Melvyn Bragg’s latest novel is a story of memory, imagination and a son’s love for his mother, he tells Laura Davis.
GRACE and Mary is not a book about dementia, BBC broadcaster Melvyn Bragg is keen to point out. Nor it is about his own experiences. Yet without either influences, his latest novel would not exist in the form it does.
It is the story of two “spectacularly ordinary” women – Grace, who was born in the 1860s, and her illegitmate daughter Mary, whose personality is dissolving along with her memories.
Their stories are brought together by Mary’s son John during visits to her care home, his imagination filling the gaps in history as he attempts to hold tight to the fading strands of his mother’s very being.
Sometimes they meet in the middle of her life – in post war Cumbria when John was just a boy – a time they can both still clearly picture.
“It’s equally divided between the two women and that’s why I’m a bit touchy about it being described as a book about a woman with dementia – it isn’t,” says Lord Bragg, who is giving a talk at Liverpool’s In Other Words literature festival next month.
“It’s a novel about memory, about recreating the past and about imagination. It’s about a son helping his mother.
“It sounds a bit sad and it is sad but these two women are full of terrific spirit and people tell me it’s quite funny. It’s supposed to be.”
Lord Bragg’s own experiences do creep in, although he insists they are highly fictionalised.
His own mother, also called Mary, suffered dementia for more than five years. She died at the age of 95 last July – before he had completed the book.
Mary’s mother, Isabella Park, was unmarried at the time of her birth. They both grew up in Wigton, Cumbria, where the novel is set.
Like John, Lord Bragg has imagined what he was never told.
“Grace is based on my grandmother, but what did I know about her?” he asks.
“I knew her mother died when she was born, I knew she’d been brought up by her grandparents, who’d had a small farm. I knew she had an illegitimate child, who was my mother, but that’s it.
“I write her entire life just making it up and working out what she might be like, and I think some things are way away from what she might really have done.”
Elements of Lord Bragg’s life have inspired his novels before, most notably The Soldier’s Return, written from 1999-2008. Also set in Wigton, it follows the lives of Sam Richardson who returns home after fighting in Burma and his son Joe. The first book in the series won the WH Smith Literary Award, while the second and third, A Son of War and Crossing the Lines, were both long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Autobiographical fiction is the sort he most admires.
“You use your own life as a starting point but in the process of writing it turns into something else,” says the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.
“The great thing is that you keep being surprised all the time. Quite big things can happen in a book that you hadn’t anticipated at all. That’s one of the pleasures.”
Inaccurate memories are just as significant, he adds.
“Misremembering plays an important part in our lives. Memory isn’t a static thing, it’s reorganising itself all the time.”
“I know that my father came back from the war and when I wrote The Soldier’s Return my mother said ‘you’ve got it entirely wrong’. I was delighted because what I remembered was wrong but I knew he’d come back and that was the emotional charge I wanted to start the book.
“Misremembering in detail can release you. That sounds a bit arty but it isn’t. It’s just the way fiction works, that’s all. It has its own laws.”
He could not have written Grace and Mary without experiencing his own mother struggling with dementia, he says.
She too was in a care home for several years at the end of her life. Lord Bragg visited her regularly.
“It’s not easy,” he says, his voice dropping almost to a whisper.
“It’s such a slow process. It burns in slowly as the years go on so although it’s a great loss, it isn’t a great shock
“Even after many years you don’t get used to it and you never do. I wish she were alive and I wish I was seeing her every day still. That would be terrific.
“I would rather have euthanasia than dementia.”
His appearance at the In other Words festival will take place at the Museum of Liverpool, which runs a dementia training programme for social care staff, House of Memories, that shows them how to use objects to spark people’s reminiscences.
Words in particular have great power in taking us back to times past – both real and imagined – as Lord Bragg, 73, found when reading Grace and Mary aloud to an audience.
“I tried to do a reading a few months ago to a small gathering up in Cumberland and I wasn’t very steady about it,” he says.
“In Liverpool, I won’t be reading big chunks. I might read the odd paragraph.”
Melvyn Bragg: In The House Of Memories is at the Museum of Liverpool on May 11. Grace and Mary, published by Sceptre, is released on May 9.