Clapham Book Festival: Melvyn Bragg and modern literary trends

Clapham Book Festival: Melvyn Bragg and modern literary trends

A literary extravaganza with Melvyn Bragg, Peter Kemp, and Elizabeth Buchan

by Suswati Basu
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The Clapham Book Festival 2023, known for its distinctive and quirky lineup, brought together a diverse range of literary and broadcasting talents. Among the highlights was the appearance of the renowned broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg, who engaged in a conversation about his life, work, and writing with Radio 4’s cultural and opera expert, Tom Sutcliffe. Additionally, novelist, broadcaster, and prominent critic Peter Kemp discussed his new book, “Retroland,” and more with bestselling local author Elizabeth Buchan.

Speaking to Honorary Fellow Royal Society of Literature Paula Johnson, who pulled the programme together, she said that it was a “marvellous” way to bring together literary greats and spur on the love of reading, and that it was fortunate so many great authors were from the area.

Melvyn Bragg: making complex ideas accessible

During the festival, Tom Sutcliffe paid tribute to Melvyn Bragg’s significant contributions to the world of broadcasting and literature. He began by highlighting Bragg’s exceptional knack for rendering intricate concepts and profound art comprehensible to the masses, stating, “Melvyn Bragg arguably has done more than any other person in the last 50 years to make complex ideas and great art accessible to a general public.”

Veteran broadcaster Melvyn Bragg on his childhood days

Sutcliffe acknowledged the competition from other notable figures like Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski but showcased Bragg’s consistent efforts across multiple significant series and hundreds of programmes since the 1970s. He highlighted shows like “The South Bank Show,” “Start the Week,” as well as “In Our Time,” describing them as instrumental in making the best of human thought and knowledge accessible to all.

The influence of Bragg’s childhood

The conversation examined Bragg’s childhood in Wigton, a small town in Cumberland, Cumbria. Sutcliffe asked Bragg about his earliest encounters with art and culture, and Bragg highlighted three crucial elements: the library, the choir, and the wireless.

“I was very lucky with all three. I mean, the first thing I’d like to say is I came from a very straightforward, working-class family, and I was rich in absolutely everything that matters.”

Melvyn Bragg, Broadcaster and ‘Back in the Day’ Author

Bragg stressed the importance of the library, where he discovered a love for books with the guidance of Mr. Carrick, the town clerk. He also mentioned the local choir, led by an exceptional choir master and an organist. The choir’s excellence was notable in a town of 5,000 people. Lastly, Bragg reminisced about his experiences with the wireless, particularly the radio programmes he enjoyed.

How education shaped his life

Sutcliffe then touched on Bragg’s journey from a working-class background to Oxford University. Bragg recalled that despite having two scholarships, he faced no real challenges adjusting to Oxford, reiterating that he was well-prepared and had friends who accompanied him on his academic journey.

The discussion turned to Mr. James, a significant teacher in Bragg’s life, who had a life-changing impact on him. Bragg noted that teachers hold a unique power to shape young minds, even more so than parents in some cases. Bragg’s education and the guidance of his teachers played a vital role in his intellectual development.

“Teachers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They change people in my view. They’re profound. Even more than your parents because you listen to them in a different way. You listen to your parents as you have your breakfast as it were. You listen to your teachers because they’re out there bringing in wisdom from out there.”

Melvyn Bragg, Broadcaster and ‘Back in the Day’ Author

Sutcliffe inquired about Bragg’s reading habits before encountering Wordsworth, to which Bragg admitted that he was already a voracious reader who explored various genres, even at a young age. When he eventually read Wordsworth, he found resonance in the poet’s descriptions of nature and human experiences.

He also touched on the challenges of writing Bragg’s second memoir after “Back in The Day,” which deals with a more difficult period of his life. Bragg acknowledged the work was ongoing and required more drafts.

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Audience members raised questions about social mobility and the state of education in contemporary society. Bragg shared his thoughts on the changing landscape of education, pointing out that more people are attending universities today. He expressed optimism about the educational opportunities available to young people but noted challenges in accessing opportunities after university.

“For instance, people 30 years ago, we said, look at all this pop music, they’re dumbing down. But when you start thinking, God, the lyrics are good. Goodness, some of the melodies are brilliant. We’ve been missing this. It’s been there. We haven’t taken any real notices. That’s not dumbing down, that’s embracing.”

Melvyn Bragg, Broadcaster and ‘Back in the Day’ Author

They also addressed concerns about the “dumbing down” of culture and media. Bragg questioned whether this perception was entirely accurate, citing the quality of podcasts and the rich discussions taking place in various media. He encouraged a more nuanced view of cultural shifts.

Peter Kemp describes the current trends in literature

‘Retroland’ author Peter Kemp speaks with ‘Two Women in Rome’ writer Elizabeth Buchan. Credit: Suswati Basu.

Bestselling novelist and local resident Elizabeth Buchan spoke to Peter Kemp at the Clapham Book Festival, who is the chief fiction reviewer for the Sunday Times. Kemp, known for his books on Muriel Spark and H.G. Wells, editor of “The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations,” and associate editor of “The Oxford Companion to English Literature”, presented his most recent work, “Retroland: A Reader’s Guide to the Dazzling Diversity of Modern Fiction,” which serves as a wonderfully readable and enjoyably opinionated guide to our current literary landscape. Buchan’s latest novel in her highly successful writing career is “Two Women in Rome.”

The past in modern fiction

Kemp’s discussion on the evolution of modern fiction was particularly enlightening:

“It seemed to me that the whole process really began around 1970, coincidentally enough, with, the kind of gradual disappearance of the British Empire.”

Peter Kemp, ‘Retroland’ Author

Kemp went on to explain how modern fiction has become incredibly diverse, with novels written in various forms, narrated by unusual characters, and even published as podcasts. He emphasised that writers over the last half-century have been preoccupied with the past in various forms. Kemp traced this fascination back to around 1970, coinciding with the gradual decline of the British Empire. He identified four forms of engagement with the past: the imperial past and its aftermath, personal past, the rise of historical fiction, and the recycling and reworking of past literature. His observation led to the term “retroland,” as he noted that the word “retro” first came into use in the 1970s. He described Retroland as a diverse territory with a web of fascination with the past.

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Buchan responded, agreeing with Kemp’s insights and mentioning the work of author Kate Mosse, who was unable to attend but is known for her remarkable novels and contributions to women’s literature and history. Buchan also highlighted Mosse’s interest in exploring forgotten stories and championing women’s narratives.

Historical fiction: craving adventure and the fascination with Empire

The talk then turned to the question of whether readers are craving adventure and cultish matter in historical fiction. Kemp agreed that adventure and the fascination with cultish elements are indeed prominent themes in contemporary historical fiction. Kemp praised Paul Scott’s and J.G. Farrell’s work in portraying the decline of empire and its aftermath. He also acknowledged the influence of writers like Salman Rushdie in giving a voice to authors from colonised societies.

“I think even Salman Rushdie took lots of hints from Paul Scott, and I certainly feel that he started the whole idea. First, you’re looking at Empire. You’re aware that it’s something that has dominated lives, not just in Britain, but all around the globe, and it’s all starting to fall apart. And so partly there’s a focus on the disintegration of Empire, but I think it partly leads to the resurrection of historical fiction, because writers, particularly indigenous writers, start looking back at the cultures and the ways of life that Empire overlaid and smothered.”

Peter Kemp, ‘Retroland’ Author

Creating immersive worlds and the allure of historical fiction

The conversation then touched upon the significance of creating immersive worlds in historical fiction. Both Buchan and Kemp agreed that the ability to transport readers to different times and places is one of the key appeals of historical fiction.

As they continued, the challenges faced by historical novelists, including language and the use of period-appropriate dialogue, were explored. Kemp mentioned that writers employ various strategies to strike a balance between historical accuracy and accessibility for modern readers.

“I mean one of the things that I well I admire a lot of things about J. K. Rowling, one of the things I particularly admire is how much time goes into imagining something like the contents of a wizard’s toy shop and joke shop where they have things like nose biting teacups and things like this.”

Peter Kemp, ‘Retroland’ Author

Buchan shared her experiences as a historical novelist, admitting that her early works may have relied too heavily on period-specific language but that over time, she learned to use historical elements more strategically.

“It felt like an easier thing to do to take a historical backdrop because it was there already in place up against which you could put your characters and your situations and all the rest of it. Also there is that marriage with a subject.”

Elizabeth Buchan, ‘Two Women in Rome’ Author

The discussion then shifted to the resurgence of historical biography and its synergy with historical fiction. Both authors acknowledged that historical biography, particularly those focusing on multiple subjects or groups, has become more prevalent, providing readers with a broader understanding of historical periods and personalities.

More from the Clapham Book Festival

Earlier in the day, bestselling and prodigious crime writer Simon Brett spoke with barrister-turned author Nicola Williams about her book “Until Proven Innocent.” The Clapham Book Festival resumes later in the week, with two new talents to feature via Zoom – Ivy Ngeow (17 October) and Sarah Bax Horton (19 October).

Finally, on Sunday, 22 October there’s a guided Clapham Literary Walk starting at Omnibus from 3pm-5pm.

Hence the Clapham Book Festival 2023 featured insightful discussions on literature, history, and the enduring appeal of the past in modern fiction and biography. Melvyn Bragg, Peter Kemp, and Elizabeth Buchan offered engaging insights into the world of books and the power of storytelling to transport readers across time and space.

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