this month. To order these books at a special price call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 - free p&p