Clare Balding: perfect timing

By Andy Stevens, Wednesday 19 December 2012

Britain’s best-loved sports presenter talks about time and the pursuit of happiness to Andy Stevens.
Clare Balding with her Tibetan Terrier, ArchieClare Balding with her Tibetan Terrier, Archie

Clare Balding's public profile soared in the summer of 2012 with her engaging and informed anchor role in the BBC and Channel 4's London Olympics and Paralympics coverage.

The presenter says she has one thing in particular to thank for her apparently effortless juggling of jobs as a broadcaster, author and journalist: and that is time

You might not think this all-too-rare commodity would loom large in Clare's world. After all, haven't we just seen her again on the box, fronting the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards? The SPOTYs seem to have mushroomed in triumphant 2012 from a small sedate gathering of sporting names at Television Centre into a vast stadium gig worthy of a Rolling Stones tour.

But time is, indeed, the essence, in an age where there's precious little of the stuff to go round. And talk of time, its lack and its abundance and all points in between, got Clare thinking about how time-saving technology - and we're talking humble, unsexy techie appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers here - has been the catalyst for seismic social change, and in women's roles in particular, over the past few decades.

Sixty years ago your average British woman would spend a soul-sapping 50 hours a week doing the housework, and as Clare explained: "The biggest difference since the 1950s, for example, is undoubtedly that women are no longer forced to choose between running a home and having a career. Going to university and taking a job was just not an option for so many women of my mother's generation and I am grateful that I was born 20 years later when I could choose.

"The differences between the generations are huge and the way I have lived would simply not have been possible without the vast array of labour-saving devices we have now."

Clare's passion for social history prompted her involvement with npower in a fascinating online archive called 'Remember How We Used To', on the website. It's compulsive stuff: a growing bank of images submitted by the public showing how lives have changed, especially in the home. Perhaps it's time to root through those old albums and dig out a few photos of your own to upload.

"I did a series earlier this year on the history of sport in Britain," said Clare. "I have always been interested in how social history informs the present and what we are capable of changing. I think this project is an extension of that focus, but this time focusing upon energy-saving appliances. It's something that doesn't get that much attention: I don't give my fridge a name, and I don't treat my kettle with any affection - I just take them for granted.

"But to be fair, the dishwasher, the toaster, the fridge and the washing machine have probably changed my life more than anything, and have allowed me to have the freedom that women of my mother's and grandmothers' generations didn't have, because I don't have to spend 50 hours a week doing housework, which women in the '50s did.

"This project is a fascinating way of compiling a social history archive of real photographs. People's photos from that era, the '50s, are actually quite rare, as not many people had cameras. So it's important to get what photos we have in a place where we can all see them. People should get on there and share their photos. The more you look at the old photos and what's going on in the background, for example, the more you can place their importance in a historical context. Some of the photos on the website look like they are straight out of Mad Men.

"I don't think we can really understand how we might live in the future unless we have a clear understanding of how we lived in the past. And it also gives us an enormous appreciation of how lucky we have things now.

"For me, though, it's simply interesting, it's useful and it's fun. And if I can tick those three boxes in pretty much anything I do, then I'm happy!"

Although these days we are saving more time than ever, how come it still seems to be in short supply? Clare said: "Because we are filling that extra time, filling it with gadgets we might consider sexy like the iPhone, generally the internet and what it can do, and the likes of Twitter, Facebook. We are receiving more messages and sending more messages, but you've still got to give your brain time to switch off."

For all these high-tech leaps forward, however, Clare wonders if we have lost something special along the way. "I think in an ideal world you have plenty of time, but you have to give yourself creative space to think. You need that, whether you work in a creative industry or not.

"You really do need the time to think. Maybe that's what can be lost in the modern world. I was walking yesterday and really thinking about it, and consciously giving myself recovery time, because I think the brain can become quite tired.

"But there's a balance isn't there, because you need to exercise your brain, and exercise your memory to improve it, and you need to think quickly for lots of reasons in life."

So how does such a high-profile media figure actively create meaningful slabs of quality time for herself? "I walk a lot. I walk my dog Archie and I find that it's good 'thinking-space' time. I miss that when I can't do it. And I have experimented with not taking the phone with me."

But doesn't this fill you with a sense of panic? Let's call it a smartphone twitch. "It can do, but then I tell myself to get over it. It's important to be out there, walking, in the sun and the rain and the wind. There are very simple things in life that make you happy and it's quite easy to lose track of them."

While musing the pursuit of happiness, Clare didn't hesitate for one precious second when quizzed on which moment gave her the biggest smile in a superlative London 2012.

"Great Britain winning the show-jumping was absolutely sensational, but the best moment overall had to be Bert," said Clare, on the joyous exclamations of South African father Bert le Clos, when she interviewed him after his swimmer son Chad ("my beautiful boy!") took gold for South Africa in the men's 200m butterfly final, beating the mighty king of the swimming Michael Phelps, no less. Relive Bert's moment of unfettered pride and joy here.

And so, with metronomic inevitability, to the 'Mobot' - which Clare is credited with inventing. Double gold-winning athlete Mo Farah's much-imitated, hands-on-head victory salute, along with the Gangnam Style dance craze, are dead certs for 2012 telly retrospectives for years to come. Has she considered copyrighting Mo's move? "Amazingly I haven't been asked about the Mobot today, until now," she laughed. "I think if I tried to copyright it then the Village People might have something to say about it.

"I'm just thrilled that he (Mo) did it. James Corden came up with the name 'Mobot' and I just came up with the action. I love the fact that so many kids do it. It's a very unthreatening, very sweet, very funny celebration. It's not aggressive, it's not a war-like thing. Usain Bolt's celebration stance is great too; it's aspirational. But the Mobot, well, it's just funny, and children love it. I've got a photo of me with all the Olympics' Games Makers doing it.

"It's amazing to have had a hand in something like that. And that in itself is social history in the making. In fact, my profile on Twitter says 'author of My Animals And Other Family and co-inventor of the Mobot'."


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.


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Clare Balding: perfect timing

Britain’s best-loved sports presenter talks about time and the pursuit of happiness to Andy Stevens.