The Education of Melvyn Bragg

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The renowned British radio and television broadcaster Melvyn Bragg is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the host of “In Our Time,” his long-running BBC Radio 4 program and podcast, in which he vigorously guides three academics through a particular subject of their expertise, beginning with his distinctive let’s-get-right-to-it introduction. “Hello, Paul Dirac, 1902-1984, made some of the greatest discoveries in twentieth-century physics, second only to Einstein.” “Hello, when Athenians first saw Euripedes’ play ‘The Bacchae,’ in 405 B.C., they were on the point of defeat in a long war with Sparta, their fate beyond that unknown.” “Hello, some mass extinctions happen instantly, as when an asteroid hits the Earth. . . .” The show is relevant to the human experience but not to the current news cycle or culture calendar; it respects the listener by being clear, serious, and curious. It’s also one of the most popular programs in the U.K.—and, in the podcast era, widely heard internationally. Bragg chooses the subjects with his producer, Simon Tillotson, and, as host, he’s shrewd and self-effacing, occasionally sprinkling in genial phrases like “comes a cropper” or “we’re going before our horse to market.” It’s an entirely refreshing listening experience, subtly reminding you of the boundlessness of your own ignorance while gamely helping to mitigate it.

Bragg, who is eighty-one, grew up in the small factory town of Wigton, in Cumbria, where his parents ran a pub. He attended Oxford on a scholarship, continued on to the BBC, and quickly began producing cultural programs. His professional life has been as wide-ranging as the contents of “In Our Time”: he hosted the ITV arts-documentary series “The South Bank Show,” which he created in 1978 and led for more than three decades; he’s written twenty-two novels, and fifteen nonfiction books on subjects including Richard Burton, the King James Bible, great scientific discoveries, and the history of the English language; he was chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1999 to 2017; he’s a Labour peer in the House of Lords. Throughout, he’s been a champion of popular culture—on July 19th, he hosted the South Bank Sky Arts Awards, recognizing artists such as Dua Lipa, Michaela Coel, and Grayson Perry—and of the robust funding of public institutions, including the N.H.S. and the BBC.

During the pandemic, Bragg has been working on a memoir and continuing to host “In Our Time.” I recently spoke with him via Zoom. He was at home, in London, with his wife, in a cheerful domestic mode: when he said “Hello,” it was followed not by astrophysics or the Interregnum but by “I want to take the dog out of the room.” Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

I love what’s behind you—look at these paintings you have!

Well, I come from the Lake District, in the northwest of England, Wordsworth’s territory. And this is a collection of paintings from that district. The funny thing about the Lake District is that only one of them is called a lake. The rest are called the waters; Windermere, a lot of meres, a lot of Norse words.

I watched your “Adventure of English” program, from 2003, and I learned a lot of new word origins, including “mere.” Do you spend time up there now?

Yeah, I got a cottage there nearly fifty years ago. It’s very, very, very remote. We’re on a hill—they call it fells up there, they still use the Norse word. They’re all hill farmers, very agreeable people. When I first went there, a chap came up and he said, “I sat at the same school desk as your father. So if you ever want a turnip, just let me know.” [Laughs.]

Did you ever get a turnip?

Every other week!

I would love to hear about your childhood and Wigton—what your parents were like, what the town was like.

All right! My father came from a family of nine. His father was in a family of sixteen, and worked down the pits. At the edge of Cumbria, there’s a seam—two seams, actually, it’s quite rare—of anthracite, which is high-quality coal, and of iron ore. My father left school when he was fourteen, having passed two scholarships to local public schools but being able to take neither of them. He went down the mines, and eventually went in the war and worked in a factory, unskilled. And he always had two jobs. He was a bookie in the evenings and then eventually tenanted a pub—the worst pub in Wigton, a town of five thousand people, with twelve churches. It was founded by the Norse in about the eighth or ninth century. I was an only child, and I was sort of brought up in the pub.

And you lived above it, right?

We lived in a flat above it. And then my mother, my mother was illegitimate, and so she had a tough time. It was a very pious little town, still Victorian in its pieties. She worked in a factory, making buttonholes, and the rule of the factory was that when you got married, you got fired. So she got fired, and she was asked if she wanted a prodded rug or set of fish knives. She chose the fish knives. [Laughs.]

After she got fired from the factory, she cleaned people’s houses, and I used to tag along with her. So I saw the inside of some nice houses. And then they went into the pub, working three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Most of the pubs in Wigton had a definition. The Vaults was the pigeon club, where the pigeon men met; their pigeons flew over from France, and they went up to the Vaults to click in the timing. The Lion and Lamb was the Carlisle United football club. And we were the dog pub. There was a type of dog racing on the fells, called hound trailing. It’s a very old sport—I don’t want to get too oldy-worldy, but it’s the poor man’s racehorses. My dad was a dog man, and the dog men met in our pub.

It was a terrifically rich life, looking back on it. Partly because the men coming back from the war, I think they came back thinking, At least we’ll give the kids a good time. So they volunteered, running all sorts of things. And a lot of them were associated with the churches. I was in the choir, and one good thing was that we got paid—fourpence every time we went to the morning or evening service and choir practice. Every time we didn’t go, we got sixpence knocked off.

Wow.

And nobody was fussing or pushing you, and nobody expected—I thought I would leave school at fifteen. I only didn’t by that margin—[gestures with fingers]—when a teacher, unknown to me, went to my father and said, “It might be worth keeping him on.” I didn’t discover that until I was in my late sixties, early seventies.

Was that Mr. James?

Mr. James. I’ve written quite a lot about him in this book. He was a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, and a terrific enthusiast. When he came to Wigton, we were very badly off. We didn’t think we were, but he saw there was a big job to be done. And he just buckled down to make sure we got a good education. He had a headmaster, similarly, who’d been in the war, and they just got hold of the school by the scruff of the neck and turned it around. We began to pass scholarships to Oxford. We had a rugby team that could beat everybody in sight.

And you were in a skiffle group, yes?

A skiffle group, the Memphis Five! I sang and organized it, and we rehearsed in the singing room of our pub. Ha! We once went to Carlisle Ballroom, which was in a big city. We were the little act in the middle, with one or two people fondling each other in the corner. One guy came out and said, “Well, it can only get better!”

Reluctantly, we went our separate ways. I got far too interested in schoolwork by that time. [Earlier,] when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I had had a colossal breakdown, which I didn’t know about, because I didn’t know what a breakdown was.

What happened to you? What did it feel like?

Terrible out-of-body experiences. I was frightened of lying in bed on my own because a light was…

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