Sunday, 24 February 2013

Week Eight - Jeanette

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972)
Recommended by Rupert

Rupert and Kathryn (my best friend) had just got together. The three of us were driving somewhere, probably for a mooch around the record shops of north west London. It was only about the third time Rupert and I had met. We were all chuntering happily away about the Girls In The Garage compilation LPs.

Kathryn suddenly exclaimed, ‘I’m so glad you two are getting on!’

‘Well, we do like lots of the same things,’ said Rupert.

Perfectly in tune, Rupert and I said: ‘Like Kathryn!’

Yes, Rupert and I do like lots of the same things (although Kathryn remains the thing that we each like best). I am in awe of Rupert’s literary taste. I pretty much know that any book he recommends me will be a challenge. I don’t mean a willfully awkward read, nor something full of tricksy prose: but a book that challenges the way I think.

One of the earliest books Rupert and I discussed was Georges Bataille’s Blue Of Noon. I gave a brief nod to Bataille’s Story Of The Eye last week, and Blue Of Noon is equally brilliant, if unsettling in a totally different way. After talking of our mutual admiration for Bataille, Rupert pointed me towards Henri Barbusse’s Hell: I read it and my mind was blown.

Rupert says he found out about a lot of his favourite literature in his early twenties through reading the music press. Rupert has one of the country’s best record collections, and he is particularly attracted to the independent spirits of post-punk and 80s cerebral indie. He would read interviews with artists he admired in the NME, they would namecheck books, he would read them. In this way, he came upon some of the twentieth century’s most remarkable modernist works.

I had read the little Penguin 60 Italo Calvino, Ten Italian Folktales, many years ago, and greatly enjoyed it. Calvino’s rolling of language was divine, and the content appealed to both my Aesop- and folklore-loving tastes. I had always intended to read more.

Gore Vidal says of Invisible Cities:

Of all tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvellous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.

Thanks for that, Gore. Let’s give it a go anyway.

Invisible Cities is a series of short prose descriptions of locations in the Mongol Empire. The travelling merchant, Marco Polo, tells them to the emperor Kublai Khan; every so often, the tales of the cities break off for a conversation, or a chess game, between the two men.

The city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection.

Yes. For these cities are entirely created by words. Unlike Polo’s genuine travelogue (the thirteenth century work The Travels Of Marco Polo), Invisible Cities constructs the imaginary rather than maps the real. Some cities are grounded, and it’s easy to believe that they exist.

A stain that spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of dust, fires, screams in the darkness.
                                                            (Eudoxia, ‘Cities & The Sky 1’)

Others initially seem impossible in the corporeal world. Yet, deliberate over them, and they become deeply plausible. What seems more fanciful than Argia, a city with dirt instead of air, where the residents’ bodies decay quickly with damp (‘Cities & The Dead 4’)? But, then, what happens after a natural disaster vomits the earth into a city? What is Trude – ‘the world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end’ (‘Continuous Cities 2’) – if not a prescient comment on globalisation?

I found Invisible Cities an interesting contrast to the book Jude discussed in Week Three, Jane Jacobs’ The Death And Life Of American Cities. In Jacobs’ work, she considers the function of a city, and how it should serve its people. As does Calvino.

It is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
                                                                                      (Zenobia, ‘Thin Cities 2’)

How a city is designed, and how this moulds its populace is a strong philosophical idea in Invisible Cities, and nowhere more so than in the sad case of Perinthia. ‘Nature’s reason and the gods’ benevolence would shape the inhabitants’ destinies’, a team of learned astrologers argued, as they set about designing the perfect city. But:

In Perinthia’s streets and square today you encounter cripples, dwarves, hunchbacks, obese men, bearded women. But the worse cannot be seen: gutteral howls are heard from cellars and lofts, where families hide children with three heads or with six legs.
                                                                                       (Perinthia, ‘Cities & The Sky 4’)

Were the astronomers’ calculations wrong? Or does Perinthia actually reflect what the gods’ desire for human destiny?

And then, there’s my favourite, Sophronia. I grew up in Norwich, and every summer my parents and I would day-trip to the seaside towns of the Norfolk coast. Some of these are beautiful; some of these are gaudy, tatty blots of unhappiness. Look at Hemsby:

Like many seaside towns, Hemsby is divided into the tourist Hemsby - all one-armed bandits and fatal-looking funfairs - and Hemsby village, a quiet residential area.

The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities. In one there is the great rollercoaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement.

Every year, one half of this city is taken away. It is not the half of the funfair; it is the half of the administration, the money, the public services. And what happens to the half that remains?

