Thirty five years ago, Robert Mugabe’s guerrillas kidnapped the former warden of a leper colony in what was then Rhodesia. They took him into the bush and subjected him to mockery in front of a crowd, offering him girls to sleep with, trying to make him dance and to eat excrement.
The next day, their leaders interrogated him. He said little, but knelt and prayed. The guerrillas had local reports that the man was harmless, but they became fearful that, because of his abduction, he now knew too much. Eventually, they marched him out of the bush to the main road. Their leader told him to walk ahead and turn and face him. He did so, and again knelt and prayed. When he rose, the guerrilla shot him. His half-naked body was left by the roadside.
The ex-warden’s name was John Bradburne. He was a good-looking, well-educated, upper-middle-class Englishman, who had fought as a Gurkha officer in the Second World War. He was religious and, in the late 1940s, became a Roman Catholic, but did not pursue his original desire to become a monk. He did odd jobs – teaching, caretaking, forestry – but never settled to anything. Very musical, and with a fine voice, he sometimes called himself a troubadour. He wandered the world.
Eventually, at the suggestion of an old Gurkha comrade who had become a priest, Bradburne came to Rhodesia. In 1969, at Mutemwa, about 90 miles east of Salisbury (modern Harare), he came across the leper colony. The 80 or so lepers were appallingly neglected, dirty and hungry, with the roofs of their little tin huts falling in. Bradburne immediately decided to stay with them, and never left.
John Bradburne lived among the lepers, driving out the rats that gnawed them, cutting the nails of those who had fingers and toes, attending them when they died. He helped build their small church, organising its music, even teaching the lepers Latin for the Gregorian plainchant. When I visited Mutemwa some years ago, I saw them at Mass, banging drums with the stumps of their hands, making the music which Bradburne had taught them.
After a time, Bradburne fell out with the Leprosy Association which, in theory, ran Mutemwa. He hated the fact that it wanted the lepers to be known only by numbers, and refused to do this. He gave each leper a name, and wrote a poem about every one. He was reprimanded for extravagance because he insisted that each leper should have at least one loaf of bread a week.
He was expelled from the colony, so he went to live in a tent on the mountain above Mutemwa. Then a farmer gave him a tin hut, with no electricity or water, just outside the perimeter fence. For the remaining six years of his life, Bradburne stayed there, and continued to minister as best he could. When not attending to the lepers, he lived the life of a hermit, eating very little, writing poetry and praying, often walking a prayer path on the hill.
Given Bradburne’s extraordinary life, his famous charm and oddity, and his martyr’s death, it is not surprising that a cult of him quickly grew up. Miraculous drops of blood are supposed to have fallen from his coffin at his funeral. Many pilgrims come to his shrine at Mutemwa, and some claim to have been healed by his intercession. A recent miracle in Scotland has been attributed to his aid. His “cause” – the process by which people are considered for sainthood – has already begun; and now it is hoped it may be advanced in Britain, where these things are easier to organise than in the Zimbabwe that Mugabe has raped.
A thriving John Bradburne Society assists this, and contributes the money needed to keep Mutemwa – where, even today, 26 lepers still need care – operating. It has just published a selection of the most tangible evidence of Bradburne’s mind and soul – his verse.
He wrote poems constantly, as some people write a diary. Often one flowed on from the next. Like the man, the verse is strange. It loves puns. One short poem is called Tersely”, playing on the normal meaning of that word and on terce, the third of the seven canonical hours of the divine office.
Bradburne writes as if the poetry of the 20th century had never taken place. He uses words such as “bide” or “blithe” or “care not” like a Victorian. Occasionally, he slips into a sort of archness which is unattractive – I have a horror of the word “lightsome”, for example – but he also has a gift for restoring old meanings. A word like “glee” recovers its sense of holy joy, instead of the more trivial associations it has today.
His constant subject is love. Love, he believes, reaches people through the Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, producing thought, word and “voice” – and through the Virgin Mary, to whom, in chivalrous devotion, Bradburne vowed celibacy. He turns earthly ideas of love into divine ones:
“The saying, I could eat him (him or her), Recalls that food which Seraphim prefer”.
Sometimes, he adopts an almost jocular tone to make a serious point:
“We want to make it very clear And easy for you all.
The casting out, by Love, of fear Is Terrorism’s fall.”
Given his life and death, those lines could be his epitaph.
Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph.
My Lady, I assume upon this day
That loyalty is given us by halves,
Let prove it whosoever prove it may –
Earth’s love that lacks for heaven’s backing starves;
Be loyal first upon a human plane
Until, divinely doubled, it unites
With unfelt ardour for an unseen gain
That strides to meet its strivings from the heights ;
Thus talk I to myself, addressing thee
Whilst thou dictatest what I set to page,
Being my Bride since Nineteen Fifty Three
Thou sharest with me now thy heritage :
A risen King, a Queen assumed, a fool
Used royally to be a loyal tool.
Should I complain if I am used as though
I were an anvil to be struck upon
By ringing hammer’s weight as, blow on blow,
Yield they to shape along a scapegrace John?
Or should I murmur anything but this
Monosyllable “El” that spells my bliss ?
“And in my name his horn shall be exalted”
Remains your song aflame, strong and unhalted’.
You can find more information here: http://www.johnbradburne.com/poetry.php