Melvyn's newsletter - The Infant Brain - 04/03/2010

Mother and baby


I'm dictating this newsletter looking over the Solway Firth at Criffel, the southernmost mountain of Scotland. I'm here to see my mother who is in a nursing home. She must have brought me here hundreds of times on the bus from Wigton to go to the family beach and swim in the freezing water on this shaft of an inlet, which has been witness to so many drowned armies from England and Scotland and so many beleaguered border raiders as they tried to beat the tide by racing over the sands while it was out and, more often than not, failed.

There are gulls with the sound that is never less than haunting, and a large shaggy dog, a cross between an Alsatian and a Retriever, if that is genetically possible, has just come into the shelter where I'm out of the wind to pump this through to London. And this is a bit of a shaggy dog story because I've left my notes in London. After the programme on the infant brain I went to America. I'm doing a few last South Bank Shows before the end of the contract. I've called them the South Bank Show Revisited and we are whipping in people we've done a few times before and comparing what they did then over the last 30 years with what they are doing now. So off to America to interview Kiri Te Kanawa, Stephen Sondheim, Billy Connolly and James Ivory. When you crush it in and realise this is the last South Bank Show trip to New York, you begin to realise what a fantasy life you've led for the last 30-odd years. And people are so generous and the lives they lead have produced works so fine. What enormous luck.

I went to the Metropolitan Museum and to the Frick and of course to MoMA. No, this is not a conscientious catching up, it's something I want to do every time I go to that city. They are such magnificent places. The fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is what I would like to take away with me to my desert island. The Greek and Roman collections from the Met come a close second. And the Rembrandt self-portrait in the Frick, with the Goya blacksmith and the two Holbeins, run a tight third.

But to our subject: the infant brain. I feel that here in Cumbria, where I'm going to the Words by the Water literary festival in Keswick to talk about In Our Time amongst other things, I am somewhere in the cradle of the recognition of early childhood. Wordsworth, of course - 'the Child is father of the Man', Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome. Early childhood is an area I've explored myself, most particularly, I suppose, in my novel The Soldier's Return.

It is such an extraordinary county. As I say, here I am on the western tip, looking at a full tide and clearly across to Scotland. Just a few miles inland are the fells (Norse word) and waters and meres, which were a plantation for the Vikings from about the 9th century onwards and held its culture tightly together until about 50 years ago. There are great houses and pasture land - I needn't go on because our contributors pointed out in a programme a few months ago that this country has the most varied geology in the world - in one country, that is. So, sorry about the notes. I have brought next week's stuff with me to read on the train. I'll be going back via Bridlington to talk to David Hockney for this other series I'm doing. Meanwhile, a few lungfuls of ozone, then off to the infirmary and on to the festival.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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