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Diary: Melvyn Bragg

Poetic licence and the new vice anglaise

John Updike wrote that “his novels made more of a stylistic impact upon me than those of any other writer in English living or dead”. He was referring to Henry Green, whose novel Concluding I am currently reading with the pleasure of a late convert. Updike, as an addictive similist, must have been impressed by Green’s elegant connections. Early in the opening pages of Concluding, he writes: “As she watched, a cloud of starlings rose from the nearest of her Woods, they ascended in a spiral up into blue sky; a thousand dots revolving on a wave, the shape of a vast black seashell pointed to the morning . . .”

“Her” woods is ironic. The state has taken over a country house, now a girls’ school, but, as ever, one dubious hierarchy has merely replaced another. Green’s gentle dystopia is a grounded counterpoint to the more dramatic flights of his contemporaries and fellow Etonians Huxley and Orwell.

Filming Updike in his home town some years ago, we walked past the house in which he had been raised. He knocked on the door and was welcomed in by the new occupants. After a while, worried about the schedule, I asked the director to go in and fetch him. Later he told us Updike had been transformed inside his old home. He had delivered an ecstatic impromptu essay on his life there, which would have made a brilliant and original documentary in itself. And what did we do? We politely waited outside. Opportunity knocked and we didn’t go in.

Love of place is one of the characteristics I enjoy most about novelists. Few places on earth have been as affectionately alchemised into literature as the Lake District. Over Easter it enjoyed the best span of spring weather I can remember. The light was so hard and clear that the bare hills looked carved, as they were, some time ago, by ice. Friends were staying, and on our walks what they could not get over was the cheerful good manners of those we encountered. One of them said that the place seemed to be “the Radio 4 audience gone hiking”.

There is a darker side to the Lakes, as Jimmy McGovern has described, in the small towns. But out on the fells the spirit of Wordsworth and Coleridge, Ruskin and Turner, reading parties, pioneering rock climbing and happy rambling still gives the place its tone.

The whole district is underpinned by the hill farmers, without whom the landscape would degenerate with great speed. The cottage I’ve lived in for almost 40 years on the northern edge of the area is part of a hamlet of four farms and four cottages. The farms are still in the hands of the same families who were there when I came to the hamlet. These hill farmers work day and night in this lambing season, and it is difficult to see newcomers taking up such testing work.

I met up with Jimmy McGovern in the Theatre by the Lake in Keswick, now in its tenth season and riding high after years of outstanding productions. We spoke briefly about Hillsborough. McGovern’s plays – Cracker is just one example – have marked him out as one of the leading dramatists of the last generation. Television is lucky that he found his voice and places his work there. Ninety-six dead at Hillsborough 20 years ago, and still no justice done save in Jimmy McGovern’s play about the disaster, which still stands alone as the tribute, the accusation, and the true witness to that act of criminal incompetence, the new “vice anglaise”.

The Lake District came back with me to London on Hampstead Heath, the postage-stamp version. Hampstead boasts its own Romantic poet, Keats, and its walking philosopher in Michael Foot. New Statesman readers will be pleased to know that Michael, 95, is in good spirits. I go round to see him at weekends. His memory is formidable. The other week he tore into me for, as he claimed, my misrepresentation of Jonathan Swift on Radio 4’s In Our Time. But though Swift is a hero, no one to Michael is as great as Hazlitt, the new biography of whom by Duncan Wu he is reading at present. Wheels within wheels: Duncan, taught by the poet’s great-great-great-nephew Jonathan Wordsworth, worked on The South Bank Show before returning to academic life. Hazlitt’s only novel, Liber Amoris, was the template for a novel of my own, which featured a Hazlitt lecturer very like Mr Foot talking about the book in Grasmere, as he himself had done with Jonathan Wordsworth in the audience. A few years ago Michael donated his lovingly collected books on the Romantic movement – including his Hazlitts – to the Wordsworth Library.

Back into the two cutting rooms to work on two programmes on two Nigerian-born writers, Chinua Achebe and, 50 years his junior, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They have an extraordinary amount in common, as I hope you will see. At times Achebe sounds just like Nelson Mandela, who read his novel when he was in his Robben Island cell. In our programme, Mandela refers to Achebe’s books, and says: “When I read Achebe the walls fell down.”

Melvyn Bragg’s “Remember Me” (Hodder & Stoughton, £7.99) is out now

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek