In his final year at UEA, 1994/5, Malcolm Bradbury chaired the pre-Christmas seminars of the MA in Creative Writing. Over eight weeks, the students had one three-hour seminar a week. In total, then, a sum of twenty-four hours with Professor Bradbury.
From the first, he looked immensely tired. He’d seen all our types before, must have done, and as he checked us over I imagined him hoping that this year, after so many other years, no-one in a black polo neck or steel-rimmed glasses was going to be chasing him down corridors in the hunt for publishers’ numbers.
No luck, Malcolm. Of course he was chased down corridors, and was patient and helpful and charming, or expertly evasive, which possibly felt much the same. It didn’t take long to realise that his fatigued look wasn’t a result of disillusion. Above the bags the eyes were still sharp and eager. Even though all the talk that year was of retirement, the weariness came from hard and continuous work. He was writing another novel, a screen-play, a television series. He was chairing conferences and staying awake at all hours to share with Radio 4 listeners the working writer’s view on The Net Book Agreement, the Booker shortlist, or that year’s hot literary topic: novelists and teeth.
I can’t say I knew him well, having no particular talent for chasing down corridors. However, I still value greatly my twenty-four hours with Malcolm. He flattered every one of us by making us feel we weren’t like everyone else, that we were brand-new types he’d never seen. He was expert at making student writers feel like writers, and diffusing animosity on those prickly occasions when the work is mistaken for the person (‘I despise your lax punctuation’). He had a gift for creating neutral space, in which all kinds of opinion could survive. The entrenched, the unpleasant, the fashionable, these were less likely to thrive, but they were allowed to live.
It wasn’t teaching as a qualified teacher might recognise it, thankfully. Twenty-four hours with Malcolm was not twenty-four hours of Malcolm. In fact, in those twenty-four hours, I remember only one instance of direct instruction, involving a whiteboard and a marker. I think it worth recording.
Unusually, Malcolm stood up. The novel, he said, is a series of variations on two basic curves. At the whiteboard, entertaining himself, he expressed this as lines on a graph. The x axis is time, the y axis mood. The tragic story, Malcolm said, is often triumph until about two-thirds of the way through, and then drops tragically back to nothing, or beyond. The comic story first descends, in hilarious mishaps, then rises again, at least to where it started, perhaps beyond.
g I x
r I x
e I x x
s tragedy I x
s I x x
r I x x
e I x
g comedy I x x
r I x
e I x
It’s possible that I’ve embellished this in memory, to celebrate the unique sight of Professor Bradbury at the white-board. For Malcolm, or at least the Professor of Creative Writing who was trying to teach us something useful about the craft of the novel, it was in or against these plotted points that novels always form themselves. And it was exclusively within the form of the novel, he would imply, that all things can be expressed.
I call it, because of the shape he drew that day on the board, Malcolm’s Kite. It can help get novels off the ground.