“I would have been very happy to stay at my home in Cumbria,” he recalled. “I really didn’t want to leave. Many of my friends stayed and worked for the council or even the local factory – I think I would have been very happy.
But, prompted by Mr James, his secondary history teacher who spotted his potential, Bragg did indeed leave home at 18 to study modern history at Oxford University before securing an internship at the BBC to run many flagship arts programs including Radio 4’s In Our Time documentary series, and then as editor and presenter of ITV’s The South Bank Show.
But part of his heart, if not most, remained in Cumbria.
At 82, he wrote his first memoirs, a tribute to the place and the people who marked his early years from age 6 to 18.
“I’ve been approached to write a memoir in the past, but I wasn’t interested in it,” says Bragg, who was made a peer by Tony Blair and still sits in the House of Lords.
It was his poor health (he had several cancers and a collapsed lung) that made him change his mind.
“I thought if I could write just one more book what would it be about and I knew it had to be about the place and people where I grew up. I had written about the place in some of my fiction before, but not factual. It’s a town of five thousand people that had a few factories and was very representative of Britain at that time. was a unique moment. We were just coming out of two wars worlds when I was six years old (Bragg was born in 1939) and people back then did a lot with so little. A lot of the housing was slums and they had very little and yet they were so resilient. They had two winners at Crufts they had winning football and rugby teams but I didn’t just want to write a social story, that would have been boring so I thought I’d personalize it.
And he personalized it. Back in the day: a memoir paints a vivid and captivating picture of Bragg’s early childhood. An only child, the story begins with Bragg’s father, Stan, returning from the war and the family moving to a flat above the Black-a-Moor pub which his father and mother Ethel then ran.
Bragg’s childhood, spent running madly through the streets with his friends (“the city was our globe…the streets our living room”), is set against an unforgettably drawn backdrop of kind but strict adults who laced l place with a touch of fear.
‘Because we lived above the pub and I was helping dad with the beer barrels, and people were coming in and out all the time, it was a great way to get to know people, we knew almost everything the world in the city. The pub was the heart of the community. I was an only child but I never felt alone. It was the working class, but not everyone was poor, there were also very rich people.
What’s incredible is that Bragg wrote the memoirs, which he admits could have been twice as long, and that he edited large parts (“maybe I’ll write another one”) ), completely from memory. He has never kept a diary, but his burning intellect and unwavering memory remember things with precision.
When I notice this, he doesn’t seem to think that having such a recollection of people and events is unusual.
“I mostly remember the people. They were mostly working class in the North and yet they were the people at the heart of bringing about the Industrial Revolution. I wanted to create a record of that time from my memories of a boy growing up there. I thought if, “I did research, it would just slow me down. I wanted to remember how I really felt. I wanted to think about how my father felt coming back from the war.” And the result is a critically acclaimed memoir that takes readers back to a particular time as seen through the eyes of a young Bragg.
But At the time isn’t all rosy around the chalet. In fact, the opening words of the book are “I was raised in a house of lies”. Bragg’s main childhood lie was that his mother Ethel had in fact been born out of wedlock, the father unknown, and Ethel’s biological mother had been “religiously shrouded away from town a few months later”. Ethel, who was raised by an adoptive mother, Mrs Gilbertson.
Bragg only discovered the truth as a teenager. “I realized that I grew up in a house where my cousins weren’t my cousins and my grandmother was not my grandmother.” He wondered if the town was dotted with half-siblings, and what old man on the street might be his grandfather.
He also writes openly that he suffered from depression when he was 13. His overzealous work ethic, he says, helped him cope with his mental health issues.
“If I filled my head with books and work, it couldn’t be filled with terrible thoughts going through my head,” he says frankly. “It chased away the terrors. But I also loved doing it even though I never planned on going to university or working for the BBC. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t stay at Wigton.
But that’s exactly what happened, even though he still has a house near town, but he says it’s very different now.
“Factories have closed and housing estates have popped up, it’s very different.”
In his twenties, he focused on becoming a writer, marrying his first wife, and starting a family. He became increasingly political, becoming a Labor Party donor under the leadership of Tony Blair. In 1998 he was appointed by Blair to the House of Lords as life peer Baron Bragg, of Wigton in the county of Cumbria, one of several Labor donors to be awarded peerages.
“Being in the Lords gives me the unique ability to raise questions about the arts and education that I’m passionate about.” Although he is still a strong supporter of a parliamentary second chamber, he admits the Lords would need reform.
“I wouldn’t want to see an elected second House because it looks too much like the House of Commons and you can’t have a rival for the House of Commons.”
For 15 years, from 1999 to 2017, he served as Chancellor of the University of Leeds – the first not to have been a royal or a hereditary peer.
“I was surprised and delighted to be asked,” he says. “I spent 15 very interesting years there and in all that time I have never met a student in Leeds who was not having a wonderful time.
Back in the Day: A Memoir by Melvyn Bragg Scepter €25