Melvyn Bragg says the driving force behind "In Our Time" is that he wants an education. Photograph: Abigail Zoe Martin/BBC
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Melvyn Bragg, the nation’s schoolmaster

Melvyn Bragg talks to Michael Prodger about family trauma, educating Britain and why Labour is still “deeply wounded”.

Melvyn Bragg is feeling upbeat. The David Attenborough of the arts has no time for those who say we are living in degraded times. “It is in our culture that we don’t want to admit that our culture is good,” he insists. Not only is it good but it is getting better. “Britain is undoubtedly becoming more cultural. No question of it,” he tells me. “People who say it is dumbing down simply don’t look around enough. They don’t know enough.”

It seems a questionable assertion but Baron Bragg of Wigton in the county of Cumbria is adamant – and he is in a position to judge. Bragg, now 74, joined the BBC in 1961. He has presented The South Bank Show since 1978; the show, axed by ITV in 2010, is still running, having moved to the smaller pond of Sky Arts.

Along the way, the arts panjandrum has polarised opinion. He has been called “a genuine Reithian” (by the film critic Peter Whittle); “pompous, dreary, arrogant” (in a Daily Mail headline from 1993); the man who dreamed up the “recipe for high culture mixed with low” that is now “de rigueur” (by Germaine Greer); and “twitchy” and “neurotic” (by the interviewer Lynn Barber).

He was ribbed mercilessly by Spitting Image in the 1980s (for some unexplained reason he was often shown snorting milk from a baby’s bottle) but while most of the programme’s targets – Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Michael Heseltine and Norman Tebbit, for example – seem to belong to another age (and the living show every sign of the passage of time), not Bragg. When we meet in the unshowy offices of his production company in the rag-trade district just north of Oxford Street, he appears unchanged. Smartly suited, energetic and affable, he surveys his youthful staff and talks about them with paternal pride.

Bragg is appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival (supported by the New Statesman) next month and such events are one reason he is so chipper about the state of our cultural health: “In the 1960s, there was a handful of book festivals. Now there are some 350. Music festivals have seen a similar growth. Opera can now be seen in cinemas – even in Carlisle . . . Sorry, Carlisle.”

Culture seems less prominent, he explains, because it has largely moved off television. “The BBC does a sterling job but I’d like to see it do more. ITV does four arts programmes a year; it used to be 28. At least Sky, with its two arts channels, is trying. It’s a big gamble.” Audience figures for The South Bank Show are going up: “Yes, they’re smaller than I used to get on ITV but it is now catching up with BBC4.” Perhaps the decision by the director general, Tony Hall, to save BBC4 and despatch BBC3 is a sign of a new commitment to the arts.

According to Bragg, the change shows that “arts programmes are not the set pieces they once were”. People are getting their culture away from the old sources. The internet and satellite television have usurped the main channels. “What we’re talking about is the death of the five terrestrial channels. They now get 53 per cent of the audience and the rest get 47 per cent. Wow, that’s amazing. Not so long ago, the main channels were getting everything. Things have changed. Culturally, we’re not able to prescribe as we used to.”

One indicator of an undiminished appetite for the highbrow is his radio programme In Our Time. Bragg was given the show in 1998 as a sop when his ennoblement by Tony Blair gave the BBC the jitters, in case he came across as party political on Start the Week. The format – three academics marshalled by Bragg discussing everything from the Aeneid to Zoroastrianism – seemed to scratch a widespread itch for self-education. The audience rose from 500,000 to 2.5 million and although the BBC won’t release details a likely figure for the number of podcast downloads is around 20 million. Bragg says that the programme’s popularity “surprised me, it still does. I thought it would be a six-month contract.”

The reasons for its success are straightforward, he thinks: “The driving force behind In Our Time is that I want an education. I want to know more about science, say, and if I want to know, then other people probably do, too.”

He tells me that preparing for each programme is the equivalent of reading one non-fiction book a week. Does he remember what he learns? There have, after all, been more than 630 episodes. “I retain some of the information. With some scientists, I think I know what they’re talking about when they are talking about it. Ask me at lunchtime and I’m less sure. Ask me the following day and, well . . .”

Because he has to prep for the programme and run his production company, time for his own writing is limited. He has, however, written 21 novels over the years, as well as more than a dozen works of non-fiction. Despite this, he confesses: “I’ve never had much self-confidence about my books. About television, yes, I thought, ‘I can do this.’ Nevertheless, when my novels have been criticised, it didn’t get to me. But I’m pleased with this one.”

