THE day before we met, Melvyn Bragg celebrated his 76th birthday. But Lord Bragg of Wigton — a Labour peer since 1998 — comes across as neither elderly nor baronial.
He is eager to talk about his newly published novel Now is the Time, which has been germinating for some years. It is a fictional account of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. He launches into a brisk account of the period, and the historical and imagined characters he has corralled with an animation familiar to listeners to his BBC Radio 4 discussion series In Our Time (which has now run to more than 600 episodes).
“I’d been interested in [the Peasants’ Revolt] for a long time,” he says, “partly because I did so little of it at school. I sort of blinked one Wednesday afternoon, and we’d done 1381. It’s the orphan of English history, and it has been for a very long time.”
Of Bragg’s 21 works of fiction, this is only his third historical novel, and it shares with the other two a singular characteristic: each is set at a hinge point of English history. The Maid of Buttermere (1987), which revolves around the life of Mary Robinson in the early years of the 19th century, is set at a time of shifting philosophy, “from religious thought, through Enlightenment thinking to a kind of pantheism with Wordsworth, and various others”. Credo (1996) — set in the seventh century, when “England was beginning to be England” — saw the Cumbrian saint, Bega, tangled in the shifting, and often violent, influences of paganism, Celtic Christianity, and Roman Catholic power, coming to a head at the Council of Whitby.
Now is the Time explores — in a charged, page-turning narrative — the event that “seemed to be the match that lit the fuse-paper for what became the radical tradition in this country”. He says: “I became fascinated by this enormous event, the biggest insurrection we’ve had in England, which ended up as a failure.” He pauses. “But did it? Did it not signal what was inside people, what was to become — after a very long time — a democracy?”
While his interest in the Peasants’ Revolt began with its historical significance, he soon became more fascinated with the characters, and the events of those four or five weeks. “I’d always been fascinated by John Ball and Walter Tyler,” he says, “and then I got to know the [14-year-old] boy king, Richard, and then particularly his mother Joan [the Princess of Wales], about whom very little is known, and she became a more and more beguiling, and important, and powerful figure.”
In the book’s gestation the Lollard “hedge priest” John Ball loomed large, and Bragg made both a radio programme and a TV film about him. “I’m interested in that line of people who are intensely radical,” he says. “I was interested in the fact that, as far as we know, his sermons were the first to be preserved in the English language. And we’re talking 1381, at a time of the re-emergence of the English language after over 300 years of Norman oppression. . . He’s not hiding behind Latin, which they don’t understand, or behind the rood screen.”
Ball used scripture as a weapon against the Church, and specifically against the Archbishop of Canterbury (and Lord Chancellor), Simon Sudbury. Ball had been imprisoned, forbidden to preach, and apparently excommunicated. Released from jail by Kentish rebels, he attacked the ecclesiastical establishment for its riches and priestly elite, and the King’s court for its suppression of liberty. “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” he asked the dissident crowd assembled at Blackheath. “I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.”
But Bragg doesn’t believe that Ball had right entirely on his side: “Archbishop Sudbury’s response to Ball’s criticism is to say, ‘Look, if you don’t have us, you don’t have schools, you don’t have hospitals. . .’ It’s quite a good argument.”
Interestingly, Bragg found that the current Archbishop of Canterbury is more inclined to take John Ball’s side. “I sent a copy to [Justin Welby], and I told him, ‘There’s an Archbishop in my book; so beware.’ I met him in the Lords a few weeks later, and he said he’d read it, and kindly said he’d liked it a lot, but said, ‘You’re rather kind to Sudbury.’”
None the less, John Ball is a central figure in the book. Bragg’s belief is that it was Ball who strengthened Walter Tyler’s arm. “Halfway through the march [on the City of London], Ball became Tyler’s inspiration, and I think this can only be because he captured Tyler’s imagination.” He reckons that “John Ball told him things he needed to hear.”
In the novel, Tyler is chary of killing other Englishmen, but Ball tells him that — just as the God of the Old Testament sanctioned the Israelites to kill in his name — so the chosen people, the “True Commons” of England, could kill their compatriot foes in the pursuit of justice. “It was heady stuff.”
The rise of populist leaders against a background of austerity is still making headlines. Might there be parallels with the Peasants’ Revolt and the Labour Party’s election of Jeremy Corbyn? “Yes, it can be fairly said,” he replies. “There are a lot of people saying we don’t want this, we don’t want that. Let’s move on to greater liberties in our decision-making.”
Bragg points out that after the Peasants’ Revolt, there was “wave after wave” of rebellious protest, including the Chartists and the Suffragettes. “That surge of the last few months is certainly in that pattern. . . Like the Peasants’ Revolt — and this is a deliberate cliché — it came out of nowhere. All of a sudden you’ve got one of the two great parties in one of the great world democracies seized, captured. Now what?”
