I began my career at Aberystwyth, just three-and-a-half hours by single track railway from the fleshpots of Shrewsbury. Its local guide boasted of its ‘complete absence of malarial fog.’ The head of department carried on the Oxbridge tradition of only teaching writers if they were dead. I asked if I could teach Graham Greene on the grounds that he was almost dead. The owner of the local bookshop asked me if Adam Bede was by George Eliot or George Eliot was by Adam Bede. One day I looked out of the window of my office and saw the end of the pier fall off and decided it was time to leave. I had noted that Malcolm Bradbury was at UEA, a place happily devoid of a pier and remote from Shrewsbury.
I arrived at UEA in 1969, three years after the first cohort of students had graduated, only to be told I had missed the golden age. Thankfully, it turned out to be reasonably golden thereafter. In time Malcolm and I would become the best of friends, writing a couple of television plays together and an alleged comedy series for Radio 3. I only ever found one person, other than us, who thought the latter funny. That was Antonia Fraser and she had listened in the bath, so acoustics may have had something to do with it. One of our plays was set in a new university with a manipulative Vice Chancellor. The real VC called us the moment the transmission ended. He was what was then called tired and emotional.
The University was still under construction in 1969, indeed it has never stopped currently setting its sights on a student population of 20,000 so long as current copulation rates continue. Somewhere there is a videotape of an interview I conducted at around that time with Eartha Kitt in the non-sound-proofed audio visual centre. In the background you can hear the chug of dumper trucks. Incidentally, she refused to get in my car when I went to pick her up. It was, she objected, too dirty. At UEA she was no more cooperative until the then director of the centre produced a bottle of brandy which had a transformative effect.
At that time the University operated out of the Village, now the location of student residences. There was a magnificent barn where once American Studies held a Thanksgiving dinner. The students offered to cook the turkeys. Unfortunately, no one told them that they needed defrosting first. As a result it was a long and not at all sober evening, though not to be compared with the surrealist evening in which a lecturer employed a stripping nun from London.
My undergraduate degree was undertaken at Sheffield, a city whose seven hills gave it the illusion that it had an affinity with Rome. I don’t recall being taught by anyone who was entirely of this world. The famous William Empson always put the same grade on papers and the same comment. The grade was B++. The comment was IOCTTO which, it turned out, meant ‘if one comma, then the other,’ as in parenthetical phrases. I was introduced to American literature by a poet, Frances Berry, who was so enamoured of the Icelandic sagas that he wore a sweater with runic letters on it and named his son Scyld, after Scyld Scefing who appears in the first lines of Beowulf. He entered the classroom, flung the door back with a crash, and offered a prize for the most phallic drawing of Florida.
Today, faculty at UEA are disappointingly sane but there was a philosophy professor who, if a light bulb was not replaced quickly enough by Estates, would call the fire brigade until the fire brigade indicated that they might not feel themselves required to respond to future calls. Not that the fire brigade were necessarily convincing, the city’s library burning to the ground barely one hundred feet from the fire station.
In the days before exercise became a civic responsibility I used to play Sunday afternoon football. I was useless and, for the most part, so was the goal keeper though he did subsequently go on to be knighted and win a Nobel Prize, which is more than I can say for myself. That was Paul Nurse. And that, of course, is one of the pleasures of being at UEA. You get to meet brilliant people, if not always aware of their brilliance, nodding to people ln the walkway for years ignorant of the fact that they are in the business of curing cancer or solving the mysteries of the universe.
The same is true of students, one of whom I once threw out of a seminar for not reading the book we were supposed to discuss. Indeed, I threw them all out. Fast forward a couple of decades and, as a public orator, I made the speech for his honorary degree. We both recalled the incident and the title of the book. He was Gareth Malone, of The Choir. Another student was Charlie Higson of The Fast Show, author of books on the junior James Bond along with zombie apocalypse fantasies. I was his advisor. He never asked for any advice and I never gave him any, which we both agree undoubtedly accounts for his success.
There is a darker memory, though. When the sun shone I found it impossible to teach indoors. On this occasion a seminar by the Broad had just finished. I began to walk away but the students were still there. At that moment, a man drowned in front of them. One of those students I still meet from time to time. Indeed I gave the speech for his honorary degree. His name is Mark Cocker who has written a series of outstanding books about the natural world and, indeed, what talent has emerged from this university whose first small cohort produced the actor John Rhys Davies (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings) and Jenny Abramsky (Director BBC Radio) and the second the novelist Rose Tremain who would go on to teach on the creative writing degree created by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, and eventually become UEA’s Chancellor.
Malcolm and were, I confess, both inveterate travellers for the British Council, on whose behalf we suffered a variety of gastroenteric infections. We were invited to Tenerife. We never met the professor who had invited us as the armed wing of the Canary Islands Independence Movement (CIIM) had threatened to blow him up. As a result, we had to introduce ourselves, ask one another questions, and then thank ourselves effusively.
Later I attended what turned out to be a Mafia conference in Catania, Sicily, at which all the conference organisers were arrested on the first night. In St.Petersburg a last minute run across the airport led to Malcom being revived on the plane with oxygen. He was a fine novelist but not a world class runner. A week after we left, the hotel coffee bar where we had breakfasted was machine-gunned by the Russian Mafia.
Such airport sprints have their dangers. A friend and his wife ran for a plane and were met by a member of the cabin crew who took the coats and bags they were carrying. The plane taxied to the end of the runway at which point the man turned to his wife and said, ‘Where’s the baby?’ The answer was in the unpressurised hold, the carrycot having been swept up with their coats by the air hostess.
Outside the University I worked for many years for the BBC and had the pleasure of meeting some of the world’s great writers, a few of whom I enticed to UEA including Joseph Heller. I spent a night at his home and swam in his pool, only to encounter a dog turd. I’m sure there is an etiquette for drawing your host’s attention to an errant turd but I kept my peace which is perhaps as well because a friend later asked me how I knew it was a dog’s.
Among the many highlights over the years was Arthur Miller’s association with UEA. I set up the Arthur Miller Centre for American Studies and he spent the night of his 80th and 85th birthdays here with gala dinners at the Sainsbury Centre attended by writers, actors, directors and with fireworks, the last causing a certain anxiety to the diners since the principle speaker that night was Salman Rushdie in the early days of the fatwa (pictured above).
In its first year, 1963, there were just eighty-seven students in a university often confused, by the geographically challenged, with the United Arab Emirates and located on the local golf course. Perhaps it was the sand in the bunkers. Today we are in the world top two hundred, Norwich is the UNESCO City of Literature and American Studies is number one in the Guardian list. Florida, meanwhile, remains the same shape as always and the temptations of Shrewsbury happily distant.
Prof Chris Bigsby
Prof Bigsby with Arther Miller (centre) in 1984, upon his award of an Honorary degree from UEA.