‘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
“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