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12 August 2017

Joan Bakewell Q&A: “What would make my life better? More of it to come“

The television presenter on Brexit, Beethoven, and meeting Clement Atlee at university.

By New Statesman

Joan Bakewell began her career as a television presenter for “Late Night Line-Up” in the 1960s. She served as Labour’s “tsar for the elderly” between 2008 and 2010, when she was made a peer.

What’s your earliest memory?

A tomato sandwich with the skin and crusts removed, on brown bread with butter. The war was on, so food mattered. It was fuel, not fun. So this was a special treat.

Who are your heroes?

Charlotte Brontë was my childhood hero: a woman who struggled to gain success and did it with a novel that idealised romantic love. Success was a good message, romantic love bad. My adult hero is John Maynard Keynes: he was right then and he’s right now.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?

Clement Attlee. I met him at the University Labour Club. He couldn’t connect to a young student admirer, but the welfare state happened on his watch so he clearly got something right.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Television in the 1960s. It’s always good to be in on the blossoming of a new discipline. The 1960s were a television golden age, not for the programmes but for the structures – BBC and ITV – that made them possible.

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

As a woman, there’s no better time than now in the west. Class, gender and money matter in all eras. But historically, I’d opt for Elizabethan England.

What TV show could you not live without?

I’m something of a news junkie. Channel 4 News is my touchstone for global information and opinion… and for my first drink of the evening.

Who would paint your portrait?

Holbein. He offers truth and judgement without sycophancy. He makes women look thoughtful.

What’s your theme tune?

The “Prisoners’ Chorus” from Beethoven’s Fidelio, Elgar’s First Symphony, or the Beatles’ “Let it Be”.

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

From my mother, to deal with my whining: “Life’s not fair; get used to it.” It has helped with disappointments. I passed it on to my children and they say it helps too.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit, naturally. I am appalled by how bad things are. But I’m a co-founder of 48% & Rising, a group pledged to supporting Remainer morale and promoting a brighter outlook for the future.

When were you happiest?

At school in the 1940s, at Cambridge in the 1950s. Everything seemed possible. All the things I cared about were improving.

What single thing would make your life better?

I wish there were more of it to come. My book Stop the Clocks is an elegy to old age. There is so much to love and enjoy about the world. I don’t want to miss it.

In another life, what job would you have chosen?

Would I have the patience to be an historian or scholar? The empathy to be a psychiatrist? Perhaps a tap dancer?

Are we all doomed?

In the immediate future the prospect looks dire. In the long term we are all stardust. What’s the alternative?

“Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind” by Joan Bakewell is published in paperback by Virago

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This article appears in the 09 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon