Joan Bakewell's fictional debut - at 75

Journalist, broadcaster, thinking man's crumpet, tackler of taboo topics . . . and now a first-time novelist at 75.

Steven Russell

Journalist, broadcaster, thinking man's crumpet, tackler of taboo topics . . . and now a first-time novelist at 75. Joan Bakewell tells Steven Russell she just loves to be busy

DAME Joan Bakewell doesn't let the grass grow under her feet. She might be a grandmother two months shy of her 76th birthday, and wear the badge of the Voice of Older People, but she's not ready for a life dominated by jigsaws and crochet. No way. Jose. She writes a newspaper column, is chair of the National Campaign for the Arts and presides over a theatre company called Shared Experience. The former Suffolk resident also does about 10 programmes a year for the BBC Radio 3 series Belief - in which she talks to artists, scientists and thinkers about what they believe and why - and this summer will be working on the Radio 4 series Inside the Ethics Committee. “It's about how ethics committees in hospitals and places like that resolve moral dilemmas about fertility treatment, surrogacy operations and so on,” she says. “It's a programme that presents both sides of the issue and explains to the public just how complex each of them is.”

Active old life, then. “Yes. I like it like that!”

In recent years Dame Joan has found time to pen a novel - her first. She came across the germ of an idea in her old school magazines and realised the potential for fiction. A couple of years of research, and writing spread over about 18 months, and All the Nice Girls is set for publication.

Joan looked at those old magazines when she was writing her autobiography, The Centre of the Bed. In the 1940s she was a schoolgirl at Stockport High School for girls when it joined the Ship Adoption Scheme and established links with a merchant vessel - something about 500 schools did during the war. Pupils wrote supportive letters to the crews, who were endeavouring to avoid German U-boats in the Atlantic and keep Britain supplied with essentials, and sailors later paid goodwill visits to schools. Joan remembers “a particularly marvellous captain who gave the school many gifts and wrote very good letters and stayed very close to us. He was an important figure in school life”.

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She's drawn on her memories to construct a fictional account featuring an imaginary town called Staveley, set somewhere between Manchester and Liverpool, but is at pains to point out her story is “a novel grounded in fact” and not a faithful recording of events that actually happened.

All the Nice Girls is a romantic tale set in 1942 that evokes the colour and atmosphere of wartime Liverpool, with its smoky tearooms and dance halls, dusty classrooms and slightly sad hotels. It's a story of sorrowful separations, forbidden love, longing and loss.

The campaign itself is not going well. Headmistress Cynthia Maitland, who lost her lover in the first war, signs up Ashworth Grammar School for Girls to the Ship Adoption Scheme to broaden her pupils' horizons.

Captain Josh Percival, meanwhile, is comfortable with his role on the SS Treverran as he tries to slip past the U-boat blockade and keep the nation going. A visit to Ashworth Grammar by him and fellow officers sets off a chain of events that disrupts many lives . . .

Joan has a proud record as a documentary broadcaster and print columnist - and, of course, her autobiography was out five years ago. So why an excursion into fiction, and why now?

“Well, I've always wanted to write. I've always wanted to be A Writer, and I don't think an autobiography quite counts! I've always wanted to write a novel, as an abstract idea. Then when I did my autobiography I turned up a lot of details about my childhood. I thought 'Here, I've got a story; I could make something of this,' though, of course, the story's not autobiographical at all.”

An enjoyable experience?

“It was a very pleasing one because it gave me a sense of tackling an important piece of work, for me, that would take a long time. Journalism is here today, gone tomorrow. You build up a body of work over the years, but this was much more (about) sustained concentration and also sustained research, and I loved both of them very much.

“They're very different: research out and about, in Liverpool - down the Dock Road, and that sort of thing - visiting the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and so on. And then the writing up here in my office, in my study at the top of the house, on my own.”

Research certainly wasn't skimped. We won't give away too much of the plot here, but Joan did speak to a registrar in renal medicine, who explained polycystic kidney disease and the issues of donor transplants. He also arranged for her to visit the renal unit of St George's Hospital, Tooting.

“I said it would be quite nice to come along and meet some people and see the dialysis happening. Along I went and just observed. We had a cup of tea with a woman who was going for her treatment. It's quite an ordeal, dialysis. It's not painful, but it's very time-consuming and you get very tired. And it affects your diet, which is an irritating thing.

“It was very interesting, and I've remained interested since I've finished the book. It looks as if they're going to find developments which will make it much simpler.”

Did the writing of fiction come naturally?

No, I don't think so. I did have to work at it quite hard. I found it quite difficult to express other people's feelings, but I liked having to solve their problems. Mine's a straightforward narrative; I mean, it doesn't have the irony or the social critique of Jane Austin or a literary figure like that. I was keen to just get a good story down.”

And is there another novel in the pipeline?

“Well, I'm beginning to think around one, but I'm quite slow in getting these ideas together, so it's just beginning to emerge at the back of my head. It's something I want to go on doing, certainly. There are some writers who can write a book a year, but I haven't got that fluency!”

