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Joan Bakewell’s Diary: Talking to centenarians about death

The broadcaster on George Orwell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and making the theatre accessible.

I have been talking about death a good deal lately. People don’t do it enough. Social taboo and superstition still inhibit our willingness to discuss what is, after all, one of life’s great rights of passage. In a recent BBC Panorama I engaged with a number of people who are 100 years old and more. They have no such unwillingness. Indeed some are positively looking forward to it, either in the expectation of being reunited with family who have gone before, or simply because they have had enough: “I wake each morning disappointed that I am still here.”

So what is the point of our obsession  with super-health, diets, exercise… if only to live ever longer towards years where we no longer care?

I discover the NHS will always stand by us as we age. We filmed a woman in her mid-90s having a hip operation – only to die some weeks later. When I asked about the financial priorities of such treatment I was told by the surgeon: “If you come into this hospital in serious pain, we will give you the appropriate treatment, whatever your age.” Well done, the University Hospital of North Tees.

Mersey beats

Who wouldn’t want to see a film with Liverpool in the title? I’ve had the chance of an advance viewing of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, released on 17 November – always a treat to get a glimpse before the critics move in. It’s the story of 1950s Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening), the “girl who cain’t say no” in Oklahoma!.

But now Gloria has fallen on hard times. With four marriages behind her, she arrives in England to prop up a dwindling career. She meets jobbing actor Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), who is 29 years younger than her. Increasingly frail, she moves into his modest home, where his parents offer a cosy Liverpudlian welcome. Their love affair is touching, unsentimental and finally tragic. It is moving without being sugary, authentic without being crass. Take tissues.

Art in the heart

Pokuaa Osei has a had a good week too. My good friend (and successor as chair of the National Campaign for the Arts), Samuel West, presented Pokuaa with a “Hearts for the Arts” award, which rewards local councils, council officers and councillors who overcome funding problems to keep the arts flourishing. Pokuaa works for the London Borough of Haringey and her involvement with Family First Nights has won her the award. The scheme provides chances for deprived families with two children between the ages of three and 17 to get special deals to go to West End Shows.

Over five weeks this summer, 550 such families have seen shows as varied as Billy Liar and Les Misérables. Some had never been to central London before, let alone visited a theatre. Everyone gains: young people can be inspired by seeing such grand shows; families coming together on a night out does them all good. Why aren’t more councils encouraging such initiatives?

Birkbeck’s promise

By the time you read this, I will have been on my feet for four hours each day for three consecutive days. It’s graduation time and as president of Birkbeck I stand alongside the college’s master congratulating our new graduates. Birkbeck, part of the University of London, is an amazing place; it offers full degrees to people who are also earning a living. Around 6 o’clock each evening the students flock through the doors, straight from their day jobs, to study under outstanding academics. We were founded almost 200 years ago by George Birkbeck, a philanthropist who thought working people should have as good a chance to learn as the better off. It was among the first Mechanics’ Institutes – which I remember from my childhood as places where anyone, regardless of class or income, could go to learn.

This week the range of our student recruitment has broadened with the launch of the Compass Project, which will offer 20 asylum seekers each year a fully funded place on any undergraduate or postgraduate course. George would be delighted that we are fulfilling his mission, though perhaps surprised at the direction it is taking.

Ministry of Truth

George Orwell is in the wrong place. Ever since I challenged the last director general with the idea that the BBC should celebrate Orwell and his journalistic values – and was told he was “too left wing” – I have known the BBC is fearful of its political masters…the ones who hold the purse strings.

Thus the corporation’s new Orwell statue lurks under an oppressive building overhang at the BBC’s headquarters instead of out in open sight. Perhaps they thought that the political bigwigs arriving by limousine at the building’s second entrance would miss the challenge of his values. Ideally the statue, by Martin Jennings, should stand in the glorious horseshoe approach at New Broadcasting House in Portland Place, the inspiration of architect Richard MacCormac. There it would be seen by the hordes who rush in daily to man the desks and programmes. It might even inspire them to seek the truth in what they do.

Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster and author of “Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind” (Virago)

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist