‘It always takes me by surprise, being happy,’ says Melvyn Bragg. ‘You can’t legislate for it, can you? I don’t know if happiness is even a laudable thing to look for. There is so much else going on in life, besides happiness. Happiness comes and goes, a bit like the weather.’
Weekend is talking to Lord Bragg in his London office. He’s a little frail after a recent bout of ill health, but still looks a good decade younger than his 79 years.
There are only two things ‘guaranteed' to make him happy, he says. One is walking, especially in the hills of his native Cumberland, and the other is writing. Hence his 22 novels, the latest of which, Love Without End, retells the story of Medieval French lovers Héloïse and Abelard – a tale that first piqued his interest as a precocious O-level student some 64 years ago.
Pierre Abelard was a radical young theologian: a rock star among 12th century philosophers whose affair with the fiercely intelligent Héloïse d’Argenteuil was as much a meeting of minds as bodies.
Digging into their story, Bragg says he was ‘astounded at what really went on: the ideological fury, the eroticism, the violence in their relationship… It was sexually violent, intellectually intense, and spiritually agonising. And the penalties they paid were incredible. I mean, he was castrated, he was stoned almost to death, his books were burnt. And she was put in a convent, and ended up becoming an abbess.’
Love Without End frames the story of Héloïse and Abelard in a contemporary narrative about Arthur, an English academic researching a book about the pair. The character is a clearly recognisable avatar of Bragg himself, allowing him to wander off into potted histories of philosophy, religion and suchlike. As with much of his broadcast work – including around 800 editions apiece of his TV arts magazine programme The South Bank Show and radio discussion series In Our Time – it’s evidence of the author’s lifelong fascination with ideas.
‘Imagination is the least known but most powerful part of the brain,’ he says. ‘We know nothing about it, except that it exists. Einstein, when asked what he thought the most important faculty was, said imagination. He even used the term “thought experiments”.’
In the book, Arthur admits to his daughter that nothing gives him as much satisfaction in life as writing. Bragg wouldn’t go that far himself – but he has said in the past that he’s used writing as a way of driving out his demons. ‘That’s absolutely true,’ he says. ‘I’ve had two breakdowns. And it’s a very good word – because something breaks, something goes…’
The first of these collapses happened during his teenage years, and the second after his first wife, Marie Elisabeth-Roche – a French viscountess he’d met at Oxford University – took her own life in 1971, when their daughter was just six.
It is work, he says, that has helped pull him through such episodes. ‘If you are learning new stuff, if you are absorbed in it and wrapped up in it, I think that is a healing process for a lot of people. They find their way through work.'
The human mind, he suggests, craves distraction; a release from the everyday. ‘My grandfather and his brother were coalminers,' he offers by way of example. 'They lived absolutely filthy lives: hard-working, short-lived lives. But they’d keep pigeons, or an allotment, or have a shed where they’d make things. It absorbed them and filled their minds, to get away from being a mile under the surface of the Earth, digging out coal.’
He might be a workaholic, he supposes. ‘But it doesn’t mean anything to me, because I like what I do. Nobody forces me to write – nobody’s actually waiting for the next book.’ He bursts out laughing at this point. ‘Let’s get that clear – no-one’s saying, “Where’s the next chapter? I must read it before I die.” I just like writing.’
Where did it come from, does he think – this burning passion for knowledge that consumed a young working class boy, living above his parents’ pub in the Cumberland market town of Wigton?
‘I was on my own a lot,’ he says. ‘I was an only child, my father came from a family of nine, and his father came from a family of 16. So there was plenty of evidence of breeding, but they stopped with me. I never asked them why they didn’t have more children. All the things you should have asked your parents. God, I make a living as an interviewer,’ – over the years, he’s interrogated everyone from Norman Mailer to Paul McCartney, while his conversation with a dying Dennis Potter remains a masterclass in the art form – ‘and I never asked the most important people in my life anything about their lives.’
Despite this, he says he wasn’t lonely. ‘I had plenty of pals, I played in football teams and all the rest of it. But I’d always read. I suppose it was just something to do, that captured my attention. We didn’t have a television. There was a little library on the corner of the yard where we lived, and a man called Mr Carrick, the town clerk, used to give me books – because we didn’t have any books in the house. So I kept reading. I used to like finding out about stuff. Knowing about things.’
This inquiring mind was his ticket to grammar school, then Oxford, then the BBC. But he’s always kept close links to Wigton, and in 2012 returned to his parents’ pub to introduce his TV series Melvyn Bragg on Class and Culture, in which he argued that, in Britain, birth no longer defines our destiny the way it once did. But with social mobility stagnating, would he agree…
‘I think I was wrong, yes,’ he cuts in. ‘I was wrong. It’s come back. Maybe it was a lot of the people I knocked around with – working class people who had a big break in the 40s, 50s and 60s. When I went to university, I didn’t pay, I won a scholarship. So when I came to London and met lots of people like me, I mistook that for a major shift. I got it wrong.’
In 1998, Bragg was made a Labour life peer by Tony Blair, becoming Lord Bragg of Wigton. An active Parliamentarian, he’s despairing about the current state of British politics.
‘Aroundthe world, people are shocked that this stable country, with what we used to be able to call the mother of all parliaments, has made a mother of all messes. People tell me of the shame and the humiliation. "What are you doing? How could you get in this mess?"
‘And we are in this mess because of a quartet of the worst politicians we’ve ever had. Ed Miliband was terrible – well-meaning but inept. I don’t know where Jeremy Corbyn is coming from, or going to. He’s taken the Labour Party in a way that’s distorting it, and his attitude towards anti-Semitism is disgraceful. And on the other side, we had the terrible [David] Cameron, the unforgivable, contemptible Cameron, who lazily called this [EU referendum] in order to settle a problem with his right-wing that he was too pusillanimous to face up to, and didn’t do enough work to make it work.
‘And then there’s Mrs May, who is just no good. She can’t make things happen, she can’t persuade anybody. She’s got no pliability, no intellect, no hinterland. The Brexiteers have captured her; she’s in awe of public school boys. She’s taking advice from David Cameron now. Can you imagine? I mean, you just want to jump out the window.’
By now he literally has his head in his hands, his fingers tearing at that famously lustrous thatch. Does he feel powerless? ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘And if we feel powerless in Parliament, God knows how everybody else feels.’
Bragg admits the scrutiny that comes with being such a public figure makes him ‘cringe’. ‘If you’re up there a bit, people think they can take a shot at you,’ he says. ‘I don’t like it, but I’ve got broad shoulders. Some journalists will make things up as it’s a better story. Sometimes they get it right, and it’s still a good story. It goes with the territory. If you’re going to be on television and radio and write books, people are going to say, “Has he been running around town doing this, that or the other...”’
Love Without End is dedicated to his partner Gabriel Clare-Hunt, with whom he had a long – and not exactly secret – relationship before splitting from his second wife, Cate Haste, the mother of his two other children.
‘Gabriel and I have known each other for 40 years,’ says Bragg. ‘I don’t mean sexually, we’ve been friends for years and years, and worked together for 10 or 12 years. Cate and I were together for 46, 47 years. It’s a long innings, but in the last few years it wasn’t working. The children knew it and we knew it.’
After eight decades in which happiness has often eluded him (he considered suicide several times), Bragg says he’s as content as he’s ever been, and is still ‘pinging away’ with his twin writing and broadcast careers. Presumably he’d never dream of stopping?
‘No, I’ll be stopped, rather than stopping,’ he says, with a chuckle. ‘The iceberg is out there!’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 21 March, 2019
(c) Waitrose Weekend