Sir Malcolm Stanley Bradbury (19322000), by Richard Whitehead, 1993
Bradbury, Sir Malcolm Stanley (19322000), writer and literary scholar, was born on 7 September 1932 at Nether Edge Hospital, Sheffield, the elder of the two sons of Arthur Bradbury (18991985) and his wife, Doris, née Marshall (18981993). His father's family came from Macclesfield, Cheshire, and his mother's from Sheffield, Yorkshire. Arthur Bradbury was a railwayman who ended his career as an advertising manager in British Rail. Because of his father's occupation, and the disturbances of the Second World War, Bradbury lived in several different places in early childhood, but the family settled in Nottingham, where he attended West Bridgford grammar school from 1943 to 1950. He took justifiable pride in the fact that while still a schoolboy he had short stories published in the Nottinghamshire Guardian, the newspaper that had published D. H. Lawrence's first story. In 1950 he went to University College, Leicester, then a very small institution that prepared students for the external degrees of London University, and obtained a first in English in 1953. He had already started the novel that became Eating People is Wrong. He was offered a postgraduate scholarship by the University of London which he took up at Queen Mary College, though he worked mainly in the round reading-room of the British Museum. He obtained his MA (then a two-year research degree) with a thesis on the influential little magazines of the modern literary era, and he was soon publishing parts of it in similar magazines, as well as contributing more light-hearted pieces to periodicals like Punch. From an early age, therefore, creative, scholarly, and popular journalistic strands were intertwined in his writing career.
Bradbury had developed a strong interest in American literature (in those days a rather esoteric option for students of English literature) and in 19556 he went to America as an English-Speaking Union fellow and postgraduate instructor at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, teaching the comma and underlining (as he liked to say) in freshman English while laying the foundations of his future research on American literature. That year was a formative experience. The American way of life was both a provocation to satire and a foil against which to appreciate the very different flaws and follies of the British society to which he returned in 1956, to enrol for a PhD on American literary expatriates at the University of Manchester (obtained in 1962). In 19589 he returned to America, as a British Association for American Studies fellow, attached to Yale University. Bradbury was keenly interested in the then fashionable discipline of sociology, and his humorous journalistic pieces at this time, subsequently collected in Phogey (1960) and All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go (1962), were a kind of popular sociology of style and behaviour. The witty observation of contemporary manners in different cultures was to be a consistent feature of his novels.
Bradbury had always suffered from a heart condition, which curtailed his participation in sports, and no doubt encouraged his literary and intellectual pursuits, in childhood and youth. In 1958 he underwent what is reputed to be the first hole in the heart operation carried out in Britain. It was a traumatic experience which left its trace on the closing chapters of Eating People is Wrongindeed the author finished that book in hospital with a pessimistic sense of urgency. Happily the operation was successful, and the following year was something of an annus mirabilis for him. On 17 October 1959 he married Florence Betty (Elizabeth) Salt, a librarian in Nottingham whom he had known for some years; he obtained his first academic post, as tutor in literature and drama in the extramural department of the University of Hull; and he had his first novel published.
Eating People is Wrong was deservedly acclaimed by reviewers and immediately established Bradbury as a significant new voice in English fiction. Perhaps inevitably, because of its satirical take on academic life and episodes of high farce, it was linked with Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, though it has a more intellectual underlying theme, one which was to recur in Bradbury's work: the plight of the liberal humanist who lacks the strength, and perhaps the will, to resist those forces in contemporary society whose influence he most deplores.
In 1961 Bradbury was appointed to a lectureship in the English department of the University of Birmingham. Another young lecturer and novelist in the department was David Lodge. The two men became fast friends, and in due course collaborators (with a talented undergraduate, Jim Duckett) on a satirical stage revue, Between these Four Walls, produced by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1963. In 1965 Bradbury published his second novel, Stepping Westward, in which a provincial English novelist comes to a university in the middle of America to be writer in residence and fails abysmally to understand the political intrigues in which he is involved. In the same year Bradbury accepted a pressing invitation from the newly founded University of East Anglia (UEA) at Norwich to accept a lectureship with a mandate to develop American studies there. He was to remain at UEA for the rest of his academic life, retiring in 1995 as professor of American studies. To the general public, however, he was better known as co-founder (with Sir Angus Wilson) and later sole director of an MA course in creative writing. From small beginnings (in its first year, 1970, the course had only one student, Ian McEwan) this grew into the most successful and prestigious course of its kind in the country, whose graduates have made a significant contribution to contemporary British fiction over the years. Many of them have paid tribute to Bradbury's generosity and tact as a teacher.
Bradbury's own fictional masterpiece was perhaps The History Man (1975). Its anti-hero, sociology lecturer Howard Kirk, who believes that Marx has provided him with the plot of history, which happens to coincide conveniently with his own desires for domination of other people, became one of the mythical figures of contemporary culture, especially after the success of the BBC's television serialization of the novel, adapted by Christopher Hampton, in 1980. The History Man received the Royal Society of Literature's Heinemann award, and Bradbury's next novel, Rates of Exchange, was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1983. This is set in the imaginary eastern European country of Slaka, for which Bradbury invented a colourful history and geography and a language full of Slavic syllables and English puns. (He even wrote and separately published a spoof guidebook called Why Come to Slaka?) The educated Slakans speak an expressive broken English and run rings round the naïve English linguistics lecturer whose visit drives the plot. This novel, and the next one, Dr Criminale (1992), revealed Bradbury's sympathetic fascination with the plight of intellectuals under repressive communist regimes prior to the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the various strategies they used to survive. The amusing surface comedy of cross-cultural manners in these novels covers some dark, disturbing ideas about history and politics, and the final joke is usually on the feeble representatives of liberal democracy.
