Wednesday, 6 June 2012

FAREWELL TO THE MARTIAN CHRONICLER

I knew the day would eventually come when I would have to write this post, but I had hoped that it wouldn't be for a few years yet...

With the death of Ray Bradbury at 91, fantasy literature has lost one of its twentieth century giants and, for me, a friendship of many years has finally come to an end...

I had fallen under the Bradbury spell on reading a book tantalisingly entitled The Golden Apples of the Sun...

It had caught my eye one hot summer day when, as a teenager, I was idly looking at an assortment of paperbacks on one of those swiveling book-racks outside a local newsagents shop. Dressed as it was in funereal black with a roundel of red and purple grotesqueries that, I later, discovered featured the work of Goya and with the word IMAGINATION printed in reverse on the back cover, I was instantly enslaved.



Taking its title from W B Yeats, it was a collection of twenty-two weird and wonderful tales each accompanied by a headpiece by Joe Mugnaini, whose distinctive black and white decorations were a frequent embellishment to many of the author’s stories and book jackets.

There were sea-serpents and space ships; witches and murderers and time-travelling big-game hunters who take a safari back into a prehistoric era to hunt a living Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But by far the majority of the stories were about ordinary (and, therefore, extraordinary) people and the wildly ricocheting roller-coasters of their emotional lives: love lurching to hatred; despair soaring to joy; happiness plummeting to sorrow…


I encountered Ray Bradbury at an age when wide-eyed childhood wonder was beginning to crumble in the face of budding teenage angst.

From that intensely hot July day when I read my first Bradbury story ('The Fog Horn') he seized my imagination, shook it awake and hauled it screaming with terror and delight into other worlds that I had only previously visited in my dreams.

It was a moment of apotheosis; a baptism; an epiphany…

I became a different person to the one I might have been because of Ray's gift for seeing the miraculous in the mundane and the tremendous possibilities in the trivial and his unerring talent for prising open the thoughts and emotions of an astonishing range of beings – humans, aliens, robots, puppets and dinosaurs – and giving us an empathetic understanding of their hopes and fears.


The first British edition of Dark Carnival (1948)
with dust-wrapper design by Michale Ayrton

Having gobbled up The Golden Apples I wanted more! Soon I was drinking down Dandelion Wine, dosing myself with A Medicine for Melancholy, burning with the paper-shrivelling heat of Fahrenheit 451, leaping into the velvet darkness of outer space in pursuit of The Silver Locusts and jumping astride the backwards-running carousel in Something Wicked this Way Comes.

In 1974, many years after my first reading of Golden Apples, I wrote the author a fan-letter. Ostensibly, it was asking questions about our shared passion for the work of Walt Disney, but that was merely an excuse to tell the Pied Piper that I was captivated by his music!

Did I expect a reply?

With the arrogant confidence of a twenty-four year old, I probably did! And I was not disappointed…

Ray’s answer came in installments: an envelope of cuttings and articles on Disney, scrawled across one in his ubiquitous capital letters: “LETTER FOLLOWS IN ABOUT 10 DAYS!”


The following month, came a postcard with a contact address for a veteran staff member at the Disney Studio who might assist me with my research; then, another month on – thirty-eight years ago, this very week – came the awaited LETTER...

“This will have to be short," it began. "Sorry. But I am deep into my screenplay on Something Wicked This Way Comes and have no secretary, never have had one… so must write all my own letters… 200 a week!!!”

However, short it was NOT!

Ray signed off, added a post-script and then started another page and, picking up on a naïve comment from my original letter, let fly a barrage of counter-arguments, issuing challenges, demanding a re-think…

This letter is one of my most treasured possessions and, as I read it now, I can still remember the thrill which which I read it then...
 
Ray Bradbury Letter - June 1974 (1)

Ray Bradbury Letter - June 1974 (2)

Once read, it obviously had to be answered!

And so began a exchange of correspondence  (enough to fill four large folders) that continued, latterly, via e-mail and fax, through to a note received just a couple of weeks ago.

Here's just one of many personally decorated envelopes that contained a Bradbury missive...


In 1980, after six years of corresponding, Ray and I finally met for the very first time when I interviewed him at the offices of his London publishers.

The book which I took with me on that occasion to ask him to inscribe for me was the first UK edition of The Halloween Tree, an autumnal conjuring trick by a master literary magician with haunting tombstone black-and-white illustrations by Joe Mugnaini.

The Halloween Tree features the cadaverous Mr Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud leading a group of  youngsters on a fantastical jaunt through the “deep, dark, long, wild, history of Halloween..."

Only much later did I realise that our meeting had taken place just ten days before Ray's 60th birthday...


Six years later, we meet for lunch in a restaurant on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and waiting for me under the napkin by my plate was an American edition of the same book with an inscription and a golden Halloween Tree drawing by the author, studded with grinning pumpkin lantern stickers!


Another memorable meeting came about in 1982, when I was making a BBC radio documentary about the soon-to-be-opened EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World in Florida. Ray was to be there as well and although we had tried to arrange to meet, it wasn't looking hopeful...



