TRAVEL / America on 25 cents a day: Memorable Journeys: Malcolm Bradbury: From London to New York and Toronto

Click to follow
Down and Out in Toronto and New York is not the title of a Malcolm Bradbury novel. Yet it is a book he could have written about the time he spent there in 1951. Yanks, No Thanks is what the Channel 4 serialisation of it might have been called.

His first transatlantic trip should by rights have put the young Bradbury off the entire continent for life. Instead it pointed his interests permanently West and now, as (part-time) Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, he flies to the States two or three times every year.

'I would have been 19,' he recalls. 'It was at the end of my first year at Leicester University. I was interested in getting a job at the BBC and was given a grant by a foundation - I've forgotten its name - to go and study radio stations in New York and Toronto. It was a rather complicated journey.'

The foundation had booked him from Luxembourg on a Loftleidir flight (the former Icelandic airline). This meant that Bradbury and his fellow grantees had to take a BUA flight from Heathrow - 'In those days you checked in at Victoria Station' - to Brussels and then traipse via bus to Luxembourg.

Here they found their Loftleidir Dakota waiting. This is a type of plane which you may have seen in black-and-white movies, but there is nothing much wrong with it and pretty soon its propellers were powering them westwards. But not for long. If the Dakota had a fault, it was its fuel capacity. They touched down at Shannon airport to refuel.

Again they took off, and this time got as far as Iceland before needing another squirt from the petrol pumps. Here, having landed, the Dakota broke down. You may not be familiar with Keflavik, the US base then used as the airport for Reykjavik, but over the next few days Bradbury and his fellow pilgrims rapidly grew to know it, though not necessarily to love it.

'There was nothing to do except buy stamps and fish.' Spending money on those commodities, or indeed on anything at all, would turn out later to have been a bad move.

But the passengers' spirits soared, like the Dakota when it was at last back in working order, as they eventually sped on to the next fuel stop, which was this time in Newfoundland. 'Then we arrived at La Guardia airport, New York - and were met by the people from the Foundation to say that the money had run out. We could either take the next return flight or wait until the plane came back for us in a month's time.'

Having come all this way, the young folk were not going to leave the New World with nothing to show for their time except Icelandic stamps, so they decided to stay on and meet up again four weeks later. With the collapse of the Foundation's arrangements, the New York end of Bradbury's radio project never happened, so he was free to go up the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building.

'I didn't like New York all that much; it is not a very kindly city - although it is exciting. I stayed at the YMCA, not realising it was very dangerous for young heterosexual men, and then went on to Toronto. A friend of my university professor took me halfway in his car. The route was essentially along the Hudson river valley; it was lovely and pastoral, with lakes and maple trees.' He completed the journey by bus and crossed the Canadian border.

'Toronto is now a completely different city, apart from the area around the university. It was at the time a very British town, which was quite comforting. The skyscrapers hadn't gone up; the lake was full of ships; and there were trains stacked with grain from the prairies. Now it's all condominiums and yachts.'

Although the Foundation's arrangements were all up the spout, the Canadians honoured the commitments they had made. They even came up with somewhere for him to live: 'I stayed at the university hostel.'

Bradbury met a lecturer from Queen's University at Kingston, Ontario, who drove him over to look at the site on the St Lawrence. Since his money was running out, he applied to the student job-finding scheme in Toronto and ended up mowing lawns - without a work permit: 'I bet it was illegal,' he adds.

The radio station provided him with a room to work in. There was no question of him having to write his report for the Foundation. He has always been a prolific writer and is at this moment working on a television version of Doctor Criminale, his last piece of fiction. Also, 'I am in the process of delivering a book on the modern British novel.'

What with the lawnmowing and sightseeing, he did not have time for anything quite so elaborate. Instead, 'I managed to sit down and write a radio play. It was called Plane out of Iceland.' Yes, it was the harrowing tale of a young lad flying to America on a grant which turns out to have been cancelled.

'I'd written the odd comedy script for the BBC and short story for the local paper but this certainly was the biggest thing I'd done.' The Toronto radio folk, bless them, bought it. And although the play was not broadcast until after he left, payment was speeded up and he received a much-needed cheque while he was still there.

'Then I went back to New York to pick up the plane - and once again it was being repaired. So once again I was stuck in New York, this time with no money. I had enough to stay at the YMCA again and I survived on 25 cents a day.'

There was no gadding about up the Empire State Building now. Most of those cents were spent in a branch of Horn and Hardart, a cafeteria in which food and drink was cheap, largely because there were no waiters, just a very basic self- service: 'You put money in slots.' Despite this, it was quite palatial and actually provided tables at which the iron rations could be stretched out.

Finally the Dakota was airworthy and able to take them home via Newfoundland, Iceland and Shannon. Best of all, the flight went to Heathrow.

How is it that he found the month so pleasurable? 'You have to remember that in 1951 Britain still had rationing and austerity, and was a very dull, beaten country. America was the opposite: booming and getting very rich. I fell in love with that part of the world and was determined to go back.

'When I had finished my MA, I got myself a scholarship to America, a Fulbright.' Unlike his previous grant, this was not axed on touchdown. Instead of mowing lawns, he found himself giving lectures. (He found this a somewhat nerve-racking experience, particularly when he had to address his students in a chemistry building and absent-mindedly turned on the gas taps in front of him.)

Since then, he has been to the US around 40 times: 'Last summer I went to Toronto again, after 40 years away. I arrived First Class - my seat was bumped up from Business to First - for the International Association of University Professors of English. The Lieutenant-Governor gave a reception for us.'

Fortunately this red-carpet treatment does not seem to have gone to his head. He kept thinking about his previous, lawnmowing reincarnation in Canada, both while he was there and on the flight back. And the return journey did not, of course, feature Newfoundland, Shannon, or a fish-buying stopover in Iceland.

(Map omitted)