Joan Bakewell: Stop The Clocks:
Thoughts on What I Leave Behind, 2016
On Then and Now
I am one of the oldest people I know. My generation is dying off, moving over
to make way for the next. When we are gone there will be no one who remembers
what it felt like to live through the second half of the last century. Every
day there are fewer and fewer witnesses.
That is why I am writing this book. I want to look back at the world that
shaped me and look forward to what the next generation will inherit. Theirs
is a very different world from mine and is already beginning to feel
Right now I still feel very much alive. Each day is just as vivid and precious as it always was. I may be further along the country lane than those who follow after but the sunshine is just as golden, the flowers as bright. The last strawberry in the dish tastes as good as the first.
But the decades don't roll out ahead of me as they did when I was younger. I can't stop the clocks, no matter how much I'd like to. Instead I roam around the decades and experiences of my life, exploring memories both trivial and important that have come to seem precious.
In the middle of old age I find myself in a small cottage.
No more than two rooms: a latch opens the door into a tiny entrance then directly into the lower room. Nothing between, no preparation for arriving. Just straight into the one room - there is no other. This is for eating, working, living. Enough and immediate. Life is full of transition. What we need is to get stuck in. So, open the door and come in.
Inside is the creation of a woman of country taste, a woman who obviously takes time, who pays attention to detail, who is not in a hurry. The room is no bigger than a small study. And that's exactly what it is. Along one wall extend all the facilities a writer needs: a desk, rows of electrical sockets, a laptop, a CD player and radio, a television set, a router and a printer. This working space is tucked beneath the slope of the stairs, which in turn supports a set of narrow shelves for paperclips, stationery, a jar of pens, a torch. It is all I need.
Central to the same room is an elegant round table and two Edwardian chairs.
And beyond, a series of cupboards with pine doors and drawers that open to
reveal a fridge, pots and pans, tablecloths, rolls of silver foil ... the
active equipment of good and easy cooking. Walls front and back have
leaded windows opening onto beds of daffodils: crowded below, a comfy
sofa, cushions, standard lamp, all nudging up to a small wood-burning stove
and a display of sepia family photographs. The whole is an exercise in
minimal space with all anyone could need. And if it has a feel of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle about it that's appropriate because in the single upstairs room is a full set of Beatrix Potter's little books, their box set cunningly pinned to the wall of a large cupboard concealing a lavatory. Such economy of space leaves room for a large, tall and wide bed heaped with pillows and a duvet in the William Morris fabrics that feature elsewhere. Under the window is a free-standing bath.
Here I shall stay. Here I shall set out my pages, catch at memories, weigh my life against the future and pin down ideas about what I will leave behind. There won't be time for more.
I don't want this to be a book about ageing: I want it to be about life.
The two are by no means incompatible, but ageing is often seen as a
diminution of life, somehow a feeling of being less alive than in earlier
years. The generation that sets the tone of contemporary thinking does so
from a younger perspective: a perspective that infiltrates magazines and
papers, advertising, programmes on television, films and sports. The way they move through life, shopping, working, pushing prams, going out with friends ... gives them a single viewpoint - their own.
Being young, they use their imaginations to make assumptions about the old. They look around and see people who look wrinkly and stooped. Perhaps they get impatient with people who walk slowly. It's quite odd using the underground when you're my age because the general public moves at a brisk pace and I don't need to or want to. Some sort of group instinct takes over and sets the common rhythm, urgent, stressed, in a hurry to be wherever they're heading. I'm under no such pressure: I am happy to idle my way to where I'm going. I try not to catch their mood of urgency but it's quite hard to resist the pressure. I can tell they see me as old and tiresome, getting in the way, someone who would be living at their speed if l only could. But that's not the case at all. I am living the life of an old person, which has its own rhythms, its own priorities, its own satisfactions. They are not inferior, or declining. They are simply different.
The old are living through their own segment of the human lifespan, different
but of equal significance. Shakespeare has done us no favours here.
