“At my best, I lose myself in my writing.” Melvyn Bragg talks to Northern Soul
Self-doubt can be one of the biggest battles for writers. It makes them avoid the very thing they yearn for most because writing is so painstakingly, painfully difficult to do well. As the great Mancunian author Anthony Burgess once put it – probably whisky in hand – “writing is an agony mitigated only by drink”. Cheers.
Another great Northerner, but one with more sober insights, is the novelist and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, supremo of culture show The South Bank Show, which has been running, on and off, since 1978, and overlord of In Our Time, Radio 4’s academic discussion radio programme that has run to more than 800 editions and is one of the BBC’s most popular podcasts.
“What I like about writing,” says Bragg pithily, “is writing. Publishing is very nice, when people say nice things and so on, but I very quickly forget about it. What I want to be doing is writing.”
With 21 novels to his name, not to mention his non-fiction output and other parallel careers, avoidance is clearly not an issue. And yet, self-doubt is. It seems to be the story of his life – at least his writing life, ever since he had a nervous breakdown at the age of 13.
“What happened then,” he says, “was something that even now I don’t like to dwell on. It lasted about a year and a half, which is a long time when you’re a teenager. It was terrifying, and everything went wrong with my life. At school I got demoted from the top form, 3A, to the same form as the boys and girls who were going to leave as soon as they could at 16. I started to get bullied, and I lost my nerve.
“I also had out-of-body experiences every night and didn’t dare look in the window or the mirror. It was utterly, utterly frightening. Did I, after that, try to shore myself up through work? Absolutely! Absolutely! I started to work fanatically, got back up to the top form and in sixth form just worked harder and harder, and started to write.”
But what had scared the poor Cumbrian lad out of his wits? Apparently, certain lines of (fellow Cumbrian) Wordsworth’s Prelude – a poem tracking the growth of the poet’s own mind – were what triggered the young Bragg’s crisis. Could it have been fear of his own uncontrolled imagination, like the brooding shadow of a Lakeland fell growing ever bigger over the young Wordsworth?
Whatever it was, it turned him into a writer – “I wrote the usual stuff you do when you’re young, I wrote poetry. God help us, I can remember some of it.” – and made him the driven man he would become. But in looking over the abyss into insanity, he’d learned an important lesson in self-control.
“By the time of my second year at university [Oxford] I was writing for the university newspaper under editor Peter Preston [subsequently editor of The Guardian], but I didn’t show him any stories, I was just sitting on my own, writing. Which was a parallel universe to when I was 13, except now there was some sort of control. As a writer, time passes as you’re constructing a world that makes sense, and the great thing about that world is that you’re in control of it, it’s under your command.”
What he calls the “immersive” process of novel-writing sounds like an out-of-body experience in itself. “At my best, I lose myself in my writing. As a writer you have to almost dislocate yourself from where you are and find somewhere else, and that ‘somewhere else’, when I was 13, was frightening. When I was 33, 43, or what I am now, 79, it’s OK up to a point because you can control it, and you can understand it, especially in fictional ways.”
He may lose himself when writing, but he clearly discovers his true self at the same time: “I’m not what I want to be with myself when I’m not writing.” The writer, therefore, is the real Melvyn Bragg, and he regrets that the writerly self-doubt always lurked in the shadows when he was young.
“I wish I’d been bolder as life went on, because I wasn’t ever certain of it, or ever certain it was enough. At university I never told anybody I was writing, or that I’d written short stories. I didn’t know I even wanted to be a writer. You’ve got to be able to believe.”
But at least he believes, in his characteristically modest way, in some of his other achievements. “I don’t think of a future reputation, and that’s the truth, but I’m glad that they’re archiving the whole of the 40-odd years of the South Bank Show at Leeds University [where he was Chancellor until 2017], and that people are making libraries of In Our Time all round the world. But I don’t think that’s about me – it’s about them.”
He also believes that, even though the creative force is most fierce in youth – “not just in writing, it could be in gardening, or looking after pigeons, it’s just there, in your eyes, and it takes you by surprise” – he thinks creativity can become more intense as you grow older. “Verdi was doing his operas in his 80s. It depends on your luck, really, there’s no rule.”
So now he’s on the verge of his own Verdi years, what’s the next book about?
“I wake up every morning thinking, ‘what’s my next book going to be about?’ I haven’t got any idea – because I’ve got too many ideas. In fact, I’ve got so many titles I think I’m going to produce a book of them,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll say, ‘I haven’t got a novel, but here’s a book of titles’.”
For a broadcaster, presenter, interviewer, commentator, novelist, scriptwriter, parliamentarian, educator and all-round people’s polymath such as Lord Bragg of Wigton, a book of titles is probably quite appropriate.
The final episode of the current series of The South Bank Show airs at 10pm, December 12, 2018 on Sky Arts. For more information on the series, click here.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.