Literary lord with plenty to Bragg about

The shadowy lands where fact and fiction meet exert a magnetic pull on the reader, though they can prove troubling and painful places for the author.

Steven Russell

The shadowy lands where fact and fiction meet exert a magnetic pull on the reader, though they can prove troubling and painful places for the author. Melvyn Bragg often dwells there. Steven Russell spoke to him

IT'S that Monday when the first snows of February brought much of south-east England to a crawl. It's not a problem for Melvyn Bragg, though, who lives close to his London offices and can easily walk to work. Just as well, as he's the only person in at the moment and is keeping an eye on the shop, so to speak. Russian winds aside, it's the morning after the night before. The first programme in a new series of the South Bank Show aired just 12 hours earlier: demonstrating just how big an influence members of the Cambridge Footlights theatre group - from John Cleese and Clive James to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie - had on the face of British comedy.

Lord Bragg of Wigton - he was made a life peer a decade or so ago - is the longest-serving presenter on the same ITV programme. Even though The South Bank Show is now 31 years old, does he still experience a few butterflies before a new series launches?

“You're always anxious about how the programme will work on air. You get an idea, you work on it, you spend three months on it, and you think 'Yeah!' You've got certain views on it and then you think 'Uh oh, I wonder what the public will think.' You're always nervous; and the funny thing is that even though I've been in the game an awful long time, I still can't tell how things are going to go!”

The South Bank Show is but one string to Lord Bragg's bow. Each week on BBC Radio 4, for instance, he hosts In Our Time, which makes vibrant, entertaining and informative radio from matters of science, culture and the history of ideas. (Recent topics include The Brothers Grimm and the destruction of Carthage.) But it's literature we're really here to talk about. His. In particular his 20th and latest novel, which proved so emotionally draining that he gave just one newspaper interview when the hardback was published last spring, spoke at a single literary festival, and then effectively pulled down the shutters. His appearance in Chelmsford next month will be the first time he's spoken in public about it for a year.

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There's a bit of an elephant in the room. But, first, to recap. Cumbrian Lord Bragg, now 69, has been writing fiction for about 50 years. “I was an only child in the war, my father was away, and I just read a lot - mostly comics - but we lived in a yard and at the bottom of the yard was a library, so I'd get early books from there.

“I liked the world of fiction. It wasn't one world, it was hundreds of different worlds. So I liked to be in those schools stories and Enid Blyton stories, Famous Five stories and Robin Hood stories and Kidnapped stories.

“It sparked my imagination and I wanted to be part of that world myself. I found that when I was 18 or 19, 19 or 20, at university, I started to write short stories. Even when I'm as I am now, flailing around, wondering what to write next, with far too many notes and far too few ideas, I'd rather be doing this than other things.”

Is writing a compulsion? “I think it is in a way, yes. Being English, you don't want to go around claiming compulsions and obsessions,” he quips, “but it seems to be. There's nobody but me compelling me to do it.”

Debut novel For Want of a Nail, out in the mid 1960s, was about growing up in rural Cumberland, and heralded a string of critically-acclaimed tales. The Soldier's Return, for instance, won the WH Smith Literary Award, while A Son of War and Crossing the Lines were on the Booker Prize longlist.

Many of his stories have a firm foundation of autobiography, though he warns against believing every fictional happening or emotion has an exact parallel in real life. Which is all very well, until we consider the latest, Remember Me . . .

It's about a passionate but tragic love affair between two students - Englishman Joe and the French Natasha, aristocratic but with a miserable past - who meet at university at the start of the 1960s. Readers who know a bit more than most will hear echoes of the author's own life.

Reviewer Robert Hanks was in no doubt when the hardback was published. Writing in The Independent, he said: “There's a school of thought that says all fiction is autobiographical; but some fictions are more autobiographical than others.” In Remember Me . . . “the match between fiction and autobiography is agonisingly close, since the book is a retelling of Bragg's first marriage, to Lisa Roche, which ended with her suicide”.

The Braggs had separated and were divorcing when Lisa , an artist and writer, died in 1971, leaving six-year-old daughter Marie-Elsa. It was discovered later that Lisa had a history of depression and suicidal leanings. The novel is dedicated to her.

The characters in Remember Me . . . marry and move to London, where Joe joins the BBC. (Melvyn Bragg was taken on by the corporation as a general trainee, worked in radio, and later became part of the team on Huw Wheldon's arts series, Monitor.)

As Joe's career develops, “Natasha's fragile happiness is worn down by domestic isolation, back pain, the death of her beloved younger brother, and the suicide of the analyst on whom she has come to rely. Her final crisis is precipitated when Joe embarks on an affair”.

“The book,” felt Robert Hanks, “derives most of its interest and poignancy from an awareness of how deliberately Bragg mirrors himself in Joe.”

In that sole newspaper interview last spring, in The Sunday Times, Lord Bragg told Peter Kemp: “I knew that if I didn't write this book, I could never write any more fiction. It was as simple as that. It was like something that had to be done, faced, whatever word you want to use.”

There was an artistic inevitability, seeing as The Soldier's Return, A Son of War and Crossing the Lines presented fictionalised portrayals of the author's youth and the move from the rural North to academic Oxford.

Did the events that fed the story of Remember Me . . . make writing extra-raw, emotionally?

