As one of a very small group of writers who attended the very first Edinburgh Book Festival in 1983, Melvyn Bragg returned to a warm welcome from festival directory, Nick Barley, and a stowed out RBS Main Tent.
Bragg wasn’t here to promote a new book as such, rather lecture us on the background and development of the King James Bible and the impact it has had, and still has, on modern life.
If this had been a television programme, I might have turned over to something else but Bragg’s enthusiasm and instantly recallable knowledge hooked me in from the start. “It’s the single most important book in the last 400 years,” he said, and followed it up with: “It is the most pivotal book ever written; a steel of drive and will that to the development of modern democracy and has shaped our views on all sorts of issues: feminism, slavery, oppression…”
If that’s not enough to pique your interest then nothing is.
Bragg began at the beginning: “History belongs to all of us regardless what our faith is – Christian, Muslim, whatever—or even if we have no faith. It belongs to humanity; there are no boundaries.”
He worked his way through the book’s origins with such authority, it felt as though he was speaking as a witness, not a man who has simply studied the subject history.
“The idea that slavery is inevitable has been abolished and that is a triumph for humanity. An it happened because of the King James Bible,” he said. “It gave early American immigrants a bond, a common language with which they could connect.”
Some of his statements soon became quite sweeping and controversial. Then again, the delivery of his speech was fast becoming emotive regardless of your position, so perhaps the reaction he gleaned was inevitable.
“I admire Dawkins greatly but I wish he wouldn’t write about religion” he said. “It’s offensive because his ignorance is often criminal. He’s not done his research; he’s wrong about a lot of things.”
“That big bang 13 million years ago : was it the start, middle or end of something?” he asked rhetorically, before adding: “The hadron collider is like trying to find out how many angels you can balance on the end of a needle.”
An interesting image perhaps, but just as soon as it felt he had begun time had run out. So he left is with this vignette to finalise his case of the importance of the King James Bible: “When Obama spoke to our leaders in the Great Hall at Westminster, he made a good speech. But I would much rather have shown him the spot where King Charles I was executed just down the road, and the place where the slave trade was finally abolished. I think that would have said much more.”