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21 June 2023

The remarkable range of Glenda Jackson

Also this week: admiring the Elgin Marbles, and enduring the rigmarole of chemotherapy.

By Joan Bakewell

We must each have our own favourite screen memories of her: mine fight for prominence from a tangle of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, and Morecambe and Wise Christmas shows. Only Glenda Jackson could have triumphed in all three. And many more, of course. She was a superbly talented and committed actress. And we have lost her. At such a time obituaries struggle to cover the scope and range of their subject. Hers covered several pages.

Born in 1936, she hated school, left at 16 to work in the local Boots – then via a scholarship went to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was a time when local education committees would help fund such ambition and Cheshire coughed up. She never looked back. Signed up by an agent, then touring in the local repertory companies that still dotted the country, she took the traditional but exacting route to the top – with talent fuelling her journey.

[See also: A life in books and why prizes matter]

Today’s careers are less predictable, more wayward. Opportunities come with reality shows, celebrity fame and TikTok – a bewildering choice for the youngsters who declare to their parents, as I did, “I’d like to be an actor.” In my case I was pressured into taking a more secure path, and ended up with the hybrid of being a broadcaster. Well, it was better than Boots.

A phrase I’m going through

Writers in search of a title know that the poets are a good source. Consider The Sound and the Fury (Shakespeare), Of Mice and Men (Robert Burns), A Handful of Dust (TS Eliot), Tender Is the Night (John Keats) – here are the makings of a good pub quiz. But how about uncovering your own – which is exactly what I did during lockdown. First I decided to read a Shakespeare sonnet every day, but after a while I came up against obscure sonnets that were drab and depressing. Then I decided to read Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a work of more than 150 verses. From it I culled, and adapted, these possible titles: “Flatterers of the Festal Hour”, “He Loved but One”, “Untaught Melody”, “Love Rides the Wind” and “Frolics Ever New”.

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Hanif Kureishi’s return

The writer Hanif Kureishi is coming home. Last Christmas he had a serious fall while he was staying near Rome. He was left partly paralysed with spinal injuries that immobilised his limbs. Now he’s on the way to recovery – and we rejoice. Kureishi – author of My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia – set up an online newsletter, posted by his son Carlo, to which many of us subscribed. Once a writer always a writer: Hanif says his mind is buzzing with ideas, characters, events, places. I have always believed true writers were tenacious in their dedication, and here is one of them demonstrating just that. We welcome you home, Hanif!

Losing their marbles

On Sunday afternoon a cluster of us – actors with mellifluous voices, friends with good will – gathered in the British Museum to pay tribute, via Byron, to the so-called Elgin Marbles (we have to call them the Parthenon Marbles now but old habits die hard). We were reading Byron’s long poem criticising the marbles’ removal, “The Curse of Minerva”, and passages had been dished out between us: I had lines 123 to 156 – just enough to read before my voice cracked! The crowd gathered round the echoing gallery, pressing forward to hear more clearly. Simon Callow’s voice rang out to the very limit of the space; Bill Nighy made his quieter tones as easily heard. With no training as an actor, I simply shouted my segment of the text. Visitors were surprised to find the event going on, and actually located within feet of the disputed marbles themselves.

I snatched a moment to focus on the draped sculptures. If they’re on their way back to Greece, it’s time to look hard and remember. They are indeed both ancient and beautiful, but I’m told the Greeks have offered the British Museum sculptures of parallel distinction. I’m intrigued to know what will happen if the return takes place. Will other items from other cultures be suddenly in demand? Will the traffic in famous artefacts suddenly quicken and the vaults of museums be emptied of their valuable but unseen works of art? If so, at least they will be brought before the public – even if it’s their public and not ours.

In treatment

Having had a brush with cancer, I am now embarked on a course of chemotherapy. The idea is to stop the cancer coming back. I wish there was an easier way. Mine involves complex antics with needles and bags of fluid. I feel I am trapped in a rigmarole of medical remedies. “When will it all end?” I plead with my nurse. She doesn’t give me a date. “Death ends all,” she might have said. But didn’t. For which I’m thankful.  

[See also: Joan Bakewell’s Diary: living with cancer, and the age of the grandparent]

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This article appears in the 21 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The AI wars