Writers

Add to researchBaron Bragg of Wigton Melvyn Bragg

Baron Bragg of Wigton Melvyn Bragg

Mandy Farrar

Born
Wigton, Cumberland
Genre
Non-Fiction, Fiction, Drama
 
 
Biography
Broadcaster, writer and novelist Melvyn Bragg was born on 6 October, 1939 in Wigton, Cumbria, in the north of England.

He was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, where he read Modern History and began his broadcasting career as a producer for the BBC in 1961. Since 1967 he has pursued a distinguished career as both a writer and broadcaster. He has been writer, editor and presenter of The South Bank Show for London Weekend Television (LWT) since 1978, and has been Controller of Arts at LWT since 1990 (Head of Arts 1982-90). He presented BBC Radio 4's Start the Week for ten years until he was made a Life Peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in 1998.

Among his many public roles, Melvyn Bragg is Chancellor of Leeds University (since 1999), President of the National Campaign for the Arts (since 1986) and a Governor of the London School of Economics (since 1997). He was made Domus Fellow, St Catherine' College, Oxford, in 1990. He became a member of the Arts Council Literature Panel in 1969 and subsequently became Chairperson. He was also presenter of the recent BBC radio series The Routes of English, a history of the English language.

A prolific novelist, he is also the author of a number of television scripts and film screenplays, including Jesus Christ Superstar in 1973 (with Norman Jewison), Isadora, and Clouds of Glory with Ken Russell. His novels include The Hired Man (1969), adapted as a musical in 1984, and winner of the Time/Life Silver Pen Award; The Maid of Buttermere (1987); A Time to Dance (1990), adapted for television in 1992; and The Soldier's Return (1999), winner of the WH Smith Literary Award, which, together with its sequels, A Son of War (2001), and Crossing the Lines (2003), follows the fortunes of a working-class Cumbrian family during and after the Second World War.

Recent books are Twelve Books that Changed the World (2006); a new novel, Remember Me (2008), the story of a love affair between two students, one French and one English; and In Our Time (2009).

Melvyn Bragg lives in London. His latest work is The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011 (2011).

Critical Perspective

Melvyn Bragg is probably best known to the British public as a radio and television broadcaster.

Yet he is also a prolific novelist, having produced on average, a novel almost every eighteen months, in a writing career spanning almost forty years. Bragg was born at the beginning of the Second World War in a market town in Cumbria. He later moved to Oxford to study, and then on to London, but has, throughout his life, returned to the landscape of his youth as the setting and inspiration for his work.

His first novel For want of a nail came out in 1965. It tells the story of a schoolboy, Tom, growing up in Cumbria and facing, not only the problems that many schoolboys face - friendship, bullying, flowering sexuality, religion, school examinations and family relationships - but also the realisation that his mother's love for him is 'little more than that of a cat for its kitten' and the mystery (cunningly revealed only in the final pages of the book, and not without some false leads) of the identity of his real father. Cumbria figures large in the novel, but many of the descriptions are negative, almost as if the author were trying to come to terms with the fact that he had recently moved away from the area: the weather is often cold or 'slate grey', the people are 'locked in themselves', believing that 'misfortune was always inevitable'. Nevertheless, the novel has a confidence in tone and a vivacity of characterisation that, as many critics commented at the time, showed promise for the future.

The three novels known as the Cumbrian Trilogy: The Hired Man (1969), A Place in England (1970) and Kingdom Come (1980) are also set in Bragg's native Cumbria. The novels follow the lives of three generations of the Talentire family from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. They skilfully illustrate the character traits that run through the family - independence (the need to 'be your own man'), determination and a desire for self-respect, which, they believe, can be achieved through labour. The daily routine and personal triumphs and sadnesses of the family are woven around a superbly depicted historical background: the growth of the trade unions, the Depression, the rise of the Labour Party, post war prosperity, the birth of the National Health Service, the Butler Education Act, England winning the World Cup. A sense of history pervades the novels and shapes the destiny of their characters, but never intrudes. Bragg graduated in Modern History at Oxford and his seemingly effortless recreation of historical backdrops clearly reflect a faultless dedication to detail in historical research.

Cumbria is again the focus of the The Maid of Buttermere (1987), and this time Bragg combines his two lifelong passions: literature and history. The novel is set in the early nineteenth century and is based on the true story of Mary Robinson, known as The Maid of Buttermere, an innkeeper's daughter, from the village of the same name, who achieved a certain public notoriety in the early nineteenth century after she had been 'discovered' and eulogised in a best selling travelogue of the time and featured in the work of the poet William Wordsworth. This was the age of the discovery of the Lake District and the Cult of the Sublime - Cumbria was to become the fashionable meeting place of artists, poets and tourists, and Mary, with her innocent beauty and modest manners seemed to sum up everything the area stood for. Unfortunately she had the misfortune to marry the bigamist conman John Hatfield - at the time masquerading as an aristocrat - who was eventually executed for his numerous crimes, and it is this part of Mary's life that Bragg concentrates on in his book.

Mary and John are the main protagonists of the novel but the action takes place against the brooding landscape of the Cumbria that Bragg knows and loves so well. Gone are the negative feelings towards the area that we detect in his first novel. Here, his intimate descriptions of the towns and villages, of the paths up and down the fells, the detailed mappings of the meteorological changes in the area and the physical characteristics of the people who inhabit it are almost an act of devotion that one feels Turner or Coleridge themselves might have admired.

Occasionally Bragg breaks out of the Cumbrian mould and tries something different, as in A Time to Dance (1990) and Credo (1996). A Time for Dancing is an astonishing novel about a retired bank manager's love for an eighteen-year-old. The story is a simple one, which might risk slipping into pathos or banality, but Bragg makes it not only a study of infatuation but also a satire on that major British preoccupation - class distinction - as well as an analysis of long-term marital affection and conjugal loyalty. In this book Bragg audaciously faces up to physical passion, a sentiment only briefly touched on in his previous works, and a subject that many writers would instinctively shy away from, and manages to give us a true appreciation of physical bliss without becoming smutty or embarrassing. With its short sentences, numerous questions and mixture of letter form and direct dialogue, the novel has a breathtaking urgency and an air of anxious uncertainty. Unusually for Bragg this novel is written in the first person, and one cannot help speculating as to what events in the author's life seem to have turned him from humane but detached chronicler, as in the Cumbrian books, back into a writer who is closer and more personally and psychologically involved with his characters, as he indeed was when he first started writing in For want of a nail.

Credo is a huge book, an epic, a tour de force, that you feel must have been gestating in Bragg's mind since boyhood. The novel is set in the Britain of the Dark Ages, an era little known to modern readers, a period full of passion and bloodbaths, described by Bragg in fascinating detail. It is scholarly and authentic, a 'rollicking good read with intellect', yet seems to lack the marrow of the Cumbrian novels.

Bragg's two most recent novels The Soldier's Return (1999) and A Son of War (2001) return again to life in Cumbria. This time we follow the fortunes of the Richardson Family: the father, Sam, who returns to the town of Wigton having fought in Burma during World War Two, to reconcile himself with a wife whose work for the war effort has given her a new independence, and his son, Joe, whom he hardly knows. The books received much critical acclaim when they were published and they do indeed mark a more mature period in Bragg's writing in that they combine his passion for historical detail with a more personal, even semi-autobiographical involvement in the story.

Bragg writes within a long English literary tradition. The strong sense of place, and of living within strict social confines, are reminiscent of the work of Thomas Hardy. There are hints, particularly in the caricatures of some of the minor characters - in the description of Lenty the cobbler in A Place in England (1970) for example - of Dickens, and even, at times, particularly in comments made about marriage in The Maid of Buttermere, with the social satire (though not, alas, the humour) of Jane Austen. In its tightness of plot and air of suspense, The Maid of Buttermere also smacks of the work of writers like Wilkie Collins, and For want of a nail, The Cumbrian Trilogy, The Soldier's Return and A Son of War, have close affinities to the novels of D. H. Lawrence. A negative criticism that has sometimes been directed at Bragg's work is that it is too derivative, a pastiche, a little quaint and old-fashioned.

Yet to suggest such a thing is unfair to Bragg. Although he is, because of his education and his profession, inevitably steeped in the literary tradition, Bragg has his own very individual voice. He may be a Romantic, with a capital R, in his admiration of landscape and the way that it can mould personality and feeling, but he has little taste for the melodrama or didactic quality of much traditional English fiction. He is, essentially, a realist, more akin to modern writers like Alan Sillitoe, his novels brimming with authentic characters that are never totally 'good' or 'bad', who do not exist because they can teach us something, but are simply the victims of circumstances, busy proving Bragg's philosophy that life goes on.

In A Place in England, Douglas, the main character, is writing a book, and notes how: 'Everywhere...on the wireless, on television, in films and magazines, ordinary people were credited with no range of feeling, no delicacy of manner...their attitudes (were) thought to be trite because their expression was, often, commonplace. One reason for writing the book would be to set that right'. Douglas's words seem to sum up Bragg's own way of thinking, for his books, particularly the more recent ones, abound with small-scale heroes. In The Soldier's Return and A Son of War, for example, we meet Sadie, the woman beaten by her husband, who gets her joy from dancing and going to the cinema; Ian, the slightly effeminate young soldier in Sam's section who accidentally pulled the pin out of a grenade and then knowingly threw himself onto it, and to a certain, painful death, in order to protect his comrades, and the Annie, the stoical wife of Sam's ex-soldier friend who had to be sent to the mental asylum after his return from service. Bragg says of Annie: 'No one had ever once called her pretty or even presentable. She had lived on as little as got you by in that town. Her skin was poor and spot-infested, and she had always been at the bottom of the heap', and yet he describes how she cares for her husband with 'a loving anguish' that is profoundly moving.