Writing As You Like It in his buoyant thirties he gave his personal
take on the old. It was a subjective view from his position as lively
and successful writer/actor, an outlook many of his audience would
share. He clearly identified - you can sense it in the lines - with
the sighing lover and the jealous soldier; he even hints at a
sly admiration for the justice with his fair round belly.
But mockery and lampoon follow - the lean and slippered pantaloon
with his shrunk shank and childish treble of a voice. And finally despair:
second childishness and mere oblivion. This is the voice of a virile,
assertive and successful man, writing when life expectancies were much
shorter than today and the old - Falstaff, Lear, even Prospero - are seen
giving up on the triumphs they had known.
Many more of us reach old age today. And possibly because of our numbers, our health, our background we are not ready to fit easily into stereotypes. We need the old to write about being old, and indeed about dying so the young can know what it's like and not be fearful. One or two writers have tried. The playwright Dennis Potter talked to Melvyn Bragg about being close to death, swigging morphine to ease the pain throughout their television interview. He spoke lyrically of the beauty of cherry blossom outside his window, how it was more frothily white than he had ever appreciated. We held our breath with the courage of it all. Now it seems to us accurate as well. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author of outstanding books, was told he had terminal cancer at the age of eighty-one. He wrote of how that changed his outlook: 'I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts . . . I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.' That is what many of us are doing.
That is what I will try to do here. I have a sense of that landscape of which Oliver Sacks speaks.
Time: it has always haunted me.
When I walked to school, along the suburban pavements, under the dripping tunnels that carried the London to Manchester trains, past the greyhound track and the cinema towards the tram terminal, I would time myself exactly.
I needed to be at school three miles away by ten past nine. It therefore
became a matter of whether I caught the 8.25 tram and felt
comfortably able to walk the six minutes from the tram terminal to
school, or the 8.27½ tram which I knew was cutting it fine and I would need to be relatively brisk to cover the same ground, or the 8.30 tram when I would twitch uneasily all the way on the swaying clanking tram in fear of being late and knowing I would have to half-trot my way to my destination. If this happened I would arrive breathless and anxious, change into my indoor shoes fast, fling my coat aslant onto its designated peg and walk as swiftly as I was allowed - running incurred bad marks - into the classroom, where my form mistress might already be reading the register. The calling of the register was the defining moment.
'Here, no!' we would answer as our names were called. This indicated not only that we were present and not liable for a late mark, but also that 'no' meant we had not left our purse or any money in the cloakroom. This again was a culpable offence and would add to other bad marks that might steadily mount up throughout the school day. My grammar-school education consisted not only of algebra and the Treaty of Utrecht, but a steady struggle to avoid the unrelenting judgement of those mounting marks.
I have feared censure ever since. The consistent and nagging disapproval that shadowed us set a pattern of expectation in me that there was no pleasing the powers that be. As an adult the idea still haunts me. And there is considerable evidence that it is so. I flinch every time I get a parking fine, the notice of congestion charge or council tax, the road tax renewal form, and even, now I am old, the postal vote for which I am registered. To fail to vote would in my eyes earn another conduct mark against my name.
Whole generations of children grew up knowing they were in the wrong. If
not directly, then incipiently likely to offend some unknown rule imposed
by others. It would take the arrival of child psychology and the ideas
spread by the social sciences for things to change. They would begin to
ask what made children happy, what helped them thrive ... issues totally beyond the mindset of my parents' generation, who believed their job was to enforce the agreed rules, rules born of Christian commandments, large families in small spaces and aspirations to class respectability. It was how society instilled civilised behaviour in its children, behaviour that would translate them into obedient and conforming adults. The penalties of failing were too great.
Why then did I take risks? Why dice with the horrible option held out by the 8.30 tram when I could make all things smooth on the 8.27½? Even at the age of ten I was pushing what little freedom I had to the limit. I simply didn't want to play safe. I teased that tiny bit of risk out of my daily routine to give me some autonomy in a world that wanted to flatten me out. It constituted a small triumph.
