Saturday, October 14, 2006

A talk by Joan Bakewell on Aging.

'Medicine defies evolution' Joan Bakewell says. To be honest I had not expected to hear such a succinct link with the Steve Jones lecture during Joan Bakewell's talk on aging. I suppose I had expected a series of show-biz anecdotes in what I considered to be one of the celebrity-type events of the festival. But Joan Bakewell is a witty, articulate (and still beautiful) woman. She is slim, moves with a grace that is too fluid to be called sprightly - which I guess would be the world that I should be tempted to use because Joan Bakewell is over seventy. In fact Joan Bakewell is just a year younger than my mother - and I would not call my mother sprightly either. But my mother isn't old (despite the fact that when she tripped over recently she called it 'a fall' : wrong thinking, I pointed out then) and Joan Bakewell isn't old either. Old age is in the mind I have decided; and some people will die young even at the age of a hundred.

'Three score years and ten,' Joan Bakewell says about her age, pointing out the biblical connection - the ominous biblical connection. Three score years and ten is equated with the end of life, she says, a preparation for death; but it should not be that. Dying is its own separate phase and for most of us it will, we hope, be a short one. Old age should not be viewed as a phase of decline but a period that should be welcomed in its own right. There are, after all, certain benefits to being older than the people around you : wisdom; a treasure house of memories; a free bus and tube pass if you live in London so you can wander at will'; sometimes a period of intense creativity (in people such as Verdi and Picasso who have spent their whole lives being creative as well as those who haven't and suddenly feel an urge to paint or write a novel); a love of learning for its own sake uncorrupted by career ambition; and, oddly, time. An older person has time to pursue interests and activities that a younger person has not.

Older people are more interested in their health she says, and it because of improvements in health and medicine that we are living longer - with drugs controlling chronic diseases and technological advances providing us with replacement parts (heart valves and hips). She seemed very optimistic about the possibilities of stem cell science - medicine is on the cusp of being able to provide us with a vast range of replacement parts. I do not think she is right about this. Although it is a view promoted by journalists the stem cell research scientists that I spoke to last year seem much more pessimistic about the chances of making body parts to order in the forseeable future.

Joan Bakewell, then, describes a very positive view of life post seventy. Her column 'Just Seventy' (a play on the name of the now defunct teen magazine which was aimed at the young teen market, 'Just Seventeen') in the Guardian is something that she suggested to the editor and a collection of these have now formed the basis of her book THE VIEW FROM HERE; a book which I am sure is just as 'exhilarating, funny and always thought-provoking' as Terry Jones says it is (on the cover). However there is, of course, a 'but' here. Joan Bakewell is healthy in body and mind. She is mindful of her health and when she felt her hearing was not quite up to par she wasted no time in finding herself a hearing specialist in Harley Street (an area of expensive private clinics), and when she found herself becoming a little forgetful arranged a series of tests for that too. Her hearing and mental condition, she says, were found to be fine - 'for a woman of her age' (she smiled at the qualification). This rapidity of expert treatment of course is a benefit of being wealthy. As I listened to this charming and attractive woman extolling the benefits of becoming older I kept thinking of some of the older people I know; the ones that are isolated, poor, ill, constantly wracked with mental and physical pain. I kept wondering if they would agree and felt sure that they would not. Old age is not a time to be poor, Joan Bakewell admits, coming around eventually to considering what some would consider to be the realities of life. There are sad times. Bereavement, particularly of partners, she says, is traumatic. Her voice grew quieter then, her as if she was remembering, but then it became determinedly brighter again. Bereavement, she says, can also herald in a new era. There is not the same sense of reward and partnership but there is a new style of life, There is no point in grief holding you down. There are different rewards that can be spiritually enriching.

This was my favourite part of Joan Bakewell's talk. I think because it shows the power of the human spirit. I am sure that successful (and by that I mean happy rather than wealthy) people are positive thinkers. They keep on going - in spite of loss they continue to grow, changing direction, accommodating the disadvantages of age, poor health and lack of wealth. Joan Bakewell's attitude is, above all, life-affirming. It is why I bought the book for my mother (who has also proved herself to be determined over the past eleven months and I am proud of her for that) and why, after she has finished it, I am going to borrow it and look at it myself too.

