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24 September 2014

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Sunday 14 March 2004
Melvyn Bragg - Words By The Water
Theatre By The Lake (source: BBC Cumbria)
Theatre By The Lake

Sunday 14 March 2004

People and Language: The Adventure of English 500AD - 2000AD.
A lecture by Melvyn Bragg

Reviewed by Suzanne Worthington, BBC Cumbria.


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Melvyn Bragg is well known for his television programmes about the English language. He's at the Words By The Water festival to promote his latest tome. Can Lord Bragg cut it in front of an audience without the comfort of a script and editing?

Heroes and villains

I was intrigued. I've just finished studying a block about exactly this topic for an Open University course. How would Melvyn tackle the story of English? Who would be the heroes? And who will be the villains?

Well, the heroes were King Alfred and translators Tyndale & Wycliffe. Bragg couldn't hide his contempt of the villain - Henry VIII.

On a stage that resembled a slick studio set, Bragg began by sloshing water all over the place and cracking jokes about someone in the front row coughing. The audience was mostly educated silver-tops and a few damp fleece-wearing tourists. I expected more students.

Bragg apologised for nerves but surely this doesn't happen to someone of his experience? The talk was the sort of thing usually conducted in a bookshop - an overview and excerpts from his latest book (The Adventure of English).

Everyone's interested

Sir William Jones, who discovered the correlation between Sanskrit and English, was an amateur language fan and Bragg uses this to justify his authority to write books on language. Although, as he points out, "everyone is interested in language", I'd prefer to buy a book by a 'real' authority like Pinker or Trask.

Bragg was slightly difficult to listen to at times. He can start a sentence, only to finish with something unconnected, and there was a tendency to speak a little fast with an occasional stammer. But it seemed off-the-cuff and original.

As Bragg gestured wildly with some interesting mannerisms, it was amusing that he mentioned body language and how we interpret it!

Evil Henry VIII

The content of the talk was a whirlwind tour from the Celts to the present day, via a string of anecdotes from his book. These included the origins of 'OK' and his investigation of the Wigton dialect he grew up speaking.

Bragg spoke passionately about the influence of the church on English, culminating in his rant about "why we should never forgive Henry VIII".

The talk ended with Bragg stating that he "couldn't imagine a world without the contribution of the people of these Isles". Although Faraday, Darwin & co played a part, I'm pretty sure Einstein, Bohr & others could have got here on their own. Sadly, there was no time for questions.

The lecture was a sell-out. From what I heard, if they'd sold standing tickets, there would have been folk swinging from the light fittings. The Words By The Water festival is building a reputation for attracting the best speakers and a big crowd of eager listeners.

Review by Suzanne Worthington, BBC Cumbria
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