This one, his latest, is Grace and Mary, a heavily autobiographical tale that deals in fictional form with his grandmother, his mother’s illegitimacy and her old-age Alzheimer’s. That it is so personal is a surprise, given that writing his previous novel, Remember Me, was a distressing experience. Published in 2008, it covered his first marriage, to the French artist Lisa Roche, who later committed suicide. The couple had a child, Marie-Elsa – now an Anglican vicar – but were separated at the time of the suicide. Working on the book was not the therapeutic exercise Bragg had expected. It churned up a slew of emotions so painful that they stopped him writing for a while. “The trauma after Remember Me was published was huge. For my daughter, too . . .” He tails off. “It is still with me. I sometimes feel it was wrong to publish it – not to write it but to publish it.”

Wasn’t he worried that the same thing would happen again? “No. I didn’t publish Grace and Mary until after my mother had died. I wanted to write about how those two women face up to what life throws at them.” Of the circumstances of his mother’s birth, Bragg recalls simply that when he was 18 and about to head off to Oxford, she announced, “I’m illegitimate.” He tells me, “That was it. We never spoke of it again.”

This matter-of-factness is a trait evident in Bragg’s writing. Although he has had his fair share of criticism (“Sometimes they’ve had a point”), he is a literary realist who hasn’t, perhaps, received his due because of his television profile.

Lack of time also impinges on his public life. He tries to attend the House of Lords three times a week, not least because it is an institution for which he has a high regard: “The Lords works well because it is full of people who know what they’re talking about. As a revising chamber, it’s excellent. The Commons has nothing like the same wealth of intellectual experience.”

He confines himself to speaking on the arts, broadcasting and universities. The last is exercising him most at the moment. As chancellor of Leeds University, he is scathing about the government’s attempts to cut the numbers of foreign students. “We’ve lost heaven knows how many Chinese and Indian students, all highly educated. It’s madness, absolute madness. These people came with PhDs. They aren’t terrorists, they couldn’t integrate better. The government is swinging an axe, rather than using a small pair of scissors.”

On the arts, he is more forgiving: “My Labour Party friends will jump up and down but, given the cuts, the coalition hasn’t done a bad job.” To avoid being too charitable, he qualifies himself; perhaps, he muses, the arts might be “simply too strongly established for them to mess around with . . . The creative industries employ two million highly skilled people and amount to 8 per cent of GDP. It’s too big to ignore now. London, for example, is the greatest cultural city the world has ever seen.” No government, he acknowledges, will ever get it quite right: “The arts are a bit like the NHS. They are an open-ended claim.”

If Ed Miliband wouldn’t necessarily do any better, how does this Blairite Labour peer think he is shaping up in other ways? There is a long, long pause – 20 seconds, an age for such a fluent talker. It is the only pause during the interview. His response, when it eventually comes, is measured in the extreme: “Well, he says a lot of good things. He’s a thoughtful young man. What he needs to find, though, is a centre of gravity inside the Labour Party that he can work out of. The party is still deeply winded and wounded by the last phase of Gordon Brown’s government.”

He warns that what is hampering this project is the “feeling that Labour is going to win the election anyway. It’s dangerous and treacherously pervasive. Though I hope they do, obviously.” And the person who might help the most, he reckons, is Nick Clegg. “He is an amazing asset for the Labour Party. I mean, to turn down constituency boundary changes because he couldn’t get through his Lords reform was nothing less than petulant. Clegg buggered it up and now he’s sucking up to Labour. Wow.”

If Bragg had a say on Labour policy, what would he put into the election manifesto? “More in schools – school choirs, school orchestras, school bands. Schools, schools, schools.” The mantra sounds familiar, I note. “Well, sometimes we’re just echoes.”

Wider politics seems to hold less interest for him than it used to: “The whole thing does seem like the comédie humaine, sometimes – blustering Alex Salmond saying that Osborne’s blustering, and so on. Still, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had.”

That last comment seems characteristic of the Bragg modus vivendi. Enjoyment takes many forms – novel-writing; T S Eliot’s poems, which he is currently rereading; religion, which he discusses with his vicar daughter (“She doesn’t take advantage of her position to try to convert me”); music; intermittently even Arsenal Football Club. Most of all, it comes through self-improvement and, he believes, if it works for him, like those Zoroastrians on In Our Time, it will work for others, too. 

“Grace and Mary” is out now in paperback (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99)

Melvyn Bragg will be in conversation at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 4 April. The festival runs from 1-6 April and other guests include Simon Singh, Germaine Greer, Carol Ann Duffy and Jim Crace. Tickets: 01223 300 085 or cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era