Diary

Melvyn Bragg’s Diary: a tooth and claw fight on Hampstead Heath

Plus: the gleaming new Laidlaw Library; the BBC and the arts; and a meeting with my old teacher

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

18 July 2015

9:00 AM

I witnessed what was almost a violent fight to the death on Hampstead Heath the other morning. Broad flawless sunlight, the serenity of one of London’s greatest lungs and then, from the little pond opposite the mixed bathing pond, screams. A swan, its neck arched like a bow, yellow beak wide open, was shielding four cygnets from the splashy persistence of a determined mongrel. The swan struck, the mongrel dodged the blow. The swan swivelled and followed the attacker into the shallows, but the dog still ducked and taunted the swan. A frantic owner ran along the bank fruitlessly calling out the dog’s name. Someone — me I’m afraid — yelled, ‘Grab it! It’s shallow water!’ I went towards the bank but the owner took courage. She went in, seized the dog and huddled it to safety. Merciful in victory, the majestic swan merely came to the edge of the water and stood guard until the danger was taken well away.

At the top of Parliament Hill — the big tourist feature of the Heath — children in an obedient circle were being taught about climate change; from the playing fields below came the shrill excited cries of a school sports day; further along in the bandstand near the tennis courts a choir was practising in full voice; and then I passed the breathtaking row of willows beside the mens’ pool and the mums with prams being exercised by a fierce trainer, and it was a fine July morning in London with all sorts and conditions in this free space and England were on the way to beating Australia in the Test, there was an old friend to see later on, and all was well. In London the city can turn into the country in a trice, just round a corner, quick while it lasts.


Last week a great event, the opening of a new Library, the Laidlaw Library at Leeds University of which I am Chancellor. Lord Laidlaw studied economics at Leeds in the early 1960s, went to America, founded and grew an immense research project, sold it and now devotes himself to philanthropy. What a gift! It is a most beautiful contemporary building. Glass, Portland stone, columns, space, echoes of Athens and the stamp of the 21st century. As Lord Laidlaw and many of the students I met said, it was far more comfortable and handsome than their digs (there’s a café tucked into the ground floor) and the students I spoke to loved it. They could not wait to get into it (I swear) and left only reluctantly. If the remorseless drizzle of news dampens your souls, if you think our country is increasingly mired in a mess of its own incompetent making, if you want to see what the future can be — go for a stroll on the campus of a good university. The best of our country is there and the best is to come.

At a time when the guns seem to be swivelled to point at the BBC, let’s throw a few things into the ring. The biggest and most successful university in this country — the Open University, which has been copied all over the world — was wholly enabled by the BBC. The classical music scene in this country and indeed the arts in general exist as the world leaders they are because of the widespread cultural patronage of the BBC. The Proms are just about to begin. On BBC Radio 4 there is a weekly succession of talks and factual programmes which has no parallel anywhere in the world. I could go on. I intend to. So must we all if we are to keep something which is born and bred in this country and is in the very grain of it in good health.

An independent television company has made a film about my life which will be shown on BBC2 on Saturday evening. The oddest thing of all about being involved in that film is that I learnt crucial facts which I had never known. They interviewed my history teacher, Mr James. Aged 94 and as clear-minded as anybody you could meet. He told me that when I was about to leave school at the age of 15, he had gone to see my father and mother three times to persuade them to let me stay on at school. I am 75. It has taken about 60 years for me to learn what was most likely as decisive a move in my life as ever happened. But Mr James never mentioned it at the time. He was a son of a nonconformist missionary sent back to England to a small boarding school. He got into Oxford before the war (the same college, Wadham, to which he directed me). He was a Spitfire pilot in the war (and he never tried to win favour by telling us about that). One way and another he served the Wigton Nelson Thomlinson Grammar School for 57 years. He is one of that small, quiet, modest army of people who change lives — good teachers.

Mel

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10


Show comments
  • davidshort10

    It was quite a different time when teachers had a central effect on our lives. I am somewhat younger than MB but I too benefitted from a Northern grammar school and the very decent men it had as teachers. I don’t share MB’s views on the BBC, however. I think his family must have been a little bit better off than mine. The licence fee was a terrifying thing. Until recently, it has always kept up with inflation and it was a lot of money for a poor family on Tyneside to find to pay for the ‘privilege’ of renting a TV. Working class people did not watch the BBC at all, except for Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son so felt very aggrieved at the high cost for two weekly comedy programmes now and again during the year. I’ve always been opposed to the licence fee. MB of course will not. He has benefitted hugely from it and still does. ITV was also good to him and for him, not least the millions London Weekend shares got him! No wonder he hasn’t lost his hair nor has much in the way of grey at 75. A charmed life. Courtesy of a persistent teacher.

    • For all that – the lad done well!

      • Sue Smith

        Seconded!

    • Ahobz

      David

      Fantastic comment. Thank you for that.

    • Dogsnob

      Why would working class people not watch the BBC?
      Also, renting a telly was easily affordable from the early 1960s onward. Problem was making sure you had enough tanners in your change for the meter.

      • davidshort10

        Renting a telly was affordable but even renting you still had to pay the licence fee. Only those who had trouble paying the rental fee had to put up with a metered TV. It happened to us once and for years afterwards I’d feel anxious as a crisis built up on a TV programme in case the screen went bland and there was a scramble for a shilling. Also, it was true that working class people overwhelmingly watched ITV once it was introduced in the 50s. That was the time when the licence fee began to be unfair.

        • Dogsnob

          Honestly I think you’re having yourself on. Why would ITV be preferable in the eyes of the working class? As a family we watched both channels then available, based only on whether the particular programme looked worth watching.

      • renitat.hernandezr

        FDSGHF Some Different Ways of on-p-e–t-a-t-o- < I'm making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make away online so I decided to look into it. Welldone, it was a all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do, >

  • Curnonsky

    First-rate parody.

  • Mc

    “The biggest and most successful university in this country — the Open University, which has been copied all over the world — was wholly enabled by the BBC.”

    This is valid reasoning if one believes that the BBC is on balance, or overwhelmingly, a positive force.

  • Bragg’s “In Our Time’ is a treasure. There are other treasures on the BBC. There are other treasures all around the internet. Rubbish too. But a greater treasure is freedom to choose how I spend my own money. There is no moral case at all for the license fee and if there were it would not be made by license fee enriched luvvies incited by a lefty BBC bigwig.

    • Gilbert White

      Agree it is a treasure but sometimes he comes in with an apparent bad mike mix as if he has smoking woodbines at the wheel tappers and shunters all night. Furthermore the weird and exotic accents of the of the otherwise brilliant speakers can be undecipherable at a crucial point of the discusion.

  • Frank

    Why does the Spectator waste money on this man, or is it just click-bait? Such a poor return for the schoolmaster’s efforts!

    • Sean L

      Rubbish mate. Melvyn Bragg is a writer, novelist and critic with few peers. As a broadcaster he has none. His output and its breadth, from popular to high culture is unparalleled. He’s a star by any measure. And I don’t share his politics or his view of the BBC. But his work transcends party politics.

      • Frank

        Without wishing to be rude, you really do need to read more widely if you think that Bragg is a writer and novelist with few peers.

        • Sean L

          Not rude at all, merely demonstrating your ignorance my friend. Who exactly are these English writers today better than Melvyn Bragg? How many are even capable of writing a book to compare with The Adventure of English, to take but one example? Peter Ackroyd maybe? Which writers have won more literary awards than Bragg both for fiction and non-fiction, or have won more critical acclaim or better reviews on Amazon? Feel free to share their names, or please choose some other criteria. I’d genuinely like to know who these writers are that are English and contemporary and more distinguished than Melvyn Bragg.

        • Gilbert White

          For a start one page or two of of Paul Scott is almost the value of all Bragg’s output. Bragg is an enabler, he adopts an almost Manuel from Barcelona persona to some of his really knowledgeable guests!

