Melvyn Bragg: A Northern hero in our time

At 74, one of Britain’s great polymaths is still broadcasting prolifically, and still helping to set the news agenda

The first time I met Melvyn Bragg I was crushed. I thought, hoped, we would get on famously.

After all, we both hailed from Cumbria, both went to grammar school and Oxbridge, both ended up in London, in the media.

So, when I was sitting next to him at a lunch, I greeted him, “Ah, a fellow Cumbrian.” He asked me where I was from. When I said Barrow-in-Furness, he replied: “That’s not in Cumbria, that’s in Lancashire.” He was right, to the extent that Barrow was part of north Lancashire until the boundary change in 1974. He did not speak to me after that, not one word.

Perhaps he was in one of his moods; perhaps he couldn’t bear northern reminiscing. Certainly, we’ve bumped into each other since and he has been friendly and jolly. But since then I’ve not dared to play the Cumbrian card, sticking to brief chats about newspapers. This is a pity, because I could relate to him; I knew exactly what he encountered at university, and in London; I could see in his novels (which have never received the critical acclaim that they deserve) that he had a deep connection with his roots.

I could share, too, his disdain, as he’s declared in an interview tied to the current series of The South Bank Show, for those who like to indulge in the “it’s grim oop north” stuff.

His father was a publican in the small market town of Wigton, to the north of the Lake District. Bragg, an only child, spent hours in the public library, and listening to the radio. “We listened to a lot of drama, adaptations of books, comedy. There was a real love of music expressed in choirs, because you didn’t have to have instruments except your voice. We lived in a very cultured environment. I’m not a fan of the working class being mocked, including by some of our famous writers … even those who came from it.” Snap.

There is, though, a paradox associated with Bragg, as there is with anyone who has made exactly the same trip. The Melv who so champions the working class, is also Lord Bragg FRS, FBA, FRSA, FRSL, FRTS, who married a French vicomtesse (Lisa Roche, who later killed herself), lives in one of London’s sleekest areas, in Hampstead, and is a habitué of the Garrick Club.

To be fair to Bragg, though, he has never made any attempt to hide the conflict. “I think I still am [an outsider],” he once said. “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.”

He even has a go at his fictional alter ego, Joe, for joining the Garrick. “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.” 

In fact, there is little that Bragg has shirked. His life has been laid bare, in interviews and in his writings.

His wife’s suicide? “I could have done things which helped and I did things which harmed. So, yes, I feel guilt, I feel remorse.”

His own mental fragility? He has had two breakdowns, one when he was a teenager, the other after Lisa’s death. “I think it has left scars of nervousness that I have still… I’m just very nervous a lot of the time.”

His mother’s dementia? “I couldn’t get enough of seeing her. The weaker she got, the stronger my feelings for her grew. I had read that the last sense to go was sound, so early on that final morning I pulled my chair as close as possible to her bed and whispered: ‘I love you very much, you know.’”

His own dread of inheriting her condition? “My mother could tolerate it, but I haven’t got that kind of stoicism. If I reach a certain stage in a few years’ time where I think, ‘Oh, sod this’, I’ll take measures.”

His workaholism? At 74, he shows no sign of slowing down. As well as The South Bank Show, he’s presenting In Our Time for Radio 4, and is writing a novel to add to the 30 books already published. It is, he says, his salvation: “Work that you can lose yourself in. And I mean every word of that. That’s why writing is important to me. Time goes past and you’ve been somewhere and come back that hasn’t hurt you and you’ve been somebody else.”

Bragg’s children (he has a daughter from his first marriage, and a son and a daughter with Cate, whom he married in 1973) once “put in a tentative petition” to go abroad on holiday like their school friends. “They’d heard there was this place called France. ‘Can we go there, Dad?’” But the only holidays he enjoys are those at his cottage in Cumbria and even there he writes non-stop.

He craves to be taken seriously and listened to, whether it’s denouncing the Prime Minister for talking about Britain’s “sick”, “feral” and “broken” society (Bragg is a Labour supporter); bemoaning the lack of religion on television and radio (he’s got no truck with those who think Thought For The Day on Radio 4 should be axed, saying “To give religion two minutes a day, in its own space, isn’t exactly selling general morality or atheism short”); highlighting the plight of our universities (he’s chancellor of Leeds University and is distressed about the Government’s cutting the number of foreign students, “It’s madness, absolute madness”); and telling us what he would do if he was in power (“More in schools – school choirs, school orchestras, school bands. Schools, schools, schools”).

To his undisguised irritation, in the popular mind he’s associated with his photogenic looks and luxuriant hairstyle, or as he dismisses it, “my effing hair”. The locks are greyer now and the face more lined, but he keeps himself in trim. He walks to and from his home and the House of Lords, and in the Cumbrian fells, and he doesn’t drink alcohol in January or the first 10 days of every month.

For reasons that were never explained, Spitting Image liked to portray him as an interviewer of famous cultural figures, who liked to snort milk from a baby bottle before and after each interview. There is a prickly side to him. As well as hating comments about his appearance, he has found criticism of his novels hard to bear. “One of the things about failing in this business is you do it in public. It’s difficult to get used to.”

His radio and television career, by contrast, has received numerous plaudits. Bragg’s interview with Dennis Potter, shortly before the playwright’s death in 1994, is regularly cited as one of the most moving and memorable television moments ever. He’s credited, too, with making the arts more accessible and less snobbish – in Bragg’s eyes, a pop star is just as worthy of analysis as a classical composer.

He’s both a gregarious, cheery TV presenter, and a personal, soul-baring novelist: a peer of the realm who moves effortlessly among the higher echelons of London’s arts, broadcasting and political establishment, and likes singing the Everly Brothers with his mates in Cumbria.

It’s the contradictions in him that make him the polymath he is, that also go to the heart of his popularity. Open and shy, high and low, tragedy and happiness, Arsenal and Carlisle United – they all count towards his enduring appeal.

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