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Monday, 18 June, 2001, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
Writer and presenter Melvyn Bragg quizzed
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Melvyn Bragg is set to release his new novel, A Son of War, which is the sequel to the award-winning The Soldier's Return.

The book is set in post-war Britain. It chronicles the life of Joe and his parents, Sam and Ellen. Sam has returned from war and finds he is discontent and restless with his new life.

But it's through the eyes of Joe, a seven-year-old boy we catch a glimpse of the hedonism and exhilaration of youth.

Yet writing is only a small part of Bragg's talents. Renowned for LWT's South Bank Show which he started in 1978. He presented the BBC's Start The Week for 10 years, until 1998 and became a Labour peer (Lord Bragg of Wigton) in the same year. He now writes and presents In Our Time for BBC Radio 4.

Of all his achievements, which is he most proud? Does he think the House of Lords should be abolished?

Melvyn Bragg joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions.

Highlights of the interview:


I am joined today by writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg. Melvyn is probably best known for presenting the South Bank Show as well as writing 16 novels and also finding the time to become a Labour Peer. His latest novel is called A Son of War and it has just been published. Last year he won the W.H. Smith Literary Award.

We have had lots of readers e-mailing in questions for you so I will get straight on with them. The first is from Lucy Williams in Kent, she asks: I have always wanted to write a novel but can never decide what it should be about. How do you decide the subject matter of yours? Is it easier to use autobiographical elements?

Melvyn Bragg:

I think the first thing to say is that nobody can tell you what novel to write. So many people have written novels that have come out of so many different boxes in their minds or their imaginations or their lives that there is no one way to do it. People say it is easy to write out of your own experience - sometimes it is. It is not a bad place to start because it is like writing a letter. In terms of getting a subject, I think what you have got to do is to keep trying and even if it is only a page or two, until the subject actually is so strong that you keep on writing and the subject itself will keep you on writing.

In the Soldier's Return and A Son of War - these two books, one came out and won a prize and this one that has just come out - I draw deliberately on my own experience. I use facts in my life as a starting point - like a few bones if you like - the flesh, the nerves, the bones and all the rest that makes us human beings are invented - that is the fiction - but I do use that. But that is not the only way to do it - it is not a bad way to start though.


Would you say that these two books that you have just mentioned are your favourite novels because they are written from personal experience?

Melvyn Bragg:

I think that they matter more to me than any other novels and I think that at long last I have found my own particular voice as people say. That is harder to do than you think. A lot of writers write well but they write rather like other writers. The thing you should try to do is to find the voice that you have - however good it is or isn't, it doesn't really matter, as long as it is like nobody else's voice. I think I have finally got there - with this very plain English, very straightforward - and telling the extraordinary story of ordinary lives afflicted by war and job loss and delighted being with each other and family and so on. So that is the course I am on. I was pleased with the Soldier's Return and I was pleased that it was recognised in the way that it was and A Son of War - fingers crossed, out it comes. But I loved writing it and I took a lot of care to write it and especially rewrite it several times.


On that note, John Lister from Glasgow asks: Why did you decide to write a sequel to the Soldier's Return?

Melvyn Bragg:

When I thought of the Soldier's Return it was following the death of my father. I wanted to write about my father, myself and my mother from when I was about six or seven years old to when I was about 14. When I started to do the Soldier's Return - the impact of him coming back and the nightmare that was in his head that he couldn't talk about of what he had seen and done in the war, was a book in itself - that was the Soldier's Return and that was about six months in the life of this family and that was enough. But the other part was always there. So after thinking about it a bit, before Soldier's Return came out, I started to write A Son of War. I started to work on that and to write it. Having got into that now, I think I may go on because I think I have found something that suits me as a writer. I think I am writing more truly than I have ever written before and that is a thing that matters most to me.


Do you think that the book struck a chord with a lot of people who lived through the war?

