‘In fiction you’re free’ says Melyvn Bragg, ‘but if you’re lucky you get the truth’
Melvyn Bragg is famous as a broadcasting polymath, but his new autobiographical novel is a reminder of his literary talents
Filial devotion: Melvyn Bragg with his mother, Mary, who had Alzheimer’s disease and died last year
S ixyears ago, Melvyn Bragg learned that his mother had Alzheimer’s disease. Hoping to stem the tide of illness, he began to spend more and more time with her. He would regularly make the long trip from London to his childhood home in Cumbria, chatting and reminiscing with his mother, Mary, in an attempt to shore up her fracturing memory.
When Mary died last year, at the age of 95, Bragg had been in her company more than at any time since his childhood, but felt he knew her less than ever. What had started out as an act of filial devotion ended up as a feat of imagination.
“When you’re with someone with Alzheimer’s, it seems to me that you’re imagining what they’re like,” says Bragg. “Because they’re changing all the time, they’re not like what you thought they were like. So you’re reimagining a character the entire time – being with them is almost an act of fiction.”
Hearing the 73-year-old writer and broadcaster thus describe the trials of tending to his mother as her mind was “cohering and disintegrating and reassembling”, it is unsurprising that the experience became the basis for an actual work of fiction. Grace and Mary is Bragg’s first novel since 2008, during which time his professional life has undergone its own changes: the publication underscores the fact that Bragg, though best-known as the face of British arts television, has always had a parallel life as a writer of fiction. But the novel’s autobiographical echoes are clear to see, as an unnamed male narrator recounts his relationship with his mother, who is suffering with dementia.
The book tells another story, however, inspired by a woman neither Bragg nor Mary really knew, despite the fact she was the grandmother of the former and mother of the latter. The woman in question, Belle, gave birth to Mary in 1917 but, as the baby was illegitimate, she was raised by foster parents. Subsequently, mother and daughter had only sporadic contact, and although Bragg met his birth grandmother several times as a child, he was told who she was only when he was a teenager.
Many years later, when Mary was in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, Bragg “conceived the notion that she might want to find her mother”. By imagining the life of his grandmother, the Grace of the book’s title, and intertwining her tale with that of Mary, he has brought them together in a way that eluded them in life.
Imagination and misremembering
“I think my fiction can do things that nonfiction can’t,” says Bragg. “I couldn’t have written a memoir about these two women. The only way I could write about it was the way I’ve done for a long time now, in fiction, where you’re free but if you’re lucky you get the truth.
“I mean, poets have been doing this and getting away with it for many centuries. Fiction writers have too, though they’re rather shy about acknowledging it. But it’s down to imagination, memory and misremembering, and then inventing.”
The novel weaves the narrative threads together without any hint of force: the two stories gently reverberate off each other instead. Coupled with the deft but unshowy prose, Grace and Mary is testament to Bragg’s talent as a writer. But despite his impressive pedigree – he has written more than 20 volumes of fiction – he does not always get his full due as a novelist. Much of this, one suspects, is thanks to Bragg’s high public profile as a prolific and successful television arts presenter, particularly in his role as host of the South Bank Show.
But his position as the media face of British arts, cemented by his life peerage in 1998, has not necessarily bolstered his literary reputation. A recent – positive – review of Grace and Mary in the Guardian, which expressed suspicion that previous good notices had been “mere toadying to his eminent Lordship”, is symptomatic of this attitude.
“Writing is the dearest thing to me, but you can’t choose how you’re thought about,” says Bragg. “And a lot of people think, ‘He does the television and the radio, so how can he write?’ There’s a lot of that nonsense goes on. You put up with it, it doesn’t matter.”
From the time he was a teenager, Bragg wanted to be a novelist. “I found I could write stories – I’d previously attempted to write poetry, but couldn’t do that – and I thought, this is what I want to do.” As a member of the post-war generation of British working-class youth able to access higher education for the first time, Bragg had the opportunity to follow his ambition, studying at Oxford. At the same time, he saw exciting new avenues open up for himself and his peers.
“It was the things we could do, coming from the backgrounds we had: Dennis Potter or Ken Loach or myself or many others. We could write, we knew that. We couldn’t get into things, but then there was this thing called television, which was an open, democratic, new medium. And being new in this country means that most people turn their noses up at it, which was great, because it left it open for us.”
Having earned his spurs working on the BBC television culture show Monitor, Bragg gradually moved into presenting, fired by a mission to bring the best of the arts to a mass audience.
“I think one of the great changes in English-speaking countries since the introduction of television is people getting access to this stuff for the first time,” says Bragg. “All they have to do if they want to see these great poets or playwrights is turn on a switch, the same switch they use to turn on the news, or Morecambe and Wise. And with a bit of luck we’ll catch enough of them, so that they know there’s this imaginative cache out there for them, that’s being done by people very like them. Yes, I was evangelical and yes, that’s why I keep doing it.”
From 1978 onward, Bragg’s primary television vehicle was the South Bank Show, his Sunday-night arts programme on ITV. The show’s style was accessible yet intelligent if occasionally uncritical, covering everything from highbrow art to pop culture.
In 2010, however, the series was dropped, a decision that grates.
“Well. I think ITV made a terrible mistake and I think a lot of people in ITV now think that they did too,” says Bragg. “I think it’s such a dereliction of responsibility. And we got good audiences. We got one and a half million at ridiculous times of the night, sometimes two million. What do they want? They’d crave that now.”
The cancellation of the show did not remove him from the screen. He has arguably been more visible than ever in recent years. Not only was the South Bank Show revived by Sky Arts, but Bragg has presented a succession of BBC documentaries, including several fascinating ones about the impact of the Bible on English language and life. He likens making his most recent film, about the Tudor biblical translator William Tyndale, to returning to an old love.
“I was very full of the Bible when I was a kid,” he says. “And if you’re interested in any kind of knowledge, you’ve got to be interested in it at the very least. The goodness in it is still there to be drawn. I’m not a believer, I don’t believe there is a god. I don’t believe there is a trinity and I don’t believe there is a resurrection and so on, but I’ve got more than respect, I’ve got deep interest in it. There’s marvels in that body of knowledge and people who dismiss it are just trivial.”
If Bragg’s television career has continued to thrive, his fictional output stalled after the publication of his 2008 novel, Remember Me. The fourth in his loose series of autobiographical novels, the book drew on a particularly tragic event in his life, the suicide in 1971 of his first wife, Lisa Roche, with whom he had a daughter.
“Something happened when I wrote that book that was quite dangerous,” says Bragg. “Maybe I shouldn’t have published it. I should have written it but not published it; I think that quite strongly sometimes. My daughter and I talked about it a lot and we agreed to [publish] it, but I still think I could have made the wrong decision.
“Whatever, it excavated me, really. Excavate is the wrong word. I was just cleaned out. No fiction was around. I’ve been a writer who’s always made lots of notes about books I want to write, but there was nothing around, no kite out there that I wanted to tug in.”
It took something unexpected to get him writing fiction again: a spectral presence. “I had a very odd experience. You know when you wake up but you haven’t got up, and you get that fleeting moment where things flit across your mind?
“I kept seeing this elderly woman walking on a lane near the cottage we have in Cumbria, and I didn’t know who she was. And anyway, to cut to the chase, I thought, that’s my grandmother. And at that time I was beginning to see my mother [due to her Alzheimer’s disease], so maybe it came out of that experience. But I saw that woman and thought, I want to write about her. And basically I felt relief. ‘Oh good, I can do it.’ ”
The lilt in Bragg’s voice underlines just how relieved he is to be able to practise the literary art that first fired him all those years ago, and which has helped him make sense of his life ever since. One might wonder how he finds the time to write novels, given how busy he is, but Bragg can’t imagine things being any other way.
“I’ve always worked hard; my parents worked seven days a week, every day, during the life I lived with them,” he says. “I like the work I do as much as anything outside family life. I’d rather work than go on holiday. I mean, look at what I do. I make a film on Tyndale, I’m making a film on Tom Paine, the great radical, I’m doing [his long-running BBC Radio 4 show] In Our Time this morning, I’m thinking of a novel I’ve been trying to write for 12 years and am determined to put a shape on it soon.
“In my life, frankly, what could be better than that?”
Grace and Mary is published by Sceptre. Melvyn Bragg will appear at the West Cork Literary Festival, Bantry, on July 11th, westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival