Magazine article The Spectator

'Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind', by Joan Bakewell - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Stop the Clocks: Thoughts on What I Leave Behind', by Joan Bakewell - Review

Article excerpt

I don't know if this counts as name-dropping, but I recently interviewed a boyhood friend of Elvis Presley's in Tupelo, Mississippi. The interview required a bit of patience, because his memories of the young Elvis appeared only intermittently amid a lengthy ramble through more or less anything that crossed his mind. But, as it turned out, it was also good preparation for reading Stop the Clocks .

Joan Bakewell published her autobiography in 2003 and this, as the subtitle suggests, is intended to be a far looser set of reflections. Nonetheless, it soon proves so loose as to present a reviewer with the kind of dilemma that could feature in the game Scruples: you're sent a book by a much-loved national figure, now 82, which, if it were by almost anybody else, you'd be tempted to trash. What do you do now?

Well, you could start by saying that parts of it work just as the whole thing's meant to: a neat mix, and occasionally perfect synthesis, of personal experience and social history. In a section on postwar attitudes to sex, for example, Bakewell provides a sharp and heartfelt explanation of why D.H. Lawrence mattered so much to readers of her generation, before regretfully accepting how dated he now feels. And -- while it's not exactly fresh territory -- she's good, too, on the transition from northern lower- middle-class life to Cambridge in the 1950s by way of the grammar school. 'Remember, girls,' the headmistress announced when Bakewell got her Cambridge scholarship, 'however pleased we are for Joan, the true calling of a woman's life is to be a wife and mother.'

Oddly enough, there are also parts that work just as the whole thing's not meant to. 'I don't want this to be a book about ageing,' Bakewell writes in the first chapter. Yet, some of its most affecting moments occur when, for instance, she acknowledges 'an increasing sense of my tribe coming to an end', or tries to 'recall what it was like not to be aware of death, how carefree and upbeat that must have been'.

The trouble is that these nuggets do take some digging out from nearly 300 pages of Bakewell telling us whatever pops into her head at any given time: the silly names that celebrities give their children, say, or the approved way of darning socks in the 1940s. …

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