2022 – Back in the Day By Melvyn Bragg Review – A very lively and moving memoir | Biography and notes

I I was on the bus when it happened: I shivered with unexpected sobs, as if an invisible hand had reached inside me and turned the switch that said “tears.” In his new memoir, a book I almost put aside for a few moments, Melvin Bragg described the funeral of his host father, Stanley, in Wigton, Cumbria sometime in the 1990s. Bragg and his mother, Ethel, had just come out of the church, and a large crowd of mourners followed, because Wigton is not very tall, and everyone there knew Stanley. Bragg looked up. Across the street stood a row of men, each clever at their best on Sunday. Who knew, without having to tell him, that it was his father’s clients who were always welcome at Black-a-Moor when–how amazing today–Catholics were still quietly forbidden from drinking in many places. None of them felt able to attend the service–the wrong church–but here they were all, an unexpected honor guard.

This probably doesn’t seem like a thing for a critic to sob softly on the number 38, and the strange thing is that in the context of old, it is not even close to the finest and saddest detail; Prague’s book, the best he’s ever written, puts real meaning in the overused literary adjective ‘hole’. But here it is: This scene moved me. I saw in my eyes the street where the curtains of every house would have been drawn as a sign of respect (I remember my grandmother doing it when I was a little girl) and upon these men, their faces heavy with age, and the hats in big hands. It was easy to imagine how Prague felt upon seeing her, feeling something close to love when he appeared. Although he had long since left the city – first to Oxford and then to London – he never left it. It was and still is, and I wonder if this isn’t the happiest moment of his life: much better than all the TV shows, fame, money, and nobility.

King Street in Wigton circa 1955: “Bragg was almost paralyzed reluctant to leave Cumbria.” Photo: Frances Frith/Melvin Bragg Group

Men from humble backgrounds who do well later in life are often asked to write a memoir; Aside from anything else, it amazes their success, and makes it look even more amazing. But often there is bitterness in these books – oh, the fanatics left behind! – and a sense of relief that the escape was a success. Bragg’s diary is not one of them. It is the product of continuous emotion and emotional understanding. As we now know, its author was reluctant to leave Cumbria, even after receiving a scholarship from not one but two Oxford colleges. Several times in his story, we find him about to choose a completely different life. He will probably drop out of school and work in a factory like many of his friends. Perhaps, having “remained” when everyone else left, he would choose a job in the local government service rather than put his amazing mind to good use at university. He loves Wigton and there are people who associate him with her: his family, his friends, and a girl he adores the name Sarah. Even the thought of Workington — a nearby town where his parents threaten to move for a day — fills him with dread. It could be just as easy as Birmingham or Marrakesh.

The book chronicles his life, from his birth to the point when, after conscription abolished, he decided to go to Oxford – and the details are key. What a memory Prague has of names and faces; He can describe the new furniture in his parents’ living room as if it were still there, waiting for his indefatigable mother to flick it off. His text has a sense of the abstract, albeit very poetic. Bragg is 82 years old; The world that wanted and needed to describe it is now gone; time is running out. The writing is simple, in the sense that he wants to make things right, but again there is something so evocative, as if a force other than him were pressing her fingers on his keyboard.

His story comforts him I think, even if it is difficult to write (the moment when he inadvertently insults a drunkard in his father’s bar and angers Stanley and forces him to apologize until the reader’s skin burns). He likes to think of the surrounding streets, shops and farms. But he also takes into account: the contamination of his mother’s illegitimacy; the frustrations of his wise father who was so poor that he could do nothing but work; Sukon is a city where many men fought in the first war and others have just returned from the second. Why did Bragg have some kind of breakdown as a teenager? What makes one person succeed and the other fail? What is the use of learning and why is it better – more useful – than stoicism and hard work? First of all, what does it mean to love someone and not be able to tell them properly? Those are the big questions – the big questions – that pop up on their pages.

Bragg’s parents, Ethel and Stanley, were in Blackmore in the mid-1950s. Photo: Melvyn Bragg

What a world to capture here. You can almost smell it: the smell of coal fire, wet coats, beer and cigarette smoke. You can certainly hear it: darts hitting a board, Parky (Prague’s grandfather was one) shouting at disobedient boys, the chorus chanting an anthem. Defeats both near and far. He always acts more in shame and confusion than in joy and contentment. Most people are too tired and broke to be happy: every house has at least one inn; Every home has a thousand jobs you need to do. Pleasure should not be taken lightly; Guilt follows like toxic smoke. When Bragg and his father went to Blackpool for three days, they came home early.

I cannot hope to capture in the space I have here the extraordinary emotional geography of this book, let alone its strange and immature beauty; The way Bragg strikes, in his struggle to fully explain its meaning, is wise and even painful (when he does, it’s like ringing a bell). I can only say that I loved him. Somehow – those tears again! – He brought things back to me, thus reminding me of what is really important in life; How happy I am to be associated with certain people, certain places.