If Bradbury's novels were more widely spaced in time than his admirers would have liked, this was partly because he laboured to perfect them and revised them endlessly, but partly too because he spread his energies so widely. He was, for instance, one of the first English literary novelists to become actively involved in television drama, having his first teleplay, The After Dinner Game (written with Christopher Bigsby) produced by the BBC in 1975. At the other end of his career he wrote two ambitious original television mini-series, The Gravy Train (1990) and The Gravy Train Goes East (1991), satirizing bureaucracy and corruption in a Europe dominated by the EU and shaken up by the collapse of communism. Some of his finest work for television included adaptations of other writers' work, notably John Fowles's The Enigma, Tom Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue, and Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (later released as a feature film). He contributed episodes to some of the most popular British television crime series, such as A Touch of Frost, Dalziel and Pascoe, and Kavanagh QC. Like most writers who venture into this field of endeavour, he wrote many screenplays that were never produced. The frustrations of the screenwriter's life found comedic relief in his novella Cuts (1987).
Throughout his academic career, and after his retirement, Malcolm Bradbury continued to publish works of criticism and scholarship too numerous to list herethough mention must be made of his astonishingly comprehensive The Modern British Novel (1993; rev. 2001), and Dangerous Pilgrimages: Transatlantic Mythologies and the Novel (1995), the finest fruit of his long study of AmericanEuropean literary relations. He edited classic novels and reference books and anthologies. He wrote hundreds of, probably more than a thousand, book reviews in newspapers and magazines (and never a spiteful or destructive one). He took the function of criticism very seriously, but he was also capable of carnivalizing it, as in his parodic biography of a fictitious continental post-structuralist theorist, Mensonge (1987).
Bradbury was chairman of the Booker prize judges in 1981, and was involved in the award of several other literary prizes. He travelled frequently abroad, to conferences or on lecture tours for the British Council, and presided for many years over an influential seminar organized by the council at Cambridge every summer, at which a select gathering of foreign academics, writers, translators, and literary journalists encountered a procession of some of Britain's most distinguished authors. He was in his element on these occasions, which involved a good deal of socializing. Malcolm Bradbury enjoyed the kind of party of which the chief constituents are good talk and good wine, and his stamina on these occasions was legendary.
Physically Bradbury was tall, but never used his height to intimidate. His manners were gentle, his voice was light. His speech had no perceptible class or regional accent, though in later life it acquired an attractive, slightly patrician drawl. When he read from his own work his delivery had a distinctive rising and falling intonation. He possessed a whole spectrum of laughs, from an infectious giggle to a full-throated guffaw. His long, handsome face, surmounted by dark wavy hair that became thinner and grizzled in later years, was the face of an intellectual, the broad brow furrowed with the traces of thought; but there were laugh lines around the eyes and the mouth was always apt to break into a smile. When he wrote on the typewriter or computer, the tip of his tongue flickered and curled between his lips as if in sympathy with the difficulty and delicacy of the task.
Bradbury was a man of letters of a kind unusual in modern times, and of perhaps unique versatility. For his services to literature he was appointed CBE in 1990 and was knighted in 2000. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, fellowships, and visiting professorships.
Bradbury could not have achieved so much without the devoted support and assistance of his wife, Elizabeth. Nevertheless the work rate he set himself took its toll on his health. He contracted a rare respiratory disease called cryptogenic organizing pneumonia which progressed alarmingly in 2000 and failed to respond to the customary treatment. This prevented him from properly enjoying the publication of his long-awaited novel To the Hermitage in the spring of that year. In form and content this was quite a new departure, deftly splicing together a wry, Shandean self-portrait with a vivid historical evocation of the philosopher Denis Diderot, whose encyclopaedic intellectual energy he admired, and whose disappointments stirred his sympathies. The moving elegiac conclusion to that novel soon acquired an extra poignancy.
Malcolm Bradbury died at Priscilla Bacon Lodge, Coleman Hospital, Norwich, on 27 November 2000, attended by his wife and their two sons, Matthew and Dominic. He was buried on 4 December in the churchyard of St Mary's parish church, Tasburgh, a village near Norwich where the Bradburys owned a second home. Though he was not an orthodox religious believer, he respected the traditions and socio-cultural role of the Church of England, and enjoyed visiting churches in the spirit of Philip Larkin's famous poem Churchgoing.
A memorial service held at Norwich Cathedral in February 2001 was attended by over 500 people, an indication of how sadly Bradbury was missed in many different walks of life. In the English literary world he left a gap which could hardly be filled, because of the variety of his talents and the breadth of his interests. His friends cherished the memory of his wit, his sociability, his gentleness, and his generosity of spirit towards fellow writers.
L. Henderson, ed., Contemporary novelists, 5th edn (1991) · Malcolm Bradbury, contemporary writers leaflet, 1992, Book Trust and the British Council · The Guardian (28 Nov 2000) · A. Motion and K. Ishiguru, Tributes, The Guardian (28 Nov 2000) · I. McEwan and D. Lodge, Farewell to a friend, The Guardian (29 Nov 2000) · The Times (28 Nov 2000) · Daily Telegraph (28 Nov 2000) · Debrett's People of today (1999) · private information (2004) [Elizabeth Bradbury, widow]
University of Indiana, Bloomington
U. Birm. L., video interview with David Lodge, discussion of The history man
photographs, 1975, Hult. Arch. · R. Whitehead, photograph, 1993, NPG [see illus.]