Years later when I sat on the board of the National Theatre, we would
meet promptly at 10 a.m. on the designated day. We enjoyed those meetings:
we were conscious of the responsibility we had, and relished it; we
enjoyed each other's company; we were people from different walks of life
but in general terms schooled in problem solving; for an entire morning we
focused on the theatre's destiny. There was one board member, however, who arrived on time ... his time. At ten minutes past ten. You could set your watch by his arrival, which involved a mumbled apology which our chairman came to acknowledge with no more than a bleak smile. One day, as our friendship grew, I asked him privately, 'You are always ten minutes late. Why not set out ten minutes earlier and be sure to arrive on time?'
'Oh, I do,' he was eager to explain, 'I do, believe me, but even when I do I am still always ten minutes late.' I knew the case of an 8.30 tram when I met it.
I have caught many 8.30 trams in my time. Groomed by family and school to play safe, some inner impulse, some niggling devil persistently urged me to defy them. No one ever knew: such a tiny discrepancy was scarcely detectable to the adults. But I knew. And I stayed that way. I am like that today.
The trams of my schooldays were the workhorses of transport. Buses were
more comfortable, not limited to the rigid lines in the road, and cost more. So I walked further to take the tram. To climb on board was to enter a whole noisy world of clatter and clang. The network that stretched out from Manchester and Stockport depended for power on each tram having a pole that fixed onto the power line above. I lived at the terminus and no tram was turned round at its destination; they were simply switched back to front. The conductor went along the aisle slamming the wooden-slatted bench backs across to face the opposite direction. At the same time the driver would pull on the pole, which would flash and crackle as it left the power line and swung round from front to back to reconnect with the electricity. Then the tram would be off, swaying along the fixed tracks down the centre of the road, stopping to pick up passengers who would hold up what motor traffic there was - very little in those days - stepping out from the pavement to reach and mount the several steps onto the huge mechanical beast. On board they would pay the conductor, who dispensed individual tickets from a small board mounted with what seemed to be several mousetraps and made a hole with a primitive puncher slung round his neck. Each ticket carried a series of numbers and each day we would add and subtract them according to obscure childhood rules that indicated the future patterns of our fantasy love lives. Would the boy next door stop to speak? Would we bump into a pash at the Scouts' dance? Nowadays items such as these crop up in transport museums and on bric-a-brac stalls. There's no conveying what they once meant.
The journey to school was a kaleidoscope of excitement, hopes and fears,
yearnings and terrors. Often, depending on the timing, the headmistress
would get on the tram half way along the route: she would travel inside; we were upstairs. She was gaunt and watchful, eagle-eyed for any pupil not wearing the full school uniform or not quick enough to offer their seat when the tram was crowded. We kept a discreet distance. We did the same for the man upstairs, sitting in the curving seat at the back in full view as we clambered down the curving metal stairs. He regularly had a strange purple gizzardy-looking thing hanging from between his legs. We giggled together once we had jumped from the steps, but we weren't sure why. We were careful not to let the headmistress see.
Trams fell from favour in the post-war years. Manchester was the first
city in Britain to abandon them, tearing up the lines almost with relish,
rejecting the noisy old past. Then with just as much gusto they were
back: arriving transformed, as though they'd just been away for a
makeover. This time there was to be no clanging or flashing electricity.
Instead a seemly smooth glide, and low floors so wheelchairs and prams can get on. Trams have been gentrified, first running in 1992 and given modish branding as the Manchester Metrolink. Casual talk of trams as I remember them falls on deaf ears ... they don't remember. They don't want to know. It's their world now.
Edinburgh is an altogether different story. I have waited patiently and long while the protracted saga of its own tram system has been played out over some ten years. Each time I visited the Edinburgh Festival I enquired how it was getting along; groans and complaints from taxi drivers and frustrated burghers. Suddenly in May 2014 it is opened, at half the length and having taken twice as long as first intended. It had better be good.
