JOAN BAKEWELL reveals: The anguish of finally facing up to my old age at 88

The year is 2018. Now in my 86th year, I am moving into deep old age, and edging towards the end of my life.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to take more notice of my body, to heed the creaks and groans, notice the ills and spills. My bedroom in my house in North London is on the third floor, up four flights of stairs.

As people far younger than me puffed their way to the top, clutching their chests and breathing heavily, I told myself, vainly, that the stairs were keeping me fit. But then my hip started protesting. I listened… and had a hip operation a few months later.

I need to find somewhere else to live, somewhere easier. This will be it. Not just for the next phase of my life, but until I die. Acknowledging that feels momentous. I grew up believing the world around me was the norm: the ‘now’. That norm would be how we judged what came next. Growing older, we discover that what we knew as the norm of power and wealth has been superseded by what came next. We have become ‘then’. In the ‘now’, young people take for granted university education, global travel, things to buy and enjoy, choices of entertainment. But that too will change and evolve, and become their past.

Joan Bakewell recounts moving out of her house in North London after almost 60 years, as she faced the demands of ageing. Pictured: Joan at her new house

Joan Bakewell recounts moving out of her house in North London after almost 60 years, as she faced the demands of ageing. Pictured: Joan at her new house

Joan Bakewell recounts moving out of her house in North London after almost 60 years, as she faced the demands of ageing. Pictured: Joan at her new house

People are told to plan for their old age. Anyone over 60 needs to think long and hard about how they might spend the next 40 years. Old age is no longer a blip in the calendar, a few declining years before the end. Old age is now a major and important segment of life: It should command as much thought — even anxiety — as teenagers give to exam results and young marrieds to planning their future.

I’ve made programmes about this. We Need To Talk About Death ran on BBC Radio 4 for three years. (Ironically, it was dropped from the schedules in the year the coronavirus arrived.) We discussed how to make wills, who to have at your bedside as you die, who will know your passwords when you’ve gone.

As I was making the programmes, I knew it all applied to me, far more than to the younger production staff. But I kept that thought at bay: not me, not yet, surely. After all, I will have time to think about my own decisions when I’ve reported those of others.

But now it is time.

This is the story of decisions I made about moving house, how the details of that move have built into something that has changed my life, moved it on to where I am now, three years later.

When I first moved into the house in Chalcot Square, it was 1963. Pregnant with my second child, I arrived with my first husband Michael, our three-year-old daughter and an Austrian au pair in tow.

For a while the neighbourhood was an extraordinary centre of literary celebrity. Alan Bennett was one of the first to arrive, setting up home in a house-top flat. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were briefly at No 3. Others settled nearer Camden Town, creating a community that would over the years be the subject of cartoons, memoirs and reminiscences.

Jonathan Miller and his wife moved temporarily into a basement in Regent’s Park Road; the writers Claire and Nick Tomalin were living in one of the gracious Victorian houses in Gloucester Crescent; and jazz singer George Melly and his wife Diana were soon there too.

Joan who is twice divorced and her children have gone to their own family homes, found a single-storey house built in the 1880s. Pictured: Joan at the BBC in 1965

Joan who is twice divorced and her children have gone to their own family homes, found a single-storey house built in the 1880s. Pictured: Joan at the BBC in 1965

Joan who is twice divorced and her children have gone to their own family homes, found a single-storey house built in the 1880s. Pictured: Joan at the BBC in 1965

In Chalcot Square, Michael and I set about creating our own self-contained world in our first real home. We had little money, so couldn’t afford either carpets or curtains.

We created an attic room for our young daughter with a ladder, a pulley-driven trapdoor and tongue-and-groove walls.

Slowly, over our four floors of pretty Victorian terrace, we built a precious home, filling it with friends and parties and little children and then teens.

It was from these rooms that I set out on a career in broadcasting and journalism, with snatches of novel-writing and stage-performing mixed in too. It was here that I wrote about growing old, until in 2008 I was invited by the Labour government to become an advocate for older people, and eventually fetched up as a Labour peer in the House of Lords.

