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

Photo: MUSTAFAH ABDUL AZIZ
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“People want the shiny stuff. We’re a bit too real”: the rise, fall and return of Tricky

Two decades ago, he captured the dark side of Cool Britannia and was set for global stardom. What happened?

When Maxinquaye, the debut album by the Bristolian rapper and producer Tricky, was nominated for three Brit Awards in 1996, he nearly came to blows with Liam Gallagher in a toilet at Earls Court Exhibition Centre in London. “I had to keep them apart,” said Julian Palmer, who worked for Tricky’s then record label, Island. “I told Liam he didn’t want to try any of that working-class macho stuff around someone like Tricky.”

Many years later, Tricky, whose real name is Adrian Thaws, visited an old acquaintance in London for the first time in a decade. Thaws was living in Paris. Both men went to a pub in west London. At one point, Thaws glared over his friend’s shoulder at four men in business suits, before leaping to his feet and yelling, “What are you fucking staring at?” His friend stood up to calm the confrontation. Finally, they explained that they were staring because they were trying to work out if he was Tricky. “I think that rage is always there,” Thaws’s friend told me. “It is a part of him and the music.”

All artists ultimately live out the story of their environments, but Thaws has faced daunting personal obstacles to sustain nearly three decades of activity as a musician. His Jamaican father left home before he was born in Bristol in 1968. His mother, Maxine Quaye, an epileptic, committed suicide by overdosing on drugs when he was four years old. Thaws was raised in Bristol’s deprived Knowle West neighbourhood by his grandmother. As a child, Thaws rarely attended school. When his grandmother was working, he stayed at home and watched horror films.

By the age of 15, he had developed a deep interest in hip hop, clubs and marijuana and was working with a local sound system called the Wild Bunch and a group of DJs and musicians called Massive Attack. Thaws made his musical debut on Massive Attack’s 1991 album, Blue Lines. But his relationship with his friends was strained by disagreements over his input and membership. He met an untested teenage singer called Martina Topley-Bird and left the group in acrimony in 1993.

Photo: Mustafah Abdul-Aziz

More than 25 years after its release, Blue Lines occupies a high orbit in British culture – the 1990s stepchild of Pink Floyd and Public Image Ltd. At the time, however, it only reached No 13 in the charts. Yet its effect was outsized as labels sought out Bristol-based groups such as Portishead and Earthling. Thaws was signed to Island Records for a five-album deal; two self-released white-label singles produced with Howie B quickly sold out and in 1994 he began work on a series of recordings that concluded with the release of his debut masterpiece, Maxinquaye.

I met Thaws recently on a sunny morning in Neukölln, south-east Berlin, where he had been living for 18 months. Since leaving Bristol, he has also resided in London, New York, New Jersey, Los Angeles and Paris. He was dressed in baggy gym pants and a loose T-shirt and carried a satchel. His head shaved, he looked relaxed and younger than I had expected. He turns 50 years old  next January, has two daughters in full-time employment and is now signed to his fifth record label. He cycles and takes panantukan classes – Filipino boxing – three times a week. We walked past a local train station in a neighbourhood filled with Turkish coffee shops and bakeries.

Thaws has a reputation for being taciturn and occasionally volatile. A former collaborator told me, “He shouldn’t be a musician. He should be employed as one of those guys in the US army who blows up bridges and leaves nothing behind him.” Cally Callomon, the former creative director at Island Records who conceptualised Thaws’s early album imagery, described him as daring but wary. “In those days, he was suspicious because of his background. And though he had an adventurous spirit, you didn’t know which Tricky you were meeting on any given day. He can be an affable, bouncing energy ball of ideas. He can also see people as rivals or competition.”

In Berlin, Thaws was expansive in conversation and generous with his time. He chatted to fans who recognised him and grinned at passers-by. “It is so relaxed here. You’re in a major city, but they’re not crazy about money,” he said, sitting down with a coffee outside a supermarket. “You see a lot of people working here two or three days a week. In London, Paris, you gotta get the money. In LA, New York, you gotta get the money. Not here.”

Released on 22 September, ununiform is the 13th album by Thaws and his fourth in the past five years. It is also his first to feature a song with Topley-Bird in 15 years. His relocation to Berlin was prompted by a need to focus. “I prefer to do an album here than in London, New York or LA,” he said. “Here, there are definitely less distractions. I’ve only been to a club twice here. If I do have a beer, I go to a little corner shop where they have tables outside. I go out by myself and sit outside and watch people.”

