If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Ray Bradbury

I've never been a big fan of science fiction, or SF (don't ever call it sci-fi or the aficionados will have your testicles off with a plasma cannon in the square root of -1 nanoseconds).  Some good stuff, of course (Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land would be a classic in any genre), but there's a lot of Beasts From The Planet Tharg to wade through first.  A lot of Ray Bradbury's work could be called 'speculative fiction' (in the manner of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World) rather than true SF, and it was reading this that made me admire his intellect and creativity.

I never read Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles so I am in no way an expert on his writing, but one (very) short story he wrote has stayed with me since I first read it, probably 35-40 years ago.

In 'The Pedestrian' (1951), Leonard Mead likes to go for walks at night.  In 2053, this is unorthodox enough to bring you to the notice of the authorities.  One winter's night, he goes for a walk, is arrested, and taken away.  That's it - I said it was a very short story.  It's the details that make it thought-provoking.  The uneven pavements with grass growing between the slabs, the complete silence of the city when everyone is at home watching TV, the revelation that the police car which has been interrogating him has no occupants.  The police force has been reduced to one car, as there is no crime any more: everyone stays indoors, watching television.  The fact that Mead likes to walk at night, feeling the cold and enjoying the solitude, is enough to mark him out as a dangerous subversive in need of re-education.  I mean, how could you not watch television?

I don't watch much TV, and wouldn't replace it if it were stolen.  But at work I am reminded of how much television is interwoven into common culture.  If you haven't seen a particular advert, or don't have an opinion on a dilemma in a particular soap opera, or don't have a favourite contestant in 'Britain's Got Talent' or 'The Apprentice', you soon find out how much of popular culture is simply passing you by.  In a lot of casual conversations, you might as well be from Ougadougou and speak Swahili.  I don't see that as a great loss, but it does mean that there are large areas where I am cut off from social relations with my fellow man.

I wonder how much of my desire to avoid consciously some of the more inane manifestations of kultcha are due to an early reading of 'The Pedestrian', a recognition that this was the way society was heading, and a vow to myself never to be swallowed up in it.  Quite a lot, I would think.

You can read it here. It will only take you a few minutes as it is just short of two pages long.  RIP Ray, and I thought 'The Illustrated Man' was brilliant.  One day I will read what people are telling me was the really good stuff.  I'll look forward to that.


  1. I was an avid TV watcher as a teenager. Then I went to college, and watching TV required one to go to the TV room. So I only did it if there was something significant on. Then I left college, and couldn't afford a TV licence, so did without. I realised that I didn't miss it at all. I think it was about 3 or 4 years until I was persuaded to get a licence again. I still watch very little, and don't feel the loss.

    I do know someone that went to work in Ougadougou, though. Do you know how to pronounce it?

  2. I would have said oo-ga-doo-goo, but from your comment I suspect I may be mistaken. Care to enlighten me?

    (We had a TV room in the Students' Union back in 1972. The only time it was full was for The Magic Roundabout. I suspect most were watching chemically enhanced in some way. The intellectual cream of the nation, the future movers and shakers, all watching Zebedee and shouting 'Boing'.)

  3. It's Wagg-A-Doo-Goo, in fact.

    Some years later, they would fill out the TV room for Neighbours, and I'd join them for Blackadder. I'd particularly like you to imagine the reaction in a (Cambridge) undergraduate common room when this one aired: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKuHYO9TM5A :-D

  4. Waggadoogoo. Great. Thank you - I shall use that.

    As for Neighbours and Blackadder, they are a bit 80s for me. I watched all of Blackadder, but my student days were long gone by then. And Neighbours for Kylie only, of course.

    At work and can't watch the clip, but will earmark it for later.


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