Warm and generous, famous and friendly, witty and wise: Dominic Bradbury on his father's life and work.
In the daunting days after my father's death in the autumn of 2000, our thoughts turned to the always difficult question of the words that should be inscribed upon his gravestone. He was buried in a picturesque graveyard alongside the village church in the Norfolk village of Tasburgh, opposite a field that was once the site of an iron age fort and is now home to grazing sheep. The gravestone itself is a tall, handsome slab of stone but cried out for a suitable epitaph.
It's no easy thing to commit to the words that will not only mark a beautifully crafted monument but will also last for centuries. More than that, they must – in the briefest of notes – sum up a lifetime of work, love and achievement and in the most respectful and even lyrical of tones. No wonder that we agonised over the choice of lines.
But then my father himself, ever ready with a choice word and phrase, handed us the solution. In his last completed novel, To the Hermitage, he had described his hero, Denis Diderot, with the words 'Warm and generous, famous and friendly, witty and wise' in his opening line. This was my father, this was Malcolm Bradbury, in a nutshell. The words were carved and sit there still.
Malcolm Bradbury was certainly all of these things and that's why he made such an impact upon so many people. He was generous with his time, his knowledge and his ideas. He liked to help others and to pass on his learning where he could, as well as to encourage and support creative talent. This meant that he was as gifted a university teacher as he was a writer and his enduring legacy remains – along with his novels – the ground breaking creative writing course that he co-founded in 1970 at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, with Ian McEwan his very first student.
My father was, some might have said, generous to a fault. He found it hard to say no to newspaper editors, conference organizers and officers of the British Council. He enjoyed, at heart, the attention that book tours, readings and festivals brought him. He travelled widely, contributed freely and savoured a good party and a fine glass of red, or white. But if they could get past the gatekeeper, also known as my mother Elizabeth, then some commissioning editors and academics could persuade my father into projects or trips that he was not so delighted with. Such dead-ends were an occasional source of frustration and cost Malcolm Bradbury a good deal of valuable time that he would have loved to have spent crafting a novel or working on a television script.
Yet the truth was that Malcolm loved the role of polymath. He was very good at many different things and delighted in new experiences and opportunities as long as they in some way related to writing and the written word. He began his formal professional career as an academic and critic, but from very early on he was also earning money on the side with short stories and magazine articles. He was most famous, perhaps, as a novelist – particularly so for The History Man – yet was also much in demand as a journalist and reviewer, constantly contributing until not long before his death. Malcolm valued the key friendships and collaborations that his university work brought him, but eagerly stepped into the world of television when it opened itself up to him. He adapted Tom Sharpe's Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue for television to great success, yet also scripted original dramas and contributed to some of the great crime series of the time: Morse and A Touch of Frost.
Such a summary points to the essential and wonderful contradiction in my father between the shy, quiet man in his study, typing away in contentment, and a more outward looking character that loved a big event like the Booker Prize dinner as well as visiting a film set and shaking hands with David Jason, Albert Finney or John Thaw. It also helps to explain why he wrote just six completed novels, while giving so much in many other different yet seductive contexts.
As a child, I remember so warmly the atmosphere of his UEA study and the wonderful wire mesh Harry Bertoia chairs that bloomed there like flowers. But it was also a surreal treat to take a bit part in Porterhouse Blue as an extra and throw bread rolls across a dining hall over the necks of fake, cooked swans.
Through these very different mediums and settings, Malcolm earned the respect of so many writers, editors and students. His was a perfect kind of gentle fame; no-one would ever bother him in the street, yet he was so widely respected and loved.
We still miss him greatly today, of course, and lament the fact that he was taken from us far too early when he still had a great deal to give. He died at the age of just 68, with an unfinished novel on the desk and a thousand ideas under the surface. He had achieved so much, taking himself from a Nottingham grammar school to a Buckingham Palace knighthood for services to literature, but perhaps felt that he was really only just getting warmed up.
www.malcolmbradbury.com is intended as a modest celebration of some of the many different aspects of Malcolm Bradbury's life and work, from fiction to television to criticism and his contribution to the UEA.