Joan Bakewell: ‘I did enjoy the 1960s very much’

I’m going to be 90 this year and, looking back, I was always happiest when I’d fallen in love. Falling in love is a very expressive thing. And I’ve done it once or twice. Of course, the high point of all this carry-on was in the 1950s and 60s, when I was a student and then I was in London, having a high old time. I did enjoy the 1960s very much.

I had a childhood that was mixed. My parents were quite young and delighted to have a child. And I remember them being very full of laughter and teases. But as I got older, things got more difficult because my mother, who was very brilliant as a young schoolgirl, had had to leave school to earn some money. When she saw me getting on in life a bit, passing exams and going to Cambridge, she began to think, “I could have done that.” And she certainly could. So there was a certain melancholy about her, which made life rather difficult. And her depression infected us quite a lot.

I tell you what I miss… I miss the fact that I can’t wear high heels any more. And you can’t as you get older, because, 1. it doesn’t look right; and 2. your feet… it doesn’t work. I bought some high heels the other day simply because I liked them. I knew I would never wear them. But I wanted to look at them. Isn’t that strange?

What’s the best advice I’ve been given? I’ve not really been one for taking advice.

I was the postwar generation: we were going to make the world a better place. And we’ve failed. I’ve marched against everything: I marched against Suez, I marched against Iraq, I marched for CND, all sorts of things. But I do worry that the world is really in a terrible place.

Most of us live our lives thinking that the people who die are the unlucky ones. You’ll read the obituaries and think: “Oh, they’ve died, how unlucky, how sad it is.” Then you suddenly realise that everybody’s going to die. I was diagnosed with colon cancer last year and so I think about it more now.

I’m a humanist so I don’t have any faith or belief in the time after death. With a bit of luck, we go to sleep painlessly. And that’s the end.

“Could do better” should be my motto. After every programme, every article, every book: could do better. I don’t agonise about it, but it’s my judgment on myself. It’s to do with abundance. I’ve done lots and lots of things: I’ve been here and there; I’ve met amazing people and told tremendous stories which have revealed themselves to me. But perhaps I’d give up all that to write one perfect poem.

I’ve ceased to care about my appearance, really. As you get older, you spend money where it’s going to be profitable. So I have my hair done by someone who’s terribly good. But I do wish I was taller. People who are tall and slender can wear the most wonderful clothes. When I wear the same clothes, I’m dumpy and chubby.

I wish I could sing in tune. I’ve got friends who sing in choirs, and it gives them such pleasure. But I’ve always been mocked by my family, so I stopped. I could probably sing you Jerusalem: “And did those feet in ancient times…” But it wouldn’t be tuneful. It would be loud.

I feel quite restful, quite peaceful. Having had this medical shock, I’m now resigned to the situation I’m in, which is of a comfortably off, ageing woman with a lot of friends and good fortune, a lot of comfort, nice food to eat, music to play, books to read. That’s a good mood to be in. Also, it’s spring. I’m looking out at the magnolia tree in the garden that will soon be in blossom and that’s giving me great pleasure.

Joan Bakewell presents Landscape Artist of the Year, available on Sky Go

The Guardian