Opening with a reminder of the limits of free speech — ‘we are not free to post instructions on how to make nerve gas on the internet' — he then invokes John Stuart Mill's ‘dead dogma' argument that we should come to our own truths through action and experience, rather than just accepting the reasoning of others. Espousing Mill's assertion that we should all have our beliefs challenged, lest they become superstitions, he then cites Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time and the relative decline in support for the BNP soon after, as evidence that the best way to challenge ignorant casuistry really is via Mill's ‘collision of truth with error' dictum. He concludes by reminding his receptive, spontaneous audience, of that plangent Bertrand Russell aphorism: ‘Some would sooner die than think. Indeed they do.'
Not so Melvyn Bragg, who at 70, seems as enthusiastic about thinking culture and the arts in Britain as he was at the beginning of his broadcasting career, despite the announcement that ITV's South Bank Show will be taken off the air this summer. A consummate speaker, Bragg is the archetypal headliner for such a festival, and although most of his anecdotes are just a little too polished, it's hard not to crack a smile at his recollection of a ‘thin gruel' lunch with Ingmar Bergman. ‘Bergman was not one for small talk,' Bragg divulges, before impersonating the Director — ‘"Have you considered your death?"'
While expressing a conventional, Intelligent Person's contempt for our current confessional culture, for example — "it seems to me everyone's got the same confession to make", Bragg does make the rather more unfashionable point that, "What people do in their work, now that's really important!" That said, it's hard not to feel you get a greater insight into his professional motivations when he speaks candidly about the conflict between his desire to write fiction, and his struggle to preserve mental health while doing so.
Listening to Bragg flurry about the golden age of arts programming, you can't help lamenting the great swathe of celebrity-slick bilge that seems to ooze out of current TV schedules. Radio, of course, is another land, and one in which Melvyn Bragg is very much still Lord of the Waves, evident from the undulating ‘mmm's and congratulatory head-noddings of the audience whenever In Our Time is mentioned. Given what was traditionally known as the Thursday morning ‘death slot' on radio, this beacon of thinking broadcasting, in which the ivory tower opens up its doors for an hour and very lucidly holds court on topics such as Confucianism, Karl Popper and Genetic Mutation (like "pouring a barrel into a thimble sometimes", Bragg grimaces), has become the most popularly downloaded podcast on the BBC Radio 4 website. You can't deny it's encouraging, but it would probably be more so if the audience was as diverse as the covered topics.
Despite cuts in government funding for the arts, Bragg upholds the lottery as an example of the Labour government done culturally good for once, while fundamentally believing that politicians still don't really appreciate the enthusiasm of the British public for theatre, music and books. Their problem, he roars, is that "They don't go to stuff like this."
So, the opening day of the Oxford Literary Festival down, and we've had a caveated attempt at a partial unlocking of the universe, an incitement to interrogative greatness, and two serious recommendations for the political parties' manifestoes in the pre-election voter scrum. It may not be cutting-edge or controversial, but the cultural calendar would be poorer without this kind of grounded, well-modulated intellectualism.
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