***

In the atomised world of music in 2017, it can be hard to recall an era when pop was tribal. But on its release in 1995, Maxinquaye was like a super-strand of three decades of accumulated musical DNA. The album’s influences were multi­genic and widespread: hip hop, reggae, dance music, punk and dub. Thaws sampled Public Enemy, AR Rahman, Isaac Hayes and Michael Jackson. In a year when there was no shortage of blockbuster albums – Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, Blur’s The Great Escape and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? by Oasis – Maxinquaye sounded pioneering yet fully formed. It was also a rare non-white moment during “Cool Britannia”.

The album was a harbinger of tectonic shifts in the music industry, with the pathways between rock, hip hop and dance being erased. Much of the most successful British rock music of the past 50 years has evoked national pride, working-class nostalgia and melancholy. Maxinquaye, on the other hand, was the apotheosis of a  risky modernism also found in the work of Aphex Twin, Björk and Leftfield.

But if Maxinquaye was a record of angst and foreboding, mixing skeletal tracks such as “Ponderosa” and “Hell Is Round the Corner” with the audacious fury of his cover version of Public Enemy’s “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”, it was also a collection of intimate love songs. While Britpop, grunge, dance and rap were loud and often exultant – the work of extroverts – Maxinquaye, in its whispered tone, implied the hidden struggles of residents of Britain’s towns and cities. It was also a solemn tribute to the mother Thaws never knew: “It’s my mum speaking through me,” he has said of the album.

If Maxinquaye spoke of inertia, late nights, drugs and ambivalence, this was largely the result of Thaws’s turbulent relationship with his co-singer, Martina Topley-Bird. They first met in 1991 when she was sitting on a wall near his house, singing to herself. A few weeks later, after sitting her GCSEs, she visited his house with some friends. Their daughter, now 22, was born in 1995, by which time they had already split – but they continued to live together until 1998. During their seven years together, they were a couple for no more than six months in 1994. These days, they communicate mainly by text.

“He’s grown up with a non-traditional family set-up, and he lost his mum when he was four,” Topley-Bird told me. She currently divides her time between Baltimore and London. “He adores our daughter and he’s done good in terms of being a parent. It is easy to make snap judgements about him, and it is a tall order for anybody to be a perfect parent. It was a turbulent time.”

Thaws’s relationship with Topley-Bird was complex and public. In promotional photos from the time, he cut an imposing, androgynous figure in lipstick and dresses. Thaws was also, at times, impassive and unpredictable. Topley-Bird, who had been pregnant throughout the album’s recording, was unprepared for the scrutiny. After we spoke, she emailed to explain: “It was difficult, stressful, demanding. But fun, too.”

Seven years his junior, Topley-Bird is the emotional rejoinder to Thaws on Maxinquaye. When he is angry, she is sullen; while he is intermittently boastful, she hides behind self-doubt. “The magic moments for me were when Martina would sing,” said the album’s co-producer, Mark Saunders. “She blew me away every single time. A lot had to do with her relationship with Tricky. She shuffled around like a 90-year-old lady with no energy. But then this amazing stuff would come out completely unrehearsed.”

Recording sessions were usually scheduled for 11am but would typically begin after 8pm. “I had certainly never worked with someone with such limited knowledge in the studio,” said Saunders. “He also had no sense of days of the week. I couldn’t see anything in his house that might be used to tell the time. I remember he didn’t turn up for a couple of days. I was told he’d gone to New York. But his cheekiness and charisma made up for a lot of that stuff.”

“It was a bit of a mess, but an organised mess,” said the former Island A&R Julian Palmer. Thaws spent entire days in Palmer’s office, smoking weed and listening to music. “He was definitely working through issues from his childhood. That was what added the underlying menace and anger and the cathartic side. It was a form of self-therapy.”

Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird in 1995

One indication of Maxinquaye’s resonance was the ease of its passage into the popular press: Thaws was featured on the cover of the New Musical Express twice in 1995. The following year, he and Topley-Bird were photographed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino for The Face. His music was used in films such as Strange Days in 1995 and Lost Highway in 1997. He acted in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) and collaborated with Grace Jones and Björk, with whom he had a relationship in the mid-1990s. Thaws was asked to produce albums for Alanis Morissette and Madonna (his lack of enthusiasm for the Madonna project was shown when he refused to get out of bed to meet her in his hotel lobby), and he remixed singles by the Notorious BIG, Yoko Ono and Elvis Costello. David Bowie was so impressed that he wrote a surreal fictionalised account for Q magazine about an imaginary meeting with Thaws, in which they smoked marijuana and flew over Bristol using balloons.

