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BOOKS: Broadcaster Joan Bakewell on stopping the clock

Stop The Clocks: My Thoughts On What I Leave Behind. By Joan Bakewell.

Published: 19 February, 2016
by Gerald Isaaman

Stop The Clocks: My Thoughts On What I Leave Behind.
By Joan Bakewell.

ON my presentation carriage clock – I didn’t want a gold watch – stops chiming, I wind it up. But, as Joan Bakewell, otherwise Labour peer Baroness Bakewell, acclaimed TV presenter, ardent feminist suggests, the moment comes when you can no longer add to your time on earth.

Hence the title of her new book, Stop The Clocks: Thoughts On What I Leave Behind, in which, at 82, she confronts what she has described as her gregarious “rather noisy life”, though not necessarily all its contradictions.

But, as you might expect from such a formidable intellect, she is refusing to disappear with a whimper, the ebullient Bakewell waving a polite farewell. It’s more an explosion of provocative and poignant views from the woman annoyingly crowned “the thinking man’s crumpet” by the humorist Frank Muir.

She insists she has left the fray, now spending weeks alone in Church Cottage, tucked in Shakespeare country far away from her £5million home in Primrose Hill, her happy delight now walking by the stream and enjoying the garden.

It was where she contemplated and wrote the book, pointing out: “I think as you get older, nature is suddenly more wonderful. When the flowers come into bud, you think, ‘I won’'t be seeing this for many more years’.”

That no doubt brings some solace after decades in the spotlight – two marriages, two children, six grandchildren and an eight-year affair with the then married playwright Harold Pinter – for the girl from Stockport who won a scholarship to Cambridge.

Indeed, her headmistress ironically told her that the true calling for a woman is to be a wife and mother, and having been confirmed in the Anglican church she embarked not so much on a dedicated career but life as a precarious freelance.

She met Pinter in 1960 when his play The Caretaker made it to the West End.

“I was a married women with a small daughter and a radio producer husband whose work brought us regularly into contact with Harold and his actress wife Vivien,” she explains. “We were both conventional spouses who had married for love and were devoted to our families. 

“We each lived in rented flats, in Chiswick and Camden, hoping some time soon to buy houses of our own. We shared the common aspirations of our generation to get on in the world...”

What happened was unexpectedly told by Pinter in his play Betrayal, written in 1978 when Bakewell was in her second marriage and he too had changed partners, Pinter marrying the historian Lady Antonia Fraser in 1980.

She couldn’t sleep the night she read Betrayal, hating the title because it was targeted at her and aware that her then husband knew of the affair, a fact that Pinter never appreciated, something he regarded as treachery.

“I felt a decade’s guilt spilling into public view. I felt like one of those women hounded through medieval streets as a witch for having offered healing herbs to a child... it’s a fanciful parallel, I know, but that’s how I felt.”

Years later, the nightmare returned when Pinter died and she received a message from Lady Antonia asking her not to attend his memorial service at the Olivier Theatre. She discussed the quandary with friends, one telling her: “Go anyway! Just refuse her request.”

But, she reveals: “In the end I did nothing. I left the diary blank for that day – June 7, 2009 – and spent it remembering Harold in private. After all, that was how I had known him most intimately and where my most cherished memories lived.”

There is much else of fascination in Bakewell's elegantly written and erudite reactions to life, her subjects ranging from shame and language to money and patriotism – subjects she explores with the wit and wisdom gained from her own considerable experience.

Now in her 80s, she says her life has come into relative emotional calm, and adds movingly: “That isn’t to say I don’t need, and welcome, attention, friendship and love. There is scarcely anyone alive who does not.

“But I live contentedly alone – it’s a better way – and I am often thoughtful about what has been and what might have been... For us the seasons become more meaningful. Old bones feel the cold. I am glad winter is passing. I relish the newly arriving spring.”

• Stop The Clocks: My Thoughts On What I Leave Behind. By Joan Bakewell. Virago, £18.99

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