I was on the bus when it happened: racked by an unexpected sob, as if some invisible hand had reached inside me and flicked the switch marked tears. In his new memoir, a book I was about to have to put aside for a few moments, Melvyn Bragg was describing the funeral of his publican father, Stanley, in Wigton, Cumbria, some time in the 1990s. Bragg and his mother, Ethel, were just coming out of the church, trailed by a great crowd of mourners because Wigton isn’t big and everyone in it had known Stanley. Bragg looked up. On the other side of the road stood a line of men, each one smart in his Sunday best. Who were they? He knew without having to be told that they were customers of his father’s who had always been made welcome in the Black-a-Moor in the days when – how unbelievable this seems now – Catholics were still tacitly forbidden to drink in many establishments. None of them had felt able to attend the service – wrong church – but here they were all now, an unlikely guard of honor.
This probably doesn’t sound like the sort of thing that should have a critic gently weeping on the number 38, and what’s strange is that, in the context of Back in the Day, it’s not even close to being the most sweet-sad detail; Bragg’s book, the best thing he has ever written, imbues the overused literary adjective “piercing with real meaning. But there it is: this scene moved me. In my mind’s eye, I could see the street, where the curtains in every house would have been drawn as a mark of respect (I can remember my grandmother doing this when I was a little girl), and on it these men, their faces heavy with age, their hats in their big hands. It was easy to imagine how Bragg must have felt at the sight of them, the feeling of something close to love reaching him as he emerged into the daylight. Though he’d long since moved away from the town – first to Oxford, and then to London – he had never really left it. It was, and is, his place, and I wonder if this doesn’t seem to him now like the greatest luck of his life: a better thing by far than all the TV shows, the fame and the money and the peerage.
Men from ordinary backgrounds who have done very well later in life are often moved to write memoirs; Apart from anything else, it gilds their success, makes it seem all the more remarkable. But very often there is a bitterness in these books – oh, the bigots they left behind! – and a sense of relief that an escape was made. Bragg’s memoir isn’t one of these. It is the product of abiding affection and passionate understanding. Its author, we now discover, was almost paralysingly reluctant to leave Cumbria, even after he had been awarded a scholarship by not one, but two, Oxford colleges. times in his narrative, we find him close to choosing another life altogether several. Perhaps he will drop out of school, and work in a factory like so many of his friends. Perhaps, having “stayed on” when everyone else has left, he will choose a job in the local civil service instead of putting his amazing brain to good use in a university. He likes Wigton, and there are people there who bind him to it: his family, his friends, and a girl called Sarah, with whom he’s in love. The notion even of Workington – a nearby town to which his parents at one point threaten to move – fills him with horror. It might as well be Birmingham, or Marrakech.
The book details his life, from his birth to the point at which, compulsory national service having at last been ditched, he’s about to go off to Oxford – and detail is the word. What a memory Bragg has for names and faces; he can describe the new furniture in his parents’ living room as if it were all still there, waiting to be dusted by his indefatigable mum. His text has the feeling of an inventory, albeit a highly poetic one. Bragg is 82; the world he wants, and needs, to describe is now all but gone; time is running out. The writing is plain, in the sense that he wants to get things down, but there is something incantatory, here, too, as though some other force than himself was pushing his fingers across his keyboard.
His story soothes him, I think, even when it’s hard to write (a moment when he unwittingly humiliates a drinker in his father’s pub, and Stanley is furious and forces him to apologise, makes even the reader’s skin burn). He loves to think of the streets and the shops and the outlying farms. But he’s also reckoning things up: the stain of his mother’s illegitimacy; the frustrations of his clever father, too poor to do anything other than work; the quietnesses of a town where many of the men fought in the first war, and others have just returned from the second. Why does Bragg, as a teenager, suffers a kind of breakdown? What makes one man succeed and another fail? What is learning for, and why is it better – of any more use – than stoicism and hard work? Above all, what does it mean to love someone, and yet not to be able properly to tell them? These are the big questions – the huge questions – that rise from his pages.
What a world he captures here. You can almost smell it: the scent of a coal fire, of damp coats, beer, and fag smoke. You can certainly hear it: darts hitting a board, a parkie (Bragg’s grandfather was one) shouting at disobedient boys, a choir belting out a hymn. The fells are both close by, and yet far away. He deals, always, more in shame and awkwardness than in joy and contentment. Most people are too weary, and too broke, to be happy in an unbridled way: every home has at least one lodger; every house has a thousand jobs that need doing. Pleasure isn’t easily taken; guilt trails it, like poisonous smoke. When Bragg and his father go to Blackpool for three days, they end up coming home early.
I can’t hope to capture, in the space I have here, this book’s extraordinary emotional geography, let alone its strange, inchoate beauty; the way that Bragg, in his struggle fully to explain his meaning, so often hits on something wise and even numinous (when he does, it’s as if a bell sounds). All I can say is that I loved it. Somehow – those tears again! – it brought things back to me, and by doing so, it made me remember what’s really important in life; how glad I am myself to be tethered to certain people, certain places.