Melvyn Bragg’s first memoir (Back In The Day: A Memoir, published 26th May 2022) covers the period up to the moment when he left home for University in Oxford. As we might expect from his previous writings, his deep rootedness in, and love of Wigton, the place of his upbringing, plays a huge role in the book, as does his relationship with his parents, Ethel and Stan, to whom he plays a loving but sharp-eyed tribute. The awkwardnesses of his understanding with his father, with whom so much had to be left unsaid given the nature of male emotional life in the 1940s and 1950s and the character of Stan himself, emerge very strongly. Also explored intimately are the social pressures and conformities of living in an intimate community like Wigton, where there was togetherness and mutual help, but also lifelong marks of inferiority felt by his mother over her illegitimate birth, something that Melvyn shows her spending her whole life compensating for; his pride in the quietly triumphant way that she succeeded in this is unmistakeable.
This is not a book that precisely chronicles the passing of the years; there is barely a single date in evidence. What we get instead is a richly described and explored evolution of his own interior emotional and mental life. Into this perspective flash vividly drawn Wigton characters, such as the unfortunate Andrew, or Melvyn’s main mentor at The Nelson School, Spitfire pilot and then History teacher, Jimmie James (died 2020), to whom he pays a wonderful tribute.
And then there is the beloved town itself: Melvyn’s safe and dangerous cradle, a whole world in itself for those that looked for it. Safe because it was his playground, and dangerous because its streets and pubs contained a threat of direct violence; the pressure created on the growing child by constant fear of brawls downstairs in the pub where his parents were landlords played a role in the mental disturbances in his teenage years that Melvyn revealingly documents here.
I found this to be a wonderful book. I am biased: I have lived in Wigton since 1992 and taught for 26 years at the very school that Melvyn attended. Cast loose from my own town of birth at 18, I responded emotionally to the portrait painted here of my adopted home, as seen through the loving but clear eyes of someone who went out into the wider world but never really left. But those who have no knowledge of Wigton will still be moved and entertained by the books’ depiction of a northern community in the 40s and 50s, and the development within it of an important figure in the cultural life of this country.