From the patrons of Hartlepool's can house to the enduring cult fame of the Norwich puppet man, Britain's provincial towns are filled with weird, mythologised and well-loved characters. One of the most famous resides in the much-maligned city of Bradford.
I'm talking about Geoffrey Brindley, the so-called "Bradford Jesus Man". He's the definition of a local legend, a mysterious, indefinable individual who's spent the majority of his life walking around the North adorned in a robe and sandals, his delicate, frail frame looking like a hastily constructed scarecrow made flesh.
The Bradford Jesus has offered a "hello", a handshake or a wave to anyone who approaches him, spending his life preaching and offering advice, time and conversation to generations of people. He's gratefully accepted countless cups of tea, home-cooked meals and places to stay from willing locals. His reputation means that cafés, newsagents and coffee shops rarely ask him to pay for anything, instead they offer him what he needs, have a chat and let him continue on his way.
In weeks of research, interviews with residents, eyewitness accounts and even conversations with local priests, I only managed to piece together a dozen second-hand quotes from Geoffrey. There are even reports of him sprinting away from local journalists who were seeking interviews, so I resigned myself to constructing the truth using whatever fragmented shards of information I could find about this illusive man.
Growing up in Bradford, I saw the Jesus man a handful of times. Always fleeting, I'd catch glimpses of him pacing hurriedly across the street, or through the back window of my dad's car. One memorable sighting occurred from the window of a coach on a school trip. I recall a phalanx of shouting and waving adolescents being greeted by a smile and wave from the Jesus Man, then an eruption of frantic gossiping as we discussed who he might be and where he might come from.
Many argued that Geoffrey was possessed by the spirit of Christ, living in a cave and only emerging in the daytime, like some kind of backwards vampire. Some said his family had been killed, and since that day he'd been wandering around in grief, taking solace in religion. There were even earnest suggestions that Nike wanted to offer him a sponsorship to wear their trainers, the sort of ludicrous claim that seemed feasible to young teenage boys.
He was sometimes described in typically brutal playground nomenclature as a "freak" or a "weirdo". But I always sensed something different. He represents someone who refuses to be beaten down into an existence of banality. He's rejected the box that life chose for him, and in this way, I've always seen his nomadic lifestyle as a symbol of hope and possibility. Instead of being inside the cave, looking at shadows, he was outside, walking around in the sun. But what motivated him to leave his conventional life behind?
I unearthed the backstory of the Jesus Man through an old work colleague of his, who explained that Geoffrey moved from the Derbyshire town of Buxton to Bradford to work as a machinist at a tractor factory called International Harvester. One afternoon, at the age of 33, Geoffrey announced to his co-workers he'd received a message from God that the world was going to end, and he was one of the chosen few to be saved. Understandably alarmed by the news of the coming apocalypse, he retreated to a cave near the North Yorkshire town of Settle for 12 nights to meditate and receive further instructions. This drew the attention of the local press, prompting a Baildon resident to intervene and offer him a place to stay. This was the start of a journey that continues to this day.
I spoke to Matt Morley, the creator of BradfordJesusMan.co.uk, the main portal for sightings and stories about the man in question. He explained why he thinks Geoffrey has become such an icon of positivity: "People are generally really antisocial with our faces in our phones most of the time. The art of conversation is almost lost and a simple 'hello' and 'thanks' are few and far between. Mr Brindley will say hello to strangers and he always has a grin on his face – happiness can be contagious, a smile and a wave from a friendly face will make you happy. He doesn't want anything in return, he just wants to say 'hi'."
This quiet, unassuming man has made overwhelming contributions to the diverse communities of Bradford. As local Ishrat Saleem told me: "I remember Geoffrey coming to our house in the late 60s to eat. My dad would invite him in when he saw him walking on Leeds Road. He said Geoffrey was a spiritualist and a wanderer. He had long hair then. That was 50 years ago. I've seen him often and admire him for his courage to live the way he does. A lovely man, always happy. I wish him good health and a safe journey wherever he goes."
Some of the stories I heard were pretty everyday, but some were oddly touching, each one told with a misty-eyed affection that makes it impossible not to picture them with the hazy visuals of old VHS footage. Jan Bostock explained a chance meeting with Geoffrey when she was just ten years old: "I was walking home crying about something, he stopped and asked if I was OK and we chatted for a few minutes. He gave me half a sandwich and sent me on my way. Several years later I gave him a lift from Skipton to Shipley."
Perpetual walking for 50 years may not be an anti-ageing technique we're likely to see on the front cover of Cosmopolitan any time soon, but this lifestyle has afforded Geoffrey an almost superhuman ability to suppress the ageing process. Ian Morton remembers, "I once asked him why he walked around all the time and he said, 'I'm looking for the answer.' When I think about it, I have seen him walking around Bradford for around 50 years now and he still looks the same."
Geoffrey found himself on the wrong side of the law twice in his younger years. He got into hot water with the police for trying to prevent people entering a bingo hall – ostensibly to protect them from the sin of gambling. He was locked up, but later bailed out by Colin Garnett, a Religious Studies teacher from a local school who'd seen the report of his arrest in the newspaper. Geoffrey spent another brief spell behind bars for protesting against a Beatles gig at the Alhambra theatre. Rock music, it seems, is another modern evil that Geoffrey opposes, and he's since been accused of confronting men wearing metal band T-shirts around the city centre.
In 2011, a petition nominating Bradford Jesus Man to carry the Olympic torch amassed over 23,000 signatures. Although unsuccessful, I spoke to the creator of the petition, Louise Szucs, who explained why Geoffrey turned down the nomination. "Although he was flattered, I think he turned it down mainly because he didn't want the exposure." Ironically, the appearance of this story in the local press drew an unbelievable outpouring of affection for Geoffrey, manifesting itself in websites, forums and Facebook groups with memberships into the thousands, packed full of sightings, stories and shaky glimpses of video footage.
I was saddened and shocked to hear that this month, at the age of 88, Geoffrey Brindley has become critically ill following a fall and suspected stroke at the home he's shared with a friend for the past 25 years. Currently residing in the intensive care unit of Bradford Infirmary, this tragic news has awoken the sleeping giant of Geoffrey's fame, with an ocean of tributes and kind words of support from the local community.
Cynicism and misanthropy are two flaws that many people in the modern world suffer from, yet how many days have been brightened, even briefly, by a kind word from the Bradford Jesus? Maybe his endless wanderings remind people of the possibility of escape from the occasional drudgery of an ordinary life? Regardless of the reason, I hope we'll see Geoffrey back on the streets of Bradford again soon, continuing his legacy of friendship, compassion, optimism and, above all, waving at excited kids on school buses.
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