Despite Bragg's numerous debts to the greats of English literature, his writing is surprisingly lacking in the usual literary devices such as simile or metaphor. His language is simple, straightforward, and contains none of the pretensions and sentimentality that you feel would have been frowned upon in the environment in which he must have grown up. Because of his work in the Arts, Bragg has for decades been known as a 'great British intellectual', and yet his writing is unaffected, often sparse, and he has a knack for capturing the dialogue of everyday people. This does not mean that he is not interested in language. In his early novels he makes use of dialect, often, as Lawrence did, to signify intimacy or social exclusion. He is fascinated by the vocabulary used by the gypsies in Cumbria which has made its way into the local dialect; in the post-war novels he revels in the Hindustani words picked up by the soldiers 'chute Walla', 'char' and 'dekko'.

The Soldier's Return and A Son of War, revisit many of the motifs of the earlier works - the confusion, and often blind fear, of adolescence, misunderstandings between married couples, the incapacity of being able to describe one's deepest feelings, the harshness of life as a publican, and descriptions of how the average man enjoyed himself (at carnivals, cricket matches, race meetings, on bike rides and trips to the sea) - and yet we still feel Bragg has something to say about these subjects. Already, at the beginning of his career, his simple way of expressing himself made Bragg a fresh, new voice, but in his most recent works this simplicity has been further pared down to the bare essentials, as if he had been considering the same subjects for many years and now had the confidence to condense complex feelings with a sparseness that verges on the poetic. An example of this can be seen in the few words he dedicates to Sam's inability to share what he has seen and suffered in the war, and hence to set into action the healing process: 'He wanted to talk. He could not talk to Ellen, it was too terrible. More than that. You just did not talk about it, except privately and rarely with those who had been through it with you. And never to admit pain'. These short, staccato sentences, typical of the post-war novels, seem to sum up the sufferings, not only of Sam and, possibly, of Bragg's own father, but also those of a generation that are still having a knock on effect in family life over half a century later.

Amanda Thursfield, 2003

Bibliography

2013
Grace and Mary, Hodder & Stoughton
2011
The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011, Hodder & Stoughton
2009
In Our Time, Hodder & Stoughton
2008
Remember Me, Sceptre
2006
Twelve Books that Changed the World, Hodder & Stoughton
2003
The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language, Hodder & Stoughton
2003
Crossing the Lines, Sceptre
2001
The Routes of English, BBC Education
2001
A Son of War, Sceptre
1999
The Soldier's Return, Hodder & Stoughton
1998
On Giant's Shoulders, Hodder & Stoughton
1996
Credo, Hodder & Stoughton
1992
Crystal Rooms, Hodder & Stoughton
1990
A Time to Dance, Hodder & Stoughton
1988
Rich: The Life of Richard Burton, Hodder & Stoughton
1987
The Maid of Buttermere, Hodder & Stoughton
1984
Laurence Olivier, Hutchinson
1984
Cumbria in Verse, editor, Secker & Warburg
1983
Love and Glory, Secker & Warburg
1983
Land of the Lakes, Secker & Warburg
1981
My Favourite Stories of Lakeland, editor, Lutterworth Press
1980
Kingdom Come, Secker & Warburg
1978
Autumn Manoeuvres, Secker & Warburg
1977
A Christmas Child, Secker & Warburg
1976
Speak for England, Secker & Warburg
1975
Speak for England: An Essay on England 1900-1975, Secker & Warburg
1974
The Silken Net, Secker & Warburg
1972
Josh Lawton, Secker & Warburg
1971
The Nerve, Secker & Warburg
1970
A Place in England, Secker & Warburg
1969
The Hired Man, Secker & Warburg
1968
Without a City Wall, Secker & Warburg
1966
The Second Inheritance, Secker & Warburg
1965
For Want of a Nail, Secker & Warburg

Awards

2010
The South Bank Show Lifetime Achievement Award
2010
Honorary Fellowship of Royal Society
2010
BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award
2010
Honorary Fellowship of the British Academy
2000
WH Smith Literary Award, The Soldier's Return
1970
Time/Life Silver Pen Award, The Hired Man
1968
Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, Without a City Wall

Author Statement

'I began writing fiction when I was about 19 and have done so ever since. In brief it is the most testing and satisfying work that I do. I like everything about it - the shape, discovering the story, working out the narrator and the characters, dealing with Time, finding the centre of a scene, trying to make the book pass through and partake in an historical period without gathering too much period moss. I even consider a day spent facing an empty page a good day.'