“It's more raw because it's more recent and because of the death at the end of it,” he tells the EADT. “I thought The Soldier's Return - a man turned inside out by going from Cumbria to Burma and fighting in that vicious war - was quite raw.

“The man [Joe] goes into television - he doesn't appear on television, which is what I did - so people think 'Aha! It's got to be absolutely him' and they read it in a slightly different way. But that will fall away eventually and people will read it as fiction.”

You talked about waters being stirred up by the writing of the novel. Have things settled down since? Did it bring what you hoped to achieve?

“I didn't now what I wanted to achieve . . . It wasn't cathartic or therapeutic, so it didn't give me either of those things. I did one interview with The Sunday Times and then one interview with Peter Kemp at the Oxford Literary Festival, in the same week I think, and then I cancelled everything else because I couldn't stand it. Now - I think the phrase is a good phrase - it has settled down, and I am doing festivals and interviews. Actually, Chelmsford will be the first time I've publicly talked about the book since Oxford last March.”

So the passage of time has helped in some way? “Yes. And I also think you have to, if you can, look after your books. Writers have to 'get out there'.”

It must be difficult, though, to put your innermost thoughts on show - in book form or by discussing them - even though they're swaddled by the arms of fiction.

“If I were writing, as it were, memoirs involving people, I could say 'These are real people. This is really my wife, this is really my mother, this is really my best friend, this is really my children,' then I think that would be very raw. But I do believe they are fictionalised - I know they are. It's a bit easier. But it's still not an easy thing to do.”

But isn't this last book a bit “more real” than regular fiction?

“Well, I don't think so. Exactly as (with) The Soldier's Return . . . the spine of the book is based on what happened when my father came back from the war - and Crossing the Lines is what happened when I stayed on at school. It's not much different from that, really; it's just more dramatic because the story's more dramatic and it's told with a different sort of ferocity, and partly because it's told in first-person as an explanation to a daughter.

“It's about bigger things. It's about memory and regret and remorse; it's about huge things, this book. It takes off from the other three, I'll admit that, quite substantially, because of the situation and circumstances.”

Several people have asked why, again by proxy, he's been quite hard on himself.

“Hard on the guy. Yeah, I think I'm quite tough on him. One critic I respect a lot, Allan Massie, said it [the circumstances of the fictional relationship] tested love to the limits, and I think it did.”

Yes, but . . . if you're hard on the character, to what degree are you being hard on yourself, bearing in mind the parallels in this case between art and life?

“Er, I don't know about that. I do think that things in my mind are quite distinctive. People will attempt to keep saying 'Look, it's really you; look, it's really you.' That's fair enough. But it's also fair enough that I resist that and say 'No, there's a distinction there'.”

It's a subtle point, arguably splitting hairs in the great scheme of things, about this line where fiction and autobiography meet. As Peter Kemp put it: “Although Remember Me . . . diverges from actuality in some ways (Joe is, for instance, far less involved in politics than Bragg was), it follows the 'trajectory' of his life with Lisa.”

After such a draining experience, might the next book take a different direction?

“I don't quite know what I'm going to do next. I wouldn't like to leave that series where it ended there, but whether I want to go back to it in my next book is another question.”

Remember Me . . . is published in paperback by Sceptre at �7.99. ISBN 9780340951231

Melvyn Bragg is at Chelmsford's Civic Theatre on March 2 as part of the Essex Book Festival, talking about writers who draw on their own lives for inspiration. Box office 01245 606505. Web link:

THE new series of The South Bank Show represents an eclectic mix of subjects, ranging from analyses of Handel's Messiah and African writer Chinua Achebe to the cult TV show Gavin and Stacey and a year in the life of Pop Idol victor Will Young. “And,” quips its driving force, “you don't see the join!”

In the past, the show has been derided for covering some “low-brow” subjects - a feature on Dolly Parton sparked calls about dumbing-down - though most critics appeared not to notice the same series included pieces on new British classical music. Indeed, variety has been the spice of life from the word go: the first programme, in January, 1978, featured feminist author Germaine Greer, satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, and Paul McCartney. It was watched by 6.7 million people.

Will some critics look at the Will Young programme, perhaps, and claim a manufactured pop singer has no place on an arts show?

“Yes, they will,” says Lord Bragg. “They'll look at [features on] Handel's Messiah and The Tempest - an analysis of Shakespeare's life and one of his most difficult plays - and say it's too high-brow!

“It's been the case now for 30-odd years and it's unlikely to change: what I'm looking for is quality and not category . . . I'm going to make a note of that; I haven't said that before! You can find good-quality art in pop music and you if you say good-quality music is only in the category of classical music, I think you're missing something.”

Are the arts likely to be threatened badly by the recession?

“I don't think so. In the recession in America in the '30s, for example, Roosevelt pumped an awful lot of money into the arts, and arts thrived. The evidence seems to be that when people are driven into themselves they tend to read more; they tend to think about things like reading, music and so on a lot more. Maybe that will be the case.

“Last year - the second half was, after all, in a pretty rocky state - the West End theatre did better than it's ever done.”

Bragg basics

His parents ran a pub

He read modern history at Oxford

He's president of the mental health charity Mind

A Time to Dance won a Bad Sex in Fiction Award!

An interview with playwright Dennis Potter won a BAFTA TV Award

Lord Bragg has been married to second wife Cate Haste for more than 35 years