Tricky did not win the Mercury Music Prize in 1995 nor the three Brit Awards he was nominated for in 1996 – “Best British Male”, “Best British Breakthrough Act”, “Best British Dance Act”. The lack of industry recognition clearly rankles more than 20 years later: Thaws is now approaching an age when he is more likely to be honoured for his longevity than any new piece of music. “Me and Shaun Ryder were at the Brits,” he said. “If anyone should have won a Brit, it should have been me and Shaun Ryder. But people wanna see the shiny stuff and we’re a bit too real.”

He later returned to the subject: “Look at Massive Attack. One time they were the golden boys, they could do no wrong. They don’t even get invited to the Brits now. What the fuck is that about? I’ve had my differences with Massive Attack, but you can’t deny what they’ve done. They’ve changed the face of music. They should make up an award for them even if there ain’t one.” He laughed and added: “If I won a Mercury tomorrow, someone else would have to go and pick that up. I don’t give a fuck about that shit. My manager told me that a kid who was in a coma woke up after ten days when they played him one of my songs. That now means more to me than winning any award.”

Thaws followed Maxinquaye with even darker albums such as Pre-Millennium Tension and Angels with Dirty Faces. A more accessible sound emerged in Blowback (2001), featuring collaborations with members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Cyndi Lauper. But by the early 2000s, pop music had changed. Faced with declining sales and a looming digital cliff, musicians pursued hit singles, crossover appeal, homogeneity and multiple verticals. Thaws, living in the US, released a number of uncommercial records and disappeared from view.

Much of his restlessness can be attributed to his search for a home. During our interview, he revealed the growing detachment of the expat. “How many people died in that fire in the tower?” he asked. “If I’d lived in Bristol, I’d probably be doing building site stuff, plastering.” He laughed. “Probably not the plastering. It would have been mixing. I could always get work from friends who did construction. But I wasn’t into getting up at seven in the morning.”

He last lived in London two years ago for six months. “I got really bored. There’s so much to do there, and nothing to do there. There’s no outdoor life there. People seem to work, get a sandwich, go back to work. It’s not the sort of life I want to lead. England is very regimented. Go to work, come home from work, go to the pub.”

Tricky’s new album, ununiform, shows off Thaws’s lean, mid-career phase. He is a talented photographer, and his Instagram feed is full of distractions, as well as pictures of British influences such as the Jam. He has posted the same photo of his mother on several occasions: she wears a gold top and a striking smile. In recent years, his music has gradually hardened into a sinewy fusion of beats, strings and keyboards. Whereas earlier albums were claustrophobic but bleary-eyed – and reliant on expensive samples – ununiform is taut and sparse.

The record also demonstrates a new-found economy with his songwriting: it  rests on the kind of efficient minimalism you might expect from an artist approaching 50. Two songs in particular – a shape-shifting ballad called “Blood of My Blood” and the searing “The Only Way” – rank among the finest compositions of his career.

***

Throughout our interview, Thaws had the polite but impatient manner of someone who wanted to move on to other tasks. When we met, the release of ununiform was more than a month away, but he had completed six songs for his next album. As we stood on a platform at Neukölln station, waiting for a train to take us to the city centre for lunch, he chatted with a photographer who recognised him. On the train, he talked about his changed relationship with marijuana, which had exerted a huge influence over his adult life, with days and even weeks passing by in inactivity.

“I smoked weed for years. When I was young, I enjoyed it,” he said. “Then it became self-medication. It is hard to give up, but once you do it, it is easy. This last weekend, I had my first spliff for three months. I think about that when I get back to Bristol. If you’re living in a council flat, weed isn’t going to get you out of there.”

In a Middle-Eastern restaurant, Thaws suggested sharing a plate of grilled seafood, including octopus and prawns. He adheres to a gluten-free diet. As the cook prepared the seafood and assembled a green salad, Thaws rolled a cigarette.

I pointed out that his music had defied race and geography for two decades. As a British citizen in Berlin, would Brexit affect his relationship with the UK? “Politicians are not here to change things, they’re here to keep the status quo,” he said. “Any politician who wants to change things is either going to have a scandal or will get murdered. I know enough to know that Blair ain’t any different to Cameron. These people have had it sewn up since the days of the Egyptians.”

Twenty years after Cool Britannia, its protagonists have pursued divergent careers. The Gallagher brothers make Oasis-esque solo records; Jarvis Cocker is a curator and radio host; Damon Albarn is a multidisciplinary British ambassador to the world. Thaws left Bristol in search of continuity. “This album might as well as be old as Maxinquaye to me. I’ve done it, I’ve moved on.” He put on his sunglasses and walked off into the late afternoon. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left