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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick