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

JAMIE KINGHAM/MILLENNIUM
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Snakebites and body parts

The city at the edge of an apocalypse: a love letter to Los Angeles.

I was emailing with Kenneth Anger, the film-maker, when the coyotes across the street in Griffith Park started howling.

That’s partially true.

I was emailing him to ask if he’d direct a music video for me. Maybe Lucifer Rising 2.0. Or anything.

Just him in the kitchen making tea, as recorded on his iPhone.

Kenneth Anger is alive and well in Santa Monica, so why not ask him to direct a video for me? Hopefully, he’ll respond. We’ve never met, so I sent an email to him, not with him. That’s the partial truth.

But the coyotes did start howling.

It’s the single best sound in Los Angeles, or any city. Is there another city where you can email an 89-year-old devotee of Aleister Crowley while listening to a few dozen coyotes screaming and howling and ripping the night into little pieces?

No. Just here. This oddness by the sea and an inch from a billion acres of Arrakis.

I never thought I’d end up living in Los Angeles, but I’ve ended up living in Los Angeles. This dirtiest, strangest paradise.

Yesterday I went hiking in a two-million-acre state park that’s 30 minutes from my house. A state park bigger than all of New York City. And it’s 30 minutes away. With no people. Just bears and pumas and coyotes and snakes.

And other things. Abandoned bridges. An observatory where Albert Einstein used to go to watch space.

What a strange city.

A perfect city. Perfect for humans at the edge of this strangely unfolding apocalypse. A gentle apocalypse with trade winds and Santa Ana winds and the biannual vicious storm that rips eucalyptus trees up by their roots.

What a strange city. And it’s my home.

Today I hiked to the back of the Hollywood sign. This was before Kenneth Anger and the coyotes.

The tourists were dropping like flies on the long, hot mountain trail, not aware that this isn’t a city with the safe European ­infrastructure that keeps them happy
and/or alive.

Every now and then, a tourist dies in the hills, bitten by a snake or lost at night. The emergency rooms are full of tourists with snakebites and heatstroke.

Where are the European safeguards?

Fuck us if we need safeguards. Go live in a place like this gentle wasteland where you’re not at the top of the food chain. If you’re not in danger of being eaten at some point in the day, you’re probably not breathing right.

I hope Kenneth Anger writes back.

 

22 May

I drove some friends around my neighbourhood. They want to live here. Why wouldn’t they? Pee-wee Herman and Thom Yorke live up the street.

David Fincher lives a block away. It’s blocks and blocks of jasmine-scented name-
dropping.

It’s warm in the winter and it’s weird all year round.

And there’s a Frank Lloyd Wright that looks like a lunatic Mayan spaceship.

And there go the coyotes again, howling like adorable delegates of death.

They’re so smart, I wish they would make me their king.

You hate Los Angeles? Who cares? You made a mistake, you judged it like you’d judge a city. Where’s the centre?

There’s no centre. You want a centre? The centre cannot hold. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Things fall apart.

Amazing how many titles can come from one poem. What’s a gyre?

Yeats and Kenneth Anger and Aleister Crowley. All these patterns.

Then we had brunch in my art deco pine-tree-themed restaurant, which used to sell cars and now sells organic white tea and things.

The centre cannot hold. I still have no idea what a gyre is.

Maybe something Irish or Celtic.

It’s nice that they asked me to write this journal.

Things fall apart.

So you hate Los Angeles? Ha. It still loves you, like the sandy golden retriever it is. Tell me again how you hate the city loved by David Lynch and where David Bowie made his best album? Listen to LA Woman by the Doors and watch Lynch’s Lost Highway and read some Joan Didion – and maybe for fun watch Nightcrawler – and tell me again how you hate LA.

I fucking love this sprawling inchoate pile of everything.

Even at its worst, it’s hiding something baffling or remarkable.

Ironic that the city of the notoriously ­vapid is the city of deceiving appearance.

After brunch, we went hiking.

Am I a cliché? Yes. I hike. I do yoga. I’m a vegan. I even meditate. As far as clichés go, I prefer this to the hungover, cynical, ruined, sad, grey cliché I was a decade ago.

“You’re not going to live for ever.”

Of course not.

But why not have a few bouncy decades that otherwise would’ve been spent in a hospital or trailing an oxygen tank through a damp supermarket?

 

24 May

A friend said: “The last time I had sex, it was warm and sunny.”

Well, that’s helpful.

October? June? February?

No kidding, the coyotes are howling again. I still love them. Have you ever heard a pack of howling coyotes?

Imagine a gaggle of drunk college girls who also happened to be canine demons. Screaming with blood on their teeth.

It’s such a beautiful sound but it also kind of makes you want to hide in a closet.

No Kenneth Anger.

Maybe I’m spam.

Vegan spam.

Come on, Kenneth, just make a video for me, OK?

I’ll take anything.

Even three minutes of a plant on a radiator.

I just received the hardcover copy of my autobiography, Porcelain. And, like anyone, I skimmed the pictures. I’m so classy, eating an old sandwich in my underpants.

A friend’s dad had got an advance copy and was reading it. I had to issue the cautious caveat: “Well, I hope he’s not too freaked out by me dancing in my own semen while surrounded by a roomful of cross-dressing Stevie Nicks-es.”

If I ever have kids, I might have one simple rule. Or a few simple rules.

Dear future children of mine:

1) Don’t vote Republican.

2) Don’t get facial tattoos.

3) Don’t read my memoir.

I don’t need my currently unmade children to be reading about their dear dad during his brief foray into the world of professional dominatrixing, even if it was brief.

The first poem I loved was by Yeats: “When You Are Old”. I sent it to my high-school non-girlfriend. The girl I longed for, unrequitedly. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to have sent “When You Are Old” to an unrequited love.

Today the sky was so strangely clear. I mean, the sky is almost always clear. We live in a desert. But today it felt strangely clear, like something was missing. The sun felt magnified.

And then, at dusk, I noticed the gold light slanting through some oak trees and hitting the green sides of the mountains (they were green as we actually had rain over the winter). The wild flowers catch the slanting gold light and you wonder, this is a city? What the fuck is this baffling place?

I add the “fuck” for street cred. Or trail cred, as I’m probably hiking. As I’m a cliché.

You hike, or I hike, in the middle of a city of almost 20 million people and you’re alone. Just the crows and the spiralling hawks and the slanting gold light touching the oak trees and the soon-to-go-away
wild flowers.

The end of the world just feels closer here, but it’s nice, somehow. Maybe the actual end of the world won’t be so nice but the temporal proximity can be OK. In the slanting gold light. You have to see it, the canyons in shadow and the tops of the hills in one last soft glow.

What a strange non-city.

 

25 May

They asked for only four journal entries, so here’s the last one.

And why is # a “hashtag”?

Hash? Like weird meat or weird marijuana? Tag, like the game?

At least “blog” has an etymology, even if, as a word, it sounds like a fat clog in a drain.

A friend who works in an emergency room had a patient delivered to her who had a croquet ball in his lower intestine. I guess there’s a lesson there: always have friends who work in emergency rooms, as they have the best stories.

No coyotes tonight. But there’s a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn. Where?

Where in LA would there be a long, lonesome, faraway train whistle or horn?

It’s such a faraway sound. Lonesome hoboes watching the desert from an empty train car. Going where?

I met a woman recently who found human body parts in some bags while she
was hiking.

Technically, her dogs found them.

Then she found the dogs.

And then the sky was full of helicopters, as even in LA it’s unusual to have human hands and things left in bags near a hiking trail a few hundred yards from Brad Pitt’s house.

What is this place?

When I used to visit LA, I marvelled at the simple things, like gas stations and guest bedrooms.

I was a New Yorker.

And the gas stations took credit cards. At. The. Pumps.

What was this magic?

And people had Donald Judd beds in their living rooms, just slightly too small for actual sleeping – but, still, there’s your Donald Judd bed. In your living room at the top of the hill somewhere, with an ocean a dozen miles away but so clear you can see Catalina.

They drained the reservoir and now don’t know what to do with it.

Good old LA, confused by things like empty reservoirs in the middle of the city.

Maybe that’s where the lonesome train lives. And it only comes out at night, to make the sound of a lonesome train whistle, echoing from the empty concrete reservoir that’s left the city nonplussed.

“We’ve never had an empty reservoir in the city before.”

So . . . Do something great with it. I know, it’s a burden being given a huge gift of ­empty real estate in the middle of the city.

Tomorrow I’m meeting some more friends who’ve moved here from New York.

“We have a guest bedroom!” they crow.

A century ago, the Griffith Park planners planted redwoods across the street. And now the moon is waning but shining, far away but soft, through the redwoods.

No coyotes, but a waning moon through some towering redwoods is still really OK. As it’s a city that isn’t a city, and it’s my home.

Goodnight.

Moby’s memoir, “Porcelain”, is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad