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Back in the Day: Melvyn Bragg's deeply affecting, first ever memoir

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A book you dislike at the start can turn around and give you something very special and meaningful, something that speaks to you, something that you will be glad not to have missed! Melvyn Bragg’s first memoir (Back In The Day: A Memoir, published 26 th May 2022) covers the period up to the moment when he left home for University in Oxford. In this elegiac and heartfelt memoir, Melvyn Bragg recreates his youth in the Cumbrian market town of Wigton: a working-class boy who expected to leave school at fifteen yet who gained a scholarship to Oxford University; who happily roamed the streets and raided orchards with his gang of friends until a breakdown in adolescence drove him to find refuge in books. What a memory Bragg has for names and faces; he can describe the new furniture in his parents’ living room as if it were all still there, waiting to be dusted by his indefatigable mum.

It covers Melvyn Bragg’s early years alone with his mother while his father fought in the war, the chronic breakdown he experienced when he was 13 and the love of books that saved him, the joys of first romance, and his journey to winning a scholarship at Oxford to study Modern History. a fascinating and often moving portrait of a time, a place and a working-class boy who fell in love with words and made a distinguished career out of using them extremely well. It transforms from a list of familial facts to a life story filled with the richness of those around him and the love of his family, hometown, and the vast assorted characters who populated his young life.I’d come home, have tea at about half past four and while my parents went down into the pub, I just worked and worked.

I gradually realised my “grandmother” was not my grandmother, my “uncles” were not my uncles… I massively regret that I didn’t ask some of the older people, later on: what really happened? When my brother and I went to stay with my mother's parents, there was an outside lavatory and the toilet paper was newspaper cut into squares. I’d have got into local government or gone down to the factory and worked in its accounts department or been a junior clerk. Bragg and his mother, Ethel, were just coming out of the church, trailed by a great crowd of mourners because Wigton isn’t big and everyone in it had known Stanley. I didn’t appreciate this given the few hours of sunlight and the cold dreary weather I have had to deal with currently.

But his huge commitment to study with the support of some excellent teachers brings huge success in his "A Levels". I loved the story about falling in love with Sarah and their sexual explorations, fear of pregnancy which is so familiar to people of that generation.

View image in fullscreen King Street in Wigton circa 1955: ‘Bragg was almost paralysingly reluctant to leave Cumbria’. This is not a book that precisely chronicles the passing of the years; there is barely a single date in evidence.I didn’t want the story to end and felt the emotion as the narrator said a farewell (but not a final goodbye) to Wigton. I really knew nothing about him before reading this and am reminded of the saying that “you can take someone out of a place but not the place it of them”. 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. He is in effect saying that even though he has chosen to go to Oxford to study, in his heart he will never leave behind his home and those living there!

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