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In Our Time: Caxton and the Printing Press

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 13:05, Friday, 19 October 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Caxton and the Printing Press. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - AI

Caxton and the Printing Press


The Caxton programme comes at a curiously appropriate time for me. I'm on the Communications Committee in the House of Lords and we are currently experimenting with the notion of abolishing paper and having all our business news - the mass of information we have to read before each weekly meeting - on iPads. The notion is that if we can make it work, it will spread through other committees and other areas in the Palace of Westminster and we will become a paperless place.

This might be as significant as the day that Herr Gutenberg saw metal before his eyes and preferred it to the woodblock.

It will be some relief, at last, for trees. All over the world they can cease their trembling and shivering in the wind and know that they will no longer be forest-farmed for mega-bureaucracies.

I wonder where all this will go to?

Out into London, first to another meeting with Tom Morris about the culture programme we're trying to put in place for the first week of next year, then a walk down to the Lords through this strange bubble which is London at the moment. It is so busy; it looks so cheerful, it can't be right. But there we are. There's something strange, though, about the way that it has its prosperity.

After the Lords I went to lunch with James Hunt from Sky Arts television to talk about future programmes and wandered back a long way round and happened on Belgravia. Full of grandeur and emptiness. What does this say about London? Well, according to a friend of mine who has a flat in the area, a lot of the property is empty and is not for living in but for investing money in as part of an international portfolio.

I watched carefully in the three quarters of an hour stroll and there was not a beggar on the street, not an alcoholic on a park seat, no litter. It was a weird world and all the buildings seemed to have been painted ice-cream vanilla white in the last couple of weeks.

Previously in the morning I talked to Mike Smith from the Salford branch of the BBC about a programme we're going to do on William Tyndale, whom I think of more and more as the real founder of the modern English language and I look forward to trying to substantiate that.

And on we go. The week's been a very funny one. Andrew Lloyd Webber got a gang together to go and see Johnny Hallyday on his first ever concert in London. This seventy-something French rock star is a phenomenon. The French don't like rock and roll, or they didn't when I first went to Paris to work in the late 50s and then frequently in the 60s, the French loved jazz, especially black jazz, and their own chansons and ballads. Rock and roll they regarded as vulgar. Johnny Hallyday, who had spent part of his early life in America, loved rock and roll and set out to become the leading, in fact the solitary, rock and roller in the whole of France. He dominates France. His concerts are always sold out, but elsewhere in the world he is ignored and sometimes even dismissed.

He's a good old rocker and he filled the Albert Hall with wildly enthusiastic French people who sang along to his songs, and he did the rock and roll thing of holding out the mic so that they could sing while he took a break. He was dressed head to toe in leather. The light show was blinding so that you needed dark glasses just to pick him out on the stage. He has a voice which has the power of a Harley Davidson at full throttle.

But it was a strange cultural transposition.

So back into London and wandering round the streets, which is such a pleasure and gets more of a pleasure. Going along Knightsbridge towards the Albert Hall I saw on my left a little slit of a street, the width of a door, and went down it to discover about ten small restaurants I'd never seen before in an area called Knightsbridge Green. It seemed to be populated by people from, I would guess, the Middle East who were having a ferociously good time arguing whether they should go to the Bulgari Hotel for a drink before they went to one of these restaurants for a meal.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: They've already put up the Christmas decorations in Oxford Street!

PPS: I'm walking through Soho and a young man with a ring in his nose comes to me, shakes my hand very firmly and says "I once tried to cast your nose in plaster. You said no very nicely. Thank you". And then he moved on. Just down the street a young lady swishes by in full evening dress which you would have expected in Belgravia which, as I said, was empty, now that all those great houses have been turned into embassies.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'd like to raise the issue of life expectancy in the 15th century. At a couple of points during the Caxton programme, it was said that Caxton was in his forties at the beginning of his printing venture and would therefore be regarded as someone who was approaching old age, given that life expectancy was forty-something. This would not have been the case.

    Average life expectancy was so low mainly because many children did not survive infancy and because, thereafter, people were exposed to so many incurable diseases and, of course, because the diet and living conditions of most people were poor.

    However, if you survived to 40, the chances are that it was because you were a healthy, well-nourished (ie probably well off) person who was not much different physiologically from a 21st century 40 year-old. You could still be struck down by cholera or many other diseases but you didn't become a wizened old man or woman at 45.

    Average life expectancy is therefore misleading. It is more useful to state life expectancy at a particular age. I don't have the figures but it could be that, in Caxton's time, life expectancy at birth was 20. Life expectancy at 20 might be 40. Life expectancy at forty might be 60.

  • Comment number 2.

    Caxton was a witness to rapid change in the language during his lifetime:
    ‘And certaynly our langage now vsed varyeth ferre from that whiche was vsed and spoken whan I was borne’ [and certainly the language now used is very different from that which was used and spoken when I was born].


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