ONE of the difficulties in interviewing Melvyn Bragg, who will appear at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry on Thursday, Jul 11, is knowing where exactly to start. From humble beginnings, he received a scholarship to Oxford before coming to prominence as the very charming and erudite presenter of various arts programmes on television and radio, including the long running South Bank Show. He has written numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, on subjects ranging from science to arts, and has written screenplays for both plays and films. Technically Lord Bragg of Wigton, he became a life peer in 1998.
In his latest and largely autobiographical novel, Grace and Mary, an earnest man in his 70s named John visits his mother Mary who is suffering from dementia in a nursing home. Using songs and photographs, he prompts her to journey into the past and explore her relationship with her mother Grace. It is a restrained, elegant book which is tinged with sorrow, and a genuine appreciation for Bragg’s real life mother Mary and grandmother Belle and their courage and stoicism. “My mother Mary, with whom I was very close and spoke to every day, had dementia for five years before she died,” he says. “When I visited from London she often didn’t know who I was. Yet she could remember all the words of the old songs I sang with her. I remember showing her a book of old photographs and she came alive again. A lot of the detail in the book is very true to life. However, the character of Mary in the book doesn’t provide a cohesive narrative of her life and neither did my mother. Therefore many elements of the story are completely imagined.”
For his grandmother Belle, the disgrace of having a child out of marriage was not easily overcome and she was forced to leave her child and the town she grew up in behind her. Bragg only met his grandmother briefly as a child and only learned of his mother’s birth status when he was a teenager.
“I only knew three things about my grandmother,” he says. “I knew her mother died when she was born, I knew that she and three siblings went to live on a small farm and I knew she had an illegitimate child, who was my mother Mary. Obviously there were a lot of secrets in our family and my mother raised me with great care and watchfulness because of that. Writing the book, you are reminded that our own lives are formed by the decisions taken, or not taken, by those who came before us.”
Bragg believed in the right to die before his mother became ill, and her experience cemented that belief. “I had an artist friend who was very ill and ended his own life,” he recalls. “There was a gentle party for 20 friends and we shook hands and said our goodbyes. It was a lovely occasion. My generation is now living to a great age. I know that there is an underlying Christian tradition which opposes euthanasia and I respect that. But I want to take responsibility for my own life and death; if you are of sound mind and feel that your life has reached its natural conclusion you should be allowed to go. I think that this is becoming an irresistible argument.”
Throughout the book there is a tacit admiration for the working class community in which Bragg was raised and he remains acutely aware of the class struggle which was the backdrop to his childhood.
Although considered by many a prolific author, Bragg is unsure if that is so. “I have been writing fiction for 50 years and so I have a large body of work,” he says. “It probably adds up to a book every two and a half years or so. When I know the story I am trying to write it becomes very vivid to me, but sometimes a book creeps up on you. For example, the book I wrote on Richard Burton came about because I was trying to write a Victorian novel and his life — one of 14 children in a coal mining family — seemed a good model. His widow Sally told me she had two tea chests of notes she had never opened and once I read them I couldn’t get back to the novel; it completely died. The real challenge lies in getting the words and sentences and rhythm that are in your head down on paper, but that is also the great pleasure of writing.”
Life for Bragg has not always been easy; his first wife committed suicide in 1971 and he has admitted to mental breakdowns in the past. Does he feel that age has brought wisdom? “I don’t think I have any schedule of great, unfulfilled ambitions,” he says cheerfully. “To encapsulate life into a small space, I would like to remain healthy and happy and I would like to keep writing and broadcasting for as long as I can. Am I getting any wiser? I believe in luck, and I believe it would be bad luck to say yes.”
* Further information on the West Cork Literary Festival is available at www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival