Sunday, 3 February 2013

Week Five - Jeanette

Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)
Recommended by Timothy

When I finished writing Seasons They Change, I had had eighteen straight months of acid folk. I loved the music, but I was replete; I simply couldn’t listen to another Donovan B-side or Sunburned Hand Of The Man CD-r. As soon as I pitched my baby off to my editor I listened to TLC and Mary J. Blige and Luv’ and Rah Digga and Sylvia Striplin and Roisin Murphy.

And one acid folk act. I never have wanted, and I never will want, a break from Stone Breath.

If you’re reading this and you know me personally, you’ve almost certainly heard me talk about this band. They’re very important to me. It was an absolute honour to interview Timothy Renner, Prydwyn and Sarada for Seasons, and Timothy again for a fRoots piece. I still can’t really believe I’m in contact with Timothy. Do meet your heroes: sometimes it works out.

Listening to Stone Breath is like walking through a thicket of densely patterned vines. Go too quickly and you’ll miss the detail. Go too slowly and you’ll never get out.

I was fully prepared for Timothy’s book recommendation to be… intense.

Dandelion Wine is nothing if it is not the boy-hid-in-the-man playing in the fields of the Lord on the green grass of other Augusts in the midst of starting to grow up, grow old, and sense darkness waiting under the trees to seed the blood.

So writes Ray Bradbury in the later (1974) introduction to Dandelion Wine, a book widely considered one of his most personal and autobiographical. ‘From the age of twenty-four to thirty-six’, Bradbury continues in the introduction, ‘hardly a day passed when I didn’t stroll myself across a recollection of my grandparents’ northern Illinois grass.’ Bradbury uses his grandparents’ small Midwestern town, Waukegan, as the model for Dandelion Wine’s Green Town, and he uses himself for Douglas Spaulding, the twelve-year-old at the heart of the book.

‘Some people turn sad awfully young,’ he said. ‘No special reason, it seems, but they seem always to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.’

Douglas is cipher and observer as much as protagonist, for the book has a vibrant ensemble cast of Green Town residents. There’s Douglas’s grandfather, mortally opposed to a new scientific type of grass because it stops growing at a certain height (‘I want you to deliver this load of unromantic grass into the ravine’). There’s Leo Auffmann, who builds a Happiness Machine (‘How have we used machines so far, to make people cry?’). And then there’s his wife Lena with strong opinions on such a contraption (‘Leo, the mistake you made is you forgot some hour, some day, we all gotta climb out of that thing and go back to dirty dishes’). I found myself wondering about everyone’s back stories, everyone’s future; the world of Green Town is intoxicating.

Bradbury relates all this from a child’s, but not a childish, viewpoint. The vignettes are soaked in wonder and magic. It’s that particular young perspective that’s the soul of Bradbury’s writing: tremendous detail, a high-stakes outlook and concrete patterns of thought, whilst still believing in the most outlandish possibilities of life. This seems to me a very difficult thing to pull off. I can only remember one other author – George Eliot, at the beginning of The Mill And The Floss – evoking childhood so perfectly through the structure of language itself (as opposed to merely describing childhood, or letting the youngsters speak for themselves, which of course many do very well).

I can understand why all this appeals so much to Timothy. In 1996, at twenty-five, he lived on his parents’ farm in rural Maryland and shared summer evenings with his partner, Alison. Songs Of Moonlight And Rain, the first Stone Breath album, came from this time. It is the most straightforward and hopeful of all their releases and, if it has a theme, it seems to be of the transition from innocence to knowledge. Songs such as ‘To Cull Undying Flowers’ echo Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine introduction.

              Dark reflections of summers passed
Of paths of joy and roads of pain.

And I can understand, too, why Dandelion Wine has stayed with Timothy through the years. My favourite track on the latest Stone Breath album, The Night Birds Psalm, is ‘This Is What The Sparrow Sings’, a short curio about growing older.

            What once was black is silver now
            The spiral changes everything
            What once was smooth is tangled up
            Add another ring. Add another ring.

What I loved most about Dandelion Wine was the depiction of the older people. Reading their stories brought forth a similar reaction as to when I saw Amour at the cinema recently: I felt enriched. It was enriching to see people over sixty (especially women) even treated as human beings with thoughts, emotions and passions. It’s a depressing comment on our culture that this is so very, very, very rare, and it is something Bradbury consciously chose to do in Dandelion Wine.

            Helen Loomis, ninety-five, relates the best description of ageing I have ever read.

When you meet a dragon that has eaten a swan, do you guess by the few feathers left around the mouth? That’s what it is – a body like this is a dragon, all scales and folds. So the dragon ate the white swan. I haven’t seen her for years.

A much younger man, William Forrester, falls in love with her.

            ‘For just a moment,’ he said, ‘I saw it.’
            ‘Saw what?’
            ‘The swan, of course.’

(I would imagine Colin Higgins, the writer of Harold And Maude, paid attention to Helen and William.)

So I was wrong about Timothy’s recommendation being intense – or, rather, I was wrong about it being intense in the way I expected it to be. Dandelion Wine is that same Stone Breath thicket, except replace the profuse vines with a carpet of wild plants. Go too fast, and you trample on them. Go too slow, and watching their every sway becomes an addiction.