Anyone over 60 needs to think long and hard about the next 40 years. Old age is no longer a blip in the calendar, but a major and important segment of life 

Along the way I had two happy marriages — 17 and 25 years apiece. Two children and six grandchildren.

But now, twice divorced, the children long since gone to their own family homes, I find myself alone — and about to abandon the house I’ve lived in for almost 60 years.

I stop dithering and call the local estate agent, who finds somewhere for me to view much more quickly than I expect. A single-storey house not half a mile away, built in the 1880s as one of a group of artists’ studios, with one big, embracing room and smaller spaces branching off.

I go to view it after dark and at first am not at all impressed — the front door opens on to a narrow corridor and the lighting isn’t helpful: The space looks gloomy, with an air of quiet neglect that, left any longer, could fall into decay.

But I come back for a second viewing in the daytime and although it is winter, bright light pours through the huge windows; I notice rows of books in unexpected places.

Joan said she's of a generation who almost accidentally got rich, having bought a house in the 1960s. Pictured: Her former home in Chalcot Square

Joan said she's of a generation who almost accidentally got rich, having bought a house in the 1960s. Pictured: Her former home in Chalcot Square

Joan said she’s of a generation who almost accidentally got rich, having bought a house in the 1960s. Pictured: Her former home in Chalcot Square

I soon learn and am fascinated by the fact that this was once the studio home of the early 20th-century painter and children’s book illustrator Arthur Rackham. I warm to it hugely but there is much to think about. What will life be like here as I grow older, feebler, less nimble? What will it feel like when my working life comes to an end and I am more isolated, and often alone? Will it be quiet enough? Will it be too quiet?

There is a good-sized garden for London. Do I want — for the first time in my life, in my late 80s — to be responsible for one? I have long said that proper gardening feels like housework out of doors — the house on Chalcot Square had a pokey yard that no one really bothered with.

Then suddenly I realise I have already decided, virtually at first sight, that this is the place for me.

I am of a generation who almost accidentally got rich: I bought a house in the 1960s and am now looking at a windfall, unsought but more than welcome. It takes care of moving house, my old age and the care I will need then. There was nothing planned or intended. I am well aware how grossly unfair this is. But that’s how the housing market was as we entered this century. As property values boomed and our bricks and mortar turned to gold.

Mine is the story of a privileged move, from a big house to a small. But at any age changing places, giving up the old, is a watershed.

Joan (pictured) said she chose not to have a bath in her new house, while revealing many old people don't use a bath to avoid getting stuck

Joan (pictured) said she chose not to have a bath in her new house, while revealing many old people don't use a bath to avoid getting stuck

Joan (pictured) said she chose not to have a bath in her new house, while revealing many old people don’t use a bath to avoid getting stuck 

The world is moving away from my generation’s ways of thinking, built up over a lifetime of habit and engagement. The way things used to be — behaviour, morals, routines — have all been shifting as we have grown old, often with our approval and collaboration.

Who would return to the tight hold of class and church that prevailed in our parents’ generation? To us as we age that rate of change seems, deceptively perhaps, to be accelerating. I cling on to concepts of civic duty, loyalty towards individuals, probity in finance, and feel the sands shifting under my feet.

At the same time, concepts I gave little thought to are assuming a greater and welcome prominence: concern for the climate and the countryside, matters of racial and sexual equality, issues around abuse and giving offence, acceptance of gender fluidity — all these are now part of the current outlook in the society to which I belong.

While I flounder privately with much of this, and often feel alienated, I welcome its happening.

I begin to assemble a team of people to help me refurbish the studio — architects and builders and planners, a gardener and an interior designer. I become a project manager, which is not a role I have ever sought nor expect to enjoy. I have only ever been the manager of my own life and am fully to blame for its rackety course.

