Melvyn Bragg gives archive of life’s work to Leeds UniversityMaterial saved from attic reveals a prolific, driven and organised writer, says head of special collections at Brotherton Library
He is already a byword for unremitting graft, with 21 novels, 13 historical studies and a couple of children’s books to his name, as well as separate careers in academia, broadcasting and politics.
But now the world has been given half a tonne of further material by Lord Melvyn Bragg to explore, including an unpublished novel and 60 boxes of ideas, draft scripts and short stories which even the writer, said, he had half-forgotten.
Sought by several archives, the hoard of more than 50 years’ work has been rescued from Bragg’s attic in London and given to University of Leeds.
“It arrived in what you might call a National Collection of Carrier Bags,” said Chris Sheppard, head of special collections at Leeds’s Brotherton Library. “There was so much that part of it was sealed off by new plumbing which Melvyn had put into the house years ago.”
The trove of notebooks, files and thousands of pages of foolscap covered in Bragg’s handwriting, has already yielded evidence that he was both driven and highly organised from the start. A clipboard preserves a workchart from 1968 of awesome dedication: “Apr-Dec aim”, it says “four books, 75,000 words each”.
Ruled sections then record daily totals reaching up to 3,500 words and only occasionally slipping back to 750 or below. “It’s interesting and I guess a bit embarrassing,” said Bragg ruefully, although not flinching from his decision to open the whole collection to researchers. “But that’s the way it was. Up at 5.30am and then an hour in the evening when I got back from the BBC.”
Initial analysis by Sheppard suggests that quantity interfered with quality, with Bragg’s work collecting a string of serious prizes and always selling well. There are crossings-out and neat additions, but relatively few.
“It reminds me of our manuscript of Mrs Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers which is very clean. Both of them clearly had the flow and just got on with it,” said Sheppard, who also guards a Shakespeare first folio and scores of exceptional collections including Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh.
Trollope is another in the collection, and he also had Bragg’s sense of method and separate careers. The master of clerical sagas was a senior Royal Mail official, designed the pillar box, stood as a Liberal candidate and wrote 2,000 words of a fiction a day. “But he does sometimes stops in mid-sentence,” said Sheppard, “which is something I don’t see Melvyn doing.”
The unpublished novel, Mirrors and Wire, was Bragg’s first which Faber & Faber sat on for so long in 1964 that he wrote his second in the meanwhile. “Faber sent it back eventually with suggestions for changes,” he said. “But by that time For Want of A Nail had been accepted by Secker & Warburg, so that was it.”
The archive contains material on episodes from the movie world which would – and in the hands of researchers doubtless will – make books of their own. One box deals with a Mutiny on the Bounty film, co-scripted with David Lean, which foundered in others’ animosity and came to an unhappier end than the original ship.
Bragg’s intellectual curiosity shows in another unrealised script, accompanied by copious paperwork, for a film about the Russian ballet maestro Sergei Diaghilev to be directed by Ken Russell. Bragg’s lines for the sculptor Rodin are handwritten in French. Details on two separate proposals to film his 1972 novel Josh Lawton show similar attention to detail.
Bragg chose Leeds because of personal connections as well as the library’s reputation. He has been the university’s chancellor for 10 years and his wife, Cate Haste, a writer and TV producer, is from the city. He said: “I remember coming here with my Dad when I was eight to watch the Test cricket. I’m happy that the archive is in Leeds; that’s the headline so far as I am concerned.”
He may also be among the researchers applying to use the papers, which Leeds owns although copyright remains with Bragg. Although some of his novels draw from his own life, he has yet to write his autobiography.
“If I do, it will be very pleasant to go up to Chris’s library to see what it was I did,” he said. “I can’t think of a nicer place to work.”