Bibi Baskin: ‘I would like to meet more than four people in the next 12 months’

Bibi Baskin at the Maryborough Hotel, Cork: ‘I don’t know anybody who’s older than me. And sometimes that’s a right pain in the a*se.’ Photograph: Jim Coughlan

“Who the hell gives a damn apart from me?” muses Bibi Baskin. We’re talking via Zoom on the occasion of her retirement this week, and with typical bluntness the woman who has been variously a journalist, broadcaster, writer, hotelier and motivational speaker, is questioning whether anyone should care. She’s at home at the southwestern tip of Co Cork, near the village of Crookhaven, where she lives with two cats.

“The house is in the middle of a field. Nobody can find me, which is rather nice,” she says.

Despite wondering if anyone “gives a damn” Baskin announced her retirement a while back on social media, where from the response of her followers, it seems some people very much care. She had a Facebook group called Bibi’s Happy Place named after the book of quotes she released during the pandemic.

The Happy Place had 70 subscribers who since last January have paid €20 each a month to see her nature videos and read her meditations on life. Many of their subscriptions expired this month, so she decided that now would be a good time to stop working and launch a new phase of her life.

What prompted her retirement? “I longed to do nothing,” she says. “There is a skill, I believe, in doing nothing. And when I used to give these motivational talks, that would have been one of the things I covered, when you do nothing it allows you to still the mind. Western society has just created this default thing now, even in lockdown, that you must be busy all the time. And it’s not good for you mentally or physically. I intend, in my retirement, to do nothing. I find it hugely exciting.”

Bibi Baskin: ‘I think I superimposed a discipline on myself that maybe, in retrospect, wasn’t necessary. And I’ll be free of that now.’ Photograph: Jim Coughlan
Bibi Baskin: ‘I think I superimposed a discipline on myself that maybe, in retrospect, wasn’t necessary. And I’ll be free of that now.’ Photograph: Jim Coughlan

Doing nothing comes naturally to her. She picked it up after leaving her broadcasting and journalism career to spend years in Kerala, India where she ran an award-winning hotel called The Raheem Residency. “I like to say I went to India on a three week holiday and ended up staying 15 years”. She returned to Ireland seven years ago.

“I learned in India that it’s very important to do nothing. I put myself to the test about this retirement thing. I chose a week not long ago, when I would frame the days when I’d wake up by saying to myself, ‘you have feck all to do today Baskin, what are you gonna do about it?’ The first day I was a bit uneasy. Come the third day, I got my head around it. And now I just can’t wait.”

Observing her on social media over the last few years, I suggest her working life appeared so enviably flexible and full of elements she’s passionate about you’d wonder why she’d feel the need to retire at all? This was a response she got from some friends and family too, she says.

“I discovered when I first mentioned this retirement thing, to friends and family and all of that, that not many people had much of an idea about how I spend the day … my life wasn’t as easygoing as they thought … I would always be on the hunt for the next bit of a freelance job, you know, the freelance article to write for a newspaper, or to get on Newstalk. And so all day long, I would be aware of what’s going on in the world. I don’t need to do that anymore. I realised I could be a lazy, little lump, or a big lump, if I want to be. For years of working in the hotel in India I’d be up at five in the morning in the pitch black. I didn’t have to be up but I was so excited about the day ahead.”

She is still up at four or five each morning. “I think I superimposed a discipline on myself that maybe, in retrospect, wasn’t necessary. And I’ll be free of that now.”

When I mention finances in retirement, she says this was another reaction she had from people who worried whether she could afford it. “And my answer was, what the f*ck does that have to do with happiness? I haven’t made huge money anywhere in my life.” She recalls an Indian astrologer predicting her drastic change in occupation from broadcaster to hotelier two years before it happened. “He also told me, ‘madam you will never be rich but you will always have enough money to do’.”

The pandemic suited her reclusive nature. She has seen four people since she did her latest motivational speaking engagement on March 9th, 2020. She lists them out: “My GP, my acupuncturist, my great friend who helps me with the garden and one other friend”.

A Protestant in Donegal

Life was always solitary for Baskin growing up Protestant in her hometown of Ardara, Co Donegal. “I grew up very much alone which doesn’t mean at all that I was lonely,” she says. Her father died suddenly when she was six. “I would suspect that I was a Daddy’s Girl but, sure, I’ll never know”.

