- Crystal Rooms by Melvyn Bragg
Hodder, 342 pp, £14.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 340 56409 1
Years ago I was walking down a street in a suburban town in the evening. The streets were empty, there was a feeling of dereliction. I passed this shop full of television sets, and I was on all of them. I thought ‘Christ, that’s awful.’ I found it quite disturbing.
Melvyn Bragg interviewed by the Daily Mail, 1990
To judge from his fiction, Melvyn Bragg finds his status as the nation’s cultural uncle as unsettling as anybody. An early novel, The Nerve (1971), is ostensibly about the mental breakdown of a London lecturer, but the narrator’s attention is continually distracted by the triumphant rise of his former schoolmate, the glamorous Rod. Not content with a house in Hampstead (that ‘hillock of Xanadu’) and a career as a successful television producer, Rod also finds time to write ‘rather discursive and thoughtful novels’ about his Cumbrian home town; his schedule thus ranges ‘from feeding the silent majority through the tube ... to preparing a novel for its safe passage past the scrutiny of searching scores’.
Bragg’s fiction frequently throws up such semi-autobiographical men for all media, and as often views them from an ironic distance. Rod presents himself with a mixture of sympathy and distaste: towards the novel’s climax, he launches into an extended apologia for his job (‘I don’t serve up pap but neither do I preach’), his politics (‘I’m a Tory who votes Labour. A “Left Conservative” as Norman Mailer so charmingly and conveniently puts it’), even his class (‘in any dialectical analysis ... we are part of them, the bosses, and should be pulled down’). At once defensive yet assured, such self-scrutiny is a disarming feature of many of Bragg’s novels. Characters are constantly seeing themselves at one remove, and are prone to suffering from weird, out-of-body experiences: ‘the eye of his mind would slither from his head and regard what remained; like an eye in a painting by Picasso.’ Not surprisingly, such alienated perspectives are rarely flattering. In The Cumbrian Trilogy (1969-80) another television producer and author of autobiographical fiction ponders writing a novel that will chart the progress of his family over the generations, from ‘hired man to media man’; typically, despite their increasing prosperity and mobility, he portrays this as a saga of decline through the ages: ‘Heroic – Grandfather; Silver – father; Decadent – self’.
Still, it is hard to resist the notion that Bragg is his own greatest creation, defined, in his idiosyncratically worked-up prose, as ‘a Victorian Cumbrian Protestant working-class free transfer to metropolitan media middle-class novelist’. He ‘starts the week’ on radio and ends it on television with the South Bank Show; in between he is Controller of Arts at London Weekend Television, chairman of Border Television and president of the National Campaign for the Arts; as the ‘thinking woman’s crumpet’ he is featured in Hello! magazine; as a member of the June 20 Group he is lampooned by Private Eye; as ‘television’s most charming editor-presenter of the arts’ he rates the accolade of his own Spitting Image. Lynn Barber may have famously delineated his ‘awful smug matey blokiness’ in the pages of the Independent on Sunday, but perhaps that only demonstrates what an inviting target Bragg has become. As a character in Kingdom come (1980) explains, ‘the rules are simple – hit out at prominent figures, thereby getting yourself talked about, thereby getting some of the spotlight on yourself, thereby becoming a “name”, thereby acquiring a market value.’