The shout [is] suspended from the cart of the headlong rollercoaster, and it begins to count the months, the days it must wait before the caravan returns and a complete life can begin again.
                                                            (Sophronia, ‘Thin Cities 4’)

Invisible cities are memory, invisible cities are the future, invisible cities are life, and invisible cities are death. And, sometimes, as I walk around Sheffield, I think of how my own emotions have grown and crashed on its streets. Then, visibility or invisibility, it suddenly makes no difference.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Week Seven – Jude

Dorian: An Imitation
Recommended by David Stewart (no, not that one)

So, Dave.

I met Dave in 2001 – a man tumultuously quiffed and esoterically, Orphicly spectacled. He played a mellifluous bass guitar in a Sibylline so-called pop band – feel free to utter a scrofulous curse at such an anfractuous description –  and was part of a corpuscular friendship group of jocose piss-artist bastards.

Yes, I’m trying to write like Will Self. I’ll stop now. It’s quite hard to get it right. Saying that, using and The Pompous Ass Words website to find primordial synonyms, and my own murky brain for rude words, has been lots of fun.

Lovely, clever, beardy Dave loves huge, mad, whirling books with big ideas in them. For example, he recommended me Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker last year, which I read on holiday in Croatia last summer. Bloody hell. Under blue skies, on hot white beaches, in the most idyllic of circumstances, I fell in love with a dark, deep, muddy, murky book about a world after a mysterious apocalypse, written in a language dredging up memories of ancient Kentish tongues. It was hard work, but I was consumed by it; it worked its way through my mind for weeks afterwards. 

It was one of the books that inspired this project. It was also the book I nearly recommended to Jeanette, before I went for another.

Dave gave me three choices for this week, but I went for Dorian: An Imitation. I’d read A Picture Of Dorian Gray on a holiday, with family, years ago; I’d also met Will Self too in about 2005, at a book launch in a disused underground station in Central London (how perfect). I was there with Matt, my fellow co-editor of Smoke magazine, hiding in a corner among the cobwebs and glossy tiles. I remember Will being introduced to us, and him being ten feet tall, and chatty and warm, like a big friendly giant.

I love so much his writing  too – find his New Statesman restaurant columns for a gentle introduction. It’s so grandly verbose and facking common at the same time, but it’s also, almost always, spine-bruisingly funny. It’s everything Martin Amis’ work is meant to be, but I’ve never found to be. Amis seems to be about showing-off and technique, while Self’s stuff – however cruel and dark – has got heart and warmth in there somewhere.

Dorian: An Imitation is Self’s very literal re-rendering of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait Of Dorian Gray, transported from the late 19th century to the late 20th – another fin-de-siecle drama, only 100 years on. Self had been asked to adapt Wilde’s novel into a script in the 1990s, but that project  never worked out, so this is what he did with all that meat and matter. 

As my mother occasionally reads this blog, I should not reveal that this is a very rude book indeed. OH BUT IT IS, MAM, and oh, I enjoyed it. Every character is a modern facsimile of a person in Wilde’s original – e.g. figurative painter Basil Hallward becomes conceptual video artist Baz, while Sibyl the Whitechapel actress becomes Herman the rent boy. Yes, this imitation, this homage, becomes a fully-fledged gay novel, and Self attracted criticism for writing it, him being a heterosexual gentleman after all. If he’d made these characters meaningless ciphers, I might have had reason to agree. But he doesn’t. And are writers meant to write about people who are exactly the same as they are? How calumnious (er, I think). I think not.

Two other things creep perniciously through this book: the arrival and impact of AIDS, and the life of Princess Diana, whose rollercoaster existence frames Dorian’s experience. This is another structural device that works – asomehow it shouldn’t, but Self’s writing is buoyant enough to make everything hang together with a dazzle.  (Reading Diana being described as “Her Royal Regurgitation” and “Thickie Spencer” were also timely this week, as Hilary Mantel’s LRB talk was being filleted by news agencies, pulled clean of its subtleties, and reappropriated, with no irony, by the papers she was criticising.) 

The way in which Self evokes the period between 1981 and 1997 is also refreshing, taking us from the fuggy days of early Thatcherism to the peculiar lightness of the Blairite mid-90s. Odd references to pop songs or news headlines never feel forced either, just part of the world circling around Dorian’s infuriatingly beautiful light.

Things only shift at the end, with an impressive twist that bent my mind backwards. In a busy week that saw me travelling to Norway, and back again, and speeding around London, I would love a clear fortnight, and some quietness, to take all of it in again. But for now, I’m happy reading interviews with Self about the book, and wonderful statements of his, like these: “The Picture Of Dorian Gray is the prophecy and Dorian is the fulfillment”. 

Will, you coruscatingly guignol bollock, you’ve done it again. And Dave, so you have you.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Week Seven - Jeanette

Ed The Happy Clown by Chester Brown (1982-9)
Recommended by Jeff

It’s a pain in the arse to write about Will Oldham.


Well, for a start he doesn’t do many interviews. The ones he does do, he mumbles through, and if he does say anything of merit, it usually contradicts something he said before. Then he goes on about R. Kelly for several centuries. But infuriating as that is, it’s even worse to research people’s opinions of his music. And I’m not only talking about his fans: huge swathes of music critics gibber out the purple prose when confronted with a Palace release. Cutting through the platitudes is incredibly wearisome.

That’s why this song, and its video, is so refreshing:

The only time I blocked, properly blocked, when writing Seasons They Change was when I had to tackle Will Oldham’s career. And it was Jeffrey Lewis’s song that got me through it. It was not only its mischievous take on ol’ Bonnie ‘Prince’ that spoke to me. It was the ruminations on the worth of living a creative life at all – sensations I was feeling keenly, as Seasons was already altering me (and I wasn’t sure for the better).

I emailed Jeffrey out of the blue, and asked if I could quote some ‘Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror’ lyrics in Seasons. He said yes! And he was extremely interested in the book!

We met when he came over to the UK; he asked me along to his show in Leeds, part of a joint tour with the incredible Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders (who I had also interviewed). Seasons had just been published, so I passed on copies to Jeff and Peter, grateful for their help. Jeff swapped with me, giving me his comic book Fuff, and their joint album Come On Board. He and I stayed in touch, and have now met a good few times when he’s been in the UK. He is a complete delight to talk to, because he is so intelligent about the things he loves, and sparkles that erudition with an infectious wide-eyed enthusiasm. He cared for Seasons, and I’ve never forgotten his kind words about it.

I hoped that he would recommend me a graphic novel: as an artist himself, and a fount of knowledge on comic art and culture, I felt sure he’d come up with something memorable.

Ed The Happy Clown was originally serialised in Chester Brown’s comic book Yummy Fur during the 1980s (aside: I had heard of Yummy Fur, but only because an an engaging Scottish band of the 1990s appropriated the name). It was published as a standalone graphic novel in 1992. I have the latest version (2012) with a few changes from the initial serialisation, but with a whacking great notes section at the end.

It’s been a melancholy week. Partly it’s to do with the snow, falling, falling, falling, and trapping me in a merciless prism of cold. But, also, it’s my own fault: in this prism, I’ve only really watched miserable DVDs. So let’s just say that Ed The Happy Clown slotted in nicely between the unflinching hospital scenes in Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film about prejudice and crippling isolation, Fear Eats The Soul.

Ed himself is a cheerful cove, but by the third panel there’s a fatal fire at the children’s hospital he’s about to visit. A broken leg, a rat attack, and the exploitation and subsequent death of several pygmies swiftly follow. We’re on page seven.

However, in this and the other ‘Introductory Pieces’ - written before Ed really gets going as a serial - the strips have a cartoonish quality to them. If one were in a darkly humorous mood, one could – and perhaps should – laugh at them. The fact that they upset me probably says more about me than it does about them. But, even in this earliest part, real bleakness quickly sets in.

That panel where his nose is removed cut me to the quick. Ed remains without the accoutrements of clowning for the remainder of the book.

The kind, intelligent Josie joins Ed in his misadventures. Killed early on in the story, she returns to life, first as an unquiet spirit, and then as a vampire.

If it’s possible, Josie has an even harder time of it than Ed does. The last few pages in the book see to her fate and… oh, my… it’s surely one of the most harrowing endings of all time.

The story itself, as Brown explains in the notes, was almost entirely improvised. Ed began specifically as an exercise in spontaneity – Brown had been taken with the Wallace Fowlie book The Age Of Surrealism and wanted to tap into ‘unconscious art’ – and this unplanned approach remained, to a lesser extent, throughout the comic’s lifespan. This gives Ed a really dangerous edge. It could, and frequently does, go anywhere. Overall the plot makes sense, although occasionally there are frustrating dead ends (and Brown now says he regrets some aspects of Ed that he considers racist and sexist). However, I doubt the very unusual and sustained air of chaotic menace in Ed would have been there had Brown planned the story in advance.

In a mark of how far Ed The Happy Clown ate away at me, the book invaded my dreams. In my nightmare, someone I knew got swept away in a sewer, and she blamed me; she retaliated by coming up through my toilet, showering me with shit, and grabbing at my legs. That’s a jumble of several parts of the Ed story, and it was so powerful it woke me up with a scream at 4am.

