In 1970 in England it was still possible to feel, if not to argue, that the chief concern of serious literature was moral and that its riveting complexities, especially in novels, were mediated by choice; what imaginary people chose to do or failed to do marked their destiny and settled their hash by way of a kind of ascribed moral valency. At the age of twenty-two I considered myself to be five years into a scholarly apprenticeship that had come adrift, and I was feeling restless. I had had an intense sixth form at a boarding grammar school – I am one of those writers who feels his conscious adult life began under the magic spell of his English master – and had continued more vaguely and eclectically at university. Now all that was over, and I had a degree, and I was beginning to understand that unlike Oedipus or Coriolanus or Lord Jim, I myself had never really chosen anything at all. I hadn’t even made a really interesting mistake.
I had been accepted at a couple of universities to do a PhD but the relevant government department mercifully refused to fund me and offered instead a year’s grant to study for an MA anywhere I wanted. I like the ‘anywhere’ but I was tiring of academic work. If literature was a stately conversation conducted down the generations, then I was bored with merely listening. I wanted to join in. I had the usual idle dreams of being a writer, though I had no urgent subject matter. I had made a few stabs a greatness during my final undergraduate year: I proudly kept a notebook, I wrote a long Yeatsian poem about circus animals, though whether they deserted or revolted I can no longer remember. I composed one of the worst radio plays ever written, about a saint who is so good he stinks, and everyone who came across him, what with the world being so corrupt, was compelled to vomit. I had started a novella with the title The Man Who Hated Pain.
The summer began and I had still not made an application for an MA. I went to the Aldeburgh Festival on a scholarship, worked in an ice cream warehouse in Brighton and spent the remaining weeks of the summer in Italy with my girlfriend. By the time I came back in September all my friends were fixed up with jobs or further study. It was time to make a choice. I went to stay at my parents’ house on an army base near Middle Wallop and tried to think myself into a job. Teaching? I couldn’t face it. Advertising was supposed to be a creative world but I had absorbed a little of Arnold and a lot of Leavis and I loathed adverts with a high-minded passion. The Diplomatic Service? The support of the Wilson government for US policy in Vietnam had more or less finished off that possibility for me, though I still had fantasies of myself, fluent in Arabic and desert lore, a gentleman scholar and man of the world.
I had brought with me a dozen university prospectuses and I thumbed them sceptically, fully aware that a course description is a literary sub-genre, impacted with unfalsifiable half-truth and unredeemable promise – in short, an advert. For all that, I was struck by the offer of full immersion, in Norwich, in postwar American and British fiction, with a little literary theory on the side, a dose of comparative European nineteeth-century literature, and the option of handing in at the end of the year twenty-five thousand words of fiction in place of an academic mini-thesis. Norwich sounded perfectly like anywhere, American novels suited me fine, and there was the extraordinary offer of the fiction, so out of place in a university prospectus. I knew and liked Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson’s work. In a single unprominent paragraph my discontents and longings were addressed. It looked like a dream life was on offer. I made the first important conscious choice of my adult life and picked up the phone. Within a minute I was talking to Professor Bradbury himself (the world was emptier, things were easier then) who told me that in this its first year the fiction side of the course had been closed down due to lack of interest. In the same breath he invited me up for a chat. Essentially, I was in.
Norwich was further away in those days. There was no motorway, the train took forever, and even the phone connections were unreliable. The car-owning revolution was years ahead, so the city I moved to in October 1970 appeared peaceful, clean and gratifyingly obscure. I arrived with my ambitions focused; I would do the academic work, for it accounted for four-fifths of the course, but I was here to write fiction. I knew no one in the city, I had chosen to be here, real life could begin. I moved around as a character in my own novel, not Lord Jim perhaps, but my own man at last, in control of a narrative that murmured incessantly in my inner ear and went something like: ‘he moved to a forgotten town and took a room in a big house. That night he put fifty sheets of paper on the table, took up a pencil and promised he would not leave until a short story was written.’ In fact I worked until dawn, so excited by the romance and heroism of it all that at intervals I could not write at all. ‘He paced the narrow room, biting on his knuckle.’