Joan has considered having the opportunity to turn a small room into a self-contained bedsit to accommodate a live-in carer in the future. Pictured: Joan in 1970

Joan has considered having the opportunity to turn a small room into a self-contained bedsit to accommodate a live-in carer in the future. Pictured: Joan in 1970

Joan has considered having the opportunity to turn a small room into a self-contained bedsit to accommodate a live-in carer in the future. Pictured: Joan in 1970

I decide I do not want a bath in my new little house. Those designing accommodation for the old should know that many of us don’t use a bath, and with good reason. Stiffening limbs make it more difficult to get out: we risk getting stuck.

Next, I plan for my carer. No, I don’t have a live-in carer right now, nor do I expect to need one soon.

But I’m thinking ahead. Realistically, there will come a time when I can’t cope. I have the opportunity to turn a number of the smaller rooms into a self-contained bedsit to accommodate a live-in carer. If more of us had such a space, there would be less pressure on care homes and the social services. But I know full well I am lucky to afford it.

Midway through my move, however, I make a big mistake. Things crop up — they always do, you can bet on it. So why do we behave as though we are in total control? In old age it becomes a compulsion, a powerful need. Control over so many things in our lives is declining — our health, our mobility, our friendships decimated by deaths — we hang on to what we feel we can still control. It is why old people become tetchy, resentful, full of disapproval of change.

When rotten joists are discovered beneath the floorboards in the studio, I fail to register that this will delay my moving-in date. The joists will have to be replaced — news I absorb as a child absorbs an unexpected twist in a story. I somehow fail to see it as a matter of extra manual work, man hours, ordering timber, waiting for deliveries. My inflexibility marks my failure as a manager.

Joan (pictured) said her former house in Chalcot Square had golden memories of her children growing-up but also drama

Joan (pictured) said her former house in Chalcot Square had golden memories of her children growing-up but also drama

Joan (pictured) said her former house in Chalcot Square had golden memories of her children growing-up but also drama 

Removal day arrives at Chalcot Square but because of the rotten joists, I have nowhere to move into. The urgency of actual events tugs at the last impulse of regret and loss. I walk through empty rooms, the marks on the walls where the paintings hung, the walls still the colours we chose.

Of course there are memories, The many meals round the big table created for me by my cabinet-maker son, Christmases, Easters, as the children and grandchildren gathered to celebrate. Shrieks of laughter, cries of surprise or outrage that seem still to reverberate.

One perpetual golden memory is the growing-up of children — but only when they’re adults and you have forgotten the snotty noses, the tantrums in the supermarket, the high temperatures in the middle of the night, the slammed doors, the sulks at not getting their own way — all those moments when you could happily brain them. But fleeting moments persist: The pang of toddler sadness as an ice-cream cone fell in the dust, the sweet smell of cuddles at bedtime, the first school uniform, iron-pressed and too big.

The house has seen its fair share of drama as well as laughter — a fire that started in the au pair’s room almost ruined the place, while my second marriage to a much younger man [director Jack Emery, who was 12 years younger] ended in an unhappy divorce, which haunts me still. In an act of misplaced trust, I’d put the ownership of the house, which had been exclusively mine for several years and was largely the fruit of my working life, in both our names — and wound up handing over large sums to buy him out.

Joan said the lifelong compulsion to do something wears away in old age, but we all need a reason to get up in the morning. Pictured: Joan in 1969

Joan said the lifelong compulsion to do something wears away in old age, but we all need a reason to get up in the morning. Pictured: Joan in 1969

Joan said the lifelong compulsion to do something wears away in old age, but we all need a reason to get up in the morning. Pictured: Joan in 1969

But what to make of it all? Is it nostalgia for what had once been? Or is it for what I myself had once been? And who wants to return to their younger, clumsy self? Time passing brings loss, regrets, change; we are left with memories, often unreliable. But this is melancholy, not sadness. Now the place is still and silent, awaiting other lives. My mind has already shifted its loyalty towards the new home and the future.

And yet because of my management failure, I must now become a nomad, my entire life reduced to the size of a suitcase. It can’t get any smaller than that until my body is finally reduced to ashes and stowed in a marble urn.

Completion day it is called, officially. For me it’s a massive misnomer. Nothing is complete except the nightmare that now descends. For almost two months, I float in a strange limbo of having no roots, no abode. I sleep in six different beds, from hotels to friends’ guest rooms to a snatched weekend in France.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve continued to believe in my own competence. My self-belief is that I have the capacity to launch projects and see them through. I embarked on the move intending to call up this very skill. But I discovered that stamina ages too.

Old age needs a project. We all need a reason to get up in the morning. Life provides plenty of reasons: to earn a living, bring up a family, pursue the loves of our lives, follow our interests, whether it be football, art or travel.

Serious old age changes all that. Instead, and slowly, the lifelong compulsion to do something — to be active, to achieve — wears away. Or perhaps as with macular degeneration: the eye’s retina gets tired and doesn’t work as well.

Joan (pictured) said the sense of home as a place of safety has grown in power since the pandemic

Joan (pictured) said the sense of home as a place of safety has grown in power since the pandemic

Joan (pictured) said the sense of home as a place of safety has grown in power since the pandemic

Get-up-and-go is for the young. The boisterous energy, ready to conquer worlds, is gone for good. We either conquered worlds or we didn’t. It’s too late to start now. That is, of course, a matter for gentle regret.

There are far more things we have failed to do than most of us have done. The sense of hope and possibility is now tinged with autumnal decline. I will never be an ice skater (Sonja Henie haunted my teens) or a brain surgeon. I will never climb high mountains (even Everest is too crowded these days). I will never sail across the Atlantic, design a dress, or run a bank. The wilder notions of what we might have done pile up beside us, bestow unwittingly a sense of melancholy.

When the studio is finished and I can finally move into this, my last home, I slowly begin to unpack the boxes that have been in storage and settle in. It takes months and there is still so much stuff to get rid of.

Not long after, the pandemic strikes and then of course I simply stay indoors, alone and isolated for day after day.

I’ve been changed by Covid; we all have. The sense of home as a place of safety has grown in power. Many used their isolation to tinker with their surroundings: walls were repainted, shelves reordered, attics insulated. We were like small furry creatures lining our nests with feathers and moss. Almost daily I fussed about some detail.

Joan (pictured) admits moving from the house she has known for so long has been a very big deal and an acknowledgement of her old age beginning

Joan (pictured) admits moving from the house she has known for so long has been a very big deal and an acknowledgement of her old age beginning

Joan (pictured) admits moving from the house she has known for so long has been a very big deal and an acknowledgement of her old age beginning 

My first selfish thought was to be glad I had already completed my house move. As the weeks went by and we went on the street to clap the NHS, the nation’s sense of neighbourhood was to be transformed.

Very soon, neighbours were swapping meals; farther afield, local communities were organising a cooked-meal service for those living alone.

I was pleased to have got in before the world shut down, but I yearned for company.

Slowly the country has been growing out of the pandemic. What will we have learned? To value silence, birdsong, clear air; to cherish friendships, family, music and books. To be adept at connecting on the internet and via social media. But most profoundly we realise we have missed humanity itself: faces, voices, noises, movement, connection.

Some people move house all through their lives, from home to home as their hopes and incomes expand. For them it is not a big deal: they know the ropes, pack up and move on without fuss.

For me, moving from the house I have known for so long has been a very big deal indeed. It is a closure on my 80-odd years and an acknowledgement that old age begins here.

Now I have settled into my final home, I can look back, and forward, cherishing old memories and making new ones.

Adapted from The Tick Of Two Clocks: A Tale Of Moving On, by Joan Bakewell (£16.99, Virago), out September 2. © Joan Bakewell 2021. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid to 6/9/21; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.

Link hienalouca.com

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