Billy Bragg Turns His Hand at Writing

I remember when I was working in London, my friend Dan and I went to check out Billy Bragg at a cafe. Awesome. I’d always been a fan and was totally stoked to have the chance to go. If you are in the neighborhood, don’t miss this show.
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Interview by Ian Ray

Billy Bragg, one of the most distinctive voices in British music for the last 25 years, has turned his hand to writing, prompted by his fury at the rise of nationalism in his home town.
The “bard of Barking” talks to The Guide about his literary debut, The Progressive Patriot, and his appearance at the Oundle Festival of Literature on Wednesday, where he will talk about the book.
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With the July 7 attacks and a sense of nation that often seems fractured, the time couldn’t be more appropriate for a look at our national identities, but Bragg said the idea behind The Progressive Patriot was formed some time earlier.
“The election of 12 BNP councillors in Barking, where I grew up, was a bit of a shock, and that sort of kicked me off with the book,” he said.
The book argues that we should embrace a stronger sense of national pride, but for many people, patriotism goes hand-in-hand with right wing views. Is this a fair assessment?
“Unfortunately, there is a perception that they’re joined, but I think they can be separated – we have long traditions of fairness and tolerance in this country and for all these years I’ve been convinced I was in the dissenting tradition, but if you look at history, I’m in the mainstream.”
The strong autobiographical element of the book has won praise from critics for its affectionate portrayal of a youth caught up in politics and music. Many writers say that an autobiography brings with it a reassessment of their past, and particularly their families. Is this something this relatively new author recognises?
“Certainly in the writing of this book I was able to see in my family the outline of a radical tradition that I wasn’t really aware of when I was growing up,” he said.
“My father never spoke to me about politics at all, and he died when I was 18, but his father and grandfather were both aware of the union struggles that were going on.
“Of course, your readers may point out that there could’ve been some reactionary Conservatives in between!”
Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg are among a very small number of musicians to successfully manage the transition to lengthier prose writing. Was it what he expected it to be?
“It was much harder,” he said.
“I’d written for newspapers and anthologies before, but trying to hang it all together was very hard, and I ended up writing it almost in essay form so it jumps around a bit – it’s the same way you’d put an album together”
Bragg said he
would consider writing another book, but admits he’d write the bulk of the book before committing to a deadline next time.
“I put myself under a lot of pressure,” he said.
“Luckily my family didn’t throw me out, but I had to keep saying ‘I can’t do that, I’m writing a book’, and even the dog got fed up with it in the end.”
Despite the hard work, Bragg said he has enjoyed the opportunity to talk at literature festivals, and that he is particularly looking forward to the Oundle date because he lived in the town while he was with his first band, Riff-Raff.
Now Bragg has a new album in the can, to be released late this year or early in 2008.
“I have enjoyed it, but I’m back to the day job now, much to everyone’s relief,” he said.
Billy Bragg will be at St Peter’s Church, Oundle, on Wednesday, from 7.30pm. Tickets, priced £7 (concessions £6), are available on 01832 274333.