Joan Bakewell sees David Attenborough from time to time. He has only one question for her: “Are you still working?” And, of course, she is. When we meet for lunch she is just about to embark on her fifth series of Landscape Artist of the Year for Sky – “Bake Off with oils” – that sees her “galloping around the country” from Loch Fyne to Broadstairs. She puts in 12-hour shifts beginning at seven in the morning – “by 7pm they know I’m ready for a drink”. She’s also in the House of Lords two or three days a week, when it is sitting, and she’s the president of Birkbeck, University of London. And then there are always new committees to chair, books to write. One of the reasons that Bakewell has long been such a seductive voice for the possibilities of ageing is that she has never shown the slightest interest in being past it.
She breezes into her chosen restaurant, the Orrery on London’s Marylebone High Street, already full of talk and smiles as she sits down, having done a bit of shopping downstairs in the Conran shop. The Orrery has the decor of a Dignitas clinic, white and hushed, with good linen and sharp cutlery and pristine glassware, but Bakewell brings with her a life-affirming attention. She is, you immediately forget, 89. She orders precisely – mozzarella to start and salmon fillet, water – and then gets on with the real business of lunch, conversation. Before our starters arrive we have discussed the voodoo nature of Nadine Dorries (“she sticks pins into stuff she doesn’t like”), the leadership prospects of Andy Burnham (“very impressive in person”), food fads (“I’m done with sourdough, give me a nice sliced white loaf”), the similarities between Liverpool in the 1960s and Quattrocento Florence (“creativity became infectious”), and the little pot of cod liver oil and malt that Bakewell always keeps in a drawer to remind her of stolen spoonfuls of comfort during rationing.
The thing that keeps her going, keeps her happiest, she says “is that wonderful word ‘freelance’. When I joined the BBC in the 1950s, within the second week they were discussing my pension,” she recalls. She didn’t like the sound of that. “I discovered that there was a thing called a freelance” – she invests the idea more with itinerant knight of the realm than gig economy – “and that’s what I wanted to be. Because I wanted to be in charge of my own life.”
That spirit – a determination not to be her mother, who left school at 13 to look after her seven siblings – has never left her. It’s the principle behind her most recent book, The Tick of Two Clocks, which examines her preparations for what she calls “deep old age”. Hers, you quickly gather, are not the kind of plans that might beset most of us. Since her emergence on TV in the 1960s Bakewell has seemed to exist on a plane a little above the mundane. Her thoughts about not going gentle into the long good night are no exception. Her anxieties involve selling her five-storey Georgian house in Primrose Hill in north London – bought for a few thousand pounds, sold for a few million 50 years later – and moving to a little enclave of Victorian artists’ studios around the corner. In doing so, she makes downsizing, prompted by a hip replacement, seem like another rarefied adventure, enabled partly by her new neighbour, writer Andrew O’Hagan, and partly by a team of helpers, particularly a woman called Fliff, who helps her declutter her lifetime of rooms full of books and walls full of paintings.
You don’t begrudge her these elevated concerns – she’s always been a trouper, as well as a civilising force – but you do find the words “charmed life” coming to mind a few times. Recalling the move now over lunch, she refers on a couple of occasions to “my little crisis or breakdown”, which describes the hour or two in which she had to sit down and collect herself in the midst of packing boxes when a soup tureen from a set of china inherited from her mother was smashed. The incident reminds me of a sentence that Nicci Gerrard once wrote about Bakewell in the Observer, a few years after the full details of Bakewell’s long affair with Harold Pinter came to light: “Even when she was behaving badly, she was behaving well.”
Her gift has always been to find some universal wisdom in these personal experiences. Despite the property windfall at the heart of it – “I am well aware how grossly unfair it is” – her book has interesting things to say about loneliness and community. Having grown up “aspiring lower middle class” in Cheshire – her father was an engineer, her mother a bitterly unfulfilled housewife – Baroness Bakewell of Stockport was liberated – intellectually, socially, sexually – by the intimacies of Cambridge colleges. She uses that principle to discuss the ideal retirement circumstance – “I’m very in favour of small units, built around squares, with trees and little pathways” – of which, as newly installed ambassador of the Almshouse Association, she has become a champion.
Covid gave clarity to that ideal. Bakewell has been married twice – “17 and 25 years apiece” – and has two children and six grandchildren, but for the past 22 years she has lived alone (she called her autobiography The Centre of the Bed, one of the more unforeseen outcomes of a pleasure-loving life). She had not long moved house when lockdown struck and she was, against all appearances, deemed “vulnerable”. O’Hagan and her other neighbours came to her rescue. “Andy said, ‘We’ll cook one day and bring a meal over. And you cook the next day and bring the meal over to us.’” That exchange of hot dishes at the garden gate got her through.
In characteristic style she could not be confined a moment longer than necessary. Just as soon as restrictions ended she and a friend took the ferry to Calais and drove along the north coast of France staying at B&Bs, eating at little cafes. “We were just so desperate to break out,” she says. Since then, there have been trips with her daughter, an art historian, to the galleries of Bologna and to Ghent to see the Van Eyck altarpiece. Her big fear in isolation was that she was losing the articulacy in her voice, because she was not speaking much to anyone. Her very Bakewell-esque remedy was to learn and recite Shakespeare sonnets each morning.
“Just in the last year or two, I feel I’ve lost some of my feel for the language,” she says. “I often read an article and I have to look up one or two things, new trendy words.” It’s been two years since she finished The Tick of Two Clocks and she’s itching to write something else, to help her clarify what she thinks about the “grim, after Brexit” world. “I can’t write in the afternoon. But in the mornings, nothing nicer. Making your plans, drawing up a few paragraphs, sorting out your ideas, and then going ahead … that’s my idea of bliss.”
She seems so present and curious about the news that her long past hardly gets a look in as she clears her plates. I’ve written down a couple of sentences in my notebook from Pinter’s love letters that she recently donated to the Bodleian library: “Joan. First time I’ve ever written your name. Joan. Joan. Joan. Joan. Could fill up the pages with it,” and “Your eyes … All you do. Secret girl. I can’t speak, only look,” but it’s she who brings up the affair that lasted for seven years and was the subject of Pinter’s play Betrayal. We are, towards the end of lunch, talking about the best of times, when Bakewell was hosting Late Night Line-Up in her mini-skirt in the 1960s, talking music with Barbra Streisand and art with Marcel Duchamp. Pinter, she says, was as charismatic as any of them.
“When he was in full flow it was like being near a furnace, he was so bright and intelligent, so funny.”
There is a sense, I suggest, reading memoir The Centre of the Bed, that nothing quite matched the vividness of that relationship subsequently. Is that how it felt?
“Not really,” she says. “I don’t think for a moment that life has got duller as I’ve got older. Less thrilling perhaps. But I find it all absorbing in a different kind of way.”
How far ahead does she look?
“Well,” she says, smiling at the absurdity of it, “I’m quite interested in getting to 100 just for the sheer number.” You don’t doubt that if she makes it, there is a role waiting as the authentic voice of the new centenarians.
The Tick of Two Clocks is published in paperback on 11 August (Virago, £10.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
July 17, 2022 at 04:39PM Tim Adams