Melvyn Bragg on his new book ‘Love Without End’
- Credit: © Sky Academy / Andrea Southam
Katie Jarvis would be happy chasing her subject up a corridor, bawling random questions, if it meant she could say she’d interviewed Melvyn Bragg. Well now she has
Here's a spoiler for my Melvyn Bragg interview.
On the day I sit down to write it, I Google 'Melvyn Bragg interviews' (out of interest). (As you do.)
There he is, in periodicals past, talking with The House magazine, about "squirearchal, hedge-funding, overprivileged" Brexiteers. And asking of David Cameron, "Who [the four-letter-word] does he think he is!"
Then I read his daughter in the Sunday Times. An extraordinarily moving piece (she sounds absolutely lovely): Marie-Elsa Bragg - now a duty chaplain at Westminster - on her mother's suicide; the utter yearning she still feels for her nearly 50 years on. About the gut-wrenching emotional fall-out for herself and her father. And - with such love - about how close she is to him.
In others (a gratifyingly chippy chat with the Observer: "I disagree with you so fundamentally", etc), Lord Bragg describes himself as a 'class mongrel'. Culture has replaced class.
Fascinating, emotional, subversive stuff.
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I'll come clean with you here.
I'm interviewing him about his latest novel, Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard. It's pretty much the unembellished, compellingly true story of those famous 12th-century lovers (though Bragg has framed it in a 21st-century narrative).
And it's racy stuff: 50 percent philosophy and 50 percent risky sex.
Here's the rub:
In what could be a tactical error, I've mainly asked him about philosophy.
*Note to tortured self: Do NOT Google interesting interviews before writing up your own.*
Lord Bragg has just given a public lecture on his latest book, Love Without End. He's 80 years old but he does not know this; he has spoken for 60 minutes, on his feet, to a riveted audience, about subjects ranging from Paris in the early 12th century (a submarine-shaped island in the Seine: royal palace at one end; cloisters of Notre Dame - where students learned and philosophers taught - at the other), to the power of the imagination.
Not a whimsical imagination but a mighty imagination that snatches an essential something out of nothing. As Newton did, fresh from Cambridge, who saw an apple fall downwards. (Why down?) Who saw the moon, which didn't. (Why didn't it?). When asked how he came to his theory of gravitation (Melvyn Bragg marvels), Newton replied, "By thinking on it continuously".
The human brain is the most complex entity found in the universe so far.
Probably, specifically, Melvyn Bragg's.
This morning, as I drove to the lecture, I listened to Radio 4's In Our Time: Melvyn Bragg and guests on Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher whose revolutionary ideas on educating children didn't stop him abandoning his own.
(No wonder I'm quaking at the prospect of my interview.)
Today, in Cheltenham, Lord Bragg is speaking about Abelard and Heloise, the subjects of Love Without End. Abelard, a renowned philosopher - the equivalent of a rock star to 12th-century Paris - and Heloise, brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew: real historical figures who left behind books, letters and a story of almost unparalleled tragedy. For Abelard seduced the young Heloise, got her pregnant and spirited her away to his home in Brittany to have the baby, while he returned to teach in Paris. As a 'reward' for facing the music, he was brutally castrated at the behest of Heloise's outraged relatives.
"The surgeon found the testicles, pulled them towards him and slid a noose of catgut around the top, which he tightened until the flesh disappeared inside the encirclement… Abelard made himself lie still."
The story has seized minds and watered eyes ever since. Petrarch and Chaucer wrote about the fated lovers; Rousseau, too. "Diana Rigg famously played Heloise naked on the West End stage, and certain late middle-aged men still muse on that moment," Melvyn Bragg still muses.
But the most interesting thing - to me - is more recent history. For he also describes how this medieval love story has haunted him for more than 60 years. Actually, more than haunted: it has partly defined him.
As a schoolboy, young Melvyn was captivated by the romance as a set-text: "I don't know by what leap of understanding or sympathy". He'd just got interested in real reading; but, at 15, it was time for him to leave his Wigton grammar school.
"Like every boy in my class did in 1955. They'd go into shops, onto farms; went to work in the accounts department of the factory where I would have gone." He didn't want to leave; he wanted to stay and devour more books like those of Abelard and Heloise.
Years later, when a film was being made of his life, he discovered something he'd never known. His history teacher, a Mr James - "He's 97 now and as sharp as a pin" - had gone to see his parents no fewer than three times to persuade them Bragg should stay on at school. A former Spitfire pilot in the Second World War, James was a severe master: "And typical of that generation. If he'd told us he'd been a Spitfire pilot, we'd have done anything he asked us to do; but he didn't."
Whatever it was the severe Mr James said to Mr Bragg, machinist, and Mrs Bragg, tailoress, it worked.
Three years later, Melvyn Bragg was entering the portals of Wadham College, Oxford, to read modern history.
I'm effectively speed-dating Melvyn Bragg. He's due at a lunch so can only give me 15 minutes. Fewer, possibly, if his post-lecture book-signing lingers on.
Does that work for me, his publisher kindly asks.
Look, I feel like saying. I'd be happy chasing him up a corridor, bawling random questions, if it meant I could say I'd interviewed Melvyn Bragg.