It is mid-June: I arrive at Edinburgh airport in the tumultuous company of those involved in the making of a television programme. The star is led off by a peak-capped chauffeur to what we all imagine is a limousine. I demur : 'No, I want to take the tram.' Strange looks from the rest as they themselves bundle into a series of taxis. I make my way back into my past, back into tram-land . . . back to what I used to know and love. Some things change, and some things stay the same.
The tram is back, but this time the design is like something out of Bauhaus via the Wild West. The design is streamlined, the route still through rough terrain. The tram terminus lies in the usual wasteland of covered walkways that fringe all airports; there are not many passengers so we are easily accommodated in the crisp new carriages. So much money spent and they want us to be proud : 'We love our seats: please help us to keep them looking lovely by not putting your feet on them. Thanks.' The seats are not so much lovely as serviceable, but I smile at the newness and pride of it all.
The route towards Edinburgh takes us through the bush and shrublands of the city plain; for long stretches I can see nothing but grass. And then the tram slinks silently into a station of such elegance and style it should win design awards: signs, waste bins, rain shelters are all in the finest brushed steel, with minimalist taste and discretion. The doors hum open and one or two passengers arrive: where have they come from? There don't seem to be any houses for miles. Nearer to the city the shape of the future arrives: large warehouses and company buildings begin to line the track. They will soon, I imagine, spread out along the so-far-empty route. But for a moment I am enjoying the tram of today in all its isolated and surprising glory.
I close the cottage door behind me and turn towards the river down a small lane, really nothing more than an alley. A bicycle could get down here, but not a car. It has the air of a doll's house settlement. Along one side there is a line of houses as small as the one I am living in. Each a front door and a single window. On their doorsteps a medley of pots with clusters of flowers and a sudden magnificent magnolia, a sequence of wooden fencing, a rackety wire-netting enclosure for a clutch of hens and a magnificent cockerel called Chanticleer.
Winding around small grassy spaces - different gardens, it's impossible to say whose - I reach the river and the bench. It is where I come to sit. And think about life, my life, and its steady flow like the river from its source towards its ceasing.
I watch the raindrops bounce their rings on its surface until I see so
many rings I don't know how heavily it's raining. A tall old yew tree
provides shelter. I watch the rain, the river and the banks. I can
almost see the green buds bursting into leaf. All is in constant flux ... as it has been all my life. Only now am I aware of it.
I shall only know what I leave behind, if I realise what has gone into making me what I am. And the earliest years echo most vividly in my eighty-two-year-old memory.
I was born into a safe, stable world of industrial Lancashire, where my
parents worked purposefully to make more of their lives than they had
known at home. Both my grandfathers had been factory workers, working with
their hands at jobs that didn't vary throughout their lives. Their regular
but static wages paid the rent on small terraced houses with scarcely enough left to feed and clothe their numerous children. Several of these children were excited by how schooling could help them make something of their lives -it was called 'bettering yourself'. My parents were among them. It was to give them motivation and integrity; in furthering this intent they led straightforward, law-abiding lives.
For the most part my grandparents accepted the social order they knew, though living in the centre of Manchester they were well aware of its radical traditions. In 1819 an early meeting of Chartists had been mown down by mounted yeomanry in St Peter's Field; at the turn of the twentieth century the suffragettes had flourished locally and were grudgingly admired, even if they did irritate my grandparents' heroes Lloyd George and Winston Churchill.
But life was tough and several children died young. My father was bereaved early when his thirty-three-year-old father died, leaving a twenty-eight-year-old widow and four children under the age of six. My father was the eldest. Misfortune was followed by good fortune: all three boys were taken in by Chetham's Hospital, an orphanage founded in the seventeenth century by the Manchester worthy Humphrey Chetham to provide by 'learning and labour' for forty boys, each the son of honest and industrious parents and not 'a bastard, nor lame, infirm nor diseased'. The deserving, as opposed to the undeserving, poor.
Here he received a rigorous and purposeful education - pupils were destined to be apprentices serving the city's industries. But 'Chet's', as it was known to parents and friends, also provided a glimpse of something else. Its fine library - the first public library in Europe - housed tall leather-bound volumes of law, theology and local history. My father grew up in awe of scholarship and learning. It was a direct inheritance into my own life and values, for which I am continually thankful.
My mother, the eldest daughter among eight children, was also keen to better her lot. She was bright enough to win a City of Manchester scholarship to Ardwick Central School but left after a year, aged thirteen, either because - family stories vary - the family couldn't afford the uniform and she minded the stigma, or because my perpetually pregnant grandmother needed help bringing up her brood. It was often the fate of the eldest daughter to be a second mother. But they needed money too. So my mother took a job in an engineering firm and enrolled in evening classes at Openshaw College, studying applied mechanics and experimental maths. It was the second year of the First World War and she was part of that wave of women offered interesting work by the absence of men . In the event she became a tracer, skilled at tracing with absolute accuracy the detailed engineering drawings drawn up by men. It was as high up the ladder as women could go.
Her intelligence and resentment were, I believe, to fuel the depressions that overtook her in later life, and her barely suppressed jealousy of the freedoms I enjoyed. But for the time being, following their office romance, my parents settled into the comfortable suburban life that had seemed so remote a dream for their parents. They were upwardly mobile and they thrived.
They believed in bringing up their children with high hopes and new thinking. I and my sister Susan were, they hoped , to benefit from the latest styles of childcare. They belonged to what must have been the first generation to take their child-rearing skills not, as if by osmosis, from their parents, but from the advice of strangers written in books.
With a background thick with time-keeping and bad marks for trivia I was clearly available for any chance to break out. I grew into a slyly subversive child. The point was to defy the system without the system really knowing. I could become sullen and obstinate simply for the sake of asserting myself . When I was five my father was sent to South America as an engineer working on the construction of wheat silos at the docksides of Argentina. My mother and I went along too. This was a big deal for people so aware of their humble background: they were thrilled to be travelling but self-conscious about things like correct etiquette and behaviour. My mother, who was pretty and popular, was naturally treated with Hispanic gallantry by my father's Argentinian colleagues. This made her even more self-conscious. High-flown manners did not come easily if you'd grown up in the land of L. S. Lowry. In response, my mother felt it her duty to enact the appearance of being perfect and of her family's being perfect too. That meant me.
There is a photograph of some 1930s moment of formal hospitality
on board an ocean liner where everyone is smiling - with formal
Argentinian manners - towards the camera. Except two people: my mother and I. She is standing above me in a grey squirrel fur coat, and looking down at me with disapproval: I know she is. But I am looking away from her, and defiantly refusing to look at the camera. We are locked in a tug of wills. I have offended by refusing to thank one of the ship's officers who has made me a present of a propelling pencil bearing the gilt lettering Royal Mail Lines, Ltd. My mother has taken the propelling pencil from me until such time as I thank the officer politely for his gift. I refuse. I went on refusing.
I went on refusing until her death twenty-three years later. Then in the muddle of dusty debris that lay scattered inside her dressing-table drawer I found the very pencil. I claimed it as mine. And I still have it. And some fifty years further on, now I have already outlived her by a quarter of a century, it sits along with other pencils and pens in a pot on my desk.
What to make of this tale? For years I saw it as a trophy, an early triumph in defying my mother. Now I see it also as an infantile tantrum whose impulse to defy authority has not yet died away in me. My mother and I never resolved our battle of wills. And I always blamed her for treating me in ways that were flawed and counterproductive. But don't all parents do that? Unresolved traumas like this curdled our later life together.
As I sit watching the rain has got heavier, the raindrops on the river merging into a continuously rippling surface. The buds seem more swollen than ever. I am impatient for the yellow of spring to arrive. I am hurrying time on. To what end? To my own. But how to slow down the flowers? I leave the bench. Time and the river have moved on. I go back up the path and inside for a cup of tea.