Her two sisters were nearly 10 years older than her. Her Church of Ireland national school was tiny with only 12 students. From junior infants to sixth class, she never had a classmate, being the only girl in her class each year. The isolation continued in terms of childhood friendships.

“Growing up in the 1950s, the religious divide was very much a thing in Northern Ireland and in the border counties and certainly Donegal. I tended not to go down the town to play with the Catholics, that didn’t seem to be the thing to do … all of this reinforced for me the idea that being alone is the norm.” She doesn’t need a lot of people or company around? “No I don’t. I suppose if you buggered off to India, in middle age on your own and stayed there like I did, it must show a certain degree of independence. But I would like to meet more than four people in the next 12 months”.

The birth of Bibi

Bibi isn’t her real name. She chose it while working in Germany as a young woman when a Polish colleague couldn’t pronounce her actual name, Olive. When she came back to Ireland she began sending off “very badly written” articles to newspapers some with the byline Olive Baskin and some using Bibi. The first one she got published in the now defunct Sunday Tribune had the byline Bibi so she kept the name going.

She moved into broadcast journalism presenting Evening Extra in the mid 1980s and became the first woman in Ireland to be given her own chatshow, simply called Bibi. She was so ubiquitous in Irish life at one stage, with her soothing voice and bright red hair, that she famously featured on Gerry Ryan’s radio show during a discussion on whether people would like to be buried or cremated when they die. Ryan asked a caller where he’d like to be buried. The caller replied “Up to me b*lls in Bibi Baskin!” She says she “always found it hilarious”.

Asked about criticism during her broadcasting career she says “it stings”. She recalls being asked by RTÉ to bring a TV critic out to lunch so she chose Eanna Brophy of that other long gone publication, The Sunday Press. “And when we were probably starting the second buidéal (bottle – Baskin is a fluent Irish speaker), as you used to do in those days he asked ‘why did you choose me? I’ve written terrible things about you’. I said, and I remember this so clearly, ‘because they were all accurate.’” She doesn’t get recognised anymore “It was 30 years ago, I look very different” but when ordering a taxi or asking for something in a shop, to her astonishment people still identify her by that rich, dulcet voice.

Over the years she worked in New York and the UK but aged 50 she packed a couple of bags and went on that “three week” holiday where she ran the hotel and pursued an interest in ayurvedic medicine that had started in Ireland. She had to adapt to life in India. “There were no other atheists and ladies don’t swear in India,” she says for two examples. But the country and spiritual traditions have had a profound impact on her life, something she thinks was preordained when she first came across The Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text, aged 15 in Donegal.

Retirement

Retirement will be busy for Baskin. She’ll continue learning Spanish on the Duo Lingo app and will also learn to make dishes from that country while continuing to perfect the South Indian recipes she picked up from cooks in the hotel kitchen. She played piano from the age of 7 to 27 and wants to get back to that. There’s the garden to manage and she quite fancies trying molecular gastronomy. Her very favourite thing to do is lie on her sofa for hours “learning about new things” but she feels she also needs to get more physically active as part of this new phase of her life.

When she was in India, she says she was bad at keeping in touch with people, so when she came home a lot of her contemporaries “had retired to their cottages in West Cork” or they weren’t around and “I hadn’t done anything to deserve reuniting with them”. As a result, many of her friends are younger. “I don’t know anybody who’s older than me. And sometimes that’s a right pain in the a*se. But it is the way it is.”

Her favourite poet and philosopher is the late John O’Donohue. As she contemplated retirement, she read his thoughts on the “thresholds” we encounter through life “He suggested asking yourself ‘what am I leaving, what am I about to enter?’”

She’ll be 70 next May and seems content. She agrees that she is. Where does this contentment come from? “One thing is the practice of acceptance. In the Western world language can be quite aggressive. You know: ‘I’m going to fight cancer.’ ‘ I’m going to hold out to the bitter end.’ Why does an end have to be bitter? And why do we have to hold out when we should have given up earlier? So there’s an awful lot of that stuff, and the opposite of that, I think, is the eastern notion of acceptance. For example, maybe if I thought about it, I’d love to have more money, but I accept that it is the way it is.’

Before she goes back to her cats and her garden and her wide open, do-nothing schedule I ask Bibi Baskin if she has any regrets in her life. She has none. “If you live in the present moment which is part of my whole wellness cloak that keeps me warm, what would be the point of regrets? I mean, if you looked back, I suppose you could do a bit of planning for the future. But I don’t see myself doing that either. Living in the now is a great place to be.”