Jane Birkin Q+A: “It’s a comfort to know ‘Je T’aime’ will be my funeral song”

The actor talks Serge Gainsbourg, childhood nostalgia, and her mother's wisdom.

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Jane Birkin was born in London in 1946 and is known for her work as an actor, singer, songwriter and model. She is also the namesake of the Hermès Birkin handbag.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being on a farm that my father had, with my brother and sister, Andrew and Linda, in cornfields. We giggled about a cat that was being put down and my father was so angry. We were so ashamed afterwards. I would have been about five.

Who are your heroes?

My father, who was a navigator in the war and a great mathematician, and my mother. As I get older, I try to resemble her in a way, but I know I can’t: she had a spirit of her generation, of the war. She was a Scarlett O’Hara. When I touch my forearm where the skin’s gone a bit, I think, oh yes, that’s how I used to love touching my mother’s forearm, that marshmallow feeling. I’m getting it too.

What book last changed your thinking?

Anna Karenina. I’ve always liked books that have everybody’s side to a story.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Jacinda Ardern. I have confidence in her. But I’m nervous now of having admiration for anybody, given that I stuck up for Aung San Suu Kyi for nearly 20 years. You’re never quite sure of how people will be when they gain power.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

I don’t have one. Maybe a little on history.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

During the reign of Elizabeth I. I read too many of Antonia Fraser’s books. But it would be miserable if you were poor.

What TV show could you not live without?

I can live without them all, but I’d be sad to live without David Attenborough. He was the only bright spot in the shutdown.

Who would paint your portrait?

Toulouse-Lautrec would be the most fascinating because of his portraits of women sitting on a sofa, idling about. He’s the most wonderful capturer of loneliness.

What’s your theme tune?

“Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus”, the song I sang with Serge Gainsbourg. It will stay with me. When I die, that’ll be the tune they play, as I go out feet first. It’s quite a comfort to know what it will be.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I suppose it’s my mother: “Smile and the world smiles with you. Cry and you cry alone.” It was a form of delicacy, too, not to bore others with what is annoying you.

What’s currently bugging you?

That my bulldog is going to be operated on soon. I’m frightened about her anaesthetic.

What single thing would make your life better?

That my daughter Kate would come back. She died nearly seven years ago.

When were you happiest?

As a child. Looking back, there’s a nostalgia that’s nearly a sickness. It seems that everything I do is in aid of trying to go back to my childhood again.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I hope I would have been a social worker, but I’m not sure I would be good enough. I mean good in a religious way of speaking – kind enough, thoughtful enough.

Are we all doomed?

I saw your question and I thought: what am I meant to answer to that? I always think things are going to be all right. 

“Munkey Diaries” by Jane Birkin is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

This article appears in the 28 August 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Covid

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