Melvyn Bragg’s first novel, For Want of a Nail (1965), tells the story of a boy, born to a working-class family in Cumbria, who gains a scholarship to Oxford. There followed a trilogy – The Hired Man, A Place in England, Kingdom Come (1969-80) – that focused on three generations of a Cumbrian family remarkably like his own. A weighty nonfiction tome, Speak for England (1976), consisted of interviews with family and friends, who talked at length about their lives. Digging deep into the local history of Wigton, Bragg’s home town, and giving a voice to its “barely acknowledged” poor, the book presented “an authentic human history of twentieth-century England”. The men worked long hours on the land or down the mines; the women went into service, feeding and clothing families on the slenderest of incomes. Nobody expected to be able to change their situation. Nobody felt sorry for themselves. “These houses of many children, small means and hard work were the foundational pillars of a society that took the working class for granted and valued it not”, Bragg commented, allowing his educated rage at class difference to break through.
Subsequent novels continued to explore the Cumbrian setting and related themes. What has an avowed memoir – “the first memoir by Melvyn Bragg”, as the blurb proudly asserts – to add? Back in the Day covers the same time frame as For Want of a Nail. It ends with the troubled decision to take up the scholarship to Oxford, but whereas the fictional Tom endures anguish, the young Melvyn is calm:
Without setting out to do so, I had made up my mind.
I looked around and everything I saw I loved.
I would go. But I would never leave.
An understated author’s note admits: “I have written about some of these events before.” Bragg went, but he didn’t leave. He took the lessons learned about family, community and place into a distinguished career as a broadcaster, becoming a champion of arts and knowledge for all. He has every reason to be proud of his achievements. Boasting would be forgivable, but Back in the Day is not a boast. It is a measured reconsideration, giving more here and less there, and all delivered with an ease that suggests these matters have been fully digested. The pace is leisurely. An arresting opening – “I was brought up in a house of lies” – sets up expectations that are not realized: the main lie, his mother’s illegitimacy, is developed as a theme, but serves no dramatic function.
Neither of his parents (each in their own way difficult) had any understanding of books as a way of life and a means of earning money. They ran a pub. Loving and admiring them, Bragg recreates and analyzes their feelings for Wigton, sometimes drifting into novelistic techniques, in part as a way of continuing to try to explain himself to them. His return to the well-worn “events” of his childhood induces in him humility almost to the point of apology. He wants them to know he doesn’t think he’s special; he had no ambition to escape; it was his teachers who urged him towards Oxford. He mentions a nervous collapse, but passes over it quickly. Better to describe, with genial understanding, the locals who propped up the bar; better to mention the women whose houses his mother cleaned and the arduous postal rounds she undertook on her heavy bike.
Some breaks can’t be ended. If adopting a posh accent made you suspect or scorned (such people were “traitors or show offs”), then voraciously acquiring knowledge pushed you out. The sheer level of detail here about his preparations for exams, the hours of disciplined study in the room above the pub, are a reminder of the powerful forces at work. The more he learned, the more distanced he became.
Back in the Day is a love letter to his parents and the town that fostered and supported them. An only child, Bragg performed menial daily tasks such as sweeping the front and swabbing the gents, but was otherwise free to roam, unsupervised, there being less surveillance of children then, and less consideration. How did his parents react to his nervous collapse when, at about nine, “I became unable to function”, “an inexplicable (to me) mess”? We aren’t told. It needs more than “perhaps the collapse was to do with the pub … and its Saturday night violence”.
The anger of adults is omnipresent. Here and there are an odd paragraph offers clues to the underside.
The family system depended on obedience. Obedience was enforced by respect or fear … The gentleness I often noticed and experienced in the town was dependent on the harshness just under the surface. Drink could rip it off … The deeper you drilled, the more brutal it became. The great and difficult aim was to make sure that the layers of kindness, friendship, communal care were persuaded to stay intact, cover a repressed hurt reality that could be unleashed as violently as a nightmare.
The book holds the lid on repressed hurt reality. The result is that it doesn’t always make sense as a memoir. The contrast between the depth of thought given to his parents and the shallowness of the self-portrait is striking. Fear and guilt seem to be driving some of the rose-tinted recollections. The title carries a hint of self-mockery or advanced self-effacement, leading us to expect an old man’s musings about utterly changed times, a vanished way of life. Back in the day, bastardy was a disgrace, a lifelong shame; back in the day, your grandparents might have been in the workhouse; back in the day, people were crammed into tiny insanitary cottages, war and poverty damaged them in buried ways, yet they were independent-minded, self-respectful, gritty. They helped each other and were kind. Back in the day, a boy who stayed on at school (a “burden”) was an oddity. Bragg’s adored mother had “a visceral sense of equality”, and there are episodes here that show she thought it was important to stop her son getting above himself.
Norma Clark is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at Kingston University. Her most recent book is a family memoir, Not Speaking2019
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