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3 October 2018

Melvyn Bragg Q&A: “When I was growing up, Wigton seemed like a paradise“

The broadcaster talks growing up in a northern market town, the previous government’s lies, and Keir Hardie.

By Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg was born in 1939 in Carlisle and raised in Wigton, Cumbria. He has published more than 30 books, and is best known for presenting the BBC Radio 4 series “In Our Time” and the ITV programme “The South Bank Show”.

What’s your earliest memory?

Clear memories are hard to find. One clear memory is my father coming back from the war, as fictionalised in The Soldier’s Return, and bringing me a pair of boxing gloves.

Who are your heroes?

In childhood, Johnny Connor, an Irishman who played for Carlisle United and had met my father in the war. All the boys round me were besotted by football. We played in the streets, we played in the school playground, we played in the dark. Occasionally we got to see a “real” football match at Carlisle United. Now, it’s George Orwell. His consistent clarity and purity of vision grow stronger by the day, and his genius is now being slowly revealed.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

A rereading of Middlemarch for In Our Time. I was reminded of how extraordinary the reach of a novel could be, and how wonderful it was that fiction could make such a living, thrilling human landscape.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Keir Hardie. Illiterate until he was 17, he drew more from Methodism than Marxism to form a remarkable new party.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Wigton, 1945-55. In those years when I was six to 15, Wigton seemed a paradise. It was bleak, this small market town in the far north, but it was full of characters and character.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

None. I’ve had a life of opportunity and good dentistry: both inconceivable in previous ages.

What TV show could you not live without?

Contemporary drama, on such great form at present, and BBC One’s Final Score.

Who would paint your portrait?

I am lucky enough to have a version of myself painted by David Hockney.

What’s your theme tune?

Probably some long-remembered but ineradicable hymn like “Jerusalem”.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

Being urged to “stay on” at school aged 15 by Mr James, my history teacher. I feel as if I’ve been in school ever since, and the galaxy of brilliant academics who come on to In Our Time are just the latest stage.

What’s currently bugging you?

This and the previous government’s lies, incompetence, pusillanimity, blind obstinacy and arrogant disregard for the people and history of this country.

What would make your life better?

Remaining in Europe.

When were you happiest?

It comes and goes. Now is very good.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

In another life a job would have been chosen for me – down the pits or on the land, most likely.

Are we all doomed?

Of course not. The cult of pessimism denies the fact that Homo sapiens keeps thriving despite its appalling shortcomings. l

Melvyn Bragg and Simon Tillotson’s “In Our Time: Celebrating Twenty Years of Essential Conversation” is published by Simon & Schuster

This article appears in the 03 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right