Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds I’m just going to talk a bit about your recent book, Grace and Mary. Can you talk a little bit about what you were trying to do with that book? Well, it was an act of retrieval. I didn’t really know my mother’s mother. I might have met her twice. Because my mother’s illegitimate, born in 1917, which at that time– very difficult for people to get a grasp on it now, less than 100 years, about 100 years ago– it was a terrible crime. And so her mother, a young woman, was sent away from the town, a town of 5,000 people, with 12 churches, none of them particularly Christian at that time, were they?
Skip to 0 minutes and 51 seconds And she was sent out of the town, and my mother was fostered with a women who fostered children. And I never knew that. And she thought the foster mother was her mother. And I thought she was my grandmother. And the others I though were my uncles. Nobody I knew in that close, closeish circle, was related to me. Except I though they all were related to me. I thought, these are my uncles, these are my aunts, these are my cousins. I took it for granted until I was about 18, and I was a man and I was coming here, to Oxford. And my mother said, very abruptly, you remember you met this woman once or twice? And I vaguely did.
Skip to 1 minute and 27 seconds And she said, she’s my mother. She’s your grandmother. And she never said anything else about her ever again. And so when my mother was dying, I just– and she talked– one thing set it off, Paula, was this. I used to ring my mother every morning, because she was in Cumberland, and I was in London. I went up as often as I could. And I used to talk to Eileen on the phone– one of the nurses. And I said, what’s she been– how is she? And she’s ‘oh, she’s talking about her mother. They often do.’ And I found myself saying, which one?
Skip to 2 minutes and 2 seconds And she was obviously talking about her real mother. And so I thought, I wonder who her real mother is? Now I could’ve done a Whose Life is it, Anyway, or something like that, and checked. And it wouldn’t be too difficult these days, would it? But I thought, I don’t want to. I’d rather sort of make it up. And I knew enough about my mother. So it’s about two women, one I’ve imagined, and the other, my mother, whom I saw drifting into Alzheimer’s, and then her dying. Not of Alzheimer’s, you don’t die of Alzheimer’s. She died at 95. So I interconnected these two. And I went back to my mother’s childhood and to my grandmother’s childhood.
Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds And I was a character in it. And I fictionalised the whole thing because I was writing autobiographical fiction then. And that’s how it started. And it’s quite– it’s not all that long a novel, but it’s very compacted. It’s very– I’m rather– I mean, unusual. It’s very difficult to say, if you come from the north of England, but I’m quite pleased with it. That’s the point of it all. Can I just ask you, going back to the Alzheimer’s, many of our learners will have seen the film or read the book, Iris, which tracks the descent into Alzheimer’s of Iris Murdoch.
Skip to 3 minutes and 10 seconds There seems to be something especially poignant about a writer and thinker such as Iris Murdoch losing the powers of imagination, the clear thought, the ability to communicate. Sometimes literature can be a way, I think, of reaching into the recesses, if you like, of the vanishing memory of a person suffering from dementia. How much– thinking about what you were talking about, trying to recreate Grace’s story– how much of your mother’s memory were you able to access at the time when she was losing it? Well, that’s the really, that’s the core question. That’s the key question. The first thing I’d like to say, Alzheimer’s is the right word. Like cancer was the right word 30 years ago.
Skip to 3 minutes and 52 seconds But we now know, there’s not one cancer. There are many different cancers, many variations, many different types. And there are many different sorts of Alzheimer’s. In the home where she was for the last few years of her life, the people with various stages of memory loss, there are differences. We’re at the early stages of research, shall we call it ‘Alzheimer’s’? Well, yeah. But it’s just an overall description. Good point, yeah. There are varieties, maybe even infinite, maybe. I stumbled by accident, early on, on two or three things which helped. She had the usual things that a lot of people have.
Skip to 4 minutes and 27 seconds I would– she would say hello, and I sat for a bit, and I’d go outside, take a breath of fresh air or something, and she’d say, where have you been? Why do you never come and see me? Or, who are you? And so we went though all that. You got use to that quite soon. But the communication was, that I discovered completely by accident, that she’s a good singer. And I used to do a lot of singing. And if I, we started to sing– and I don’t know why– I don’t know. “One Man Went to Mow” or something very simple that you used to sing on the back of buses when you went on trips. “Hokey Cokey,” or “Daisy, Daisy.”
Skip to 4 minutes and 58 seconds And all of those sort of things. And she knew more of the verses than I did. And she was completely in command of long songs, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” She’d go on and on. And I would stop after about a couple of verses, but she wouldn’t. So that was a way that her memory was still intact there, which meant that she could think about these things, as well. It’s always a primitive thing, though, isn’t it? If you think about nursery rhymes and songs and things that we learn as babies, is there something about, do you think learning by rote? Because I think it’s something we’ve lost now with literature, that we don’t really learn things by heart anymore.
Skip to 5 minutes and 36 seconds And with songs, it’s easier to recall them. But there’s a moment in your book, which I love, when you recite “Daffodils,” and you feel like you’re getting her back for a minute. Did that happen? Yes. And she said we learnt it in school, so she took it up and quoted the rest of it. And that phrase, learning by heart. It is as though you’re – it’s in your heart, isn’t it? So even when everything else was slipping away from her, she remembered the songs. Yes, I think that’s true. But I also think the singing. There’s a very good book called The Singing Neanderthals, which talks about speech beginning with singing. And you can understand why – the distances.
Skip to 6 minutes and 12 seconds And when you talk at lectures, you know about this, if you turn it into a chant or something, it carries much further. And the idea of singing logs it. And we know about all our very early poets, Homer and all, they sung their poems. And the Irish poets, they sung their poems. Even Wordsworth talks about wanting to sing you, wanting to sing the poem. So singing resides there. And so that was, and I did think that that was a healing thing. And the second thing was photographs. There was a book of photographs. Yeah. But a book of photographs from– she was brought up in this little town of Wigton.
Skip to 6 minutes and 45 seconds She was there all her life, and there were these photographs collected there. And when I got a copy of that and took them to her, it was as if– first of all, she couldn’t believe that anybody could afford this, because they were so, they must have been so expensive. It was a book that cost, I don’t know, 4 pounds, 3 pounds. But they were just completely alive to her. And she remembered– she looked at a photograph of the high street – probably just a bit before her time– but every shop was there. She was recognising it. It was like 3D. So those two things helped to connect– The songs and the photographs and other things.
Skip to 7 minutes and 19 seconds And then there would be flashes of real recollection. And we found that we honed in, she could remember quite clearly some things in the late 1940s, when she was– how old was she– about 30, mid-30s. I could remember quite a bit about then, and I was somewhere between 7 and 10, and your memory’s beginning to form. So we could talk about going to socials, that sort of thing, what happened to people in the town. We could talk about– so points of contact. What do you think about the studies in Alzheimer’s? You’re right to pull me about Alzheimer’s. It’s an umbrella term to cover lots of different, as you say, memory loss.
Skip to 7 minutes and 56 seconds But what you think about the recent studies have suggested that reading poems can help with Alzheimer’s or with well being? And do believe that? Absolutely. And I’ve seen the experiments that are being done in Liverpool by Davis. Phil Davis. Yes, and his wife. And curious enough, I saw some short films about them, when I went to talk to them at the British Library. And they were learning “Daffodils,” the words of the poem “Daffodils.” And as the week went on, and they met everyday, they were learning more and more of it until they got the whole poem. And there’s no doubt that was strengthening. Obviously, I’m clueless, really, about what to do about it. But it’ll be cracked.
Skip to 8 minutes and 36 seconds It’s just something that’s come and taken everybody by surprise. Obviously it’s a memory thing, partly a memory thing. We know that our memories are fantastic. So maybe there’s a way to get to the memory and strengthen it so it won’t weaken when it does weaken. But yes, I think it really does work. Jane Davis and Phil Davis are showing that it really does work. Can I also ask you, dementia is a relatively recent formal diagnosis. So Doctor Alzheimer did his research in the early 1900s. But literature has a long history of exploring the effects of ageing. And I just want to talk a little bit about King Lear.
Skip to 9 minutes and 10 seconds And I’ve been reading about a spectator who went to see Ian McKellen, Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear, and was incredibly moved by the performance because it reminded him of his father. And he was wondering whether Ian McKellen was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. And he said this wonderful thing. He says ‘there were times after he turned over his kingdom to Regan and Goneril and been wandering about the land depending on their hospitality, that he appeared to be suffering from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. I saw this in my father in his last years. McKellen even looked a bit like my dad – longish white hair, full white beard.
