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Death, Zest And Gusto

Old age and the writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Sitting in the garden at my brother’s house, celebrating his sixty-eighth birthday, aware that my eightieth is rapidly approaching, he asked me a question about my writing. ‘Have you done it all yet?’ It was an enigmatic enquiry, but I replied:

‘Well, the books I wanted to write, yes, they’re done. The magazine work, the music writing… maybe it’s all done.’

‘So, are you finished then?’

Having not written anything for a few weeks this was a wake-up call. ‘No. Maybe a writer never stops. It’s not an ordinary job with a retirement party and a gold watch. To paraphrase Mr Micawber, something, anything, may turn up.’

Contrary to slowing down or drying up, I suspect that as writers and artists age, providing there’s no debilitating illness which affects the brain, our work takes on the characteristics of fine wine. It matures as we discover better ways of expression and innovative narratives as we absorb the wisdom of other writers.

There’s a proverb which goes ‘Knowledge in youth is wisdom in age.’ Many authors and artists didn’t hit their stride until late in life. Some experienced immense challenges as their health deteriorated. Every time we hear the sublime, soaring melody of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his ninth symphony, it seems amazing that due to his deafness, he only heard the work in his mind.

As a teenager, I became acquainted with the stories of the writer Ray Bradbury. In 1932 he met a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico. Wreathed in static electricity, Mr. Electrico touched the young Bradbury on the nose with his glimmering sword and said, ‘Live forever!’ Bradbury later wrote, ‘A few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day.’ I only wish I’d met such a magician.

Prior to becoming a full-time scribe in 1995, I had an employment history spanning thirty-two different jobs. Throughout those depressing years, the distant beacon of ‘retirement’ flickered. I imagined my future life as a pensioner would give me time to potter in the garden, learn to read music, go rambling on the Yorkshire Moors, swim every day. The reality developed into something different. Arthritis, sciatica, hernias, surgery, wonky knees and broken limbs. The more these challenges loomed, the more I realised that with one eye on the calendar, I was frantically churning out far too many words — I was confusing activity with creativity. Fame, fortune and the mirage of the ‘bestseller’ remained elusive. At the age of seventy-five I took stock. Could these final years produce anything memorable? I began to question whether a very long life for a writer or an artist necessarily results in better, more outstanding work. George Orwell only reached forty-six, but what a legacy. Sylvia Plath was thirty. Anne Brontë passed away at twenty-nine and her sister Emily at thirty. Hemingway might have looked like The Old Man and the Sea when he ended it all with that shotgun, but he was only sixty-one. Yet I realized that there was one man who rose above this conundrum, and even today, his life and work give me the motivation to keep writing.

The late Ray Bradbury, who made it to ninety-one, was born in Waukegan, Illinois on August 22, 1920. He has a special niche among the icons of inspiration which turned me into a writer. The cinema first led me to Bradbury. I was thirteen in 1956 and had just begun attending Hull Trinity House Navigation School, where my parents mistakenly believed I was on the educational path to eventually becoming a Merchant Navy officer. It was then that I first experienced John Huston’s masterful screen version of Moby Dick, for which Bradbury penned the screenplay. I watched the film five times in one week at Hull’s Regal cinema. The nature of Bradbury’s literary work, a sinister blend of dark, supernatural mystery set in sleepy autumnal townships where childish innocence often dissolves, made him a natural to adapt Melville’s novel. Condensing Melville’s gargantuan opus to 116 minutes of screen time was a triumph. Bradbury knew, as did screenwriters who dramatized Dickens, that the author’s original dialogue was too good to alter.

When I finally began to grapple with Shakespeare for my GCEs, it reminded me of Bradbury’s interpretation of Moby Dick. Surely, I thought, the Bard had been at Melville’s shoulder? Apparently not. In 1849, one year before Melville began his whaling classic, he admitted ‘Dolt & ass that I am I have lived more than 29 years, & until a few days ago never made close acquaintance with the divine William.’ Bradbury revealed this in a BBC Omnibus film, and it inspired him to study Melville deeply, reading some passages so many times over that one morning, as he neared completion of the screenplay, he leapt out of bed, looked in the mirror and proclaimed, ‘I am Herman Melville!’. So, through Melville, via Shakespeare, it was easy to see why Bradbury’s favourite literary creation had the title Something Wicked This Way Comes.

As a young merchant navy deckhand in the 1960s I would pick up used paperbacks donated by the Seaman’s Mission and browsing the dog-eared titles at the Mission in Sydney, Australia, I collected a ragged copy of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. It was a gateway to a mystical creative landscape. I delved into Bradbury’s life and his influences, among them Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Herman Melville, and Jules Verne, and they became mine. There was an enigmatic, haunting strangeness to Bradbury’s work. It is infused with the spectres of age and time.

Some years later, in a 2012 BBC4 Omnibus documentary entitled The Illustrated Man, which aired just after his death, Bradbury told a story, which he’d included in his book, Something Wicked This Way Comes. I still find this exciting and peculiar today. Apparently as a child, he would spend time in the Waukegan woods in Illinois. One day he paused by his favourite old tree. He was fascinated by a gnarled knothole in the bark. On a slip of paper, he wrote some words, rolled up the paper and slotted it into the knothole. Decades later as an old man, he sought out that tree and the knothole was still visible. He dug into it and there was the brittle, yellowed paper he’d deposited as a boy. He opened it. It contained the words ‘I remember you’.

In his book Zen in the Art of Writing Bradbury wrote ‘We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.’ When Bradbury was eighty-six, the American Library Association’s Booklist reviewed his final novel, Farewell Summer (2006), a sequel to Dandelion Wine. It encapsulated the essence of Bradbury’s work: ‘A touching meditation on memories, aging, and the endless cycle of birth and death, and a fitting capstone, perhaps, to a brilliant career.’

Over a dreadful eight days in July 2022, I was reminded of Bradbury’s ‘I remember you’. It began with a call for an ambulance at 3 a.m., when I was wracked with abdominal pain. After a CT scan, back in the emergency ward a benign but blunt surgeon informed me that the combination of a strangulated umbilical hernia and an obstructed bowel required immediate surgery. Without it, at my age and in my condition, he said, I might die. He calmly added that there was also a chance that the operation itself might see me off. I signed the surgery permission forms. I recall the last moments before the cheery anaesthetist consigned me to oblivion, staring at the ceiling lights with that sinking feeling ‘So this is how it ends. Well, at least you tried…’. Five hours later, festooned with tubes and drips, I regained consciousness in the ICU. Everything seemed unfeasibly bright. People’s voices were staccato and loud. Yet I felt tears of joy on my cheeks; I thought of my brother’s words, ‘Have you done it all yet?’ and I gasped, ‘Hell no! I’m alive!’ I remember you!

An eightieth birthday? Bring it on. Another book? I’m writing it. As Ray Bradbury astutely observed ‘Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig-bladders labeled Zest and Gusto.’

Roy Bainton is the author of eighteen books including biography, modern history, unexplained phenomena, music and poetry, and has worked extensively as a feature writer for various magazines.

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