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  1. Diary
1 February 2023

Joan Bakewell’s Diary: living with cancer, and the age of the grandparent

Medical progress is making us live longer – and grannies like me are being turned to for free childcare.

By Joan Bakewell

The Public Order Bill was in the House of Lords. Many amendments sought to limit the proposed constraints on protest only to where “serious disruption” was caused. There was much talk of what constitutes “serious disruption” and who would decide. Suddenly there was disruption in the Chamber itself: a group of protesters stood in the gallery silently displaying T-shirts exhorting us to Protect Human Rights. I could only agree. They were gently escorted out without fuss or noise. No serious disruption there. The House adjourned for ten minutes.

I am a great believer in street politics: I’ve marched throughout my life. First over the 1956 Suez crisis, then in the early 1960s I joined CND marchers as they arrived from Aldermaston protesting against nuclear weapons. In 2003 I joined a crowd of a million marching against the Iraq War and, when Tony Blair ignored our protests, promptly resigned from the Labour Party. I have since marched decked in purple, white and green to celebrate the suffragettes; in a pink hat to protest at the reception planned for Donald Trump’s visit to London; and, of course, several times against Brexit. Are my marching days now over? It occurs to me that the day they start drilling the proposed Cumbria coal mine I shall feel the urge to catch the train to Whitehaven.

Modern cancer

I am recovering from cancer. It is no longer the death sentence it was in my childhood, when it was referred to in hushed voices as the Big C. Several relations, including both parents and my only sibling, died from it. Once diagnosed there was nothing that could be done, apart from keeping the sufferer in comfort and offering a few final treats. Resignation was the accepted mood.

So I had reason to be anxious. But today things are different. Having survived the appropriate operation I am now embarked on a course of chemotherapy. I discover this too is no longer the dreaded ordeal that decades ago involved friends with breast cancer losing their hair. Today’s chemo comes in tidy little bags tied round the waist. I am able to go about my daily life – cinemas, shops, House of Lords – with virtually no inconvenience. Quietly, in unobtrusive ways, medical progress is making our lives easier… and longer.

[See also: Rachel Reeves’ Diary: At Davos, there are two challenges – fixing the global economy, and walking in snow boots]

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Demographic benefits

As life expectancy increases, the statistics are shifting the social demographic. Research quoted in the Economist reveals that the number of grandparents in the world has trebled since 1960: today there are some 1.5 billion of us. This fact has not escaped the attention of those in need of easily available labour. As the costs and availability of childcare make problems for working parents, grandparents are increasingly looked to to provide the solution. It does of course need families to live in close proximity, a reminder of the warmth and support that former industrial communities enjoyed. But it also brings the personal rewards of different generations knowing and understanding each other. Everything from, “Turn that row down will you?” to, “Who exactly is Beyoncé?” and, “How do I fill in this form online?”

Retirement retired

It’s not just our families – Jeremy Hunt, too, is after us grannies: would we like to return to our old jobs? Perhaps we could help out at the local clinic or pharmacy. How about a few hours as an assistant teacher in the discipline that was once our full-time job? Oh, and just to help along our decisions there are plans to delay pensions.

Do I deplore moves to have the old work longer? By no means. I think a choice freely made to go on working keeps the body active, the mind alert and social contacts open. But employers must adapt, too: old, varicosed legs can’t stand all day at a counter; nimble use of devices will need sympathetic explanations. Offices and companies need to revise their working routines and make the old welcome. Then we all benefit.

The exhibition “Spain and the Hispanic World”, currently at the Royal Academy, is a rich and satisfying feast of 150 artefacts: paintings – Zurbarán, El Greco, Goya, Velázquez – ceramics and sculptures that reflect Spanish culture from not only Spain but Mexico and broad swathes of Latin America. I loved its voluptuous abundance of colour and style. But two things struck me: the enduring influence that the 600-year occupation of Spain by Muslim rulers had on the art of Iberia, and the absence of any message within the displays of the impact – and damage – caused by Spain’s own empire. I am now so used to explanatory fact sheets in British galleries telling me how heinous the British empire was that to have a guilt-free exhibition seems touchingly old-fashioned.

[See also: Ben Judah’s Diary: time-travelling to the 1970s, leaky Westminster, and getting banned from Russia]

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This article appears in the 01 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Housing Con