Skip to 9 minutes and 46 seconds And in the early days of the illness, Dad seemed lost and confused, but he was aware that it was happening and it made him angry and afraid. That’s what McKellen was doing. His eyes changed from fierce and angry, to afraid, to lost, to insane, to determined. And then through all those responses, as fate buffeted him.’ Is there anything we can learn from Shakespeare about dementia and our approach and our views? Do you think Lear is suffering from early Alzheimer’s? Without being silly, but I think there’s everything we can learn from Shakespeare. I think he’s the greatest mind we’ll ever know. I mean, everything’s there. Yes.
Skip to 10 minutes and 23 seconds I think that’s completely– Do you buy that, that theory of Lear being in– I mean, what I was thinking about in relation to your absolutely wonderful book is anger. There’s anger there. The nurses were incredibly patient, weren’t they? They were taking on – your character Mary wouldn’t take her medicine. And there’s a lot of anger and it helped me understand Lear. Thinking about Lear, is Lear in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, actually helped me see the rage, which I hadn’t fully understood. And I think Shakespeare is always– he always knows. He always seems to be ahead of the curve.
Skip to 10 minutes and 57 seconds I think if you look at Lear as a study in one form of dementia, you’ll get an awful lot out of it, because he acts like somebody often moving from subject to subject, abruptly halting in the middle of a sentence. And the next half sentence is not connected. So he’s lost that thought. He starts on another thought. And the sudden bursts of anger, as you say. And the sudden decisions that have to be taken. And then the lapses. And the child-like– and you’re very– your mother at times, it’s so poignant. She cries for her mother. But she’s like a child. She shrinks, doesn’t she? And you talk about her being like a child.
Skip to 11 minutes and 31 seconds And Lear is actually at his most vulnerable and beautiful when he’s a child.
Skip to 11 minutes and 41 seconds There’s many ways to look at Lear, as there are in all the great later complex characters of Shakespeare. But one is of a disintegrating mind. And the extraordinary thing about Shakespeare is that he’s onto it. That is what is extraordinary. The leaps, the forgetfulness, the childishness, as you said. The sudden bursts of anger, the madness of what he did– I don’t mean he’s mad, I mean, how stupid of him to do it. He does it at the very beginning. But he does it, and then he instantly regrets it. And then he turns against his, obviously his most loyal daughter, for no reason at all. And then he wants her back.
Skip to 12 minutes and 17 seconds Is this a really stupid question? What puzzles me about Lear is that he’s 80. And I think if Shakespeare– and people dying much younger– I think one of the problems we have today is people live for longer. So we’re dealing with lots of different– It isn’t a problem for me. I’m quite enjoying it. But the sense of– so care homes, for instance. Putting our parents into care homes, and knowing that people now live into their 90s. So we’re dealing with problems related to Alzheimer’s because people just live longer. It’s simply getting old, if you like.
Skip to 12 minutes and 47 seconds And here’s Shakespeare, I’m so fascinated, writing about this man in his 80s at a time when probably not many people probably got to their 80s. And yet he seems to get– it’s a prescient– he’s right on top of this. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? That’s why the quote that he’s the greatest mind we shall ever know comes from an American scholar that Jonathan would be familiar with (your husband). His observation must’ve been so acute, but he’s onto it. He sees what is happening to this old man, old, foolish man, as he calls himself.
Skip to 13 minutes and 23 seconds Yes, he’s got– that if you want to study, if you want the best possible study of a form of Alzheimer’s in the whole of literature, it’s King Lear.
Discussing dementia with Lord Melvyn Bragg
Earlier in the course, we spoke to Melvyn about his childhood reading habits, and about how poetry was a source of comfort to him during periods of depression.
Here, we find out more about Melvyn’s autobiographical novel Grace and Mary, and about the inspiration behind the novel.
Melvyn describes Grace and Mary as an ‘act of retrieval’. As his mother’s dementia progressed and her memories began to slip away, Melvyn set out to reconstruct her past by telling the story of her own, estranged mother, Grace. Earlier this week, Dr Simon Curtis described how long-term memory is often retained by dementia sufferers, and Melvyn, too, describes how his mother was able to recollect events from his early childhood in great detail.
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