Joan, who lived near Bury St Edmunds until about 2001, returns to East Anglia next month for the Essex Book Festival. She loves neighbouring Suffolk, which she left after breaking up with theatre director husband Jack Emery. “I've got dear friends in Halesworth and I visit them sometime. I visit the Aldeburgh Festival usually. [She used to be on the board.] I've got friends who've got homes there.

“I do miss Suffolk. The countryside's so beautiful, and the churches are divine; I really adore them. And I love the music-making that goes on in the county. But that all changed when I got divorced . . . There are many things to regret.”

At the Essex festival she'll talk for a while, read an extract or two from the novel, and invite thoughts from the floor. “I love having questions. I really like interacting with the audience; I like to know what they think.”

She doesn't even mind if queries stray from the novel. “Oh yes, they'll be all over the place, particularly with me being the Voice for Older People. But you can just switch me on - I'm interested in anything!”

Joan has certainly not been backwards in coming forward in the past - willing to tackle contentious issues both during her work for the BBC and in her own journalism. In a column last year, for instance, didn't she argue for the legalisation of prostitution?

“Well, I said there was a very good case for it. I certainly wouldn't campaign for that, because I don't think you can impose it if a society doesn't want it. And to legalise it, for example, in a small town where people all didn't want it, would be outrageous. So I was just putting the case, so that people would consider the advantages of it. But the idea of just passing a law and enforcing it . . . we've just got to wait until public opinion can deal with it, really.”

All the Nice Girls is published by Virago on March 5, at �17.99. ISBN 9781844085309.

Dame Joan Bakewell's appearance during the Essex Book Festival is at Felsted School, near Braintree, on March 6. Main box office 01206 573948. Web link: www.essexbookfestival.org.uk

IT'S about three months since Minister for Women Harriet Harman announced that Dame Joan Bakewell had agreed to be a Voice of Older People - not a Government spokesperson but “independent and free to express her views” on issues which affect older people's lives. So, how's it going?

“It's going well. I don't know how to judge it, but there seems to be more talk. One of my jobs, as it were, was to stir up public debate, and it does seem to be there's quite a lot on television and radio, and in the newspapers, about it. So I turn up on programmes whenever they ask me: to fly the flag, really.”

The job-spec, as it were, is indeed to help raise the profile of age equality issues, particularly as the Equality Bill progresses through Parliament and heralds a ban on discrimination.

Joan's 2006 book The View from Here: Life at Seventy was based loosely on her Just 70 newspaper column and touched warmly and humorously on numerous issues pertinent to the over-70s: including work, family, love, sex and death.

“It helps that people know who I am and that I'm quite straightforward about my life and how I like to keep on working, and the problem that presents. I think I'm kind of trusted - and it helps that they know who to write to.”

Have many letters come in to the fifth floor of the Government Equalities Office in SW1A 2HQ?

“Yes. We got a mountain of correspondence. We've had to organise it a bit, because I can't personally take on everybody's problems, but I'm sympathetic to them. It's just that I can't solve them all.”

What are people's main concerns?

“This issue about ageism in retirement, and people not being allowed to go on working when they want to, is quite a serious issue. That's coming up in the Government Bill in the spring. There'll be a lot of talk about that. I'm obviously part of that enterprise: to get the public used to the idea, to get the employers used to the idea, to get the whole country used to it, really.”

Will it be easy?

“No, I think it will be quite tricky. I don't think employers are very keen - they'll think it's too much trouble. They don't know what to do with older people. So they've got to be chivvied along.”

Some folk still don't realise that many people in their 70s and 80s remain spritely, able, bright and quick-witted . . .

“They are! They've also got a lifetime's experience. They've learned to compromise; they don't lose their tempers. They're a bit grumpy, perhaps! They realise you have to jog along in life with other people. So I think they're very good!

“There are lots of things you can do which are nothing to do with jobs and money: just be kinder to people! Don't bump into them in the street or knock (into) them on buses. Generally, just smile at older people. Why not? People need friendship.

“One of the things I would like to see is older people using a laptop, because it keeps you in touch and makes life easier. Some people of an older generation really fear it, and refuse to learn it, and I think that's a shame. Free lessons would be very good, and well attended, I'm sure: going at a slow pace, taking it easily. Once you've got the hang of it, you're off.”

Bakewell basics

Born in Stockport in 1933

Read economics and history at Newnham College, Cambridge

Worked for BBC Radio as an assistant studio manager

Had a spell in advertising

Married Michael Bakewell in 1955

Presented BBC2 arts discussion show Late Night Line-Up from 1965 to 1972

Comedy writer Frank Muir christened her “the thinking man's crumpet” - a label she detests

Had a seven-year affair in the 1960s with playwright Harold Pinter

Presented programmes such as Granada's consumer affairs show Reports Action, the BBC's Heart of the Matter and travel programme Holiday

For a year or so in the mid 1980s she was the BBC's arts correspondent

Made a CBE in 1999

Divorced from second husband Jack Emery in 2001

Has two children and six grandchildren

Lives in Primrose Hill, north London

Made a dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours last summer, in recognition of her services to journalism and the arts