Melvyn Bragg: ‘Oxford was great. But it wasn’t as good as Wigton’

It’s such a well-known face, to anyone who grew up watching cultural television in Britain, and such a well-known voice to anyone who listens to BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. And it’s a daunting prospect, to interview a man who has spent his working life over several decades interviewing many of the greatest cultural figures in the world. But Melvyn Bragg, who is already at our lunch table waiting for me when I arrive at the Ivy Club in London, is easy charm itself.

He has a gently jokey tone which puts us at ease. Living in Hampstead? “Right next to the hospital, useful as you get older.” The pea soup on the menu? “Might be difficult to manage with a clean shirt.” His name, after the suave American actor Melvyn Douglas, was “like calling somebody Tyrannosaurus rex”.

He looks thinner than when I last saw him on air, and I remember that he has been very ill in the past few years. “Cancer,” he says quite openly as we chat. “I’m just about through it, after four years. My wife hates me talking about it, though.”

So we don’t — although it does have a relevance to his answer to my first real question: why, after more than 20 novels, many of them thinly fictionalised autobiography, has he decided to write a real memoir of his childhood?

“There wasn’t a single reason. Partly lockdown. Partly illness. There was a period when I felt this might be the last chance to write this book. I wanted to put all my energy into one book — so if I was going to write anything, what would I write?”

There would be plenty of possible subject matter, it seems to me. Bragg has created and presented a string of successful arts programmes, often against stiff opposition from managers with an eye on the bottom line. His South Bank Show — in-depth interviews with leading writers, performers, musicians and artists from across the world — must be the longest-running arts programme anywhere, with an astonishing 32 years on the small screen. As well as the novels, he’s written non-fiction works and screenplays; and he’s a committed Labour campaigner who, as Lord Bragg of Wigton, is a member of the House of Lords.

Yet the book we’ve met to talk about is a wide world away from that glittering career. Back in the Day takes a 12-year span of his working-class childhood in Wigton, a small town in Cumbria — from the age of six, when his father came home from the second world war, a stranger, to the age of 18, when Bragg left for university at Oxford.

“I’ve written an awful lot about that time, and about that place. I’ve fictionalised it quite lightly but I’ve always fictionalised. I thought this time I just want to remember, about the time of my life that was the most important to me — I’m not going to do any research, I’m not going to talk to anybody, just my memories.”

His memory, I say, is extraordinary. There’s an amazing level of detail in the prose, from events to conversations (these, he admits, had a little help from his talents as a novelist, “but hardly at all, only when the story needed it”). We get the 16-year-old Bragg’s homework routine; the time he and his band sang “Rock Around the Clock” at the school dance; his adopted grandmother’s way of flopping into a chair.

Around us, the Ivy Club is filling up with well-heeled diners, its elegantly spaced tables and air of unhurried, moneyed calm a world away from the packed, gritty streets of working-class Wigton in the 1950s, the small crowded house with a lavatory and wash house in the backyard. Yet the light in Bragg’s eyes as he talks for what must be the umpteenth time about the place he describes as “interwoven and intricate like a thrush’s nest — magic, really”, shows that the past is as vividly real to him as his present very comfortable surroundings.

The waiter hovers. Bragg has decided against the shirt-threatening soup and asks for scallops instead, followed by sea bass; I go for a spring vegetable salad, then baby chicken. We somehow land up with a side order of broccoli, though neither of us showed much enthusiasm for it. We stick with the fizzy water of which we’ve already downed a bottle: he says he’s having a “bit of a time off” drinking — another oblique reference to that battle with illness that has clearly overshadowed the past few years.

He’s eager to get back to the past, and the question of memory.

“I didn’t know how much I knew,” he says. “People in the street, what they said — everything.

“I’ve tried to work out why I remembered so much, and I think it was this: although I didn’t think so at the time, it was extremely intense, that small town of 5,000 people — two factories, one for men and one for women (my mother made buttonholes there) . . . 

