Edinburgh Book Festival review: Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell’s Edinburgh Book Festival appearance got much more interesting when the conversation shifted from downsizing to assisted dying, writes David Robinson

Dame Joan Bakewell PIC: Meddle/ITV/Shutterstock

It was the woman in the front row who made all the difference. Before she asked her question, this event had been a general trot around the subject of downsizing.

“Which of your theology books did you throw out?” Richard Holloway asked Joan Bakewell, presumably wondering whether any of his own had bitten the dust, after she had talked about the emotional wrench of filleting her library, with professional help, in two-hour bursts.

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And that was very much what the first half was like: practical details about how the thinking man’s favourite octogenarian had moved (on, as it happens, Andrew O’Hagan’s suggestion) from a five-storey Victorian house in Primrose Hill to a studio flat just around the corner. Mildly interesting, perhaps, but perhaps not worth either a book or Holloway’s scalpel mind.

Then the woman in the front row of – wonder of wonders – an actual audience asked a question about assisted dying (she was pro) and the whole event seemed to pivot. Before, it had been more about manageable details: when to stop bothering with baths and preparing Christmas with all the trimmings; ideal homes for the elderly; and (for some reason) Edinburgh’s Golden Turd. Afterwards, the conversation swung towards precisely what we have no control over. “We’re so frightened of dying,” said Dame Joan. “My daughter says, ‘Can we NOT talk about it?’”

I know how she feels, but there’s no more important subject, and this particular conversation – though enjoyable – seemed to skirt around it.

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