The following day I typed up the completed story and delivered it to Malcolm Bradbury’s office. A week later we met up in the Maid’s Head. He did not immediately inquire whether I was deeply deranged, or whether I was out to shock him, and I took his equanimity entirely for granted. His remarks were mostly technical, and vaguely encouraging. I told him I wanted to spend the year writing short stories. He said ‘that’s fine by me’. I said I might try out a number of deranged first-person narrators. He said, ‘why not’. I said one of them might trick his kid sister into incest. He sucked on his pipe and said, ‘try and let me have it before the end of the month’.
Informality, complete lack of interference and carefully muted judgment were the principal elements of Malcolm’s pedagogic style. Behind it was an unspoken but intensely radiated assumption that there was nothing quite so exciting or essential as the writing of fiction. To be the ‘product’ of his writing ‘course’ was to be the beneficiary of an absolute artistic licence. That there was nothing that could not be said never needed saying. I don’t think I fully understood the extent of my privileges until five years later, when I published the stories from that time in book form and in the press took on the form of the ghoul I have never quite managed to cast off.
A good deal of my time was taken up with the academic requirement. Lasdun’s brutal dream was only a quarter realised, but the University of East Anglia was an optimistic lively place. The seminars were intense and combative, and we probably showed off a lot. We read Bellow, Nabokov, Burroughs, Mailer, Updike, Roth, Barth, Gaddis and so on, a reading list whose rubric would now be Men’s Studies. Everyone was keen on Borges and Julio Cortazar. I think we managed to avoid the postwar British novel, and if we did not, it made no impression on me. I heard the words ‘post-modern’ and ‘fictive’ and ‘faction’ for the first time. I ‘compared’ Middlemarch to Anna Karenina.
There were plenty of writers and would-be writers around, and a good deal of writing talk. Jonathan Raban had given up his academic career to write but still returned from London regularly. Victor Sage, who had just been appointed lecturer, was starting to write stories. John Webb with whom I shared a house was planning travel pieces. Snoo Wilson and Clive Sinclair had graduated the year before and put in appearances. Rose Tremain was living in Norwich. In the summer, Alan Burns, the lawyer turned novelist, was the university’s first writer-in-residence. After reading my stories he told me to read Beckett’s trilogy because I appeared to be ‘unconsciously influenced’. I took his advice, and immediately understood what he meant. Such are the tricks of memory that when I think back on those times the people I knew appear in perpetual good moods, their voices unusually loud, their gestures wildly exaggerated. The city itself was in a good mood. By 1971 the Sixties had spread up across the fens to take the town. I still have a hand-out inviting the citizenry to attend a smoke-in in Chapelfield Park where, it was comfortably predicted, clouds of cannabis smoke would envelop and confound the ‘fascist pigs’.
After Christmas I met Angus Wilson and his friend Tony Garret. They were an incongruous couple on the concrete walkways with their pale, well cut suits and carefree air of being globally well-connected. They had a trick of remembering even undergraduates’ names, and they collected people with a passion. I don’t recall anything so structured as a session about my fiction. I was invited to dinner at their cottage in Suffolk and Angus did imitations, gossiped and told outrageous stories spiked with comic cruelty. He called me ‘dear boy’ and when it was time to leave I overheard him mention in passing to another guest that I was a writer. For a long time afterwards I lived in the glow of that remark. On a later occasion he took me to task for homophobia, another new word.
Towards the end of my year Malcolm sent a story – the one I had written in a single night – to Transatlantic Review. It is easy for writers who make a living by their work to forget the thrill of first acceptance. I held on to the ten pound cheque for months. Publication led me in a roundabout way to Cape and my first volume of stories. It was a lucky year for me, though I like to think that I made my own luck with an act of choice. For twenty-five years the course that Malcolm and Angus began and which Malcolm has continued to shape has offered to dozens of others the chance to try their luck and discover what it was they thought they needed to write, and whether they could do it well.
I know very few novelists who have not been to the University of East Anglia to read, and it is largely through Malcolm Bradbury that Norwich has gained its international reputation as a place where writers and would-be writers alike are treated well. To create round the business of writing a community that is essentially friendly is an extraordinary achievement. His retirement marks the end of an era in our literary culture. His genius as a teacher was to provide generous opportunities with minimal interference….
© Ian McEwan