Joan Bakewell writes in her memoir, The Centre of the Bed, about the moment she became an adult. It was 1949 and she was 17, a hard- working grammar schoolgirl from the industrial north, when her frustrated, depressive mother found a photograph of Joan kissing a boy and set fire to it in front of her eyes. Joan felt deep shame, but the shame began to transmogrify.
“Suddenly I was savagely and tremblingly angry,” she writes. “I was being forged in some bitter fire of my mother’s will, and I must survive the moment and emerge as myself. That was the end of innocence, not the loss of virginity or any fumbling that fell short of it. It was when I crossed into adulthood, knew my own mind and was sure of who I was.” Soon afterwards she left for university, where she joyfully discovered the world of ideas, as well as the one of sex, even though, as a student of the Cambridge women’s college Newnham, such things were banned.
So it interests me, on the morning I am to interview Bakewell, who has been a pioneering woman in media for more than half a century, to read that Oxford University is seeking to ban its dons from having sexual relationships with students. This is being promoted as a progressive, feminist move, presumably to outlaw sexual exploitation and conflicts of interest, but I have a feeling Bakewell will be having none of this. I ask her, over Zoom, and from her desk in Primrose Hill, she laughs.
“I thought about Héloïse and Abelard, I thought here we go,” she says, referencing the French philosopher who had a passionate affair with a student, which led to such scandal that he was castrated, and only 1,000 years ago. “Have we not got over the idea that knowledge, and a shared enthusiasm for poetry, is…? Obviously I don’t believe in harassment and things like that,” she explains, “but we do risk a situation where anything you don’t like, or you feel is inappropriate for your group, should in some way have a limitation on it which borders on legal. I don’t quite like that. I don’t quite like the feeling that these regulations are being enforced on me. I mean, I lived through the 1960s, which was all about gaining more freedom – sexual freedom, language freedom. Religious freedom! Civil rights! Now it’s about freedom, in a sense, but, we mustn’t do this, and we mustn’t do that. It’s quite a different mindset.”
She herself was sexually assaulted by a government minister when she had to take a taxi with him many years ago – she says there’s no point naming him “because everyone from back then is dead anyhow. But that’s how you lived your life, because men were making passes at you all the time. Grabbing. Pinching. Squeezing. You know… And there was no point in complaining because the men you complained to would be doing it, too. It was the water you swam in and you got used to avoiding the rocks and the sharks. You made your own way.”
So she is delighted that the harassment now has to stop. “To see that go away, and to see that suddenly be so unacceptable is… how extraordinary. People are more assertive now. I sort of accepted the world as it was.”
But as for consensual relationships, some might say that if a 20-year-old student chooses to have it away with a 40-year-old lecturer then that’s their business.
“Absolutely! And how are you going to police it? We weren’t allowed to have sex at all when we were at university, but I got round it. I used to sleep in King’s College [men only, with her future husband Michael Bakewell] and leave a rolled blanket in my bed so that it looked as though I were asleep, in case anyone came in to check.” She had a friend who got pregnant and had to tell the principal, “and he said to her, ‘You will be on the next train out of Cambridge, you have brought disgrace.’ Of course the boy went on and took his degree; he didn’t have to leave. And the couple got married and stayed together for 60 years.”
She adds: “It is very hard to legislate for emotional impulses of such power,” her spoken sentences often sounding as well put together as other people’s written ones, a skill honed in her long career of broadcasting. (I can imagine she speaks well in the House of Lords, where she says she has been enjoying the intellectual stimulation since Labour’s Ed Miliband made her a Labour peer in 2011.)
“I was married at 22 and I remember thinking to myself, fine, I’m really happily married now, but does this mean I only have one female-male relationship for however many years I’m going to live? I remember thinking, that’s not going to be sustainable! Because the world is full of extremely interesting people, and bonds arise between them. I do think it’s strange, the expectation of people who stand at the altar, or wherever they make their vows, to say: ‘Till death us do part.’ I mean you’re undertaking the most amazing loyalty, but also at the exclusion of all other people on the planet from intimacy with you. And that seems not quite… balanced, somehow.”
She smiles contentedly, feeling particularly good today as she has just had her first Covid vaccination and is desperate to be reunited with her children and grandchildren.
“The world is full of interesting people now. Men and women,” she adds, “now that we can say that. Too interesting to just ignore.”
Wait, I ask, what does she mean – that she was sexually attracted to both?
“Well a lot of my female friends are married to each other. Lesbian partnerships,” she replies, with a haste that I might be imagining. “Which were unusual before, though of course they did exist, but they were in the shadows. Now they’re not in the shadows. And I’ve been to some wonderful weddings.”
Of course, she didn’t stick to the one sexual relationship, as she had an affair with Harold Pinter for at least seven years, staying friends with him afterwards, even when he wrote the play, Betrayal, about their relationship, a secret she guarded for decades. She decided not to feel guilty about their affair and to enjoy it, and tells me her divorce wasn’t really about that.
“No, it was far more complicated than that. I was married for 17 years the first time and 25 the second [to Jack Emery] and for something like the first 10 of the first one, and something like 15 of the second, they were very satisfying and gratifying marriages. But they did go substantially wrong and I decided it was no longer the marriage I thought.”
Which is why she now lives alone, in a smaller home in Primrose Hill than the big family house down the road that she bought in the 1960s and lived in for decades, having hired a professional declutterer to help. The new place has a bedroom downstairs for her and one upstairs, ready and waiting for a future carer to live in. She has written a book about downsizing, The Tick of Two Clocks: A Tale of Moving On, due out this year, “full of gossip, how I did it and what it felt like, bit of a diary. But it’s also about adjusting your head to feeling old and all the things that you need to do. Getting rid of all the stuff is emblematic of sorting life out. So it’s a bit about facing up to the fact that this is it, this is where I shall live until I die now. This is it.”
“Emotionally, how do you let yourself part with all the stuff?” I ask her. “Well, it’s really hard. I think it helps if you are getting rid of it in the interests of building something else – while you’re losing all the extra stuff. Books were the most painful – ugh, books were terrible.”
Living alone during the pandemic has meant she organised a meal swap with her neighbours, the novelist Andrew O’Hagan and his wife, taking it in turns to cook dinner for each other “and running across the road with a tray of hot food” for about the first eight weeks. Then she accepted a few meals from the neighbourhood Covid support group, “but realised I had better get my act together,” she says, “and cook the things I liked that don’t make me fat.” She had to spend Christmas by herself for the first time in her life, rather than drive to her daughter Harriet’s family in Bristol as planned; she also has a son Matthew. There were family Zooms and a walk with a friend, but it was “a day like any other” in ways, and this morning she “sneaked out to have a takeaway coffee in the street” with her other neighbour, the Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow. (Yes, Primrose Hill really is like that.) She has no respect for Boris Johnson, despite having been in a book group with his father, Stanley, for years.
“I don’t approve really of Boris at all and he uses all this ‘We’ll fight it, we’ll defeat it’ language about the virus. It’s just not the right way to regard something that is around and infecting us and other people. As though there’s a side to it, and it’s the enemy and we’re the virtuous ones. When I was a child, the war was happening because someone was doing very wicked things in a place that was not far away – a place that we used to visit, as it were. The enemy was up there bombing.”
She can’t stand watching the regular Covid press conferences “because I get so angry and so irritated. So I wait and let all the journos filter it so I can digest it in edible slices.”
A few weeks after we spoke, Bakewell began proceedings against the government over its policy to delay the second dose of the vaccine. “I myself have been fortunate to have mine, but I am doing this on behalf of those waiting to have their second Pfizer vaccine. Older people are in limbo. They need to know whether delaying the vaccine is both safe and legal. I am bringing this case because I believe the government needs to make this clear.”
She has all sorts of newspaper apps and subscriptions on her iPhone; everything from the Telegraph to the Washington Post to the New Statesman. I wonder if she would have liked a more news-based, political career – like Emily Maitlis.
“Well,” she says, “I did have this wonderful break on a series called Late Night Line-Up, which had an open brief. And that was a marvellous opportunity. You let your mind rip and did daring things and met unusual people. However, as a result of all that kind of exposure – which is an appropriate word really – I got tagged, and I hope you won’t remember it, with a phrase that followed me for a couple of decades: ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’. Which did for any kind of serious Panorama-style reporting. I knew it was meant frivolously, by someone who knew I was good at my job, oh… who was that… very tall, very witty man?” Gratifyingly, she has both outlived him and forgotten his name. And seen a world in which women have been able to go so much further into news TV than she did. Is she pleased?
“Oh yes!” she replies, with absolute delight in her voice, the tone shifting completely. “I mean Emily’s wonderful, isn’t she? And she isn’t the only one.”
We discuss the interrogative interviewing manner of the Maitlis, Kay Burley, Naga Munchetty generation; Bakewell says she couldn’t have addressed people like that anyway.
“Nobody did in the 60s and 70s, when people were still incredibly deferential. I mean, I remember the days when people said, ‘Well Prime Minister, would you like to add anything else to the interview?’ ‘No thank you,’ said the Prime Minister. And that inhibited me. So it is just wonderful what has happened.” She really admires these women who “are so self-possessed, and attractive, and entirely themselves. Who’s the girl who’s just taken over Woman’s Hour? Wonderful voice. Emma Barnett. Fantastic, she’s fantastic. I didn’t know anything about her except she’s incredibly good. She doesn’t lose her edge.”
This summer she filmed a new series of Landscape Artist of the Year, mainly shot outdoors in beautiful surroundings to keep her safe from Covid (she had to take a break from doing the indoor Portrait Artistof the Year series, which she felt might be less safe for her) and admits that she has strong feelings about art. “Yes, well the judges will say I am a bit of a problem like that, haha. I do have opinions. I bite my lip before we get to the results. I don’t think I would influence them, but I don’t want to create any rancour. I quite often don’t agree with them! But it’s a lovely, expert programme that will change the way you look at paintings.”
As for her personal life, I wonder if she is actually enjoying the peace and quiet.
“Well,” she replies, thinking. “I have felt the absence of the other. I think one of the things I miss is the sense that there is someone else in the world who thinks that you are the most important thing in their life. I think that’s a very wonderful attribute of marriage, and I see it around me in my friends’ marriages – and in my children’s, too. That there is one other person to whom you’re attached who thinks that you are the most wonderful person in the world. And they are devoted to you. I don’t have that. And that’s nice to have, there’s no doubt about that.”
We talk about people who have had long marriages. “It is a very remarkable thing, that kind of devotion,” she says. “So remarkable that they often take it for granted.”
So is this it, do you think – or might you meet someone? I ask her in all seriousness. For some reason it seems the most normal thing in the world that this sprightly, engaging person, who has such a positive view towards romance and sex, might marry again.
“SOPHIE! I’m in my late 80s!” She splutters, laughing so much she can barely get the words out. “I have to say,” she struggles, laughing, “I’m not looking to or expecting to. Such a strange idea,” she adds, looking at me almost in sympathy for my strange idea. “No.”
Landscape Artist of the Year returns on Wednesdays at 8pm on Sky Arts (Freeview channel 11)