He strolls into the green room at Cheltenham as if he's climbed out of a deckchair - not given a long lecture to a packed Town Hall - and veers off to speak with his wife. I subdue my anxious impatience as the clock ticks. He's probably quietly ruing having to speak to me at all...
But I'm wrong. For when he takes a seat beside me on the sofa, there's not an atom of hurriedness about him. He's one of those rare people who focus their entire attention on you.
So, I ask, as he sips an ascetic glass of water. (This is my version of In Our Time. If you want more readable anecdotes, please do skip to the next bit.) The pious 12th century; Abelard and Heloise, who gave up their romantic love to save their immortal souls.
What struck me, I say, as I read the novel, is how very different that life of faith was from the self-indulgence of secular Western society today.
"I don't think we care about anything as much as people cared about saving their souls," Melvyn Bragg agrees. "We care about our children; we care about how we live - how we can survive and also how we can flourish. But it was drilled into them that almost the purpose of being on Earth was to get to Heaven. Your great luck in being born was that you were born a Christian; you were one of the people who could get to Heaven IF you obeyed certain rules and lived a good life."
To write this book, he had to cultivate a deep understanding of that pattern of thought.
But maybe he was already halfway there. For Melvyn Bragg himself was a fundamentalist Christian until the age of 16. "I believed in the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, Heaven and Hell; miracles. The whole lot. Although I'm in a different place now, brands like that don't go away".
In what way?
"I don't go round on a bicycle, like Philip Larkin, looking for empty village churches. But… if I am in a village and there is a church and I've got time, I'll pop in. And there's always a feeling of something else."
Perhaps, he concedes, that 'something else' is simply the rising up of intense childhood memories. (He was in the church choir from the age of six.)
And, indeed: "When you tot up the number of services, choir practices, readings, listenings-to, add Sunday School and all the rest of it, in its own Anglican way it's quite a brainwashing that's going on. You can put it aside but you don't lose it.
"But the fact is - it seems to me - the good part of Christianity is phenomenally good. When you think of the Sermon of the Mount, it completely turned on its head everything - everything - that had been thought about the way the world was ordered.
"No wonder they thought he [Jesus] was radical. He said the poor and the meek should be given preferment. This is a place where warlords ruled, and kings."
He references preachers of the past, who (literally) put the fear of hell into their congregations. Not that long ago, either. "There's a very good piece by DH Lawrence - one of his later books - when he's talking about the non-conformist speakers in the town in which he grew up. They were talking about Hell most of the time."
Hell, yes. But wasn't there also a watered-down version - an everyday hell - that society used as a more basic tool?
I'm talking, I say, about shame: a concept that seems to have been quenched alongside those eternal flames.
"I think that's a very, very good point," Melvyn Bragg says "And I'm glad you brought it up. People used to be ashamed of themselves - and the phrase, 'You should be ashamed of yourself!' was all over. It was part of our vocabulary; part of our life. You never hear it now."
Trump, who can't be shamed.
A royal, who seemingly refuses to feel shame.
"Just to warn you. It's 12 o'clock," someone helpfully reminds Lord Bragg.
He shrugs, kindly.
"They're pretty well off without me. I'm having a very nice time."
And we talk on about truth, post-truth, Russia, China, and the journalists he admires who are steadfastly mining their way down through seams of deliberate disambiguation.
But the bit I want you to hear - the bit that makes me laugh - is this.
We're talking about modesty (it's relevant, honestly; it's one thing Abelard the philosopher couldn't be accused of).
So (I ask, unfairly) where would Melvyn Bragg say his own brilliance lies?
"Oh, no!" he shudders. "I couldn't:
a) It wouldn't be true. And b) I'd never get away with it. Not with the people I live with!"
His mother never paid him a compliment in her life. "I was the only child but she had had a very, very tough life. She was illegitimate and brought up in a foster home."
Never paid him a single compliment… except once, when he was 16.
The occasion involved surreptitious brilliantine and Brylcreem, hogging the bathroom of the rowdy pub where he grew up; getting ready to take out his first serious girlfriend with the aim of bagsying a much-coveted double-seat in the cinema an eight-mile bus-ride away.
"Then [hair duly plastered] I'd go out of the window, jump into the roof on the other side - which was the lavatories I swilled out in the morning - up onto a wall, along the wall (you've got to believe this), drop into the backyard and get out without my mother seeing me. She didn't like any of this - this 'vanity', as she saw it.
"I was doing this once and I felt - as you do - oh god! Prickles in the back of my neck. I turned round and there she was. She was a very lovely woman and she looked at me quite straightforwardly and said, 'Melvyn, you're pleasant-looking and you'll never be anything else.' Then she went and I was out of the window."
"Looking back, I just feel delighted."
He glances at the time. He's really, really got to go.
But still I push. "Might I follow you out of the door…" (bawling random questions)?
Amazingly, he settles back down at my cheeky request. "They can get on without me," he says of his would-be luncheon companions.
"You'd better go," the helpful person persists. "You've got a train."
"Oh, god!" he remembers. "I've got a train!"