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  • Writer's picturePARIAH PRESS

• An Impression of the Isherwoods • 16.08.23

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

Then Evelyn's daughter Susan came out of the bedroom where she had been lying down. She had spent the day teaching—it was some kind of test for her student-teacher's diploma—and now she was suffering from a migraine. (I suspected that the migraine might disappear forever if she could just escape from the Bradley's bungalow and be on her own in Manchester and get herself fucked.) But she is obviously a bright, interesting girl. I tried hard to project sympathy but we had no chance to have a proper talk.

C. Isherwood, Liberation: Diaries, Vol.III: 1970–1983, (Chatto & Windus, 2013), p.332

I was ten years old when on a dark and stormy evening he knocked at our front door. A first encounter with Richard Graham Bradshaw-Isherwood and my life was never to be the same again. Richard was the younger brother of Christopher, the acclaimed author whose name was becoming increasingly familiar to me.

Over the preceding months, my dad Daniel Bradley had been called on to provide a 'taxi' service, to ferry Richard from his home—Wybersley Hall, in Disley [just outside of Stockport, Greater Manchester]—to the various public houses and off-licences he frequented, and back again. These calls on my dad’s time were already impacting on our family life—he worked long hours at the Strines printworks, his place of employment.

The events leading up to Richard's evening visit—which resulted in his permanent residence in our home—stretched back to my grandfather’s casual employment as a handyman at Wybersley Hall, sometime in the 1940’s. The sixteenth century manor house was falling increasingly into disrepair and Walter Bradley often used to take my Uncle Alan to help him out. Kathleen Bradshaw-Isherwood was widowed and living with Richard, Christopher having moved to America. Richard had mental health issues and his severe anxiety led him into alcoholism. He was completely unable to care for himself, much less so for his home. His mother’s increasing age meant that they were living in almost slum conditions.

After Kathleen’s death in June 1960, Richard descended into days of constant drinking, broken only by trips to obtain beer or visit public houses, now transported by an actual local taxi service that became familiar with him. Had this lifestyle continued I'm not sure he would have lived much longer, therefore I don’t hesitate to state that my parents saved his life. For me, the cost was too high. He entered my life in 1962, when he would have been fifty-one years old.

A strange and unprepossessing figure to a child, or indeed an adult, at that time. Standing in our front porch, hunched and almost cowering, his hair dishevelled, face red and blotched, a nose almost blue, hands covered in healing wounds. Wearing a shabby, dirty, grey overcoat and carrying two large, dilapidated bags, he appeared ill and was coughing and wheezing. Making a desperate request: "Please, please can I stay here for three nights?" A doctor was called to the house the following day and he was diagnosed with pneumonia. My mother nursed him back to health, my father tended to his personal care and he became as well and strong as possible. Installed in the small bedroom which had been my playroom, he never left my family until his death in 1979.

My life was very much changed when Richard came to live with us. Soon after he moved in my sister, seven years older than I, emigrated to Australia to live with our aunt. Devastated, I was left a lonely, sad and distressed little girl. From that time on I rarely spent any time alone with my parents, Richard was a constant presence—a very disconcerting one. He had several disgusting habits. Never was I relaxed with him around. So as not to be in his view, I used to try to sit right back on the settee next to my mother, shielded. I began to bite my nails habitually—something I still can’t break. His incessant drinking was a given—a bottle of beer beside him throughout the evening with which to constantly top up his glass. As the alcohol took effect he would begin to aggressively mutter to himself—which I found extremely upsetting. I would go up to bed before my parents and Richard also went up to his room sometime before them. Continuing to drink in his room, his muttering became louder and more vociferous. With hindsight, I know that Richard wouldn’t have hurt a fly but, at that time, I was terrified. Getting out of bed in the middle of the night, I would hold onto my door handle, shivering with cold (no central heating back then) and paralysed with fear. Too afraid to go downstairs which meant passing his door to do so. Countless nights spent like that. My friends’ parents were reluctant to allow them to come and play as he presented a strange figure and they were unsure as to whether he posed a threat. Whenever we left the house to go out to the car he always insisted on linking my mother’s arm. I would cringe with embarrassment. On any car journey he sat in the front passenger seat, a bottle between his feet, continuing his drinking ritual. How I hated it! On one occasion, when his muttering reached a crescendo, he turned and shouted angrily in my face leaving me tearful and shaking. Richard living with us impacted on my life in so many ways.

I didn’t hate Richard. I pitied him and, in a way, had some affection for him. Without drink he was meek and self-effacing and his extensive knowledge meant he was interesting to converse with. He needed help and care and I’m sure there was no intent to ruin my childhood.

Richard’s brother, Christopher, came to visit from America and stayed with us on several occasions. His fame and success as an author had little impact on me at that time and although I was an avid reader from infancy I had no knowledge of his books. I liked Chris at once. He had a warmth about him and a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. His presence in the house was comfortable and unimposing and when he spoke to you he appeared genuinely interested, his attention completely focused.

It was difficult to get any quality time with Chris as Richard was very possessive with him—understandable as he rarely saw him and seemed very fond of him. He was so happy to be able to speak to him of the past, of his mother and the people they both knew in their boyhood. Usually, after breakfast, Richard and Christopher would walk into Disley to get a cab to Wybersley Hall. Richard loved Wybersley, even in its ruined state, and enjoyed to closet Chris there, keeping him all to himself. Clearly, it is the last thing Chris would have done had he been given a choice. Feelings about the rapidly decaying Hall were described in his diaries and to sit amongst this for several hours at a time must have been far from pleasant for him. He saw Richard so rarely, however, that he probably felt obliged to comply. A real affection made him eager to see his brother happy.

My overall impression of Christopher was one of warmth and kindness. Yet I was surprised and saddened by his description of my parents in various sections of his published Diaries: "Mrs. Dan is big and jolly and her cure for everything is to cook lots and lots of food. They are sort of ideal north country working-class people." [The Sixties: Diaries, Vol.II: 1960–1969 (Chattos & Windus, 2010), p.419] Reducing them almost to caricatures and remarkably lacking in the depth and insight I would have expected of him. Several other references to them show threads of snobbery and relics of the upper class upbringing and heritage which he had distanced himself from. These traits were never apparent in person as he seemed always to see the individual as equally valid.

Many years later, after Richard’s death, I had cause to telephone Chris at his home in Santa Monica with regard to a financial issue concerning my parents. He was warm and friendly, assuring me of his assistance and that he ‘would always be my friend’. I very much regret not spending more time talking to Chris. He was a complex and interesting man and had a fascinating life. Yet I also had conflicting feelings—a kind of resentment—in that, if he had taken more responsibility for Richard I would not have suffered so much as a child. But then, to what extent is one one’s brother’s keeper?

© 2023 Susan Hasledine

Richard Isherwood and Susan Hasledine née Bradley by Daniel Bradley, Devon 1962

© 2023 Susan Hasledine

Christopher and Richard Isherwood, photographer unknown


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