first international John Bradburne conference
The first international conference on the life, poetry, and thought of John Bradburne, was held in the Great Hall of the Università per Stranieri di Perugia on 30 March 2017. It was a truly international occasion, with speakers from Italy, France, Spain, South Africa, and the UK, and an attendance that included academics from several university departments, as well as representatives of the Catholic Church in Italy. Many university students were also present, testifying to the way the story of John Bradburne holds an appeal for young people. A photographic exhibition in the corridor outside the Great Hall presented a pictorial history of his life, 'From the Lake District to Zimbabwe', and various books about his life and work were on display. The languages of the conference were English and Italian, and there was simultaneous translation throughout..
The conference was opened by the university rector, Giovanni Paciullo, with other welcoming statements from the head of the department of human and social sciences, Sandra Covino, and members of the organizing committee, including the president of the committee, Renato Tomei, assistant professor of English at the university. The idea for such an event arose in 2015, during an academic visit to Perugia by Professor David Crystal, at the invitation of Rosanna Masiola, Professor of English and Translation at the university. The motivation was to make John Bradburne's writing available to a wider audience in Italy and elsewhere through the medium of translation; and, as this had not previously been attempted, it was felt that a first step would be to explore the issues involved through an academic conference. Perugia seemed to be the obvious location, for it is close to Assisi – a region through which John Bradburne walked on one of his several journeys around Italy, and which he often refers to in his writing. He knew Perugia well.
The primary aim of the conference was to acknowledge the way his poetry and thought has attracted increasing interest around the world, and to provide the first opportunity for translators of the poems to present their work and to discuss the issues that arise in handling such a challenging oeuvre. In the afternoon session, called (after the title of one of the poems) 'A Ring-a-ring of Rosary', participants heard one poem, 'Saint Francis’, read in several European and African languages - Italian (Prof. Rosanna Masiola), French (Prof. Didier Rance), Spanish (Prof. Dianella Gambini), Amharic (Prof. Renato Tomei), and Xhosa and Afrikaans (Prof. Rajendra Chetty). The event, chaired by Prof. Enrico Terrinoni, resulted in an illuminating discussion of the way each of the translators had gone about the task they had set themselves.
Although the main focus of the conference was on the poetry as literature, each speaker adopted a broader perspective, placing the poems in the context of John Bradburne's life and the turbulent times he encountered in mid-20th-century Rhodesia, where most of his writing took place. The main contributions in the morning reflected the title of the conference: 'John Bradburne: Poet, Mystic, and Martyr'. David Crystal, author of the forthcoming (2017) A Life Made of Words: the Poetry and Thought of John Bradburne, gave an account of the evolution of the poetry and its main features and themes, and drew attention to Bradburne's status as 'the most prolific poet in the English language'. Didier Rance, author of a biography of Bradburne, Le vagabond de Dieu, whose English translation appears in September 2017, reflected on the nature of the mysticism that permeated Bradburne's life, and how it was manifested in his writing on creation, and especially in the way bees played such an important role in his life and thought. Prof. Marco Impagliazzo placed Bradburne within the context of Christian martyrdom, drawing attention to the way his death can be seen as a significant moment in the 'ecumenism of blood' experienced in Africa during the 20th century, which he described as the most violent of all centuries. Prof. Daniele Piccini added a further perspective by exploring the nature of Franciscan poetics in the writing of Jacopone da Todi and John Bradburne.
An additional dimension was provided by two personal encounters. As part of his talk, David Crystal explained how he had come to be involved in editing the online database of poetry - the result of a chance meeting with a friend from his home town, who had met John Bradburne while travelling in Africa, and been cared for by him after falling ill with malaria. That friend, Kevin Jones, universally known as Casey (from his initials K C Jones), had received a verse letter from John, which he showed to David, sparking his interest. Kevin was present at the conference, and told his story, which was greatly appreciated by the audience, as he was the only person in the room who had actually met the subject of the conference.
A second personal perspective took the form of a welcoming letter from Celia Brigstocke, John Bradburne's niece, who looks after the John Bradburne Memorial Society. She was unable to attend the conference, so the letter was read on her behalf by Hilary Crystal. It gave a brief history of the Society and its current work in Mtemwa, along with childhood reminiscences, reference to some of the reported cures that have taken place since his death, and her hopes for progress in his Cause for beatification.
Although the Cause was not part of the remit of the conference, a groundswell of opinion emerged that this event could play its part in developing a climate which would help promote that progress. The outcome was the 'Perugia Statement', which was signed by many of the participants. This read as follows:
The first International Conference on the life, poetry, and thought of John Bradburne, poet, mystic, martyr, and father to the lepers, was held at the Universitá per Stranieri di Perugia on 30 March 2017. As speakers and attendees at this conference, we firmly believe that the cause for his canonization should proceed at the earliest opportunity, especially in the light of his roles as a model for young people, the ecumenical movement, and the care of those with devastating diseases, and we ask for your help and prayers in taking this movement forward.
Further support was affirmed in a statement read out by Amilcare Conti, secretary of the Archdiocese of Perugia, on behalf of the Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, Archbishop of Perugia and Città della Pieve. Prof Impagliazzo is also President of the Community of Saint'Egidio, founded in Rome in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi - a community of lay people spread throughout the world, dedicated to evangelisation, charity, and peace. Its main reference point is Franciscanism, which was also the lodestar of John Bradburne, a Third Order Franciscan, and whose desire to be buried in the Franciscan habit led to the first of the many special events that followed his death.