Ed The Happy Clown is really not something for the faint-hearted. It’s not just its gloom, horror, and anarchy. It’s a transgressive work, with plenty of graphic bodily functions, and a fair amount of explicit violence. Yet I absolutely adored it. It touched the same nerve in me that makes Story Of The Eye by Georges Bataille one of my favourite books. I’ve thought about Ed repeatedly ever since finishing it, and some individual panels are burned onto my brain.

Like this one. Oh, oh, oh, Ed.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Week Six - Jude

Anthropology and a Hundred Other Stories by Dan Rhodes (2000)
Recommended by Lisa Baker

101 stories, each of 101 words: Perec trickery again, but pithier, dafter. Lovely Lisa Baker, with her long black hair and literary encyclopaedia brain, kindly recommended a book suited for the commute. Women with names like Nightjar and Honeysuckle romp around these tales, twisting men around elegant digits. The stories are funny (Herself is pure Tommy Cooper, plus brilliant punchline), but also often disturbing (Kangaroo) or desperately sad (Crying). I’ve read criticism about the female subjects being either witches or ditzes, but the male narrators aren’t feted; they’re shown unadorned, and unravelling. The older jacket’s better too. 101 words yet? Yes.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Week Six - Jeanette

Revenge Of The Lawn by Richard Brautigan (1971)
Recommended by Stephen

1998. ‘You’ll like this,’ Stephen said, pressing a 7” single on me. We were in the basement of Brighton’s Wax Factor, having only met a couple of hours previously. The single was post-punk perfection:

I not only liked it; it became one of my favourite singles of all time. I went on to buy everything else by LiLiPUT. The search for their second LP, Some Songs (released in Germany only), dragged on until 2008.

Stephen and I had been writing to each other for eighteen months or so by the time of our meeting. He had contacted me, asking for my fanzine Kirby (then on its second issue), and I had been delighted to get his letter. For Stephen was a well-known name to people who wrote fanzines. His reputation preceded him: someone with excellent taste, kind and supportive, a scourer of the charity shops down in Brighton, and the person with the best collection of books, records, and ephemera. My cultural horizons would be a whole lot narrower without Stephen in my life. He must have turned me on to well over two hundred things I would never have discovered without his guidance: from Helen And The Horns offshoot bands to obscure Caribbean dub poetry.

However, and by degrees, a new person emerged to me. Stevie was within Stephen. Because while Stephen and I would talk about books and records, Stevie and I – via letter and telephone – shared our lives.

It was a mixture of Stephen and Stevie that recommended Revenge Of The Lawn to me. Stephen, with his eclectic taste in books, was perfectly capable of dealing me an oral history of waitresses in Balham or a book of Cuban horror movie poster art; but I know Richard Brautigan is an enduring part of his collection, nestled within its heart chambers. And Stevie, who knows my inner world, felt I would react well to the book's tone, its detail, and its compassion for human eccentricity.

How many short stories can you fit into a 174-page book? Richard Brautigan can fit in 62. This is ‘The Scarlatti Tilt’ in its entirety:

‘It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.’ That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

If the creative writing advice is true, and that in a short story every single word should count, ‘The Scarlatti Tint’ has to be the medium’s flawless exemplar. Not every one of Revenge Of The Lawn’s component parts is so concise. But, in many of the stories, Brautigan encapsulates something in a few words that other writers would need a paragraph or more to describe.
            They all looked like people whose names you forget.
                                                                        (‘The Pretty Office’)
              Love affairs that were breathing mirrors of my unhappiness.
                                                            (‘American Flag Decal’)

We see a cafĂ© resting in the snow’s leisure.
                                                 (‘Thoreau Rubber Band’)

It is the polished nucleus of writing.

I’ve often heard Brautigan’s work described as ‘surreal’ yet – in Revenge Of The Lawn, at least – I found this judgement shallow (although the titles do all sound like lost tracks from Trout Mask Replica). While a few stories do have an otherworldly aspect, such as the sad consumer daze of ‘The Wild Birds Of Heaven’, most are very human and relatable. A note of deep profundity is often struck at the end, which sometimes only makes sense in the context of the title.

Witness my favourite, the one-page ‘A Complete History Of Japan And Germany’. It begins:
A few years ago (World War II) I lived in a motel next to a Swift packing plant which is a nice way of saying slaughterhouse.

The narrator describes the sound made by the pigs:

                        A squealing lament equal to an opera being run through a garbage disposal.

However, he soon gets used to the anguished porcine cries. The final line:

Whenever the pigs weren’t screaming, the silence sounded as if a machine had broken down.

