MALCOLM BRADBURY writer and critic


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THURSDAY, 1 JULY, 1993 – Malcolm Bradbury

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

In 1970, Angus Wilson and I, two writer-professors here, had what many thought was a foolish idea.  We proposed to start an MA in Creative Writing.  It was then generally believed in Britain that creative writing was a dangerous American import, like the McDonald Hamburger, and no-one would ever eat it.  Some colleagues were sympathetic, others thought no good could come of it.  While debate continued, the rumour got out.  One day the telephone rang;  a student from Sussex said he would like to take this completely notional programme.  He looked promising, and if he failed to write a word his academic abilities were so good we knew he could get an MA in the Novel instead.  His name was Ian McEwan.

Ian was the one student of the first, trial MA year.  During it, we met like spies, in pubs and teashops, and he showed us around 25 remarkable stories.  His MA thesis has disappeared (I often check the Sotheby's catalogue), so I can't quite remember which particular ones he submitted the last time we awarded him a degree.  Soon they were appearing in leading magazines, and they formed the basis of his first two volumes, IN BETWEEN THE SHEETS and FIRST LOVE, LAST RITES, which came out in 1975 and 1978.  In 1978 also came a short disturbing first novel, THE CEMENT GARDEN.  It was a very notable debut;  Ian's work, along with Martin Amis's, was quickly seen as the expression of an new voice in British fiction – young, strong, radical, and shocking.

During the 1980s, that voice grew ever stronger.  In 1981 he published a disturbing short novel about sexual violence, THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS, set in an unnamed but very Venetian city.  Around that date we saw his remarkable television play THE IMITATION GAME, which explored the intelligence community of wartime, and indicated a main theme of his writing was the psychology of aggression and domination.  Another powerful tv film, THE PLOUGHMAN'S LUNCH, gave a critical reading of postwar British history by interlinking the Suez crisis and the Falklands War.  Ian returned to the novel in 1987 with THE CHILD IN TIME, set a little in the future, and dealing with our corrupted versions of childhood.  In 1990 came THE INNOCENT, set around a spying tunnel built by the CIA beneath the Berlin Wall, an allegory of an age just gone.  In 1992, he published BLACK DOGS, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a disturbing story about the profound moral shock to humanism and conscience of the world after the War.

Ian McEwan is an essential figure of the recent revival of the British novel – which, as you may know, dies far more often than it is reborn, but still keeps going strong.  British fiction in the Eighties went through a period of innovation, discovery, and excitement not seen since the Fifties; McEwan, with his ever growing moral authority, his intensity of vision and command of form, was central to all that.  And, because he belongs to an era in fiction when technological media are a fundamental part of current artistic expression, there was an equally significant contribution to television and film, and indeed the oratorio too.

It's an enormous personal pleasure to commend Ian McEwan to you as Doctor of Letters.  It continues a tradition – even new universities acquire traditions – established when we awarded this degree to Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Claude Simon.  It celebrates the strong link that exists between contemporary writing, especially fiction, and this university.  For the risk of division between the realms of creation and academic criticism was considerable;  I think here we have done much to heal it.  Ian's pioneer year had many consequences.  Thanks to him (he taught us as much as we taught him), the course acquired demanding standards and reputation, and many excellent successors, some now very well-known, have taken the route he opened with his phone-call.

The real pleasure is to honour a writer whose powers have grown enormously, from those troubling early stories to the depth of his recent work.  His literary and moral intonation now lies across our times.  The quality of good writing cannot be condensed.  But let me remind you of the disturbing intimation with which BLACK DOGS closes.  The two grim dogs that have summoned up the idea of contemporary moral chaos remain in a fading image – "black stains in the grey of the dawn, fading as they move into the foothills of the mountains from where they will return to haunt us, somewhere in Europe, in another time."  Ian McEwan has become our strongest novelist of that warning intimation, a writer of the New World Disorder and its deepest anxieties, a shaper of our present imagination.

Chancellor, I present to you Ian Russell McEwan, for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa...