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Melvyn Bragg: “I’m not letting my past go”

Bragg is one of our most industrious public intellectuals, but his inner life is replete with mystery and devotion

Melvyn Bragg’s new novel features a 28-line castration scene. The procedure is performed on the book’s hero, the 12th-century philosopher Pierre Abélard, as a punishment: a noose of catgut round the testes, a bowl to catch the blood, the “fierce snap of clippers” and a bit of stitching. Bragg did his research, talked to a few people. “They did it as they would have done a young bullock,” he says, in the manner in which he might clarify the words of an academic on his BBC Radio 4 show In Our Time.

“It’s how they castrated cattle in those days, except that they probably used finer threads on a man. They tighten the thread above the testicles, and pull it tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter so no blood can get through. And then they cut it and swab it with stuff to stop the blood coming out and then stitch it up, wait for it to heal.”

Bragg’s novels often mirror his life, and at 79, he is certainly feeling powerless about something – the state of the UK and the legacy of “the pusillanimous, unforgiveable, contemptible Cameron, his wrecking-ball pal Johnson and the creepy Rees-Mogg”. He glides in to his management office just behind Oxford Street, in the West End of London. There are two cups of coffee in the boardroom and an electric blow heater turned up high. Bragg spent much of 2018 unwell – pneumonia, back problems and prostate cancer, which he finally got treated. He is dressed in a dark corduroy suit and waistcoat, and looks slightly delicate but just as you’d imagine, with eyes like two hazelnuts.

Because he walks everywhere in London, looking like Melvyn Bragg, it’s tempting to assume he’s come from one of two famous locations: the BBC or the House of Lords, where he enjoys the speeches of John Kerr (“he did four full sessions in Brussels”) and finds, in general, that the guys from the diplomatic service and the Foreign Office are the most distressed about the Bullingdon Boys. Bragg apologises for his soft, almost automatic outflow of unhappiness about the European referendum of 23 June 2016 and all that has followed, as the blow heater hums in the corner. “It’s like I am possessed.”

“They just, he just shouldn’t have done it. He [Cameron] shouldn’t have done it then, he shouldn’t have done it in that way and, having done it, he should have stood and fought for Remain instead of running away to his bespoke shed to write his self-justifying memoir. He’s the worst prime minister we’ve ever had. And he’s followed by a woman who’s both completely dithering and very pig-headed – that’s not my phrase, that’s David Owen’s phrase. Pig-headed to a degree that’s intolerable. What she did at the Home Office was awful – sending the ‘go home’ vans round in North London. I mean, we don’t do that sort of thing. But she did.”

We don’t do that sort of thing. His turn of phrase will always stand out. He runs on principle and is unafraid to make simple statements. “I mean, we’re watching the wreckage and just sitting by and there’s a feeling of boredom with it. We are giving up, led by Cameron, the great giver-upper of our time. The Labour Party’s crap as well, I mean, what’s the Labour Party doing?”

When Jeremy Corbyn became leader, Bragg, a Labour peer since 1998, wrote in these pages that he believed he’d help lead the country to a softer Brexit. “We all had hopes and we were absolutely wrong,” he says. “He can’t make up his mind, he’s backed curious horses all his life. He won’t even speak out on Venezuela.”

Last month he condemned Corbyn’s “feebleness” over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. “He can’t clear that, now. A terrible slur on a party and a person.”

“The trouble with Labour voters, including me,” he says, “is that we’re very loyal. I’m not going to leave Labour. Corbyn should leave Labour.”

We met a week before the resignation of nine Labour MPs – Bragg’s name subsequently came up in speculation about peers who might join the Independent Group, but he refuted this.

He tells me he likes the Leeds West MP, Rachel Reeves. “Anyway, let’s talk about something else.”

****

Bragg gets nervous about everything. “I’m nervous for anything I’m not in control of,” he says, “and then when I am in control, I’m nervous because I’m in control.”

At the age of six, in the church of St Mary’s in Wigton, Cumbria where his parents were married and buried, he was asked, as per tradition for the youngest choirboy, to deliver the first lesson to the congregation – the one on original sin. Standing on a box, he said the words, “Oh yes, the serpent beguiled her and she did eat” – and began to panic. Every time he hears the same lines at Christmas services he gets flashbacks to his first public wobble.

In an early episode of the South Bank Show, Harold Pinter watched his interviewer “flounder helplessly on”, Bragg later recalled in the New Statesman, “smoking a black Sobranie, silent and perhaps enjoying the sport”. When Pinter saw the film, he apologised. Bragg had been nervous because he admired him. Broadcasters who get nervous broadcasting are surprisingly common.

He hopes we can talk about his new novel. This is a bugbear: he keeps writing them – 22 so far, and he’s busy – but people hardly mention them. He wanted to be a writer when he left Oxford, and even co-wrote the screenplay for the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Auto-fiction, or putting your life in books, is no big deal, he says – everyone’s at it. But Bragg has taken it to extremes. The baldest example was his 2008 novel Remember Me, which dramatises the central tragedy of his life.

Joe Richardson, a young BBC broadcaster from Wigton in Cumbria, struggles to choose between two women and is eventually faced with the suicide of his wife. In 1971, Bragg’s first wife Marie-Elisabeth Roche, a French viscountess and painter he met at Oxford, took her own life, leaving him with their six-year-old daughter. He later said he regretted publishing the novel – he’d tried it as a kind of therapy but it actually made things worse.

 The new book, Love Without End, came out of an episode of In Our Time, about the love affair between the philosopher Abélard and the French nun Héloïse. Abélard wanted Héloïse to be a bride of Christ but she wanted him, says Bragg – his castration was punishment for their union. He says, of the battle between faith and lust, “Abélard lived inside the circumference of God while Heloise elasticated it marvellously.” Then he adds, “You’ve got to remember, they really believed in this stuff!”

Bragg’s main interests seem to be the exact nature of the love, and the follies of his heavyweight intellectual hero.

“Abélard could always work things out very quickly, but he got them wrong in life,” he says. “This brilliant mind which was making high decisions all the time – when he came to life, he was hopeless. Almost everything he did was stupid. He’s always getting things wrong.

“Richard Dawkins is like that,” he says of the great atheist. “I like Richard. I was having dinner with him once and talking about something and I said, ‘You’ve got to convince people of this, Richard, it’s complicated! I don’t think they’ll go for it!’
And he said, ‘Oh, yes they will.’ That sort of brilliant mind thinks that thinking
is enough.”

****

The relationship between an older man and a younger woman is central to the new novel, as it was in A Time to Dance, Bragg’s 1990 book about a bank manager and an 18-year-old. One Amazon reviewer notes the suspension of belief required to enjoy that story: “my suspenders were working overtime.”

But Bragg thinks these relationships consist of various kinds of love not fully appreciated in the modern age – intellectual, spiritual, obedient – and gives a few examples. Aristotle said the best time for a man to marry is at 40 and for a woman it’s 16, he points out – “because that’s what Aristotle did”. Richard II met his wife when she was 13 or 14. Alan Clark met his wife when she was 12, “and he said, ‘I’m going to marry you’, and then waited until she was 16 and betrayed her relentlessly ever after. It was quite commonplace. But in the 20th century, when titillation became something to talk about, it was: ‘Ooh, look, you dirty old man.’”

Bragg hasn’t dated women 30 years his junior. To explain the distance between books and life he recalls Darwin on the Galapagos islands, finding a parakeet on one island so different from a parakeet on the next, the pair could not mate. He wants to talk about these novels but is reluctant to draw direct connections between them and his inner world.

After a nervous childhood, he had what he now considers to have been a serious breakdown from the age of 12 or 13, which lasted a year and a half, and changed his life. “I’ve no idea why it happened,” he says now. “I’d track back to it a few times, and then I’d crack up again at the end of my 20s. But that one was pivotal, when I was young, because it afflicted me so badly. It was just inside me, something that I couldn’t understand, or get out of myself.”

He did not tell his teachers or parents: “The town was full of men who’d been through much worse; fought in two world wars, and now had absolutely rotten, mind-grinding jobs – so you didn’t moan.”

The breakdown took the form of out-of-body experiences. He’d see a small light, leaving his head and moving into the corner of the room: “This little light in the corner – that was me, and I was inert, and I just waited for it to come back to me. Sometimes I thought it would never come back.”

At other times he would pass a shop on the walk into school and catch a glimpse of himself in a window: “And the reflection would be me – not the one that was actually walking along. I kept slipping out, something slipping that I couldn’t control.”

At school, it was difficult to concentrate. “And I slid down from one class to another to another. I lost my nerve about everything. It was very strange.”

He began to fight against the dislocation by focusing on his homework. He had a room of his own in the pub his parents ran, the Black-A-Moor Hotel in Wigton, and after his breakdown, he found his vocation: “sitting down for four or five hours a night, pounding through an essay and trying to get it right, getting better in a year’s time.”

A few years back, at the age of 75, Bragg discovered that the history teacher at his grammar school had gone three times to his parents to persuade them to let him stay on for sixth form, which opened the way for Oxford and everything beyond. The absorption and marshalling of huge numbers of facts as a teenager had been “very steadying” and it is still the way he works on In Our Time, for which he has done 800 episodes. “I like trying to think,” he says, “and I like reading. I like talking to people who know a lot – I really like that. It’s thrilling.”

As a result of his health problems last year the show is now recorded on a Wednesday afternoon, not broadcast live on a Thursday morning. I ask why the trail on the Today programme, in which he’d pop up to make some deliberately circuitous link to his show, has stopped and he says rather sadly, “There’s no one there to bounce off now.”

****

In recent years, having spoken for various mental health charities, Bragg has had people write to him suggesting that the experiences he had as a teenager were something special, something visionary. He’s not convinced. You get the sense that he resists things every bit as much as he explores them. He spent the first 12 years of his life saturated in religion – “a wonderful explanation of the world, brilliant, intricate at its best” – and now considers himself an unbeliever. But that’s complicated too.

“You can throw it off, but I don’t want to throw it off,” he says. “There was so much that was good about it. What would have happened if there hadn’t been a church?”

So a belief in God is the one piece of the puzzle that’s not in place for him?

“Yes. But it doesn’t go away. And I don’t know what the ‘it’ that stays is. It’s a feeling. But it isn’t a feeling that there’s a God up there. I do think there was a creative factor – maybe physics is the creator? I like going into empty village churches.”

When he has a book tour, he gets to the town early to hear evensong – most recently at Wells Cathedral (“beautiful, with that double arch”) where the choir were double the congregation.

“I like listening to the music, just being there – but that isn’t being religious. And it’s not being nostalgic either, because you’re not letting your past go. I don’t let my past go. Just like I don’t believe in closure for people’s deaths.”

He doesn’t?

“I don’t see any point. I mean, can you believe in closure? Well, I don’t – I can’t ‘closure’ things, I can’t make things close. All those bloody Freudians.”

Bragg’s experience of psychoanalysis was marked by ambivalence. Reading Freud as a student, he was struck by the eloquence and “believed everything he said. But the more I read I thought, ‘I’m not going along with this.’ Basically, he’s saying with one theory: I will settle all your doubts about your relationship with your father. And he takes no account of individuation,” he adds, referring to the Jungian concept of integrating the unconscious.

He had his run-in with Jung, too. As their marriage deteriorated, Marie-Elisabeth saw a Jungian analyst, Anne Darquier, and persuaded Bragg to see a therapist of his own. He later dismissed the process, saying he struggled to remember his dreams and got stuck for things to talk about – though he still went three times a week for three years. In 1970, his wife’s analyst committed suicide, six months before she did. Bragg took their child, Marie-Elsa, to St Anne’s Church on Kew Green to explain what had happened. His daughter is now an Anglican minister and a chaplain at Westminster Abbey. They have dinner on Sundays.

“The thing that I do feel,” Bragg says, “is a sort of mystery. I think people feel that when they’re religious, too – a sort of dream state. Maybe it’s just the dreaminess you have before you go to sleep, or whatever. I don’t want to let that go. But I’m not a believer, no.”

****

If Freud is a “just another -ism” and going to church is mainly for the music, Bragg has a persistent interest in love that marks him out from other public intellectuals. “I’ve always been like that. I mean, you’re either like that or you’re not. It has fascinated me, it’s been a part of what I am. It’s a big part of the story of what I would laughingly call my life.”

Has love driven his life as much as intellectual pursuit?

“I don’t think it drives me. I think it makes me feel more whole.”

After a fairly public 20-year extramarital relationship, he finally moved in with Gabriel Clare-Hunt, a 63-year-old former film assistant, two years ago, separating from Cate Haste, his wife of 43 years and mother of his two other children. They are doing up Bragg’s Hampstead house.

Did his change in personal circumstance feed into the new book?

“It might have done. I suppose the intensity of what the couple do was something that was going on in my life, at the time. But I mean, I don’t see myself as Abélard!”

When he says things like this, and he often does, it’s because he’s trying not to sound self-inflating. This aversion he traces back to his mother: “You put your head above the trench, and she could chop you off at the knees better than anyone.”

An only child, whose father Stanley was often away with the RAF before he took on the pub, Bragg was “cast very close together” with his mother: “I mean, like lots of working-class people, we slept in the same bed at the start, and that’s not unusual.” Mary Ethel Bragg cleaned houses and would take her with him, which he enjoyed. “She was very slim, very lovely and had a lovely voice.” As a child, Bragg’s mother had discovered she was illegitimate, and keeping him in his place, he thinks, had something to do with trying to protect him from slurs.

On Friday nights, Bragg found the pub too noisy to do his homework in, so he’d go to his grandmother’s. On Sundays, he’d study all day. On Saturdays, though, he had the day off. He was “very serious” about a girl eight miles away in Aspastria, and as evening approached he would prepare his hair to go out. He used “a mixture of solid Brilliantine, a bit of my father’s Brylcreem, and water, and mix it up into a paste, almost like glue”. With the hair standing to attention, he’d climb out the bathroom window to avoid his mother’s gaze, on to the roof of the gents’ toilets, and drop into the yard.

One day, he caught his mother looking at him. “Looking through me actually, and I thought: ‘Oh, Christ.’ And she said – it is unforgettable – she said to me, ‘Melvyn, you’re pleasant-looking and you’ll never be anything else.’”

He was 16 at the time. He gives a small chuckle.

“Pleasant-looking and you’ll never be anything else. Nowadays if you can walk on a pavement, you’re told you’re brilliant.”

“Love Without End” is published by Sceptre

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 08 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash