Melvyn Bragg Clancy Sigal - Essay

Clancy Sigal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Speak for England [an oral history of a small market town] has the flat, unpatronizing power of Bragg's Cumbrian novels, such as The Hired Man and A Place In England—and also their undercurrent of anger, even bitterness, against the centuries-old class system that has darkened the lives of his people for so long. Yet the major flaw in this work is that it is too nice, too filial. There are no scoundrels, no black sheep. The author has given us a sincere, unmalicious, and perhaps oversimple tribute to a place he can always safely return to. (p. 24)

On the whole, Bragg's Wigtoners don't complain. This may partly reflect the traditional stoicism of the working class in northern England. But the even, placid tone of Bragg's informants also owes much to his method of screening out the "characters" and big talkers. He admits that he "itched to embroider and take off gossip," but he forced himself not to fictionalize or dwell on unpleasantries. It's our loss….

The reluctance of Bragg's "speakers" completely to let their hair down makes the absence of town characters and compulsive talkers all the more glaring. For all their exaggerations, it is such eccentrics who might have injected a useful dash of grit, even of violence, into this suspiciously well-balanced group portrait.

Bragg's discretion is pardonable, because he knows that the poeple he loves are vulnerable to the continual, nagging prejudice built into the English class system. But by being needlessly protective, Bragg denies his friends a certain human fullness, and this unwittingly plays into the hands of the condescending critics whom Bragg rightly resents.

My other worry is the author's claim that his book is "a representative record of English life during this century." Though I, too, came to admire Bragg's neighbors almost as much as he does, not for a moment was I convinced of their universality….

Still, readers who carefully pick their way through these interviews will be richly rewarded with a fascinating saga of personal memoirs that do, in fact, add up to the kind of "people's history" that (as Bragg correctly asserts) almost always gets left out of the academic books and tourist guides. (p. 26)

Clancy Sigal, "Pilgrim's Progress in Wigton," in Saturday Review (© 1977 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), February 19, 1977, pp. 24, 26.