“It’s always been one way I could get to sleep, by remembering all the shops going up and down the main street.” And, sure enough, he reels them off.

There’s a central mystery, a secret, at the heart of Bragg’s family story. His mother, it turned out, was illegitimate — talking now, he uses the hard word “bastard” — a shameful stigma at the time. In a house “packed with real children, foster children, others”, the matriarch he’d thought was his grandmother was actually his mother’s foster mother (her real mother had gone away, as far as Scotland). Thus a whole complex of relationships realigned: his uncle was not his uncle, and so on. “But,” he says, “I found a world there.”

Even so, it was a house of “lies and evasions”, and the silence around his mother’s origins was never broken. “If the man [his mother’s biological father] was local, and he probably was, I could have had brothers and sisters running around.” 

He says, “I wanted this to be a personal chronicle of a time in English life, and of the lives of working-class people. But self-aware — I don’t want it to be a caricature, or anthropological. I wanted it to be: this was us then. The truth. It was a different country — the English working class after two world wars. People disappeared as fast as they could, to Canada, Australia, wherever. But the ones who stayed, you discovered what remarkable people they were, with such small means.”

They didn’t just keep dogs, he tells me with boyish pride, they won national awards at Crufts, the world’s largest dog show. There was a “terrific pigeon club”, which he describes without a trace of irony. I know he’s going to tell me about how they sent the homing pigeons over to France and then timed their flights back — and he does, of course. But I don’t mind. In this outpouring of words — he even apologises for his garrulousness — his eagerness is fascinating in itself.

Our food is taking its time, but neither of us seems especially interested in it. A lot of fizzy water is being consumed as the words pour out. I remember rather guiltily that we’re already halfway through our lunch and we’re laughing about pigeon lofts. I must get a grip.

Bragg’s scallops have come and gone, and I’ve munched my way through a plate of spring vegetables so tiny and pretty it seemed almost rude to eat them. I move the conversation on to his adventures in the world outside Wigton. After life in such a close-knit community, leaving for university at Oxford, where he studied modern history, must have been a huge culture shock?

“I’d read about it,” he laughs again. Playing rugby and singing in the choir, and the friendships he quickly made, eased his way. He’d already done a stint working in Paris, at a homeless charity — “We made 900 beds every morning” — so it wasn’t the first time away from home. He does talk about his homesickness, though: a real, visceral throb. “Oxford was great,” he decided, “but it wasn’t as good as Wigton.”

I’m not surprised when he tells me that the people he met at Oxford are still friends: such links have been the story of British cultural life in the past decades. Yet he repeatedly describes his career as “luck”, a “series of flukes”. Not really just that, I’d argue. His story is one of extremely hard work. From the age of 10 or 11, he worked in the pub of which his father became a tenant, alongside his school studies, singing in a choir and more. So when later he was working in broadcasting but writing books as well, sometimes at the rate of one a year, it’s no surprise: the northern work ethic runs very deep.

But he does surprise me by an apparent lack of deliberate direction, early on. This, he says, “is not a story about someone longing to get out of that small town. I didn’t want to get out, I didn’t aim to get out. That’s the truth. I took it for granted that I’d do what everyone else did, follow in your father’s footsteps. It didn’t seem like a hardship, either.”

The getting-out was in fact engineered by someone else: his much-mentioned school teacher Mr James, who went to see Bragg’s father and did a deal with him about putting the boy in for Oxford exams — a fact Bragg himself wasn’t aware of, he says, until later. Another evasion, another strange silence.

After Oxford, again, he didn’t seem to have a clue what to aim for. “I filled in lots of forms. I remember one for a job at Consett iron and steel works. I didn’t get that.” He laughs heartily. “What if I’d got it?”

