Towards Mellbreak (Chatto & Windus, £12.99) is the debut novel from Marie-Elsa Bragg, who’s had a varied career as a ballet dancer, Anglican priest, therapist and lecturer before it. It follows a family of Cumbrian hill farmers over the generations and the changes and challenges they face. It was inspired with her own childhood on the fells with her father, broadcaster Melvin Bragg, and his family.
Did you always have aspirations to write a novel?
I have written for a while but not for anyone else to read. I am a great believer in writing, painting, sculpting, playing music for the joy and companionship of it. An artisan approach. Good for the soul!
You are part French, part Cumbrian and live in London. Of the three landscapes that are integral to your life, why did you choose to write about Cumbria?
It happened naturally. It might feel right to think about Provence for a later book. In part, I think you write about what you know and love and I am very close to my Cumbrian family as well as the fells. I was brought up with the idea that if something troubled you, a good walk on the fells would “blow the cobwebs out of you”. But I do also have a special relationship with the mountains in Provence, not least because I have vivid memories of my mother and her family there. She used to take me for long walks to pick dried flowers and then we would spend long evenings making arrangements, often with her Piaf or Jacques Brel records in the background. We lost her when I was only six years old, so in some way returning to that place when I can has kept her alive. I am certainly someone who is deeply affected by place – not only because of the memories and stories they evoke but because, for me, a place such as the fells in Cumbria has such a presence that they have been like another person who brought me up.
How has farming changed that landscape over the generations?
Hill farmers have worked alongside the landscape for many generations. There is so much local knowledge there which is not always harvested by the people who make decisions about what to do. At the moment, Cumbria is facing conservation and climate change. Who better than the farmers to report on what is happening to the land and plant the much needed trees in the right places where they know the water and shade or sun is right? And who better to know about how to keep the much loved traditions and communities thriving? To my mind the generations of hill farmers are an undervalued resource and central to a good future.
Hill farming has seen a number of changes in recent years, including huge intensification and a reduction of family-run farms, and is set to face more changes following Brexit. Why did you choose to conclude the book in the mid-nineties?
The book is set in a time of change when the generation born in the late 19th century and early 20th century were still living in their traditional ways. I remember them well, speaking broad Cumbrian, walking long distances to shops or schools, nothing open on a Sunday. My great grandmother wasn’t allowed to play on a Sunday. They were a generation of great storytellers and so folklore and religion mixed in a social way. Pace eggs rolled down the hill before the bonnet competition. First footing on New Year’s Eve included taking a piece of coal into friends’ houses after midnight to ward off bad luck for the year. One theme of the book is how we keep such beautiful traditions when change happens so fast. Another theme of the book was the problem of chemical poisoning. There have been many versions of this but I chose to focus on organo-phosphates in particular, which were originally developed for chemical warfare and then used to prevent the spread of scab in sheep farming. It is still an unresolved dispute but many felt it attacked their nervous systems and led a proportion of farmers into psychiatric wards or nervous conditions, even later in life. The idea of this happening without you knowing was terrifying for me at the time and stuck in my mind for years. By the 1990s the government had accepted that they should tell people to wear specific protective suits, which included a type of plastic, as it could penetrate rubber in things such as gloves and wellington boots.
How have religion and folklore informed life in the hills and how do they feed into your book?
It is central to my book because it was central to the families living in the fells. Cumbria was quite separate from the south in many ways when I was young and lots of my family didn’t have televisions, so the old ways were still central: throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder if it’s spilt, baking Simnel cake for Easter, plum pudding and rum butter for Christmas.
Did you draw on your own family history on the Cumbrian fells for the story of the Marras family?
Yes. When I was in our cottage in the fells, I would walk down to see my best friend on her farm before breakfast. We’d get her chores done as quickly as we could – eggs collected, milking cows walked in, yard swept and then we would be off exploring the lakes and ruins somewhere over past Skiddaw or around Bassenthwaite. When I wasn’t staying near the farm, I was with my grandparents who lived above the sweet shop they worked in (all the glass jars and sweets to be weighed out) or I would be out walking with my father, Bassenthwaite to Keswick, or tackling the peak of Skiddaw, Helvellyn or Catbells.