He laughs hugely. “We’ll see. . . The jury is out.”
The Church of England still has a national voice, and has bishops in Parliament, even if it doesn’t have quite the same clout as the Church of 1381. We discuss its current dilemmas. “They’re trying very hard to meet demands which are very difficult to meet,” he says. “On a formal level, they’ve held very well. People want to get christened in churches, they want to get married in churches, and they want to get buried in churches. They want churches to exist, even while saying, ‘Oh, I don’t believe in it.’ . . . So the sense of it being there as a monument, of it being the conductor of the great formalities of our life, is still strong.”
He talks of a largely working-class christening that he attended recently, where few of the people knew the Lord’s Prayer, but the ceremony was none the less significant for them: “That can’t be dismissed: that’s not a second-rate thing. It has meaning, and the thing is to discover what the meaning is, and see if it can be built on.”
He acknowledges that church attendances are down, and that the progress to women’s ordination and consecration as bishops has been slow; “but it’s like turning round a tanker.” He takes a “glass-half-full” view of the institution. “As long as there are a few, it keeps going. The candle hasn’t guttered out yet.”
His sympathies with the Church are given traction by the fact that his youngest daughter, Marie-Elsa, is a priest in the Church of England. But he nevertheless believes that the conventional message of salvation struggles to hold water “in a society that is extremely keen on satire and mockery, and which prides itself on being sceptical and secular”.
For instance, he says, “I think they accept the crucifixion, but people find it very difficult to accept the resurrection, because they’re told that physics makes it impossible.”
He asks how we can still believe that Jesus uniquely died for humanity, when history shows that many others have suffered comparable sacrificial deaths. This is certainly a personal quandary, though it wasn’t always the case. As a youth, he says with a chuckle, “I was an Anglican fundamentalist.” But his faith ebbed away. “It was no longer a taken-for-granted centrepiece.”
He has two principal misgivings about Christian orthodoxy: “I find it difficult to accept the resurrection, really. The resurrection is the key of it, and the idea of an eternal soul.” He continues, “Once you question [the resurrection], then you’re questioning the whole idea of a life we know beyond this life. . . You’re questioning the idea of a soul at all.”
But he refuses to be doctrinaire: “Maybe when I get older and wiser — I’m pretty old now, but not particularly wise — I will find them more acceptable.” And, while he can’t accept “the unique life of Christ delivered as the axis of the whole thing”, nevertheless he finds “a lot of the Christian teaching completely acceptable. You just have to go back to the Sermon on the Mount, and a lot of the things that Christ said, or is reported to have said, and some of the things in the Old Testament — I haven’t abandoned that.”
Does he discuss these things with his priest-daughter? “Sometimes,” he says, laughing. “She’s quite severe.” But he is an enthusiastic supporter of her ordination: “I’m delighted, goodness me. It’s wonderful. She’s a good priest, too. She’s a good preacher.”
Many Christian teachings he “imbibed unconsciously from hearing the lessons and psalms”. This is why he is such an ardent champion of the public reading of the King James Bible. “It’s a disgrace that the Authorised Version isn’t used and read regularly in churches and schools. Of course I can see the need to update the Bible, but I can see an equal need to retain what — for hundreds of years in our own language — was thought to be a sacred text. We’ve let that go far too easily, and far too lightly. . . There’s a sense of tradition, and a sense of holiness in it, of belonging, because the very words give you a sense of belonging.”
His “tribal”, if agnostic, loyalty to Christianity contrasts with his attitude to “prescriptive systems” such as Marxism, which “destroy the real reach of imagination, and possibility”, whereas “one of the great things about religion, over the centuries, is that it has not destroyed it: it’s allowed it to flourish.”
This need to continue to question and imagine is essential, he believes; there is still a huge amount we don’t know. “The idea that we have somehow reached the summum bonum, that we are the possessors of final great knowledge is just absurd.” He mentions the work of Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for physics, which demonstrated that neutrinos have mass: “About 14, 15 years ago, that was completely impossible . . . and it changes basic physics.”
So, the existence of God? “The idea of something being divine, all-knowing — to exclude it would be foolish. The intimations that people have are very important, and we don’t know how to weigh them up; we don’t know how to quantify them. . . They don’t fit into the patterns that we now use to measure the lives we live. They come from a different source.
“In my view, and in the view of the philosophers I admire,” he says, “the faculty of reason is very powerful, but secondary.” The first stage “is that which you feel, you experience, sense; and then reason works out what to do with it. And I believe that religion comes from the primary faculty, as do all sorts of other things — love, faith, of course. Some things can’t be broken down into reason, yet.
“We’re nowhere near the end of things.”
Neither — even at the age of 76, it seems — is Melvyn Bragg.
Now is the Time by Melvyn Bragg is published by Sceptre and reviewed here by Michael Wheeler.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a freelance writer and editor.