I’m not mourning Ray Bradbury, because I never knew him, not like Margaret Atwood who wrote about him so movingly this weekend. No, I’m mourning that boy who was sometimes called Douglas Spalding, sometimes Will Halloway, sometimes Jim Nightshade, because that boy was my friend and now he’s gone, his life like a leaf blown down a midnight street.
But Green Town, Illinois, still stands. Thank God for that. With its ravine, which scared me witless first time I read about it, and its hero celebrating summer and new tennis shoes, it’s alive and well. All you have to do is open ‘Dandelion Wine’, or ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ or one of the other stories drawing on Bradbury’s childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, in the 1920s, and there it is.
Over the last year or so I’ve been taking part in a Goodreads debate, started by me, on whether ‘Farenheit 451’ or ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is Bradbury’s best book. In the course of this debate I’ve been introduced to ‘The Halloween Tree’ and ‘From the Dust Returned’. Both have the power to fascinate, but for me they don’t match ‘Something Wicked.’ And they definitely don’t match the short stories.
Would Bradbury get a look in if he were writing today? How much shelf space would our booksellers – how much media space would our publicists – afford him? And our publishers, who can’t imagine how to market authors without tidy pigeon-holes – how would they have dealt with a writer like Bradbury who created his own pigeon-holes?
If you’ve never read Ray Bradbury, do so immediately and see what I mean. And prepare to be inspired. Fiction’s a conversation. You read a story and, by means of your own stories, find the way to join in. I’d never have written my first novel, ‘Midnight Blue’, for example, without ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. And how many other authors, I wonder, owe a similar debt of gratitude - not just to Bradbury as story-teller but as wordsmith too?
Bradbury always had a lot to say, but he always got it dead right. ‘The ocean burned,’ he wrote in the short story, ‘The Women’, in the celebrated anthology ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’ ‘A white phosphorescence stirred like a breath of steam through the autumn morning sea, rising. Bubbles rose from the throat of some hidden sea ravine. Like lightening in the reversed green sky of the sea, it was aware. It was old and beautiful. Out of the deeps it came, indolently. A shell, a wisp, a bubble, a weed, a glitter, a whisper, a gill. Suspended in its depths were rainlike trees of frosted coral, eyelike pips of yellow kelp, hairlike fluids of weed. Growing with the tides, growing with the ages, collecting and hoarding and having unto itself identities and ancient dusts, octopus-inks and all the trivia of the sea.’
See what I mean.
Lately I’ve come to appreciate a more pared-back style of writing. When it comes to short stories, Raymond Carver’s my man. I love the clean, clear lines of Annie Dillard, Marilyn Robinson and - newly discovered by me - the wonderful American writer, Linda McCullough Moore.
When it comes to Bradbury, however, I’m a child again. His words come tumbling out and I’m tumbling after them, seeing where they’ll take me, clinging on for the ride. Another me - the editor me - might groan as gusting follows spinning, and whirling follows trembles, shudders and inhalations of a wind-sucking kind. But the reader me would have it no other way. Nor would the writer me, who can’t see a tattoo on an arm without wondering if it ever comes alive. Nor the explorer me, young again, tucked up in bed with book and torch, waiting to see where Bradbury’s electricity will strike next.
But now something’s come to Green Town, Illinois, and taken Ray Bradbury away. Some might say it’s a rocket come to take him to the stars, or a train come to take him on a midnight ride. But I say it’s tennis shoes that have taken Ray Bradbury - shoes soled with marshmallows and woven of grass; new shoes, magic ones, and he’s off, jumping over fences and sidewalks, dogs and houses, rivers and trees. And it’s summertime where he’s heading.
It always is when an author gets new shoes.