After landing a BBC traineeship, though, it’s clear he learnt how to engineer himself on to the path he wanted. He is funny about getting a job on Monitor, the cultural flagship of the time, and now I’m the eager one, wanting more anecdotes about the great figures of broadcasting of the day. But, though he makes it clear there have been battles along the way, Bragg is far too wise to recount more than the most agreeable stories. He fought for a books programme on BBC1, Read All About It — but made the move to ITV for wider horizons in the burgeoning sphere of arts programming. Yet after a sparkling run, in which some of the great arts interviews were recorded — look up the one with Harold Pinter, for instance — his South Bank Show was cut. He still sounds aggrieved about ITV’s decision: “SBS was doing well at ITV, and the costs were tiny — one drama would equal our whole season’s budget.”

By then, however, Bragg had clearly become a consummate player. He splashed out on a big night for his final South Bank Show awards, and roars with laughter as he tells how he invited all the bigwigs from ITV and put them on one table, and all the top brass from Sky Arts on another. “Next morning Sky rang up and said, ‘Would you like breakfast?’” So he moved to Sky Arts, taking the SBS franchise with him.

He describes the channel as “good to work for”, though discreetly hints at tensions. He now does what he describes as “double-decker” programmes — a full South Bank Show plus a 70-minute interview with each subject, such as a recent one with ballet star Carlos Acosta. Then there is the weekly radio show In Our Time, which covers anything from the death of stars to Dylan Thomas, Antigone, Angkor Wat, the science of perception and music.

At Oxford, he had started to write short stories, “which I didn’t tell anybody about”. His first published novel appeared in 1965, beginning a writing career that is impressively prolific considering the day jobs he was also handling. He says of his double career that he had “no option — writing wasn’t going to be a way of making a living”. Anyway, “the work I was doing [in broadcasting] didn’t feel much like work.”

As we’ve been talking, I’ve downed my chicken, which I’m sure was good although I don’t really remember. Bragg has pushed his lovely-looking sea bass about a bit; as predicted, neither of us could be bothered with the broccoli. He shakes his head at my suggestion of a pudding, politely saying that he had a large breakfast, though somehow I doubt that. A coffee is of interest, though, and we each ask for a shot.

Over this long lunch, we’ve ranged over so much. The House of Lords? “I said no at first, but I realised there were things to say about broadcasting, things to say about universities.” (Bragg was chancellor of the University of Leeds for 18 years.) Screenwriting? He got fed up, he says, because “other people always took over”. And the crises: “With Isadora, the film was just about to come out, they wanted it to be a big thing like Lawrence of Arabia. And then Vanessa [Redgrave] decided to burn the American flag, in public . . . ” Guffaws of laughter. Reading books with his father: “He loved Wodehouse. He’d been a boot boy in big country houses so he knew that world.” 

And of course, his beloved homeland, Cumbria. Bragg still has a house on the edge of the Lake District, not far from Wigton, and remains in touch with people there, including his teenage girlfriend Joan (“Thank goodness she liked the book”). He’s made a stir in fiercely protective fights over the countryside: with the National Trust (“They just behaved like big property developers”) and with rewilding schemes (“People say, ‘let’s bring back wolves’ — I mean, for God’s sake!”). “It’s the hill farmers who keep the Lake District honest, keep things right,” he declares passionately.

There has been a dark side to what might seem a golden life. Bragg has been open about suffering two breakdowns in his life: one at the age of just 13 is movingly covered in the new book; the other during his first marriage, when his wife Marie-Elisabeth Roche took her own life. It’s hard not to see Back in the Day as a quest for the darker truth as well.

“One thing I massively regret,” he suddenly says to me, “that there was a time when the town was full of people who knew the truth [about his mother’s parentage] and I never asked them.” It occurs to me that, with this memoir, it’s as if he feels that by remembering hard enough, by getting down every single last scrap of detail about his young life, he’ll somehow uncover that haunting secret.

Bragg will be 83 at his next birthday. What about slowing down? “Ah well,” he says, “I’m giving it a year or two, and then we’ll see what happens.”

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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