October 2019 Back to news

John Bradburne (OFS, OG): Clown, Troubadour – and Saint?

Former Gresham’s pupil, John Bradburne, could become Zimbabwe’s first Catholic saint.

In September 1979 John was murdered in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Since then several people have claimed they were miraculously healed after praying to him, which is one of the conditions of becoming a saint in the Catholic Church. It is likely John will become a saint if another person records a miracle in his name.

One of many Gresham’s myths (which, like all myths, always has more than a pinch of truth), is that its former pupils generally become musicians, poets, adventurers or spies.

On 19th September, John Bradburne, who already combined that scarcely credible list in himself, added to it by having his cause taken up by the loftily named “Postulator” of the Roman Catholic Church, to be made a Saint.

A spy as well as a saint? In a way, yes – if to be a saint is to be God’s spy…

Bradburne scarcely lived in the everyday world; arriving in Zimbabwe at the age of 50, he had fought in the far east, been imprisoned, escaped, joined a guerrilla force in the Malayan jungle and was converted from the Anglicanism of his father (who was vicar of Cawston) to Catholicism. He continued to live on the fringes of the religious life, restlessly travelling in search of a vocation he could never force into the conventionally established forms taken even by that elusive compulsion.

In Matumbe he cared for lepers, dressed in a third order Franciscan habit (in which he was buried), but was sacked (for an excess of humanity) by the Leprosy Association. A life spent on the fringes of society, ended with Bradburne living in a tin hut outside the perimeter fence of a leper colony, continuing to care for its inmates. He was shot by the advancing forces of the future President Mugabe’s National Liberation Army.

His dispatches from this world beyond our world usually took the form of poetry, of which he wrote more than Shakespeare and Wordsworth, though he rather ruefully admitted:

My age is fifty-three, my lines are many
And almost all of them not read by any!

He styled himself “clown and troubadour”, and his vagabond life on the fringes recalls that of the “yurodiviyy” – the “holy fool” whose life-affirming humility is epitomised in poetry that at times has the guileless sublimity of the mediaeval lyric:

Like a nightingale
On a starlit nest
There is the Mother
Of God at rest.

More often, he combines the sublime with the ridiculous, which sometimes sounds clumsy but can throw up images packed with raw energy. A poem where he starts like an Elizabethan lover, swerves abruptly into the twentieth century:

Love is a short disease, a long desire,
A strong and lasting healing; love is like
An angler landing fish, a hand at lyre,
A roadhog flogging home his motor-bike …

The same is true of this piece displaying his skill with ambiguity, which sometimes takes the form of an elaborate playfulness of language, but here creates a striking visual image:

I met God going for a run
Amidst a whirlwind in the sun
And all He said to me was this:
‘Freedom of movement proves My Bliss

Who is running? The writer? Or God?

His poetry at its best achieves a lithe musicality which is unsurprising in one who spent a year living in a church in the Roman campagna playing the organ, and was later a chorister at Westminster Cathedral. His skill at versification – and the way in which the religious sensibility of his poetry is often mediated by apparently rather more secular preoccupations is shown by L’angolo dei Sogni – which he wrote in Italy, whose title also reflects the diversity of languages which he calls upon:

At the corner of dreams
We sat and sat,
She was a Fair and her car was a fast
But we sat and sat till the day was past
And the night came nigh
With the starry sky,
The cry of the owl
And the errant flight of the bat.

This manages a witchy sexiness with a characteristic self-deprecating irony conveyed by the odd rhyme scheme and the unexpected dig at Shakespearean love poetry by parking “a fast” for a car alongside the more familiar “a Fair” for a girl.

Bradburne spoke poetry in the way that more ordinary souls, like M. Jourdain, speak prose. His vision was a very Franciscan one, with nature speaking the incarnate language of the divine Word:

The Thought of God goes sporting through the world
Whence blows the windy weather, flows the rain,
Being invisible The Thought unfurled
Welds with The Word whence sight of God we gain …

But he is not content with a parochial Catholicism; he takes the universality of that word literally, and celebrates the insights of other religions as well, especially Buddhism, which perhaps suited his vagabond humility and disregard of any rules apart from those of poetic metre and the Logos itself, whose expression his poems reach out to interpret.

Whatever our own religious sensibilities, it is difficult not to hope – pray, perhaps – that the chillingly named “Devil’s Advocate”, used by the Roman church to check the veracity of the arguments in favour of canonising a prospective saint, does not have any success with John Bradburne.