The talk was sponsored by the 'Friends of the Chester Literature Festival' which organised the Stratford trip in September and provided 'Bakewell Slices' to go with the pre-event drinks which I thought was funny (they tasted very good too). Joan Bakewell was very ably introduced by Jan who provided a good and very interesting introduction (and has started her own blog here) while Gwen gave the equally entertaining vote of thanks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. Stumbling upon it today is an odd coincidence in my life- thanks again.

Sat Oct 14, 01:53:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree with our comments and Bakewell's assertion that the human spirit defies all, but I'd add, if chosen. There is still a conscious thought in this.

My father's sister died as a result of a fall. Her husband later died, within weeks, and it was said he'd "given up". He may have. His PM revealed all sorts of life threatening things in his body. I think that if she'd continued to live, he'd have continued to fight. Without her, he did not see the point of living.

What is in the genes and the fibre of your body determines something; the force of your conscious being adds to that.

Where thought can overcome the feeling of being; where necessary care can be applied and make you forget physical or mental pain - you're onto a good one in life.

Many don't have that, as Clare said.

Some of our social commentators do well in explaining the trials and tribulations of old age. And it's so good that they do and bring it to the fore; but 99.99999% recurring will not ever think of Harley Street, let alone be treated there.

When it comes to old age, I believe as Bakewell does, live as you feel. If you're doing well then be proud of it and make the rest of us hear it. But don't deny those who are not as physically well as you are.

I've seen it. When you come to a certain age, you are expected to be silent and "put up with". Well, bugger that! To all those who are weak in body, but strong in mind, I say - make your voice heard!

Life is not over when you reach the end of your thirties! And all of us need to remember that.

Sat Oct 14, 06:29:00 pm  
Blogger Lee said...

I think Bakewell's point - or was it yours? - about time is an excellent one, and very liberating, especially for someone like me who sees time slipping away, frittered away. But of course you're right that a poverty-stricken or debilitated old age is vastly different than Bakewell's, or a lonely one.

Sat Oct 14, 11:06:00 pm  
Blogger Jan said...

Thanks Clare for your comments. I thoroughly enjoyed planning Joan Bakewell's introduction for Friday's event; amongst other things, it entailed reading her book "The view from here" and it's both fun and informative. She views life SO positively and that's something we can sometimes forget to do (amid all the "stuff" in our lives)...although I'm sure "being positive" must be VERY hard to do if you're in the direst of circumstances, as many older people are.However I think her talk was life affirming, and her heart is generous and her attitude, her passions, are to be valued.

Sun Oct 15, 10:50:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ren Kat: Very pleased to make your acquaintance. I've put you on my bloglines.

CFR: It's sad when that happens - and you hear about it happening so frequently after a long marriage - it is as if one can't live without the other. Yes, as you say - the mind is as important as the body in all this. Yes, I think Joan Bakewell is doing an important thing - bringing old age to the Guardian reader's attention. There was lots I didn't say, for instance about how many old people there are - and how this proportin is set to grow - and become more powerful...and more vocal.

Lee: No it was Joan Bakewell's point, not mine. But I thought it very profound and an interesting contradiction.

Jan: Yes, I'm looking forward to looking at that book after my mother's finished with it. I took a quick look before I sent it - and it did seem like all the things you said.

Sun Oct 15, 11:45:00 pm  
Blogger Tammy Brierly said...

The wealthy do have medical advantages that most do not. She looks great!

Mon Oct 16, 12:30:00 am  
Blogger Debi said...

Nice one, Clare. My 91 year old dad (who still does voluntary work at the local hospital) would agree 100% that age is what you make of it and you shouldn't be limited by other people's expectations of how you should look or behave ...

Mon Oct 16, 01:07:00 pm  

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