How Malcolm 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
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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, rangingfrom 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, a benign 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. There was a notable Cold Comfort Farm and episodes of Inspector Morse, A Touch of Frost, Kavanagh QC etc.

It's one of the central paradoxes of Bradbury's literary career that, as an academic, he fulfilled his duties to students and colleagues in the form of departmental responsibility, lectures, seminars and orthodox critical writing. Yet, in the best of his creative work, while not exactly biting the hand that fed him, he, to put it mildly, mocked the foibles and follies he could hardly avoid observing in his daily working life.

For Malcolm the two impostors were not Triumph and Disaster but Structuralism and Deconstruction, with, perhaps as third impostor, Sociology. This was mercilessly dissected in The History Man, in which the corrupt and corrupting Howard Kirk (who was not Laurie Taylor) so memorably portrayed by Anthony Sher in the TV version, causes such sexual and intellectual havoc.

Dominic Bradbury has edited a new collection of pieces by his father, Liar's Landscape: collected writing from a storyteller's life (Picador £20). It contains a short essay entitled, "Welcome Back to the History Man", in which Malcolm responded to Ian Christie's assertion in Prospect that The History Man was the turning point in the decline of sociology as an academic discipline. According to Christie, "Bradbury's demolition of his anti-hero's hypocrises and pretensions was hailed as though he headed up an army relieving a city besieged by Marxist academics." Malcolm retorts: "In fact I had no armies, and even I don't believe novels make that kind of difference." He goes on to express a genuine respect for sociology and, though he saw Kirk as "a rogue of rogues", envisages him, at the end of the essay, "enjoying his vice-chancellorship at Batley Canalside University, and the life peerage would be a source of the greatest pleasure".

One of Malcolm's best books, in which he exposed the idiocies of structuralism and deconstruction was Mensonge, a quest for the life and character of that giant of contemporary French intellectual life, Henri Mensonge. As mensonge means lie the search is perforce useless, but as a cod piece of academic research it is unrivalled. The frontispiece, believed to be the only extant photograph of Mensonge, is taken by - and credited to - me and consists of the back of my head, an effect achieved by sitting backwards on the stool in the photo booth at Swiss Cottage tube station.

My other favourite of the non-novel books is Unsent Letters, from which Dominic Bradbury has here reprinted "The Wissenschaft File" in which Malcolm creates in the excruciatingly laboured prose of a German postgraduate student with a very shaky command of English, a solicitation of Professor Bradburg's (sic) help in writing a thesis on the Prof's oeuvre. To this Malcolm appends his sumptuously evasive reply in which he deals with "the vexed issue" of whether there is a competent writer of English campus novels known as Bodge, a topic also entertainingly dealt with by David Lodge in the Afterword.

The two longest sections of this cornucopia of a book are a hybrid novella and television script and the substantial beginnning of what would have been a major novel. The hybrid will delight all who enjoyed Malcolm's deadly TV assassination of Brussels and the Common Market, The Gravy Train. The script for Furling the Flag was completed but, unaccountably, not made into a film. It does for the handover of Hong Kong what The Gravy Train did for Brussels, is mordantly funny and plotted by a master-craftsman of the genre. When the project was axed Malcolm was going to turn it into a novella but did not live to complete it. So what we get is the beginning as a novella and the rest of the story as a TV script. This odd mixture actually works and is so funny that you can only assume that the broadcasters got cold feet about the subject matter. A pity.

The other major piece provides the book's title. "Liar's Landscape" is part exploration of American history and part biographical fiction about Chateaubriand, who, when living in Suffolk, impregnated a clergyman's daughter and failed to marry her. While in Bungay he also wrote his bestselling novel Atala, in the house now lived in by Elizabeth Jane Howard which Malcolm had often visited. This section ends tantalisingly with the unfinished sentence: "I decided to go to Paris, enjoy my rank, and become a philosopher..." Its Shandyesque digressions and time-shifts and games played with the event of Chateaubriand's birth are full of the ludic spirit that haunts all of Bradbury's best work and, on the limited evidence printed in this otherwise immensely satisfying book, makes it clear that it would have been a perfect companion to, and successor of, the strangely underrated To the Hermitage.

Most Afterwords to collections like this are either full of academic jargon or are merely perfunctory. This one, by David Lodge, his almost exact contemporary, colleague and genuinely friendly rival in the stakes to be England's foremost campus novelist - in my view a dead heat - is a model of what such an essay should be. It is itself witty and informative but, above all, a warm tribute from one literary craftsman to another and as such an elegant counterpart and complement to the editor Dominic Bradbury's justified filial admiration and pride.

Liar's Landscape is essential reading for all admirers of Malcolm Bradbury and, for those who don't know his work, an invaluable sampler of his worldly-wise humour and his satirical wit, which, with deceptive gentleness, actually bites very deep. At his best - and there is much of his best in this book - he is that rare beast, a jack of many literary trades who mastered them all.

To buy a copy of 'Liar's Landscape' (Picador £20) for £18 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897

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