Wrestliana – Malcolm Bradbury

In this cut section from Wrestliana, I write about turning in to someone else.

As a very private joke, a couple of years ago, I bought myself – from GAP – a grey tweed jacket of the blazer variety with oval black patches on the elbows.

It was to make mischief of something I saw happening to me: the gradual Malcolmization of my life.

Malcolm Bradbury was the main tutor on the Creative Writing M.A. I attended, at the University of East Anglia; 1994 to 1995: I was one of the final cohort of students he taught.

By then, Malcolm had been teaching writers at UEA for twenty-five years – with sabbaticals and time away, leading to the toilet graffiti I once saw: ‘Q: What’s the difference between Malcolm Bradbury and God? A: God is everywhere, Malcolm Bradbury is everywhere but here.’

He was famous. When other writers died – when Iris Murdoch died – he was on the news (from a studio in Norwich) anatomizing her achievements.

A book by one of his former students, The Remains of the Day, had won the Booker Prize. After Kazuo Ishiguro’s triumph (Malcolm insisted on calling him ‘Ish’), applications to the UEA course trebled – and Malcolm saw the success that a new generation of writers was going to enjoy. I think this upset him, because he saw how terribly he desired that success for his own books. His penultimate novel, Doctor Criminale, begins with a scene at the Booker Prize awards ceremony – it fails to be satire, as it’s clearly a hopefully in-joke; look, this book is shortlisted for the prize and in the book is a book shortlisted for the prize.

Malcolm had already written his great novel, The History Man, which – with a TV adaptation starring Antony Sher – must have made novelists of an older generation similarly envious. He had also written, apart from poetry, just about everything else – novels, short stories, monographs, essays, teleplays, screenplays, documentaries on literary subjects, standard works of literary criticism. But he must have known when he chose The History Man as a title, that he was asking the Gods of Irony to make him himself historic.

When I met him, he was best known as the father of Creative Writing courses in England. Actually, co-father, as he had – to tutor their first student, a Lennon-haired, Lennon-specc’ed Ian McEwan – brought in Angus Wilson. Angus Wilson, too, had had his great moment, with the dangerous stories he published in the 1950s and his panoptic social novels, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and The Old Men at the Zoo. To many contemporary readers, these seem as dense as the concrete of the Berlin wall – or rather, they seem that way to very few contemporary readers; because readers talk amongst themselves, and some time in the 1980s Angus Wilson was called ‘a bit heavy’. Like Malcolm, his whole reputation seems to be being condensed into a single book, one read only with trepidation, but then surprise at just how good he is. Shorter paragraphs, that’s what he needed. Page spaces. Roughage. And fewer characters from a narrower social spectrum. And more sex and violence.

So, the grey tweed jacket of my Malcolmization could also be the jacket of my Wilsonization.

To continue to live as a writer, I have become a teacher of writing. Perforce, I have joined the academy, and found it acceptable to begin sentences with words like ‘perforce’.

Malcolm, I think, had modelled his writing persona on the author photographs he encountered on the reverse of a previous generation’s Penguin paperbacks. There was the tweed jacket, the pipe, the sometimes-shaggy-sometimes-tamed hair, there was the intent to be great. It was this recognisability as a writer that made the TV news producers call Malcolm, repeatedly, when his elders and contemporaries died. Even if the viewers were watching with the sound down, they’d know what he was and what he was most likely saying.

..of the great writers of our time… inimitable… comic gift… to be greatly missed.. of course, the humour…

Malcolm became or more likely made himself into the icon of a literary writer. And, with my GAP jacket, I pretended I was doing the same – just as I was doing the same.

Writers now look different. That tweedy appearance went around the same time as the typewriter. Ironically, however, hipsterism has brought it back. Micro brewers now try to look like brewers from the 1950s, and advertising bods to look like Malcolm’s earliest author photos, plus beard. Every man is an ersatz D.H.Lawrence.

What is Malcolmization?

Malcolmization involves becoming a facilitator rather than an agitator. One refrains more from pursuing what looks likely to be not worthwhile, not recalling that most of the best things one has done looked that way. It’s the difficult middle period. As Lawrence Norfolk says, being young and being old are easy, for a writer, it’s just there’s no place in-between. New kid or eminence grise, otherwise get lost. I think of Philip Roth and his keeping going period. The massively ignored and specious, until editorial policy changes, and you’re back in vogue, because you might die soon. S/he looks likely to die, let’s get the lifetime achievement awards rolling. Honorary this and that. So we go picking wild strawberries.

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