Melvyn Bragg – There was this one teacher…

Humber Mouth had the pleasure and privilege of hosting Melvyn Bragg, one of the country’s most eminent broadcasters and parliamentarians. Over the past two decades as presenter of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, Melvyn has introduced me to the vagaries of astrophysics, the murky world of ancient Greek politics and, as alluded to by our well-read host Steve Dearden, – the 18th Century Gin Craze.

Packed library to see Melvyn Bragg at Humber Mouth Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

I can get myself a free education here,’ Bragg quips when asked about his unyielding passion for the live discussion show. A mainstay of the radio schedule since 1998 Melvyn examines its success and popularity and points out that it is really down to the fact, that the guests on the panel are usually all teaching academics, they are used to talking to students about ideas, so a layperson/listener can grasp the subject and find it interesting, entertaining and enjoyable.

It is the science-based shows Melvyn enjoys the most, unsurprisingly, the more challenging and complex the better. The cardinal rule he continues is to insure that ‘In Our Time is never knowingly relevant.’ Hull Central Library, stuffed to the gills with a slightly damp Wednesday teatime crowd, respond with a familiar knowing laugh.

During the Q and A perhaps the most noteworthy point is in how Bragg responds to a question about how to engage the youth of today in the arts. A person in the crowd refers to the important work the Warren are doing with spoken word – particularly during the recent Contains Strong Language Festival – which gave young people a chance to share their stories and find their voice.

The broadcaster, a long time advocate of the benefits of Arts engagement, reminded all seated, about the importance of arts education in schools: how it was wearisome to keep saying the same thing time and again and the government opposing. He pointed out that the Arts was the only industry that had grown, year on year, since the second world war, and that over 80% of 1200 interviewees, had all said the very same thing… a thing that I expect everyone in the room today could say:

‘There was this one teacher…’

He then suggested having just used numbers to illustrate a point – after a rapid climbdown from his initial position, that all statisticians should be shot – that the use of statistics should be banned, for at least a year. This action would force politicians to have to actually answer questions put to them, rather than just trotting out the latest department facts and figures.     

Despite an enviable career that has seen him writing over 45 novels and non-fiction books – a man of words and letters – presenting ITV’s South Bank Show, President of the National Campaign for the Arts (since 1986) and Chancellor of Leeds University (since 1999) it is none of these considerable achievements that brings him to Hull.

Instead it is an obscure person whose name and importance has been eradicated from history – largely due to an edict by Henry VIII – it is one man’s contribution to the world that has exercised his passions of late leading to his latest book, William Tyndale: A Very Brief History.

William Tyndale, who Bragg describes as being more influential than Shakespeare, sought to translate the 16th Century bible called the Vulgate, into English. The all powerful Catholic Church and Tudor Monarchy used the Vulgate, to their own advantage, a Latinate version of scriptures, translated from the Hebrew Tanakh – a collection of Jewish texts thought to be the textual source of the Old Testament.

The important thing to note is that this sacred text is in Latin, a language that only a few could read and understand – large swathes of the priesthood were illiterate which led to widespread corruption throughout the ranks – most importantly this was a sacred text of control and could only be interpreted by the heads of the clergy. They did so in such a way as to benefit themselves and oppress the public.

Picture: Jerome Whittigham @Photomoments

Tyndale believed that if the bible was translated into the common tongue – he repeatedly talks about a bible translated so that a ploughboy would understand, the country would be free from the yoke of rule from corrupt officials. The people would not be subject to arcane laws imposed on a whim, sanctioned by a text that they didn’t understand. They would have the truth, God’s words and not the Pope’s. Through this act of translation, Tyndale sought to give the people the power to decide for themselves, to find their own truth.

Thinking about this concept of the importance of translation, the democratisation of language, I liken it to the prevailing issue of legalese being used in British courts to blur and confuse the handling and outcomes of cases. Another example is the jumbled garble used by financiers, to increase profits, hiding behind a language that few understand: even the medical profession, the complex language of science and medicine, that leaves most of us scratching our heads. Tyndale’s lifelong endeavours to translate the bible into English, is perhaps the first and most important step in an on-going argument, for the democratisation of language.

Tyndale was proclaimed ‘the most dangerous man in England’ he was the number one enemy of the state, he was a threat to the monarchy; the papacy; the rule of law and the entire security of England. Tyndale, described by Bragg as ‘a mild-mannered scholar’ but a ‘fiery preacher’ fled England, after conducting a number of open air sermons and attracting the attention of the authorities.

In order to continue his work he had fled to Germany and with support from initially loyal colleagues, he begins sending his translated books back home. He was aided by a sympathetic printer and between 3 and 6000 copies, often hidden inside other books, hidden in wine barrels, or wrapped in wool, were sent on ships, back to England.

Back in England the books are proving a huge success despite the fact that the monarchy are operating a brutal policy of burn the books, burn the people. You could be imprisoned, tortured and hung, burned as a heretic, for being in possession of Tyndale’s translation: you were at risk just for being related to someone who had a copy. It is now that the story takes on a boy’s own adventure tale, or can be likened to the plot of a Hilary Mantel novel: plots, power grabs, the spectre of a protestant revolt. Tyndale is on the run from bounty hunters sent to bring him to the English Council, Thomas More wants to draw up a pact with him, Cromwell wants a piece and Henry Tudor wants to ban all mention of his name altogether. Then enter the arena, one man called Phillips. Bragg can barely bring himself to say his name, such is his disdain for this nefarious figure. Employing dramatic language, conjuring up horrific images, Bragg describes England in 1526 as a ‘nest of spies’ with the ‘terrible smell of burning flesh permeating London.’

Bragg has little difficulty impressing on the crowd the importance of Tyndale’s contributions to the way we live now. He explains that because of those radical moves by Tyndale and his supporters to translate the bible  – an act remember, that he could be tortured and killed for at any moment – the absolute power of the Catholic Church over the people was undermined, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry followed and England became a Protestant country. What befell Tyndale, the genius and revolutionary figure in his time? Well, you will just have to read the book to find out. Judging by the long line of queues after the talk, quite a few have jumped at the chance.

Melvyn Bragg Picture: Jerome Whittingham @Photomoments

It is the closing statement from Melvyn Bragg that I find most stirring:

‘I have given up lots of things for writing, but I have never given up writing for any thing.’

A few phrases in common usage in the English language that Tyndale has given us:

Salt of the earth, broken hearted, blind leading the blind,’ and one I’ve been puzzling lately, ‘the writing is on the wall.’