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.’
Unlike other familiar talking heads who turn whimsically to fiction when well advanced in their career, Bragg has always been a writer. For Want of a Nail (1965) is a strikingly taut and intense first novel about a boy growing up in a Cumbrian village, tormented by the inexplicably wilful behaviour of his mother, doubting the identity of his true father, driving himself on to academic success. Of the dozen or so novels that followed, the majority have been well-crafted historical or regional romances that mine the rich inheritance of Hardy and Lawrence: yet success in other spheres made all this writing seem a semi-private, faintly eccentric activity. During a memorable televised special several years ago, Dame Edna Everage noticed Bragg in the celebrity-packed audience: hands up, she said with customary cruel glee, anyone who has read one of his novels. Bragg, though, had the last laugh with the success of The Maid of Buttermere (1987), a bold and animated retelling of a 19th-century scandal involving the imposter Hatfield. Then, in a neat career reversal, the stir provoked by A Time to Dance (1990) – the improbable tale of a retired bank manager’s passionate affair with a teenage girl – led to Bragg writing the television screenplay.
Bragg’s themes and obsessions inform all his writing. The Land of the Lakes (1983) is a pleasant coffee-table celebration of the region which is a touchstone in his novels: here characters find a Romantic consolation in nature, experience a significant lack of feeling (Hatfield sees Grasmere as ‘a soup bowl with a little puddle left over in the bottom’), even eroticise their surroundings, as in A Time to Dance, whose ecstatic narrator declares that here ‘lived and breathed sex ... The soft round fells were breasts, the broad valleys cleavages, the deep cuts vaginas.’ Despite such occasional flights, Bragg’s pastoralism keeps the necessary double-edge. He insists on the economic hardship endured by most inhabitants of this idyllic landscape, an aspect documented in Speak for England (1976), an impressive oral history of his home town of Wigton. Above all, Bragg’s version of pastoral is shot through with a knowing nostalgia and a keen sense of estrangement: Kingdom come dwells on the realisation that when Cumberland’s favourite son returns home, he does so as novelist or as researcher.
At its best, Bragg’s prose exhibits a kind of effortless brio, a vertical take-off into rhetorical excess. Vivid and often violent imagery course through For Want of a Nail, which from its opening line pulses with a child’s awareness of conflict, real and imaginary (‘a score of Indians, Nazis, pythons, Zulus and midget Japanese aircraft had been shattered by Tom’s index and middle finger’). The narrator of The Nerve announces, ‘My problem is to transfer to you a degree of intensity,’ and this seems a near-universal ambition in Bragg’s writing. Such grandiloquent gusto doesn’t always escape absurdity (from Laurence Olivier (1984): ‘Brutally given the Garbo heave-ho, he went to New York and repaired some of his hacked-down ego with what was widely regarded as a blindingly brilliant performance’). Yet this ‘constant stampede for effect’ can build an undeniable momentum, sweeping along any number of clichés, truisms and allusions in its wake, as when describing Richard Burton in Rich (1988): ‘He was driven by a devil that he never knew but he never stopped fighting, a maker of his own myths, Celtic, Faustian, an Icarus and a Don Juan, coming out from his beloved Wales like a mystical warrior to rove the world for conquests, forever unsettled, forever daring.’ This capacity for going over the top allows Bragg to convey extreme states of mind – adolescence, mental suffering, obsessive love. His best and most enjoyable book is The Maid of Buttermere because his broad rhetorical gestures perfectly match the (appropriately named) ‘damned swaggering braggadocio’ assumed by the novel’s counterfeit protagonist, whose magnificent actor’s voice has a life of its own, ‘an all but incontinent garrulity taking him over’.
While Bragg is a more rewarding writer than we might expect, in his new novel, Crystal Rooms, he has inexplicably done away with many of his traditional resources – a Cumberland setting, strong characters, vigorous prose. References to the recent demise of Mrs Thatcher, to war in the Gulf and battles over television franchises, signal that now the setting is London, the time the recent past. The central figure is Mark Armstrong, writer and producer of television documentaries, with a special interest in Northern Ireland. The usual distance between author and protagonist has fallen away, and the loss of irony is immediately felt. For, despite the multiple disadvantages of being ‘a white, overprivileged, overweight, middle-aged Englishman’, the narrative flatters Mark shamelessly: ‘a pagan, a radical democrat; intellectual but uncorrupted by élitism, wilful, butterhearted’, he is not only good-looking ‘in a craggy, untidy, intelligent, amused way’, but is also – we are reminded interminably – ‘a major talent in television land’.
The other players in Mark’s life tend to the dull or the cartoonish. There’s the malicious alcoholic journalist Martha Potter, a ‘silly cow’ who (rumour has it) bears a passing resemblance to a journalist who once profiled Bragg unfavourably. There’s the shark-toothed mogul Rudolf Lukas, a famous minus-millionaire who, unlike many of those who have recently found themselves behind bars or toppling off their yachts, retains a precarious presence in the market. As he loquaciously informs Mark:
Let’s cut the niceties. I want a British television station. Now’s the time to get it. You’re the man to get it for me. Here’s how we do it.
There’s the beauteous Jen, with whom Mark had ‘an obsessive, outrageous affair’ back in the early Seventies, but who left for America, small-screen stardom, and marriage into a family of oil tycoons who (unfortunately for them, but fortunately for the exigencies of the story) were all wiped out in a freak accident. Now, as the estranged wife of Rudolf, she is back in London giving Mark and herself a second chance.
Finally there’s Mark’s best friend, Sir Nicholas de Loit, an old-style wet Tory MP, whose one moment of indiscretion precipitates the plot. After champagne at the Garrick and a boozy lunch at the Ivy, Nicholas is possessed of a sudden ‘urgent, shameful lust’ and takes himself off to a rent-boy party in a West End hotel. But lechery is transformed to Platonic love at the sight of Harry, a beguiling 11-year-old. In the best tradition of orphans lost in the metropolis, Harry has been abandoned in Leicester Square on the instructions of his wicked aunt, and has promptly fallen into the hands of an updated version of Fagin. Nicholas, then, must attempt to rescue Harry without being exposed by the tabloids; Jen must learn to stop ‘living a lie’; Mark needs to declare his absolute love, keeping an eye out for a Northern Ireland gunman less than impressed with his latest documentary; and Martha must attempt to stay sober long enough to profile the elusive Mark and, perhaps, bed the desirable Rudolf.
A version of the first five chapters of the book were serialised in Esquire magazine, and some sentences still betray a more than usual breathlessness, arriving on the page so overburdened that they let slip the odd delirious ambiguity: ‘He would see Rudolf Lucas, media mogul and husband of Jen, the love of Mark’s life, with whom after lunch he would almost certainly enjoy complex, detailed and audacious sex.’ But at least these early chapters have some of the old rhetorical vim: the subsequent playing-out of the many plotlines seems confused and perfunctory, alternately straining our credulity and our patience. There are aimless flashbacks to Harry’s long-gone mother, and Bragg’s fondness for the novel-as-chronicle leads him to set the present day against the more optimistic boom time of the early Seventies, the point being that life was marginally more innocent back when ‘jolly Leicester Square’ was less frequented by pimps and pushers. The narrative seems dogged, rather than informed by a sense of social conscience, and too many characters meditate on the state of the nation: their impeccably liberal comments on the pernicious influence of violent video games, or the surprisingly uplifting nature of a game of football, have about as much place in a novel as a typical contribution to Start the week.
At times this seems a novel in search of a genre, but its serial origins do suggest a parallel with The Bonfire of the Vanities, which began life in the pages of Rolling Stone. The comparison at once reveals the essential flaw of Crystal Rooms: Bragg is too nice to write the kind of topical satire promised by his opening chapters, is altogether too decent a chat-show host to hit out with the fear and loathing that animated the best New Journalism. Arguably, Braggian niceness spoilt A Time to Dance: against all the expectations of betrayal encouraged by allusions to Hazlitt and Nabokov, the mysterious absences of the microskirted Bernadette are finally explained away as visits to a sick relative. In Crystal Rooms we are not allowed even to entertain doubts about the central characters. Where targets exist they are made of straw – power-crazed tycoons, vicious journalists, BBC bureaucrats. Bragg drops the odd catty allusion to his media confrères, yet overall there is a deadening even-handedness, a lack of satirical energy. Nicholas dips his toe into evil, but then spends the rest of the novel apologising for his momentary aberration, and finding redeeming features in the grotesque behaviour of Harry’s unloving aunt; Mark forgives friends who furnish Martha with the dirt on his former life, and doesn’t bear a grudge against his would-be assassin (instead he pays him hospital visits); even the odious Martha and Rudolf mellow when they find true love in one another. It is as though Bragg thinks a few contradictory impulses are enough to save his characters from caricature and transform narrative confusion into sophisticated social realism.
While Tom Wolfe staged a spectacular collision between the worlds of poverty and serious money, in Crystal Rooms the two worlds eye one another with equal discomfort, but never really meet. The fashionable, restaurant-going world of the metropolis is explored in lavish detail, yet the world of the poor – the North or Cardboard City – remains a suspiciously hazy abstraction. And ultimately the gulf between the two just dissolves: Nicholas considers whether it’s the right thing to bring Harry into his place of crystal rooms, his ‘upper-middle-class, privileged, facilitated world’, then decides it’s probably permissible because true love triumphs. An epigraph invokes Dickens, and certainly the story of the orphan come to London town pulls into play the tradition of Victorian melodrama, especially when it seems to veer towards an improbable resolution involving a coincidence of parentage (is Harry really the son of Jen’s long lost sister?): but when this possibility is ruled out, the reader is left wondering why it was ever raised. Bragg’s panorama of London and the Britain of the Nineties more generally lacks conviction – but perhaps in this, at least, it does accurately capture something of the spirit of the age.