Joan Bakewell

‘I am one of the oldest people I know,’ writes Joan Bakewell in her new book, Stop the Clocks. ‘My generation is dying off, moving over to make way for the next.’

This is not a statement made with any hint of bitterness or regret: as one of Britain’s most distinguished journalists and broadcasters, Baroness Bakewell of Stockport knows she has little cause to feel short-changed by life. But, at 82, she inevitably finds her thoughts turning to her own mortality and, beyond that, her legacy.

‘Legacy was the working title, actually,’ says Bakewell of Stop the Clocks, an engaging mix of memoir, social history and commentary covering eight decades of dizzying change. ‘When you’re my age, you start to wonder what the world will be like when you’re gone, and whether you’ll have left any trace. What echoes do we leave behind? What thoughts?’

Weekend wonders if we’re inevitably more drawn to nostalgic revelries as we get older. ‘Well there’s more of it to look back on,’ she points out. ‘And more time to do it.’

Does she think age brings genuine wisdom? ‘It brings a sort of restfulness of mind, which allows you to give up on things like ambition and jealousy,’ she says. ‘And that makes it slightly easier to live with yourself, I think. So you feel you’ve got wiser, even though other people might think you’re just stuck in a rut.’

Not that Bakewell is ready to roll over quite yet: while her TV career may have faded (‘It’s difficult for a broadcaster to take on someone who’s over 80, because they might not last,’ she laughs), she still writes regularly for newspapers, says she’s got several more books in her, and is active as a Labour peer in the House of Lords.

In Stop the Clocks, Bakewell writes that ‘time has always haunted me’. ‘When I was little, my parents would go out to New Year’s Eve parties, and I would watch the ticking of the clock, thinking “time is now passing from one year to the other”,’ she tells Weekend. ‘It would make me absolutely frantic with terror, that this year would never happen again. I don’t know whether it was because I was a child during the war, and we might be obliterated at any moment, but I’ve always been fearful of time. In all sorts of ways, it really obsesses me.’

Born in Stockport in 1933, Joan Dawson Rowlands was head girl at her local state grammar school, before winning a scholarship to Cambridge. At home, she had a difficult relationship with her mother, who displayed ‘barely suppressed jealousy’ of the freedoms her daughter enjoyed. ‘She developed a tremendous depressive illness at a time when nobody knew what that meant,’ says Bakewell. ‘Now, they would give her tablets. She was just very unhappy, and we didn’t know how to make her happy.’

On graduating, Bakewell followed the well-trod path from Cambridge to the BBC, getting her break as a radio and television journalist by ‘talking myself into jobs that didn’t yet exist’. She was one of the presenters of the groundbreaking 60s arts programme Late Night Line-Up – it was during this period the humourist Frank Muir famously dubbed her ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’, a tag she’s been trying to shake off ever since – before becoming Newsnight’s first arts correspondent. It’s perhaps surprising, then, to find her stating she’s ‘never had what people call a career’.

‘With a career, you go up a ladder and you become a boring executive, going to lots of meetings’ she explains. ‘I never wanted to sit in meetings. I remember discussing this with David Attenborough: when he was Controller of BBC2, he was being touted as a future Director General. He said to me, “In my diary, I have 22 meetings a week. I can’t stand it.” So he went back to his animals.’

Pursuing her own singular passions brought Bakewell into the orbit of some ‘extraordinary’ people, from Bette Davis to Nelson Mandela, who granted her the first British interview after his release from prison; there were other rewards, too, including the CBE, then a damehood and, in 2008, a peerage – the same year Gordon Brown appointed her as his government’s champion for older people.

Not that there haven’t been bumps in the road along the way – including losing her Newsnight job after 20 years, without so much as a word from the BBC. She sympathises with Tom Jones’ recent, equally undignified exit from The Voice, but remains a staunch defender of her most regular employer (even after the Newsnight debacle, she continued presenting the ethical debate show Heart of the Matter for another 12 years).

She is no stranger to controversy, either. In 2001, Bakewell found herself facing a possible charge of blasphemous libel over her BBC2 series Taboo, a personal exploration of taste and decency that pushed at the boundaries of what is acceptable on television. More famously, in the 1960s she had a seven-year affair with Harold Pinter, while both of them were married (she to Michael Bakewell, the father of her two children).

She wrote about the affair – which formed the basis of Pinter’s play The Betrayal – at length in her 2004 autobiography The Centre of the Bed, and revisits it in Stop the Clocks. ‘Do you think I’ve done it alright?’ she asks, a little anxiously. ‘It’s not seedy, is it? I tried to do it quite tactfully.’

In the book’s final chapter, On Death, Bakewell reflects that, while our passing is inevitable, the question is ‘how to deal with it’. So how does she deal with it?

‘My strategy is to look forward. If there’s a day ahead, it will be just as full as any other day in your life. I still make plans. But I don’t have that sense that young people have of the years rolling forward,’ she says wistfully. ‘That must be just wonderful.’

Bakewell – who divorced her second husband, the writer and director Jack Emery, in 2001 – wrote Stop the Clocks in a small country cottage, where she was ‘utterly happy’, walking by the stream and enjoying the garden. ‘I think as you get older, nature is suddenly more wonderful,’ she reflects. ‘When the flowers come into bud, you think “Well I won’t be seeing this for many more years”.’

She finds she enjoys her own company more than she thought she would. ‘I’ve usually been a very busy, gregarious person,’ she says. ‘I’ve probably led rather a noisy life, and I’m enjoying my own company. Which is good because, when you’re my age, you’re going to have a lot of it.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 4, 2016

(c) Waitrose Weekend