Thinking about that title, and the reference to the war in the first line, plus the fact it was written in 1969, during the Vietnam conflict… this story seems a subtle update of Nineteen Eighty-Four doublethink: war is peace.

I can see the huge influence of this work on modern America, and not just in literature. I would wager Larry David is a fan; ‘Complicated Banking Problems’ is nothing if not a lost Seinfeld episode. Some musicians openly acknowledge his influence, like Neko Case and Devendra Banhart, while dozens more simply rip him off, hoping their audience won’t twig.

Brautigan was also a poet, unsurprising given his talent for expressing intricate ideas in a compact package. Hear him reading 'All Watched Over By Machines Of Love And Grace':

I was glad when the bus came. There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.
                                                            (‘The Old Bus’)

Stevie, your hope was realised: I did enjoy this. XXXOOO.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Week Five - Jude

Things: A Story Of The Sixties by Georges Perec (1965)
Recommended by Stuart Evers

From the urban streets of America to Paris we go – a journey I did on the District Line this week.

I started a Georges Perec novel about ten years ago. It was the French writer's most famous one, Life: A User's Manual, a novel of interwoven stories about people living in a housing block, written under all manner of fancily-fangled constraints. Literary puzzles and riddles ran right through its seams. Perec had also written a book without the letter "e", I recall – 1969's The Void – which was impressive, although I was also impressed by the bloke who had translated it into English, following the same rules.

I don't know why I didn't carry on reading Life: A User's Manual – I was probably half-reading ten books a time, and was more preoccupied with the pub. I remember liking it though, especially the way in which it went into intricate detail about everything (much like John Updike's Rabbit Run does, come to think of it). So when I came across it again early last year, on a wedding invitation from my friends Stuart and Lisa, I knew I had to make acquaintances with old Perec again.

But let's not forget Stuart. I've known Stuart for nearly 12 years now. When we met, he was working for a publisher, and had worked for a bookseller: he's now published a novel and ten short stories about smoking for Picador. He is funny and silly and lovely, and has remarkable hair. He also loves books so much that his success couldn't have been given to a better person.

Also, when Jeanette and I told him about this project he misunderstood it a bit: he thought we simply wanted 52 books from our friends, any friends. So what did he do? Send us a list of 52. Wowsers. I picked this for the reasons stated above, and because it was slim, but yet – Stuart promised me – also superb.

This book has been a proper escape this week. This is Perec's first novel, written when he was 29. The translation – as far as I can say this without actually knowing the original – is great, creating a swirling, compelling, meditative mood. It helps that this book involves long collections of les choses that its protagonists are obsessed by: "knitwear, silk blouses, shirts by Doucet, cotton voile ties, silk scarves, tweed, lambswool, cashmere, vicuna, leather and jerseywool, flax and, finally the great staircase of footwear leading from Churches to Westons, from Westons to Buntings and from Buntings to Lobbs". It's strange how giddying and lovely lists can be.

It's about Jerome and Sylvie, two young people floating along in the lives, working for a market research company, believing real life is around the corner. They have everything and nothing. They feel cast adrift from any moorings thanks to a feeling of lack. They need more to be happy. They want more. They never get it. But in many ways – hey, people – they have it already, and the moral of this book should feel easy-breezy on paper. But the style in which it's put across suggests something else – a cutting satire on our whims and desires, and something tragic.

This book's subtitle – A Story Of The Sixties – explains its motives. This is a story about the rise of capitalism, and its effects on people's lives, especially young people bedazzled by consumerism and choice. The book is written mainly in the conditional tense, which gives it a riddle-like feeling...they "would", they "could",  if only they these conditions could be met...then, things would be OK. These things could offer so many alternative, wonderful futures.

This novel also feels oddly fresh, just like the Jane Jacobs book last week, partly because our society is still occupied by the same concerns. And there lies the sadness, the ridiculousness, of it all. The couple's friendships unravel. They notice the Algerian War, but barely. There is also hardly anything in the story about Jerome and Sylvie's love life, or any emotional reasons as to why they are together. Of course, wanting something more in your life, and having that as a shared goal, is a fairly natural impulse. Wanting some things to do that for you implies a distance, one that slowly eats them away.

A work trip takes us somewhere else towards the end of the book – to the possibilities of escape, of rootings in a very different world – but here is no cliff-hanger here, no plunge into the deep-end, no final judgement, unless you count the Karl Marx quote at its end as a wagging finger, which of course, it is. There is only the dream of two people, feeling listless and empty, and the uneasy easiness of us seeing ourselves in these sentences. "The quest for truth", as Marx's quote goes, all too well, "must itself be true".

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.