Melvyn Bragg pays tribute to the greatness of ordinary lives

“Critics often say I write novels about ordinary people,” Lord Bragg of Wigton told the audience at Ilkley’s King’s Hall, “but I’ve never met anyone who is ordinary.”

Melvyn Bragg was in Ilkley to speak about his latest novel, Grace and Mary, a novel about the greatness of ordinary lives. A work of autobiographical fiction, rather than a memoir, Grace and Mary is based on the stories of Bragg’s grandmother, Grace, and his mother, Mary, to whom Grace gave birth to illegitimately in 1917 in Wigton, Cumbria. The third figure in the novel, John, is based on Bragg himself.

Bragg began by describing his writer’s block after the publication of his novel Remember Me. After a long time of not knowing what to write about next, an idea came to him in the “half light” where dawn becomes daylight, as he vividly described it. He saw a Victorian woman wandering around Cumbrian fields in his half-asleep state. Realising it was his grandmother, he decided he wanted to tell her story.

Bragg then went on to deliver a powerfully moving account of his mother’s dementia and her gradual decline. To help his mother to remember, Bragg prompted her with songs, old photographs of Wigton, and questions about the 1940′s when she was a young woman, an experience he covers in the novel. Later, a member of the audience thanked Bragg for such an eloquent discussion about Alzheimer’s disease, and Bragg responded by saying although he did not set out his novel to provide a comment on coping with the disease, he was pleased it had provided some help to readers.

There’s something very literary about the way Melvyn Bragg delivers the simplest of statements, and it made for a wonderful hour of discussion. Bragg took us through the journey of memory and imagination, remembering and mis-remembering. We imagine our lives; what has been; what might have been; where we are now. Bragg said that the process of writing is no different, and neither is reading.

Memory changes every day in order for us to process the present: it is elusive and it lies to itself, said Bragg, explaining why he prefers to write autobiographical fiction to memoirs. With autobiographical fiction, you can let your imagination flow and get the detail wrong. You can also move the sharp focus away from your own experience, something Bragg says he found helpful. Bragg explained that he didn’t find out about his mother’s illegitimacy until he was 18 – and you got a feeling that this might have had a part to play in his latest novel’s focus on memory. His memories had to shift to process this new truth.

During the hour, he touched on his enviably varied career, speaking of the exciting balance between working collaboratively on Television and Radio programmes such as the South Bank Show and In Our Time, and working autonomously on his fiction writing.

Quoting Shakespeare, Homer, Wordsworth, Eliot, Plato, and St Cuthbert, Bragg is dazzlingly well read, and his anecdotes and quotes were as fascinating as his insights into how and why he writes.

I left the King’s Hall feeling inspired, and a little overwhelmed!

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