(I love the fact that Ray talks about Spacehip Earth as his building! And there is also a glimpse of his frustration over the delays involved in completing the Disney Studio's film of his novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes...)

Anyway, it seemed as if our dates were doomed not to coincide; but that was not the end of the story, because fate (and Disney) stepped in, as Jiminy Cricket would say: "Like a bolt from out the blue"!

Earlier in 1982, I had spent a couple of weeks filming in Florida and Los Angeles for another EPCOT-centric documentary – this time for BBC television. The plan had been that I and my producer, Norman Stone, would return with a crew to film the finished project when the park debuted in the October. In the intervening months, however, the BBC ran out of programme funding and were unable to send us all back to Orlando to capture the opening ceremony and the necessary wrap-up interviews with our contributors.

Disney offered to fly us out and take care of us, but since such a gesture might have been thought to compromise the independent editorial voice of the BBC, the corporation declined. Norman, it was decreed, would have to make the trip alone and work with a US film crew.

Then, while in Florida making my radio programme (separate division, separate funding) during EPCOT's preview weeks, Disney, in true fairy-godmotherly fashion, waved a magic wand by telling me that I was going to be invited to the opening events as a guest and the BBC, with an example of dubious (but gratefully accepted) reasoning, argued that whilst it would have been unacceptable for Disney to fly me out to cover the opening, if – 'as a guest' who just happened to be there anyway – I chanced to meet up with Norman and his US film crew and was able to record a few interviews (unpaid, of course!) honour would be satisfied.

And that is what happened. Which is why, on 22 October 1982 – against all expectations – Ray and I stood chatting in the shadow of his wonderful, iridescent Spaceship Earth and I came away with this unique souvenir...


For those who believe that memories are better than photos and autographs, I have to say that the day ended with one of the best Disney-Bradbury gifts I could ever have been given. The evening of 22 October saw a black-tie party with champagne, food and music from some of the greatest American dance-bands.

The press contingent were not invited to this bash, but were, instead, bused off to a well-known Orlando night-spot, Rosie O'Grady's Good Time Emporium – except, that is, for Norman and I who (through the generosity of the friendships we had made with the folks at Disney Imagineering) were given invitations to the Spaceship Earth party.

Food, drink and music meant that the celebrity guests had plenty to occupy them during the evening without actually riding Spacehip Earth which, for most of the evening, had empty cars spiraling up through its geodesic structure.

Then Norman and I bumped into Ray and his daughter, Bettina. "Have you been on Spaceship Earth?" Ray asked excitedly. Well, yes we had; a couple of times. Ray looked crestfallen. "Damn!" he said, "I was going to ask you to ride it with me."

There wasn't a moment's hesitation from Norman and I! "Of course we'd love to ride it with YOU!"  And we did. No one else: just Ray and his daughter in the front seats, Norman and I, in our hired tuxedos, behind; Walter Cronkite's narration coming out of car's loudspeaker system while Ray provided his own unique commentary over the top – adding detail and explanation about why he had chosen this or that moment in history of communication to be part of the Spaceship Earth story.

Unforgettable!

Ten months on from the opening of EPCOT, Something Wicked This Way Comes finally reached the cinemas...

Invitation to 'Something Wicked' Screening

Invitation to 'Something Wicked' Screening

Having fallen in love with the book as a youngster, I was thrilled at the prospect of this allegorical story about light-versus-darkness being realised for the movies by the studio with the greatest track record in retelling fables and folk tales.

Several of Ray's letters around this period, comment on the film. Here are a couple...

Letter from Ray Bradbury, August 1983

Letter from Ray Bradbury, October 1983

The 'Mouse's Tale' referred to by Ray was a  spoof interview with Mickey Mouse that I wrote for a humorous magazine in Britain – and which they turned down!  The cartoon was inspired by the then-recent publication of Ray's Dinosaur Tales, which is the book being read by the baby dinosaur in the drawing...

Cartoon drawn for Ray Bradbury by Brian Sibley

Yet another unforgettable meeting with Ray took place at the Disney Studio in Burbank in 1986. I was there with my writing colleague, Richard Holliss, researching The Disney Studio Story  and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Making of the Classic – and Ray came over to meet us and have lunch at the Disney commissary.

The Green Town sets from Something Wicked were still standing on the Disney back-lot, so where better to get an inscription in one of my all-time favourite books...?



When, two months later, our earlier book, Mickey Mouse: His Life and Times was published, Richard and I sent Ray a copy, receiving this enthusiastic response...


As a post-script to the earlier comments on the fascinating (if flawed) film of Something Wicked, I was later given – by a friend at the Disney studio – one of the fliers for Dark's Pandemonium Carnival – which Mr Dark (Jonathan Pryce) scatters to the winds as he prowls around the unsuspecting Green Town...

Dark's Pandemonium Carnival

As the years have passed, Ray and I have continued chattering, gibbering and blabbing about many things and I have gone back again and again to those extraordinary books...

Books like...

Dandelion Wine: that achingly poignant portrait of small-town American life at the turn of the last century – full of the remembered wonderment of childhood on long summer days when life, it seems, will go on for ever...

And The Martian Chronicles (or, as we re-dubbed it in the UK, The Silver Locusts), that masterpiece that is so easily catalogued as being science fantasy, but which has less to do with the nuts and bolts of space travel as with the human condition of the travellers and the alien life forms that await them on the red planet.


If Ray Bradbury had only ever written The Martian Chronicles he would have secured a place in literary history, but he also wrote that sublime portrait of childhood (and compelling psychological thriller), Something Wicked This Way Comes; the dystopian nightmare of an era where books are burned, Fahrenheit 451 as well as dozens of novels and collections of short stories and verses.

Ray and I
Ray and I in 1995
Photo: Malcolm Prince

I owe Ray a huge debt: for the opportunity to adapt some of his short stories for radio in the BBC Radio 4 series Ray Bradbury's Tales of the Bizarre, each episode of which was preceded by a personal introduction from the author about how he came to write the story; and, more generally speaking, for the unstintingly generous encouragement he always gave me as a writer – on one occasion going the extra mile by memorably endorsing one of my books...

I had once asked him which book – like the characters in F451 – he would commit to memory if the literary arsonists ever came to power, and he told me, it would be Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. That is why, when I wrote a volume about Dickens' classic, I asked him for a testimonial for the wrapper.

He did me proud...


Scarcely two weeks ago, I had a note from Ray in which he responded to the news that David and I had had to go through the upheaval of putting all our books and possessions in store and (albeit temporarily) moving home...
I cannot believe what you and David have to go through.  Of course now that you've had to dig through all your treasures, perhaps we should get you two here to take care of this out-of-control homestead of mine!!!!  I love this old house of mine and even if I didn't, I think I'd be stuck here because there's just so much stuff...

I think [you may have heard] that I had been in the hospital, but this old Martian is doing fine, so don't you worry...
 But, of course, I did...

Ray often recounted a story from his own childhood of visiting one of the side-show attractions at a carnival where Mr Electrico touched the boy with the fizz and crackle of the electric power that he let run through his body as part of his act and told him to "Live for ever!"

Older and wiser, I now know that living for ever is not (at the moment) a biological option, but we can live forever through the chain-reaction by which we pass on our genes or, for those of us who are childless, our enthusiasms, passions and whatever other influences, great or small, rub off on everyone with whom we interact.

Like Mr Electrico, Ray zapped me and thousands of others with electric shock waves of the multi-faceted revelations, implications and anticipations of life –– that is why he will truly live forever...


You can read about one of my encounters with Ray in The Bradbury Machine

Admirers of Ray's works also need to know that the best website devoted to all things Bradburyesque is the endlessly diverting and informative Bradbury Media.


9 comments:

Beth Stilborn said...

Your quoting Jiminy Cricket made me think that fate did indeed "step in and see you through" in this marvellous, long-standing relationship with such a legendary man.

Thank you for this Bradbury and Brian Chronicle. My thoughts are with you.

Phil said...

Brian,

you're right, it's a day we knew had to come, but we didn't want to see it. But this memoir is exquisite, and I appreciate the care and love that has gone into it, at what must be a heartbreaking time.

Today's PM on Radio 4 had a nice tribute from Joanne Harris (author of CHOCOLAT), and a well informed Eddie Mair. I'm glad that Ray is receiving the tributes he deserves.

By a terribly ironic coincidence, next month sees the release of a new book called SHADOW SHOW (ed. by Sam Weller and Mort Castle), which contains stories written in tribute to Ray Bradbury.

Live Forever, Ray.

- Phil

Anonymous said...

Brian - such a lovely tribute! He will be missed! mg

dragonladych said...

It's an incredible blessing to become friends with such inspiring people. I know this very well, and I can well imagine your pain today.
Hugs.

SharonM said...

What fabulous memories you have, Brian - and that testimonial is priceless!

Boll Weavil said...

A brilliant obituary Brian although, like you, I wish we could have waited longer to read it. Bradbury was never going to leave this world quietly. His love, energy and vitality were such he would, metaphorically at least, have to go kicking and screaming. Had he lived to be 150, he would still have been innovating, creating, writing, philosophising and dreaming.We have shared a love of his strengths as a writer - his characters are often visionaries in a limited world and too often I have suspected you felt you could not adequately convey his genius to a literary public that still insisted on referring to him as a Science Fiction writer. At least with this wonderful and very personal tribute, you have once more thrown the message in a bottle out into the sea.That is as much as anyone can do.I am convinced he will 'live forever' as will the times in which he lived and hopefully the future will see him for the great writer,genius, dreamer and friend that he truly was.

Hurricane Martha said...

I completely enjoyed this post. Thank you!

boll weavil said...

Just re-reading this post again - as much to keep my own Bradbury memories alive as anything else. Can't always wait for his August birthday to celebrate the life of this brilliant, brilliant man.

Brian Sibley said...

My dear Boll Weavil: thank you! I miss Ray so much...