Melvyn Bragg:

Well it seems to have done - in terms of letters, in terms of sales, in terms of people's comments. After all four and half million people came back to this country after the Second World War. You just take a pause for thought - you can't even imagine it. They came back to sweethearts, wives, sisters, mothers. They had been torn away from them and in many cases they had been torn away for years and in many cases, put in situations which were almost unspeakable and they couldn't speak about it. Most of them didn't in those days - you didn't cry, there wasn't any counselling, you didn't blub - you just stuck it out and endured it. I look back on that time as a time that I lived through and my parents lived through and there is masses to say about it. I don't think many people have written about it. It is deeply part of what we are today - it rumbles on now. The Second World War took this country and scrunched it around and the consequences are still with us and we are living with it for better and for worse.


How much did you base the character of the little boy Joe in A Son of War on yourself as a child?

Melvyn Bragg:

Well certain things are similar. I had this particular sort of background. I was an only child. We lived with a little yard, shed, lavatory etc. So certain things are similar. In terms of the way he thought and his emotions for his parents, those are made up. I can't really remember with any accuracy what I thought about my parents when I was six years old. I can remember bits and bobs and they are nearly always misremembered. When I tested them against my mother's memory, I nearly always got it wrong. It is a funny thing about writing fiction - it is easy to say but hard to explain - if you make it up, it can often be truer. I think that is why people read fiction because everybody has this fantastic thing called the imagination and they can imagine these people and they, the readers, turn them into real people.


Sue Miller from London wants to ask a general question about your career. She asks: Do you prefer writing or broadcasting?

Melvyn Bragg:

Well when I am doing it, I prefer writing. But I find it quite difficult to be solitary for a long time. I like being on my own for five, six, seven days - even longer - but that is about it and then going back into a job. In a sense the question was solved for me by the fact that I was married when I was 21 years-old, I had to get a job - I hadn't published anything and I didn't publish anything for years - and I was writing my head off.

It took into my early 40s to write a book that made money similar, to say, money being earned by a schoolteacher that you could begin to live off - by which time I had got a career going in television and to a certain extent in radio, which I enjoyed and which gave me a lot of interest, energy - educated me more - which I rather liked and was totally different from writing and I still had time over if I worked very hard and didn't have any hobbies - to write. So I have just chosen to do that. But when I am writing on my own, there is actually nothing like it - it is extraordinary - you just feel - I am doing this and whatever happens to it, I am making something that wasn't done before.


Did you know from an early age you wanted to follow this career path or has anything else ever interested you?

Melvyn Bragg:

No, when I was a boy I was just all over the place - I didn't know what I wanted to do. I didn't even know I wanted to stay on at school after 15 - it was the History teacher that persuaded my father. I didn't particularly want to go to university - again the History and English teacher said have a crack and go there. The great thing about university, as far as I was concerned, was it gave me free time. I got a grant and I worked in the holidays - but I had free time to think about what I wanted to do and I started to write and I thought I might do that. I didn't tell anybody because it seemed such a strange ambitious thing for someone like me to do because there was no writing in my background. So that was when I thought that is what I am going do and at the same time thought I would have get a job to support myself as I might not even get published.


There is a question here from Rosie Sanders in West Lothian. She asks: the South Bank Show is now an institution but do you think there is enough arts coverage on television?

Melvyn Bragg:

No, I don't think there is anything like enough arts coverage on television. I think the BBC ought to do far more - as I said before, I admire the BBC but it's like my country right and wrong - you support them when it's right and when you think it's wrong, you tell them it is wrong. I think the BBC should do more arts programmes - especially BBC1 because that is its big channel - that is where it gathers in its big audiences to justify, quite rightly and I think it deserves it, its massive licence fee - it should do more arts programmes. The problem is that if the BBC doesn't do more arts programmes then everyone else - Channel 4, ITV, Sky etc. - feel then why should we bother if the BBC isn't really bothering.

Secondly, I think that the BBC and ITV - and ITV does more arts programmes than BBC1 now - we have a duty, we have got all these privileges, therefore we have got responsibilities and one of them in broadcasting is to bring masses of parts of our society to the general public - to bring entertainment to the public, bringing sport to the public, bringing news to the public. That's fine but also bringing the arts to the public - novels, opera, ballet, popular music, classical music, dance - bringing that there too so that people can have a chance to join in the rich massive life that's really going on in this country. I think the arts is part of that and it is under-represented and I think that is a shame at the moment.

See also:

28 Oct 98 | UK Politics
'Just call me Melvyn'
11 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Bragg battles for hunting reprieve
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