OIR: on Melvyn Bragg and John Shapcott

Article published on April 20, 2015.

In her final report from the Words by the Water Festival 2015, Linda Hepworth listens in to John Shapcott in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.

William Blake’s famous saying “to see the world through a grain of sand” is at the root of John Shapcott’s book, Grains of Sand. This is a critique of Melvyn Bragg’s fifteen Cumbrian novels and explores the idea that, as an important regional author, Melvyn has viewed the changing life of England through the particular grain of sand which is his birthplace in west Cumbria where he has continued to retain, even in his absences, a sense of being deeply rooted. In his book John makes a convincing case for the author’s novels to be seen as part of a literary tradition stretching from the Romantic poets, D.H. Lawrence and Arnold Bennett, and onto Alan Sillitoe and Raymond Williams. They contain such a wide range of historical, cultural and social references, not only local and national but also international, and in all of them landscape plays an evocative and vital role.


The conversation between John and Melvyn was lively and far-ranging, and was attentively appreciated by a large audience. In order to make the topic more manageable, John focused on just three of Melvyn’s novels, The Maid of Buttermere, A Time to Dance and Crossing the Lines, the third of his “autobiographical” novels. In discussing the first Melvyn explained that he had decided to write it at a time when he felt he was facing something of a hiatus in his writing and, as he had always wanted to write a Victorian novel, based it on a true, local story about a nineteenth century conman and a beautiful local girl. His research for the book was extensive but he made particular reference to what a rich source of information was available in the Carlisle newspapers. He spoke about the difficulties of converting fact convincingly into fiction and described how he created characters to carry the plot – he made us all laugh when he admitted that he had named “every bad guy” in Carlisle prison after his Wigton friends! He discussed linking the parochial with the national, and even with the international, reflecting how the local represents universal beliefs and standards. This is a theme which runs through all his books, as does his frequent, wide-ranging use of references to other literature.


William Hazlitt (b 1778) is a character who had fascinated Melvyn and so A Time to Dance, about a bank manager who falls in love with, and becomes besotted by, a young, working class Irish girl, is based on Hazlitt’s ultimately disastrous relationship with a younger woman but is based in modern times. However, what always comes across so strongly is how the past resonates so strongly in the present and therefore it is easy to identify with the human dilemma, whatever the historical age.


In discussing Crossing the Lines John pointed out how there are so many references to wider national and international happenings and how these lend such credibility to the writing and the story. There was a lot of discussion about what is the often contentious issue of autobiographical fiction. Melvyn suggests that much fiction does contain a significant amount of “autobiographical” material; that it is all about a reaching into the truth about ourselves in order to reach the truth about others. He feels that this gives him more confidence in the veracity of his writing. However he also describes his “autobiographical” novels as “misremembered embroidery”! He explained that early on in his writing he had avoided using dialect speech – would it feel patronising, would people understand? However he later decided to use it because he wanted to ensure that he didn’t let local people down, and his only regret is that he didn’t start using it earlier. This was a good point, towards the end of this very stimulating and enjoyable session, for Melvyn to be persuaded by a member of the audience to treat us to a few lines of Cumbrian dialect speech – a true delight!


Linda Hepworth, Garrigill, Cumbria

If you are planning to attend a festival or bookish event and would care to send us an account of how it went, please email guy.pringle@newbooksmag.com


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