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Melvyn Bragg: 'I just don't want to go there'

Melvyn Bragg’s latest autobiographical novel forced him to relive the ordeal of his first wife’s suicide. He tells Danuta Kean where he lays the blame and why writing about it hasn’t been therapeutic

Behind the charm, the soft Cumbrian lilt, the flashing smile and twinkling eyes, something darker festers in Melvyn Bragg, award-winning broadcaster, acclaimed novelist and ennobled member of the Labour elite. Despite the success and celebrity, the dapper grammar school boy from working-class Wigton carries within him a mixture of guilt, rage and bewilderment that others would find hard to conceal. The thought crosses my mind as a late sun pours its weakening light into his office on the 22nd floor of LWT’s Waterloo HQ at the end of a freezing Tuesday in February.

The room is packed up for a move to the sixth floor. Boxes are strewn around. A handful of books are abandoned on a shelf; like forlorn drunks they lean against one another for support. I am here to talk about Bragg’s book Remember Me…, the latest in a series of autobiographical novels and the most searing of them all. It is an account of the doomed relationship between Bragg’s literary doppelganger Joe Richardson and a troubled French poet, Natasha, who bears a striking resemblance to the author’s first wife, the French artist Lisa Roche. Both were gifted artists, both tried to distance themselves from aristocratic roots, both had troubled childhoods and both ended their lives as their marriages fell to pieces. As with all suicides, both left a legacy of guilt, regret and profound sadness with the friends and family, including a young daughter.

In the novel, Bragg anatomises the relationship from hungry courtship and heady marriage through to a gradual breaking apart and bitterness as Richardson leaves for another woman. Cutting into the narrative are conversations between Richardson and his daughter Marcelle. They feel real rather than imagined, and Bragg admits he sought the approval of Marie-Elsa, his daughter by Lisa, before handing over the manuscript. “She was glad for me, that I had faced up to it,” he confides. Then adds, barely audibly: “She had faced up to it far earlier than I had because she had been through stuff on her way to being a priest, which made her think more deeply and clearly than I had.” Marie-Elsa, 40, is an Anglican vicar in a “tough” London parish.

The relationship flourishes and fades against the fluid social background of the 1960s; a time, Bragg recalls, “full of working-class arrivistes who were clambering all over television, music, journalism and the art world. They saw a few open doors and they rushed for them like a herd.” He mimes ferociously elbowing out the competition and laughs loudly. It is one of the few times he laughs throughout the interview.

The line between Bragg’s life and the plot of Remember Me… is so thin that at times it is hard to distinguish whether he is talking about fact or fiction. Like Bragg, Joe graduates from Oxford, a grammar-school boy made good, works in the BBC and becomes a published author. Both work on acclaimed arts documentaries and films, marry their French girlfriends and leave for other women 10 years later. Both fail to return to their wives on the eve of their suicide, and the guilt they carry down the years is unbearable. For Bragg it unravelled into a second nervous breakdown – the first happened in his teens.

Even Bragg seems confused about where fact ends and fiction begins. When I ask about the loneliness that engulfs Natasha and whether her character would have been more fulfilled in a post-feminist world, he looks shocked, as though a thought had just struck him. “Maybe, maybe,” he says, his voice sinking to a whisper of regret. “There were things to do. Kew wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, nor was Hampstead.” He gazes out of the window across to west London. Kew is where his wife committed suicide – as does Natasha.

He looks weary, the lines on his face betray his 69 years and the famous lustrous locks are grey. The book was hard to write – he pulled it from publication three times – and is even harder to discuss. When the hardback finally appeared last year he cancelled all interviews after appearing at the Oxford Literary Festival. “I just couldn’t do it,” he says. When I begin the interview he draws in his breath apprehensively.

Though he admits to still feeling guilty, there is one person he feels contributed to his wife’s suicide: her psychotherapist. In the novel Natasha’s therapist kills herself, leaving her psychologically marooned. The impact of the death on her already fragile psyche is heartrending. “One thing that is absolutely accurate, and I think really terrible, is the death of the psychoanalyst,” Bragg explains, and rage bubbles to the surface.

Lisa’s analyst was Anne Darquier, the daughter of a French Nazi war criminal. She committed suicide, leaving her patients (including the Virago founder Carmen Callil) to flounder. Bragg clearly believes the news pushed his wife into the psychosis of suicide. “Why somebody who is ill continues to treat patients and doesn’t say ‘I am ill but I recommend Dr X’… I can’t understand it.” His teeth are clenched as he speaks, the words extracted rather than spoken. He has been unable to read Bad Faith, Callil’s book about Darquier’s father Louis, though he realises it may provide answers about what happened. “I am just too tired,” he says.

His anger is compounded by the notion that Darquier, through her father, had links to Lisa’s past that Bragg finds hard to stomach. He almost spits out: “This woman – I don’t mean to be rude but I can’t remember her name – came from the same part of France, and it is more than possible that Lisa’s father or grandfather knew her father, or would have known or known of him. We are talking about neighbouring villages in Haute Provence, so I could imagine the two of them…” He pauses and sighs, suddenly drained. “I just don’t want to go there.”

His pain in talking about his wife and the way his life twists “like rope” with that of Joe, is palpable. He scrambles around for words in a way that contrasts sharply with his image as the frontman of high culture on television and radio. Autobiographical fiction is not new, but his high profile made it inevitable that readers would pore over the novel digging for concealed truth. Was he not concerned about that level of exposure? “I really didn’t think about its reception.” He runs his hand through his hair. “I am a target and I am handing them the bows and arrows,” he admits with a shrug. But he could not hold back, he maintains, because the fact spun into the fiction held the story together. It is a reminder that before Bragg the Broadcaster was Bragg the Writer, which makes it doubly hard that he has been unable to write a scrap of fiction since completing Remember Me…

All this character-building perseverance, giving unwanted interviews and writing articles that fail to sate the appetite for intrusion. I wonder what does Melvyn Bragg have left to prove? Is all this activity an outcome of his “working-class lad made good” roots?

Bragg takes a swipe at his alter ego when Joe joins the Garrick – a club to which Bragg belongs. Is this a sign he feels like an imposter, straddling two conflicting worlds? “I think I still am [an outsider],” he acknowledges. “I know it is a curious thing to say, but I still feel it, I don’t feel inferior in the slightest to anybody – or superior to anybody, let’s get that clear. But I do feel different.”

Does he feel guilty about the Garrick? Not a bit, he says, he joined the club in very different circumstances to Joe. “I was being a bit wry and also wanting to be a bit hard on Joe. It is a bit like Candide. But I didn’t want him to escape censure.” He giggles and looks down at his hands.

The sun has disappeared into a blood-red gash across the sky. The office is dark, yet Bragg leaves the lights off. It seems the right moment to ask whether the book was cathartic. “No it wasn’t,” he shoots back. But it feels redemptive, I say: Joe is absolved of some of the guilt, as are their friends; Natasha's death feels inevitable, no one could have saved her. He peers at me through the gloom. “Redemptive?” he asks. “Well, in the sense of…” He takes a long pause. The penumbrous light suits the sombre atmosphere. “Redemptive in the sense of a properly considered response and considered answer, but not in terms of absolution,” he finally answers, precise to the last.

The extract

Remember Me, By Melvyn Bragg (Sceptre £7.99)

“...He would attempt to fly free and alone. And Natasha, who meant to tell Joseph of her decision that night, but delayed it because she sensed it would take away from the innocent pleasure of the celebration, had finally decided to go into analysis, to re-examine herself, to sink as deeply into her past as she dare, to claim it back whatever the risk.”