Once, browsing the net for myself (could this be an eighth deadly sin, I wonder?), I found my name among those of alleged notability who had been born in Kidderminster. I appreciate that Kiddey, as locals term it, is probably under-endowed celeb-wise but this seemed a step too far. Anyway, we never even lived there. We were down the road in Bewdley. There was a pre-Beeching station where in the signal-box the station-master would set off the fog alarm to my infantile delight. Kidderminster, I fear, has eluded memoir. The place claims Rowland Hill (penny post) and Peter Collins (F1 driver). Them I understand. But famous, moi? In any case, and I’ve checked this out, these and other compilers of Kidderminster’s favourite sons consistently miss the one that really counts: the Reverend Edward Bradley, born there in 1827.
Edward Bradley was for me a great writer. Which, running along my single track long since, tends to mean heavy on the slang. Hero? I’m not so sure. I don’t do heroes (except perhaps Lenny Bruce). He seems to have been a classical Victorian parson, making his way around a series of delightfully named livings such as Denton-with-Caldecote and Glatton-with-Holme, but in this he was one of very many. We know nothing of his sermons nor yet of his good works, but he was an apparently talented speaker who raised money for his churches through lecturing. He married an iron-master’s daughter so presumably there was more to live on than his annual stipend of £300. But where Bradley transcended his clerical peers was in 1853 when, writing as ‘Cuthbert Bede’ he produced The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, an Oxford Freshman. The pseudonym was a tribute to the two tutelary saints of Durham where he had attended the still fledgling university; he gained a 5th, which was two better than a 7th, then the bottom-most degree. Kidderminster and ‘Green’. And for that matter Oxford. What, as they say, is not to love.
Verdant Green’s ‘career’ fell into three parts. The original Adventures (1853), The Further Adventures (1854) and Mr Verdant Green, Married and Done For (1857). For a very light-hearted journey through a world that was nothing if not rarified for most of his readers (though ‘Bede’ had studied there for a year and had obviously boned up on university life to great effect) the books, which had started life in the Illustrated London News, became hugely popular. Issued in a single volume the three episodes had sold 100,000 copies by 1870 and doubled that when offered in a cheap format. This was success on a Dickensian scale even if the book was a one-hit wonder: a sequel, Little Mr Bouncer, followed in 1878 but that flopped. ‘Bede’ took Mr Bouncer out of Oxford for half the book. Maybe it was a mistake.
And there are the illustrations. Bede was his own artist and from the frontispiece of Verdant Green himself, they serve to crank up the humour. John Betjeman would use them for his own Oxford University Chest (1938) and they are as vital to the book as Tenniel’s are for Alice.
It’s a very long way from Brideshead, or Zuleika Dobson or Sinister Street, more literary (and one has to admit better written) ‘Oxford novels’, but Bradley seems to have launched the genre. His was a very different Oxford to that which immediately followed: the ‘hearty’-dominated result of the public schools’ obsession with sport, ‘manliness’ and patriotism. It was still tied to the raffish world of Pierce Egan’s ‘Tom and Jerry’, with plenty of racing, ratting, smoking of weeds, annual Town vs Gown set-tos (with help from The Putney Pet, a London prizefighter topped for the night in a mortarboard but no gown: it hampered his fistic skills), a procession of unpaid tradesmen brandishing their ‘little bills’, and a conspicuous lack of work. Chapel is mandatory but there is no religion. Like a Restoration play names denote personality: the ultra-innocent Green aside, we encounter the ever-cheerful Messrs Larkyns and Bouncer, Four-in-Hand Fosbroke, a great hand at tooling the tits, the rascally scout Robert Filcher, and the downright wicked ‘tuft’ (i.e. aristocrat) Blucher Boots. Drink – much ale, wine and spirits, plus shandy-gaff, sherry-cobbler, egg-flip and bishop (wine and water topped with a roast orange, supposedly much loved by the episcopacy) – is seriously taken, generally starting at breakfast. Verdant is variously pleasant, sappy, screwed, rum, warm and down among the dead men (a nod to his unconscious state and a garland of empty bottles). The morning after one opts for sober-water. And starts again.
‘Bede’ was good on contemporary Oxford lifestyle and language: posting aegers when you’re sick, giving wines for your friends, eluding the bulldogs, not to mention keeping your own bull terriers. Verdant lives up to his name, a dogged Candide, sailing blithely through generally affectionate mockery, relatively painless hoaxes, and essays at every diversion from rowing to cricket and archery to boxing – with never a successful outing at any. There are no women at Brazenface, his college, other than aged, stereotypically comic bedmakers, but they are available elsewhere: somewhat surprisingly Giglamps, as the bespectacled Green is predictably known to his pals, spoons a French milliner and other hunts after local deer are suggested. It perhaps helped that tin seems not to have been a problem. Thackeray’s bankers, Stump and Rowdy, i.e. ‘money and money’, seem to have had a branch in Oxford.
‘Bede’s’ readers cannot all have been Oxonians. Were any of them? Like Frank Richards (and even J.K. Rowling) he seems to have gained popularity by introducing the mass market to a fantasy of the elite. It is not ‘real’ Oxford (no more than Waugh’s Twenties Arcadia, though one might see Verdant as a precursor of Decline and Fall’s Paul Pennyfeather) but it charmed and definitely amused.
Bradley resumed his own name for other writing. Aside from novels (no more hits), children’s books and various travel pieces, he wrote for magazines, including a weekly double-acrostic column for the ILN and many paragraphs for Notes and Queries. He designed one of the first ever Christmas cards. He died in 1889 at his last vicarage, Lenton-with-Hanby, another picturesque name, in Lincolshire. In 1953 we left the West Midlands and moved east. To Lincoln. It figures.