          • Sean L

            But what has his being an enabler with his guests on the radio to do with his merits as an author? Clive James did some quite low brow TV. Is his poetry and criticism to be dismissed on that basis alone? Makes no sense at all. Bragg’s a remarkably accomplished author of fiction and non fiction by any reckoning. That he’s a brilliant broadcaster, of which ‘enabling’ is a key element, doesn’t alter that one way or the other. – And you’ve read his entire output have you?

          • Gilbert White

            Fair enough Sean but Birdsong is the book Bragg would have liked to have under his belt I bet. Bragg enabled subjects like Social Darwinism to be made interesting and accesible.

          • Sean L

            Possibly, Gilbert. I know of it but haven’t read Birdsong.

      • Sue Smith

        Yes, it’s disappointing when you learn these excellent people are mired in left wing politics; in short, those ideologies which have demonstrably been failures. It actually suggests they probably haven’t learned that much after all.

        My son quipped last night that somebody in our political sphere had recently achieved a PhD in “Marxian Economics”. My son said that study needed to be re-named “Economic Failure”. Well, the PhD in question was a member of the Greens!! Say no more.

        • Sean L

          Although Melvyn Bragg is culturally quite conservative, more so than many Conservatives. Being Labour isn’t identical with being left wing. As Powell said when he canvassed for Labour back in ’74, “There are many good Tories on the Labour benches.”

          • Sue Smith

            Thanks for setting me right on that!!

          • Sean L

            Probably more lefties today though: even if less socialist economically, more left culturally. Otherwise how could an arch conservative like Powell have sided with them against the Conservatives?

          • Sue Smith

            Well, of course, I’m Australian (Sydney) and don’t know much about your polity. But I love Melvyn and remember two UNBELIEVABLE interviews he conducted; the first was with Arthur Miller and the second with Albert Finney. I’ve never seen a finer interviewer!! And, “the Story of English” was phenomenal.

          • Sean L

            Agreed. As an aside, Powell was Professor of Greek at the University of Sydney at the age of 25.

          • Sue Smith

            Greek!!!! LOL. Now.

    • Sue Smith

      You’re totally out of order here. Bragg is excellent and a first class interviewer who LISTENS to what the other person is saying. Rare indeed.

  • Sean L

    I fail to see how the proposed pruning of the BBC’s mass market trash elements must have an adverse effect on the good things that Melvyn Bragg alludes to, which are not threatened at all. That he confines his defence of the BBC to precisely the kind of output that the reforms seek to preserve arguably is an implicit endorsement of them. Else why not defend Radio 1 etc? Incidentally, Melvyn Bragg’s Start the Week and In Our Time, amongst other things he’s done, are unrivalled. For me he’s the best broadcaster of our time by a mile.

  • tb_kol

    Its always interesting to read personal anecdotes. Some like Mr. Melvyn’s above one stands out. So i’m bookmarking it for later read as well.

    Remembering school teachers is more than nostalgia. They come to our mind because they would have influenced our life at a right age. My first kindergarten school teacher looked so strict and yet when she saw me sitting quietly with an open copy and head down, she simple sat beside in the small chair, held my hand to make me write ‘cat’, ‘dog’. That set me going. I remember her vividly still. There was another noble hearted Anglo-Indian lady teaching 5th standard though she was a terror for all boys of the school uptil 10th standard. And she had a complete no-nonsense attitude. Once, entering the class she saw pencil sharpenings outside the dustbin and asked who all had sharpened their pencils that way. Out of total fear no one stood up. Except me. Again out of fear. She just pardoned me explaining because i spoke the truth. Somehow she got to know the others and they were caned. I remember her as she had the heart and mind to take character before studies.

    And I just fail to recall any significant teacher other than one or two more, from high school or college, even less from post graduate studies, who would have touched my heart or had made any significant contribution to building my character.

  • trace9

    “.. Last week a great event, the opening of a new Library, the Laidlaw Library at Leeds University of which I am Chancellor. ..”

    Oh, dear.

  • Angelajlarsen

    ^^^^^^Some few days to get small deal with on-p-e-t-a-t-o-

  • Commenthead

    Melvyn would never make it to Oxford now I suspect. The loss of grammar schools has wrecked many working class lives.

Close