Seventy? It’s the new fifty says busy Joan
Esther Rantzen is still in awe of Joan Bakewell and finds her fellow broadcaster’s latest book an upbeat guide to ageing well order this book
THERE are, as the late Dave Allen remarked in his one-man stage show, a great many unwelcome surprises about growing old. He said he was astonished by the way tufts of hair had disappeared from the top of his head while at the same time vigorous new hairs were sprouting where none had been before, in his ears, for example, and out of his nostrils. That must be a man thing.
As the years have passed I’ve kept a careful eye on my ear, (not easy but just about doable), and haven’t spotted any new whiskers, yet.
However at 66 I have noticed a crop of brand new wrinkles above my knees. Is this a woman thing? And if so, can I have them lifted, or botoxed? Or would that mean I couldn’t bend my knee at all?
I can find no answers to these questions. We need a roadmap for old age to prepare us for such distressing surprises, like the volumes that forewarn us about childbirth and parenthood. Which is why Joan Bakewell’s book of reflections on life at 70 could be so helpful.
But the problem with Joan, who lives in Primrose Hill, is that she is so talented, and beautiful, and does everything so well. I prefer guides to be written by people who are flawed and vulnerable, so that I can identify with them. But the “thinking man’s crumpet” as Joan was called 40 years ago has always intimidated me. Then, every evening on BBC2 she sat swinging her perfectly cut brown hair and infinitely long legs, and gazed at her guests on Late Night Line-up with huge, melting brown eyes. I was struggling to learn how to become a TV reporter at about the same time, also with the BBC, but my hair was a blondeish bird’s nest and I could never hope to copy her sophistication, nor her sexy blue-stocking style. I was in awe of her then, and still am.
As her book demonstrates, she is just as stylish and eloquent in print, and as active and energetic as ever. In one of her essays, (this is a collection of the column ‘Just Seventy’ she writes for the Guardian), she glides through day which begins at 8.30am in the gym, then on to Broadcasting House to record a Radio 3 programme, then to a “lavish lunch” at Simpson’s for the Oldie Awards, and an evening at the Tate for the launch of a new psychedelic art show.
She claims that she is “learning to give up the hustle and bustle of the highways, and enjoy the less frantic pleasures of the byways”. Well, frankly there’s not much of a byway about her current life. It may not be frantic, she’s far too organized for that, but she is clearly as busy and in demand as ever.
I remember once asking George Thomas, Viscount Tonypandy, the ex-Speaker of the House of Commons who was then 90 and still whirling around the world lecturing, what was the secret of a grand old age like his, and he said “Activity, activity, activity.” Joan is certainly following his advice.
This is not a guide book, Joan says she doesn’t intend it to be one, “it is not a how-to book of advice and homely wisdom.” But it is a compendium of observations that many of us in what she calls the foothills of old age have reflected upon. For instance, she remarks that orchestral conductors seem to have particularly long, active lives. Is it because they spend such a long time on their feet, waving their arms in the air, exercising their heart and lungs? Joan thinks it may be. I wonder whether it’s also the power (when I wave my stick you will all play), followed by the crashing applause.
Joan is as indignant as I am that that older mothers get criticized, but older fathers are admired. And that TV producers ignore and neglect the old – old viewers as well as old presenters. I find it comforting that while the young in her family are slavishly obedient to the sell-by dates on their pots of yoghurt, she is not, and nor am I. Being past-it is not a slavish matter of dates, for humans or for yoghurt. And like Joan, I remember, (just), the days before refrigeration, when you could still (just) eat an egg that was a month old.
You finish her book with a warm glow, because unlike many beautiful women who find old age frightening, she clearly is at ease with growing older. But she is not stuck on Planet Nostalgia, she is very much concerned with today’s issues.
She describes a disconcerting moment when she had to reassess a radical opinion she had held for years, whether abortion at twenty four weeks is acceptable, or whether by then the foetus has become a baby. In debating the question she demonstrates that you can move to the middle ground with middle age.
And if you object to my calling a 70-year-old – no matter how glamorous – “middle-aged”, I’m quite prepared to agree with Joan, that 70 is the new 50.