Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Ray Bradbury and 'Dandelion Wine'

... You only had to rise, lean from your window, and know that this was indeed the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer...

Eight weeks ago -- on June 5, 2012 -- Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury is often thought of as a writer of science fiction but this is really too narrow a description of his work. Prompted by news of his death, I pulled from my bookshelf an unread copy of his 1957 novel Dandelion Wine. The only other Ray Bradbury book I'd ever read was The Illustrated Man (1951) -- a collection of short stories ingeniously framed by the idea of a vagrant with a tattooed body, where each tattoo tells a different story. Apart from this, I was a great admirer of Francois Truffaut's 1966 film adaptation of Bradbury’s book Fahrenheit 451 (1953) — a dystopian tale of a future society in which a fire brigade is deployed not to extinguish fires but to burn down any house found to contain books.

I had been thinking about reading Dandelion Wine for a while but it looked like it needed to be read on long hot summer days. After all, it's based on Bradbury's own experience of growing up in small-town Illinois in the 1920s and charts the experiences of 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding from the beginning to the end of summer. Notwithstanding the vagaries of an English summer, I finally plunged into Dandelion Wine and found it dazzling and intoxicating.

... He felt sorry for boys who lived in California where they wore tennis shoes all year and never knew what it was to get winter off your feet, peel off the iron leather shoes all full of snow and rain and run barefoot for a day and then lace on the first new tennis shoes of the season, which was better than barefoot. The magic was always in the new pair of shoes. The magic might die by the first of September, but now in late June there was still plenty of magic, and shoes like these could jump you over trees and rivers and houses... 

In a way, the novel is a work of science fiction: Douglas gets himself fitted out with a pair of magical tennis shoes, he and his friends happen upon a time machine while another character in the town is building a contraption called a Happiness Machine. But the tennis shoes are only magical in a metaphorical sense, the 'time machine' turns out to be old Colonel Freeleigh reminiscing in his wheelchair and, when the Happiness Machine that Leo Auffmann has been trying to build turns out to be a disaster, Leo discovers a ready-made Happiness Machine as he gazes serenely through the window of his family home:
            ‘There it is.’  And he watched with now-gentle sorrow and now-quick delight, and at last quiet acceptance as all the bits and pieces of this house, mixed, stirred, settled, poised, and ran steadily again. ‘The happiness machine, ' he said. ‘The Happiness Machine. '
            A moment later he was gone.
            Inside, Grandfather, Douglas, and Tom saw him tinkering, making a minor adjustment here, eliminate friction there, busy among all those warm, wonderful, infinitely delicate, forever mysterious, and ever-moving parts...

Lyrical, nostalgic, humane, a writer who relished and celebrated the magic of stories and books and memory — Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012).

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).