How Bradbury Killed Sociology ; Malcolm Bradbury Wrote Prodigiously Shaped New Generations of Writers at UEA and Even Sounded the Death-Knell for a Whole Academic Discipline with His Most Famous Novel, 'The History Man'. Tom Rosenthal Remembers His Wit, His Gentleness - and His Pipe
On my mantelpiece I have a photograph of David Jason in full academic fig as Scullion, the Head Porter become Master of Porterhouse, in the TV adaptation of Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue. Not because I am that pathetic figure, an obsessive fan' it's there because among the dinner-jacketed and gowned Porterhouse undergraduates behind him in the College Dining Hall are to be seen my older son and Malcolm Bradbury's younger son, Dominic, employed as extras. Malcolm Bradbury is not there' but he is the guiding spirit, the "onlie begetter" of what has become a favourite family snapshot. For Malcolm was not only a superb novelist and TV scriptwriter, who could take the most apparently intractable material and turn it into immaculately crafted TV drama but also, in English cultural terms, a superlative, but always benevolent fixer.
Bradbury was for 25 years a much respected Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He also founded, with Angus Wilson, the UEA Creative Writing Programme and his pupils included Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain and others whose successful careers he helped to shape and establish. He published much impeccable academic criticism and wrote several superb novels, ranging from Eating People is Wrong to The History Man, and ending with that amazing mixture of historical invention and robust modern comedy, To the Hermitage, which was published in 2000, the year of both his knighthood and his death.
He was a devoted family man, a keen smoker and someone who could consume heroic quantities of alcohol in the course of endlessly sociable and happy evenings while remaining perfectly sober and articulate' all this in a man who had had heart trouble in his youth. In addition, he was a dedicated traveller to conferences all over the world and, via the British Council, abenign ambassador for English culture in the best possible way, since he was a model of amiability and charm. He nonetheless thoroughly deserved the graffito on one of the gents lavatory walls at UEA, "What is the difference between God and Professor Bradbury? God is everywhere: Professor Bradbury is everywhere but here."
In one of his "not here" phases, Malcolm arranged for various friends to be invited, in 1987, to something called, rather pretentiously, the World Affairs Conference at the University of Boulder, Colorado. Malcolm's gang included his fellow UEA professor and American expert, Christopher Bigsby, the poet Anthony Thwaite, and me, and we were all expected to lead the open seminars attended by Boulder's town and gown populations. One morning Malcolm and I shared a platform and, since both of us thought more constructively while smoking pipes, lit up. This was before the nationwide American witch-hunting hysteria about smoking had properly taken root. Nonetheless the lecture room had a couple of No Smoking notices and, within seconds, several old miseries started shrieking at us to stop. Malcolm, a much gentler person than me, paused in mid puff and said nothing. I on the other hand remarked that while we much appreciated the campus's hospitality, we had (a) paid our own fares to fly 5000 miles and (b) were not being paid to speak for several hours each day, and if our talk was of any value at all it was because a bit of tranquil pipe-smoking aided our fluency and we intended to go on talking and smoking. A few years later I retold this story, much embellished, when making a speech at The Savoy as Malcolm was crowned Pipe Smoker of the Year.
Being Malcolm's friend was easy' being his publisher was more complicated since he was, and will primarily be remembered as, a novelist and, if you regard the novel as the most important literary form, a tally of only six between 1959 and 2000 seems slow, even niggardly. Yet you couldn't think of Malcolm as lazy. He produced lit crit, short stories, anthologies, collections of essays, plays, original screenplays for television and many TV adaptations of others' work. …