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Discussing poetry and depression with Lord Melvyn Bragg

Lord Melvyn Bragg
I’m delighted to have Lord Bragg of Wigton here with us today. Melvyn is well known as a broadcaster, as a presenter, and also, of course, a novelist. Melvyn, just to begin with, can you talk to us a little bit about your influences? Did your mother read to you? Did you have a teacher that was especially significant? I can’t remember my mother reading to me, but she might have done. My father did, occasionally. But I was born in 1939, just before the war, and so my father was away at the war most of the time, the first six or seven years. We lived in a very complicated house. In a council house yard.
There were kind of two and a half families in the same house. I don’t remember my mother having time to do things like read to me, because she had two jobs to keep going. I was reading quite early on. And I liked reading in bed on my own, with a torch or– Can you remember your favourite stories? My favourite stories at the beginning were Robin Hood stories. I had a book and I read it again and again. And Kidnapped, in pictures with the words underneath. Anything I could get hold of, I was one of those kids who used to– when there’s nothing else going, I’d read a HP sauce bottle. [LAUGHS] The back of a cornflake packet. Anything.
And what about, was there a local library for you to get books? Oh, yeah. We lived in a place called Council House Yard on Station Road, and the library was on the corner of the yard, which was great. It was a good yard. All sorts of– a fire engine was in the yard, there was a horse in the yard, it was stalled up and all the rest of it. But there was a library. And a town clerk, Mr. Carrick used to open the library two or three times a week in the evenings, and there was a children’s section. And he used to more or less tell me what to read. ‘Oh, you again.
You go and’– that sort of thing, so that was fine. So, was he an influence on your reading? He must have been. In a quiet way. I just like, I went every Friday night and got another couple of books, and came back and read them. And then I massively read comics. Massively read comics, so when people talk airily about their influences, and they talk about, ‘oh, I’m really influenced by Tolstoy and Shakespeare and the later Ben Jonson’. I think I might have been influenced by The Dandy and The Beano and The Rover and The Hotspur and The Wizard. I got through a lot of comics. Brilliant. Brilliant, but also comics can be very destressing, actually.
I know my uncle used to read The Beano when he was stressed, because he said it really calmed him down. Well, The Beano was for kids, for the under fives. When you got a bit older, you got these comics which had one little illustration in it, and then masses of print. They’ve gone now. I mean really heavy, heavy. Column after column after column, they were real stories. There’d be four stories. There would always be serials, following Roy of the Rovers, CannonBall Kid, Nick Smith, those sort of people right through. And there was a lot of print, very small print, so you wore your eyes out, but there was a lot to read, yeah.
Was there a teacher who saw something special in you? Saw that you had something and encouraged you? I’m just thinking of Ted Hughes and John Fisher and the way in which he thought that that was the person who really saw something special. Well, I had good teachers in the primary school. They were all women who were spinsters. The blight of the first World War, when none of them had got married, and then– It was only when I went to the grammar school that I really took an interest in things like homework. And formally engaging, because I just did the homework as I walked to school, or when I was in the school 20 minutes early before I did the lessons.
There was a man called Mr. James who was the history teacher. And he was the teacher that was really interested in what I was doing, and took an interest, and brought me here to Oxford, for instance, when I was about 15. And then went down to my father and said I should stay on at school, because I was going to leave when I was 15. And said you should keep him on– as it turns out my father took quite a lot of persuading. I didn’t learn that out until three or four months ago, when I talked to Mr. James about another programme. He’s 93, 94 now. Totally compos mentis totally sharp as a button. And he’d never told me.
And my father’d never told me either. So he went down. And then he was a big influence, because he was such a good teacher. He was obviously– thought I was OK. And then there was at the same time, there was a good English teacher, Mr. Arthur Tillotson Blacker. Those two together. Mr. Blacker’s big influence was that he would– we started a two year curriculum in September, and we finished it in December, the whole thing. And for the rest of the five terms, we just read in the class. But we read aloud. Interesting, interesting. We always read aloud.
The great Victorian writer, John Stuart Mill, wrote in his autobiography about how he suffered from a terrible bout of depression in his early 20s. He said the best way of describing it were in the words of the ‘Dejection’ ode by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But he then found the thing which cured him was reading the healing words of William Wordsworth’s poetry. So, the words of a dark poem can help people understand the nature of depression. The healing words of a calming, uplifting poem perhaps can help people with stress, anxiety, and depression. Do these ideas strike a chord with you? Yes, I think when you’re– I’ve been clinically depressed twice.
Once, I didn’t know I was clinically depressed and the next time I did. Once, I was 13 or 14, and I’d never known anything like it. I don’t want to know anything like it again.
I couldn’t understand what was going on. I couldn’t tell anybody about it. My mind would leave me, and I thought I was going mad. But there’s nobody you could talk to. I’m talking about 1951 or 2 in a small northern town. You couldn’t tell your parents, you couldn’t tell your teacher, you couldn’t possibly go to your doctor, you couldn’t tell your friends, there’s nobody you could talk to about it. And I’m sure that reading, which I kept– I went from the A form right down to the– we called it L, so A, B, and C form. I started to be scared of things and people. It was an awful time, lasted about a year and a half.
And I’m sure that reading– well I started to work then. I’d not worked at school much at all. I think that helped. Two things were important. One was coming across pieces of writing. It was writing that did it. There was no television then, the radio didn’t seem to impinge. But I was so keen on reading then, that reading was like a sort of a lifeline, it was as if I was connected with it. Reading for me was an intravenous activity. And when I read something– In a sort of escapist way, do you think? Or, no? No, in a descriptive way, when you read something very dark about somebody, you’d say, yeah, that’s right. That’s what’s happening to me.
It’s a recognition that it’s happening to somebody else. Even if it’s in a novel– I say even, even if it’s a fictional character, it’s an immense relief. Because the thing about that sort of depression when you’re young, as I was, is you’re convinced it’s only happening to you. And that you’re this strange person who’s isolated and going down a black hole. And then you read something and people have felt much the same. And that’s an enormous relief. It’s a comfort, isn’t it? Yes. I spoke to a young girl recently who said when she felt that depressed, she read Sylvia Plath, and I was quite surprised, and I said, ‘oh, why’s that?’
And she said, ‘because she’s the only one who understands’, or ‘she’s the only person I feel understands what depression’s like’. So I’m quite interested in why we read, and the sense of ‘that’s how it feels’ is really important. But also did you ever read in those times poems that uplifted you, that made you feel uplifted? Well, I got into them by recognising depression. You talk about reading calming poems, reading Wordsworth. Well at school I read– we did history in the sixth form, history, and we did English in the sixth form, and when reading The Prelude, and I came across passages where it was quite clear. Nobody had told me this about Wordsworth. Wordsworth was all nice things, flowers.
And strong, bleak stories, but still. But there’s a passage in that in which the boy is in terrible trouble. He’s obviously– he’s got to hold onto his stance and maintain his sanity and I thought that was exactly what I was doing. So I immediately connected with Wordsworth in a completely different way. It wasn’t because, what a great poet, it wasn’t even because he’s writing about things that are just outside my back door. I could bike up to the Lake District to see all these– a lot of these places, you see – any day I’d want. But he was talking about me in that sense, and that was what drew me into Wordsworth.
And then you went into the other part of Wordsworth, which is very serene and healed, and I think he saw himself through this. So he’d been through that. And then he’d got to that. And he was a very depressed, melancholy young man, as you know, and he had a lot to be depressed about. And then he came through it through reading and writing. Was there ever a moment when you thought, I can’t pick up a book because I’m so depressed. Well, there’s a moment when you are depressed, as depressed as that, and I was again at 21– 29 to 31. But, by that time I was able to go for help to an analyst.
So, it was even worse then, actually, I think that in some ways actually the analyst – I think it was two years, three times a week – he was making me worse, really. But that’s another matter. And there was times when you can’t do anything, so picking up a book – anything that distracts you. One of the terrible things about real depression, is you become obsessed by yourself. And you’re right to be obsessed by yourself because you’re trying to keep yourself together. But being obsessed by yourself is a full time job. You know? And exhausting, I should think, quite exhausting. Yes.
So doing other things – it’s why you fade away from society, because of the things that everybody else is doing, that they do, they go and see things and you think I’m not doing, because it’s just taking you all your time and energy to get through the day. I think one of the things that people know who had depression, know about depression, is the actual business of getting through the next hour, can be an incredible strain. Just that. Just doing that is a strain. And it distends your mind in certain ways that are not at all agreeable, and not at all– sometimes are unbearable.
So I was very fortunate in the sense that I got socketed into my head, I got a real love of reading. Now I was an obsessive reader from three or four onwards. And I played in the town all the time, and all, but I just liked reading. So eventually I could come back to that pipeline. That was very fortunate. Pipeline, that’s really good. I want to talk about, just a moment, about Poems on the Underground. Because I’m very fascinated by this idea that– that’s been going for 20 years now.
And the idea that you’re on a crowded tube or a subway, and instead of looking up to advertisements, you see a poem, and just in all the madness and the chaos of your commute, and your busy day, you just take that moment to just reflect, to wind down, to read a poem. It seems to me that there’s something about poetry that can take us into a sort of different place. Would you agree? Well, and prose as well. I don’t think it’s just poetry. I think novels can take people into a different place, I think plays can, I think music often can, more than anything else. It depends what you choose. But certainly works of imagination can.
Because they activate your imagination, and once your imagination is activated, you become other people. You’re capable of going out of yourself in a positive way. Not going out of yourself like I did when I was 13 or 14. I think I was going mad. But you’re going out of yourself into somebody else’s mind, or somebody else’s feelings. Poetry is– because it’s– you can hardly put War and Peace in the Tube, but you can put a sonnet. A sonnet, those are nice and short. Can I just ask you about reading aloud? Because I’m a firm believer in how important it is to read aloud, to children particularly, but also to older people.
One of the things I wanted to do with this new charity is to get school children to read in care homes. We were taught to learn poems by heart. We read aloud a lot. I mean think about it, in Jane Austen’s time, there’s not a lot else to do, so an evening’s entertainment was often reading aloud in groups. Women, particularly, reading aloud. I think one of the reasons that say Pride and Prejudice is, it’s almost like being at a play. Because you can tell they’ve read it aloud so many – and we know that she read it aloud many times, because she complains that her mother doesn’t read one of the characters properly, and she gets annoyed about this.
So a lovely idea of them all reading Pride and Prejudice. What do you think about reading aloud? Did you– I think you can’t do enough of it. I mean, I would make it obligatory, that you have to have a lesson of reading aloud two, three times a week. I just think it’s the best lining of the mind you can get. I think it’s a great reservoir for the rest of your life. I think it trains you in all sorts of things. It trains you in ordering words. It trains you in images. It gives you tremendous self confidence, you can lean back on that when you have to. I think it’s essential.
I think, I mean, we’ve been doing it for centuries and centuries, until recently. And like a lot of things that have been dropped recently, it’s been dropped without any thought. And it should be reinstated. I’m not being silly about this. I think if children in school did reading aloud for a quarter of an hour a day, they would be better educated. Much better educated. I agree, I agree. Do you think, is there anything to be said about– I’m very interested in the rhythms of– we talk about the iambic pentameter being very close to the rhythms of speech, but also thinking about stresses and rhythms of poetry, and the way that a baby’s heart beats in a particular way.
I mean, I would just wonder if there’s something very primitive about reading aloud and stresses and poetry. Do you, do you have a view? Well, totally, because all it is is breath. Breath? We’re talking about breathing. That’s what reading aloud is. That’s what I’m doing to you now. I’m breathing with certain modulations. It’s turning them into words. And that’s connected with my heartbeat, it’s connected with everything else, it’s an essential part of the condition by which I live. And so I’m breathing words. And saying them aloud, adds to the store of knowledge, but also connects absolutely with what’s in you.
Melvyn, might you be willing to read some lines from Wordsworth’s poem about Michael the shepherd, so that our learners can get a sense of whether Wordsworth’s words could have a destressing effect on them. It’s from a passage at the end of the poem, after Michael has heard the terrible news that his only son has been killed in the war. Yeah, it’s one of my favorite poems, of Wordsworth’s. It’s one of the plainest. It’s about this shepherd who, we see him building a sheepfold up on the hills. And Wordsworth loved these sort of people. And he wrote of these sort of people. He loved the ordinary people of the Lake District. And he wrote about them.
And this man’s heart is broken. It’s their only son. And this is what Wordsworth writes. It’s a fantastic first line. ‘There is a comfort in the strength of love; ‘twill make a thing endurable, which
else would overset the brain, or break the heart: I have conversed with more than one who well remember the old man, and what he was years after he had heard this heavy news. His bodily frame had been from youth to age of an unusual strength. Among the rocks he went, and still looked up to the sun and cloud, and listened to the wind; and, as before, performed all kinds of labour for his sheep, and for the land, his small inheritance. And to that hollow dell from time to time did he repair, to build the fold of which his flock had need.
‘Tis not forgotten yet the pity which was then in every heart for the old man – and ‘tis believed by all that many, and many a day he thither went, and never lifted up a single stone.’ Incredible, isn’t it?
Writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg spoke to us about his lifelong love of reading, and about how books have helped him to cope during episodes of depression.
For Melvyn, reading helped him to realise that he was not alone in his experience of depression; this was particularly important for him as a teenager, when he felt unable to talk to anyone about his condition, and had no access to professional help or support networks.
Although Melvyn describes periods during his depression when he was unable to read, novels and poems have always been a lifeline that he has returned to for comfort and companionship. Melvyn also explains to us why he believes so strongly in the importance of reading aloud, and suggests that the practice should be reinstated in schools.
At the end of our discussion, Melvyn reads an extract from William Wordsworth’s poem ‘Michael’.
 There is a comfort in the strength of love;
’Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart:
I have conversed with more than one who well
Remember the old Man, and what he was
Years after he had heard this heavy news.
His bodily frame had been from youth to age
Of an unusual strength. Among the rocks
He went, and still looked up to sun and cloud,
And listened to the wind; and, as before,
Performed all kinds of labour for his sheep,
And for the land, his small inheritance.
And to that hollow dell from time to time
Did he repair, to build the Fold of which
His flock had need. ’Tis not forgotten yet
The pity which was then in every heart
For the old Man—and ’tis believed by all
That many and many a day he thither went,
And never lifted up a single stone.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850)
We’ve included a link to the full version of Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’ below. During the conversation, we also mention Samuel Taylor Coleridges ‘Dejection Ode’, which you can also read, if you’d like to, by following the link at the bottom of the page.
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Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

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