For me, the one beacon of light in a thoroughly miserable MA was Malcolm Bradbury. I looked forward to his seminars, with him puffing away on his pipe, being funny, and taking a proper interest in his students. With the Creative Writing masters program he co-founded, he was the star of the Literature department. The writer of what became one of the defining novels of the 1970s, The History Man, he was often on television and added a little stardust to the University of East Anglia, a new university up in the wilds of Norfolk. Or, as others called it, the arse-end of nowhere.

Like many young people in the early 1980s, I chose uea precisely because it was modern and a bit experimental. Who wanted stuffy old Oxford when you could have the concrete mini-metropolis of a university birthed in ideals of being contemporary, modern, and comfortably radical?

It’s now twenty years since Bradbury died and time to wonder where we are with his troublesome, troubling, and sometimes brilliant novel—and whether it has finally run out of steam. Reading it again, I’m struck that it depicts a world so unfamiliar, so odd, that it’s hard to believe that it was ever like that.

The History Man features a bunch of thoroughly dislikeable and unsympathetic characters, none more so than Howard Kirk, the self-styled “theoretician of sociability,” radical sociology lecturer, and proto–television personality. Kirk spouts revolution but acts entirely in his own interests, fomenting trouble, sleeping with all and sundry, and showing spectacular hubris and a startling lack of self-awareness.

It’s no easy read. Written in the present tense and featuring few adverbs and little comment on the characters’ interior lives, the book gives the reader a snapshot of a particular moment in 1972, complete with swingers and Machiavellian plots at a new university somewhere on the south coast. It is oddly menacing and ends with a suicide attempt and the good guys nowhere in sight.

There are, of course, moments of dark humor, especially as Bradbury fillets the language of sociology. Kirk arranges the food for a fateful party, or as he has it, he creates “the loose frame of reference surrounding this encounter.”

But here’s the thing. I had intended to write about the way Bradbury assassinates the new university movement that was a major part of my life. But as I read the book again and spoke, for the first time in nearly forty years, to my old lecturers who were there at the time, I found the book far more profound than this. I realized Bradbury’s target isn’t really new universities at all—they are simply a convenient canvas. Professor Christopher Bigsby, a friend of Bradbury’s, tells me that “he liked uea for its interdisciplinarity, its seminar teaching, its commitment to American Studies, which meant an interest in the modern.” Bradbury of course forecasted the growth of the university as business and the rise of managerialism—but this wasn’t his main focus.

He is rather taking a potshot at a counter-culture worldview that flourished briefly and was already fading from sight in the year the novel is set. The book is simply brilliant.

Kirk, his wife Barbara, and their circle are prime representatives of a 1960s radicalism that conflated Mao and Marx with free love. The end result was a Weltanschauung high on slogans and the taking of positions and low on personal responsibility and decency. What makes the novel a little tragic is that the Kirks in 1972 are facing, not very comfortably, the end of what had once looked like an inevitable march towards a workers’ utopia but instead was really moving towards all that was bourgeois. As Kirk’s career rises, he becomes more grandiose and selfish.

If this were the novel’s only point, I doubt it would still be read. But there is another dimension that is intriguing and resonates today. The majority of the novel is the story of a few weeks in the chaotic and ruinous life of the Kirks, but there are two chapters that delve back into the creation of this unholy couple. (Intriguingly, Christopher Hampton left these out of his 1982 television adaptation.)

It is in these chapters that we begin to unlock the great center of Bradbury’s masterpiece and his personal story at the same time. Howard Kirk is caught on the horns of an impossible psychological dilemma. On the one hand, he is the “History Man”—he believes that the outcome of history is inevitable and that his role is simply to hasten it along to its radical conclusion. But on the other hand, he is also the product of his upbringing, as we all are. He believes, as does Barbara, that it is possible completely to remake ourselves and to escape where we came from. But Bradbury, it seems to me, wonders why on earth we would want to.

We learn that the Kirks did not begin as followers of fashionable causes and were not always the revolutionaries they consider themselves now. Instead, they started in the upper-working-class, lower-middle-class milieu of the North. They grew up in a society that valued hard work, going to church, and basic decency. They went to selective grammar schools. They went to the red-brick University of Leeds. Howard was shy and a virgin when he met Barbara. They were comfortingly conventional and knew their own history. They didn’t have a lot to say for themselves, and they were poor.

The History Man captures a time in British society when the bounds were broken and people began to wonder if they might make themselves anew. But what were the choices they faced, and was the new any better than the old? This is where things become fascinating, and we need to understand the story of Bradbury’s own life to make sense of it.

Bradbury was born in 1932 in Sheffield. His father, Arthur, worked as a railway clerk, and the family moved to London when Bradbury was small. They lived in classic Metroland in a new semi-detached house in Rayners Lane. The house cost £595 and was a statement of social mobility. Arthur, commuted into work each day. The family later moved back up North, and Bradbury attended grammar school in Nottingham. He took a First at the relatively new Leicester University. In 1970, he became Professor of English Studies at uea. He was never an Oxbridge sort.

His life parallels that of Kirk, not least in that both had become that peculiarly 1970s thing—the television academic. But, of course, Bradbury made very different choices. His accessory was the tobacco pipe and not the Zapata moustache and T-shirt with a revolutionary slogan. He was, in fact, quite conservative. He sent his sons to private schools; he had private healthcare. But it’s only when we understand his abiding relationship with his beloved mother, Doris, that we see the ground from which he grew and decided not to escape.

His mother lived through nearly the whole of the twentieth century. She was born in 1898 and died in 1993. She stayed at home and looked after the boys. She went to the library; she was intelligent but not educated. Just two generations earlier, her grandmother signed her name with a cross. The family went on holiday to Butlins, the affordable vacation provider. Doris and Arthur retired to a bungalow by the sea.

Writing about her, Bradbury explained that he had a lifelong hatred of crowds and fads and wild enthusiasms. He had a love of common sense and for people who took their moral responsibilities seriously. These keynotes, he explains, were also his mother’s. He both inherited them and inhabited them. Howard and Barbara Kirk could have taken just the same values, but they didn’t. Although Kirk would never have admitted it, he was a self-made man, which is surely the hallmark of the bourgeoisie that he so hated.

Doris Bradbury, in contrast, was thoughtful, modest, and considerate. Which is just what Malcolm Bradbury was as well. These were the qualities, he said, that he looked for in others.

The History Man is a novel of the choices that we all face. What are we to be?

Malcolm Bradbury felt, in the end, that he had been a bit hard on sociology, and perhaps he was. He certainly had great fun at the expense of its language and assumptions. Perhaps he was bit hard on the Kirks as well. Indeed, it’s difficult not to have a sneaking admiration for Howard Kirk, or at least for his brazenness.

How does The History Man speak to us today? Peering back into the world of the 1970s campus is a kind of time travel. We see people who wouldn’t be saddled with student loans and would never have had to work in a call center or betting shop. Perhaps that’s why they can be so free and easy. But I was there in the 1980s, and things weren’t that much different. The revolution was always about to start—but preferably after closing time. Professor David Punter, now at the University of Bristol, and who knew Malcolm, tells me:

I don’t honestly know whether the book has much, or anything, to say to the universities now, or at least to students. After all, then it seemed possible in the wake of les événements in France that knowledge, especially of the arts and social sciences, could be a real engine for revolutionary change. None of the students I have come across in the last twenty years would have the least idea what I mean by that.

Professor Punter thinks that Bradbury might have turned his attention these days to university managerialism, which is at least equally threatening to the liberal values he espoused. He tells me that “he might also have some funny and pointed things to say about health and safety!”

Professor Bigsby tells me that Bradbury wrote TheHistory Man after becoming angry about a student sit-in at uea. The students broke into his office, read his letters, and drank his sherry. It was poor form. Maybe his novel is a statement about bad form more generally.

Bradbury had a window on the world, but he was also unworldly. Like Chesterton, he sometimes had to ring his wife when he was lost and had forgotten where he was meant to be going. But he was loved by those around him, even if they disagreed with him.

When he was a child, Bradbury nearly died. He had a hole in his heart and endured one of the first corrective operations for that condition. He always felt he was on borrowed time, and his energy and boldness in speaking out may have come from his sense of the clock ticking.

I left uea and decided never to go back to academia. I had become disillusioned about the study of literature. It seemed to me that seeing literature through the prism of an ism—Marxism for instance—somehow killed it and took me away from the reasons why I loved books. I wish I had known that Bradbury felt the same way. Perhaps I would have felt a bit less lonely.

Professor Punter tells me:

I think that by 1975, when the book was published, Malcolm was feeling embattled. A lot of new staff at uea were interested in critical theory, and in those great bastions of what was then considered new thinking—Marxism and psychoanalysis (feminism arrived a little later). He and others believed that this resulted in less attention to the literary text and to the qualities that make “great literature”—Harold Bloom, of course, later became the great beacon for this kind of thinking.

And Bradbury, who became a knight of the realm, who grew up in Metroland and saw something fine in the everyday lives of people like his mother and father, challenged the new orthodoxy too. He loved books and the characters they conjure. I think that’s a very good reason to give his book another read.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 10, on page 29
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