The Books Interview: Punching through paper

Melvyn Bragg looks back in anger - and pain - at the thwarted hopes of his parents' generation. By Boyd Tonkin

When, in 1976, Melvyn Bragg compiled an oral history centred on his native patch of Cumbria, he called it Speak for England. That was the phrase the Tory statesman Leo Amery flung across the Commons at Labour's Arthur Greenwood on 2 September 1939, when the latter rose to tell dithering Neville Chamberlain that his country was ready to take on Hitler. Bragg, if not Amery, would have known about G K Chesterton's watchful "Secret People" - "For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet".

Almost a quarter-century on, Baron Bragg of Wigton is speaking for his England - fast and low and vehemently - in a cavernous House of Lords gallery drenched in Pugin's riotous scarlet and gold. "With a lot of working- class people in this country," he says, "the folk memories - and the real memories - are of absolutely shitty jobs, absolutely shitty conditions. And it went on right into the war. Who got the worst treatment? The Brits. Who had the most ill- fitting boots? And the rifles where the bullets didn't fit? These people, our people. They'd been treated like shit for centuries, and it just doesn't die away. It isn't as dramatic as slavery, of course it isn't. You can't bring the same sort of ethical outrage to it as you bring to slavery. But nevertheless, they've been stamped down and put in these rubbishy jobs and paid as little as could be got away with and housed in the worst conditions that could be tolerated..."

The sun streams through gilded lobbies. Peers wander by and bid each other cheery farewells as the House rises for its summer recess. And the semi-whispered anger sounds, yes, out of place and far from being a Hampstead media mogul's routine pose.

Bragg took his Labour peerage in order to help drag the Lords into a democratic future. (He considered standing for the Commons in 1983, but in that year of Thatcher's triumph would almost certainly have lost in Cumbria.) The day before we met, another revolt of Tory backwoodsmen had delayed the Government's timetable for stripping hereditary peers of voting rights.

So today's Jacobin pique has a proximate cause. It has deeper roots, as well. Bragg's new novel The Soldier's Return (Sceptre, pounds 16.99) - his 17th - took shape in the aftermath of his father's drawn-out death from cancer. This painful leave-taking ("which was unbearable, for him, for my mother, and myself") helped to focus the son's wish to write as well and directly as he could about the small-town, working-class family life that framed his parents' limited horizons and first defined his own.

Bragg shares the prolific author's fear "that they've written too much and re-written too little". With The Soldier's Return - and another Wigton- based novel to follow - he decided that "I'm never going to say that about my writing again. I'm going to take the things that matter, and pare them down and write and write and write until it's as lean and as true as I can possibly make it." So where does one of Britain's busiest broadcasting executives and presenters find the time? "I don't have any hobbies. I don't garden, fish, hunt or shoot."

Yet he watches the calendar, if not the clock. Bragg, who will turn 60 in six weeks, raided his earliest memories for the novel under the pressure of bereavement. "When your father dies, you're next in line, aren't you? You're next." But if The Soldier's Return represents a sort of testament, it looks back more in anger - and sorrow - than nostalgia. In the summer of 1946, an emotionally scarred veteran of the horrific Burma campaigns against the Japanese tries, and mostly fails, to adjust to a wife who has learned self-reliance, a six-year-old son who resents this brooding stranger and a town - and nation - still ossified by class injustices. "I'm sorted out and labelled for life here" complains Sam as he plans the emigration to Australia that may both liberate him and wreck his family. Only in the army did he feel "a full free man at last".

The dates, the ages and the family dynamics do match Bragg's own recollections. "I was particularly interested in the triangle of jealousy", he says, "and that a little boy, aged six, could be full of manly jealousy, although outgunned every time by this big strong stranger."

Yet fiction (and research) has done its distancing work. Bragg's father served with the RAF in Europe, not the "forgotten" Fourteenth Army in the East. He returned not to factory life (like Sam) but to run a tiny Wigton pub where a nervous ex-soldier would come to drink. "He was always very shaky and very quiet," the landlord's son recalls. "And it seeped through that George had been in Burma, on the Burma railway." In the novel, this case of what we would now label "post-traumatic stress disorder" takes an altogether more florid form.

The book's tarnished family romance has a cold epic simplicity that aligns it with myth as much as social history. Its bare Homeric schema bleaches out some of what young Melvyn thought and did. Unlike fictional Joe, he found a home from home in church. It became "a pillar of my social life for the next 10 years". Bragg recently said that he still believes in "an organising intelligence and pattern" in the universe. When guests on his marathon LWT series about the history of Christianity, Two Thousand Years, take what they think is an easy crack at wishy-washy Anglicanism, the Wigton choirboy still leaps crossly to the defence of his poor beleaguered CofE.

Some of this long-haul encounter with faith and doubt may surface in a sequel to The Soldier's Return; as may, perhaps, the teenage panic attacks that Bragg has movingly described elsewhere. This novel shears away a lot of context to present a close family driven to the edge of collapse by the very stoic silence that has helped it pull through war, hardship and separation. Paradoxically, one of this era's most ubiquitous media voices writes with tremendous empathy about the vanished culture of least said, soonest mended, where "it was always better not to talk, especially about marriage". These people of England have not spoken yet, in a political or personal vein.

The tight-lipped strugglers of The Soldier's Return suffer not just from class prejudice but from what Bragg (quoting Nye Bevan) more than once refers to as "the poverty of their desires". Sam can envisage sun and sea Down Under, but not social mobility at home. I wonder if local perspectives have broadened since that high-achieving youngster left the Nelson-Thomlinson grammar school for Wadham College, Oxford in 1957. Taking that journey south as one yardstick, they certainly have. In that year "two of us got scholarships to Oxford," he remembers, "and that was thought to be astounding." Now, the school has gone comprehensive and serves a smaller catchment area but "They're knocking the spots off us. They had, I think, eight or nine Oxbridge places this year."

More generally, Bragg points to his own ratings as proof of a deepening culture. His scientist-heavy Start the Week on Radio 4 doubled the audience figures; on the imperishable (though often threatened) South Bank Show, a profile of poet Tony Harrison can match one of pop group UB40 for viewer numbers, and so on. Serious arts, he says, have fled the "officer class" ghetto that confined them when the young Bragg first visited the Tate: "I swear to God, some mornings I was on my own in that gallery for an hour or two... Now it's like going to Arsenal. The people are better informed than I was, and they have proper guided tours. That's dumbing down?"

This missionary optimism fuels a current plan to launch an LWT digital arts channel. "Almost as many people went to see the Monet exhibition as went to see Arsenal last season," he says. "Yes, there's an appetite for it. As yet, the circle hasn't been squared in terms of delivery or subscription."

Thus speaks the tirelessly up-beat, one-man National Arts Service. His new novel comes from quite another part of the wood. It talks of thwarted hopes and mute affections and a morose, almost paranoid distrust of the chilly world beyond the home and street. And the Sam who groans that "it isn't fair from the moment you're born" in England somehow survives in the media magnate who rails against the "officer class" from a shiny armchair in the Lords.

This undertow of hurt exasperation - at people's passivity, as much as at the obstacles they face - makes The Soldier's Return one of the tautest and fiercest of Bragg's fictions, alongside For Want of a Nail, The Hired Man and The Maid of Buttermere. The great talker has felt the burden of anger and fear that the voiceless always carry. Lost for words (for once) himself, Bragg speaks of the English "yoked by a shadow" of class assumptions. Then he thinks better of the murky metaphor. "It's a paper wall," he clarifies. "Punch it, and your fist will go right through." Yes, but you still need to have the urge to make a fist.

Melvyn Bragg will talk about `The Soldier's Return' today at the Edinburgh Book Festival: 11.30am in the Post Office Theatre

Melvyn Bragg, a biography

Born in 1939, Melvyn Bragg grew up in Wigton, Cumbria, the son of a publican, and went to grammar school there. After reading history at Wadham College, Oxford, he produced BBC arts programmes, worked as a freelance writer, and then joined London Weekend Television. At LWT he created the South Bank Show and continues to be Controller of Arts; he also presents Two Thousand Years. For BBC radio, he hosted Start the Week for a decade, the science series On Giants' Shoulders, and currently In Our Time. He has published 17 novels, from For Want of a Nail in 1965 to Credo and now The Soldier's Return (Sceptre). His other books include lives of Laurence Olivier and Richard Burton. In 1961 he married Lisa Roche (who died in 1970); he married Cate Haste in 1973, and has three children. He lives in Hampstead and Cumbria. Melvyn Bragg was made a (Labour) life peer in 1998.

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