I’ve long been an admirer of Joan Bakewell. After all, not only has she had the kind of lengthy and successful career most of us can only dream of, she is also a trailblazer, in the truest sense of the word, having been one of Britain’s first female broadcasters. Now – unbelievably – 83 years old, she is still working as a journalist and has just published a memoir entitled ‘Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind’.
Tonight, at one of my favourite places in London, The British Library, Joan was in conversation with her friend, fellow journalist and constitutional historian Peter Hennessy. This encounter had come about because the Library has acquired an archive of Joan’s work in the form of diaries, correspondence and working papers for various publications. The archive is considered to be of particular significance because it spans almost the whole of the 20th century. It is this, together with her memoir, that formed the basis of this evening’s conversation, which I was thrilled to witness.
So, how did this self-described “Attlee’s child” arrive at where she is today; what has been her journey? Born in 1933, both sets of Joan’s grandparents were factory workers who brought their families up in Manchester in L.S. Lowry-style homes and had aspirations for them to move up the social ladder. Joan’s parents followed the conventions of their time and, whilst her father went out to work, Joan’s mother stayed at home to look after the children. Not being able to forge a career for herself had a huge impact on Joan’s mother, who was prone to depression, and I got the impression that this, in turn, informed Joan’s own quest for success.
Growing up, Joan was very aware of the suffragette movement (the aunt of a close friend had been a suffragette) and of what she described as “Manchester radicalism”. Her interest in politics started when she was very young; a lifelong Labour voter (and, now, a Labour peer) she describes the roots of her politics as “tribal”, with an ongoing focus on the place of women in society. One of the achievements Joan is most proud of – and from the audience’s reaction you could tell everyone was in agreement – is that she has knocked on the door on behalf of women throughout her career.
Success at school won Joan a place at Cambridge, which she loved and where she became even more politicised (she made us all chuckle when she mentioned that she and her friends boycotted watching the Coronation on TV in favour of rehearsing a play). Cambridge is also where she met her first husband, Michael Bakewell, who himself would go on to become a radio producer.
Upon graduating, Joan did what she describes as some “unsuccessful” teaching, with one particularly challenging day seeing her locked in a stationery cupboard by her unruly pupils. A stint in advertising followed, which she also didn’t enjoy, describing it as “false”.
An interesting question which Peter put to Joan was on the subject of the 1960s – and whether there is a tendency, these days, to mythologise them. This was the decade, of course, in which Joan’s broadcasting career began to take off; having had her daughter in her early 20s she was combining motherhood with working on the ‘Late Night Line-Up’. Joan agreed that the retrospective afterglow of the 1960s tends to deceive (after all, 1962 saw the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which everyone was painfully aware that life could be over at any moment), but pointed out that the ‘60s also saw the arrival of popular culture, in the form of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – preceded, brilliantly, by Bill Haley.
Fame, for Joan, happened quite quickly, but in what she modestly describes as a “muted” form, via BBC2 and black & white television. Back then, of course, the concept of celebrity did not exist and it was possible to keep your private life separate from your public one – a factor of modern life that does concern Joan is that we know absolutely everything about, for example, politicians; whilst in favour of freedom of the press she disapproves of the way in which they enjoy highlighting politicians’ weaknesses. That isn’t to say that she isn’t a fan of technology or of trends such as social media – Joan uses Twitter, but balances this by reading a print newspaper every day.
Joan is equally disapproving of the current state of the BBC – whose values, she believes, have shifted to accommodate those of the government.
What, then, does Joan make of life as we know it in 2017? There is much to be positive about, she declares – modern medicine, scientific improvements, the success of women as leaders and the fact that these days you can actually enjoy old age (Joan’s words, not mine). She is depressed, though, by the current state of the Labour party and bemoans the fact that the social mobility that her generation enjoyed seems to have ceased – and that the optimism that she and her contemporaries felt about the world becoming a better place seems to have ebbed away.
Finally, what advice would Joan give to anyone just setting out in life? I will let this inspirational, elegant and witty lady explain that in her own, very wise, words: “Find your true self and follow your star, whatever it may be. Understand who you really are, alone with yourself, with your own unique knowledge – and use this understanding to inform what you need to do with your life.”