Friday, July 21, 2006

The GOLDEN APPLES of the SUN

Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun has worn many different covers over the years…

My original copy - sadly, long ago lost - was dressed in black with a roundel of purple grotesqueries that I later discovered were the work of Goya.

On the back was the word IMAGINATION printed backwards!


It caught my eye one hot summer day when I was idly looking at an assortment of paperbacks on one of those swivelling bookracks outside my local newsagent’s shop.

A collection of twenty-two weird and wonderful tales, it had been named The Golden Apples of the Sun by its author with a gracious nod to W B Yeats and sundry mythological sources.

Some of these tales were about sea serpents and space ships; about witches and murderers and time-travelling big-game hunters who take a safari back into prehistoric times to hunt a living Tyrannosaurus Rex.


But by far the majority were about ordinary (and, therefore, extraordinary) people and the wildly ricocheting rollercoasters of their emotional lives: love lurching to hatred; despair soaring to joy; happiness plummeting to sorrow…

Each story had a headpiece by the artist, Joe Mugnaini, whose distinctive black and white decorations were a frequent embellishment to many of the author’s stories and book jackets.


I encountered Ray Bradbury at an age when wide-eyed childhood wonder was beginning to crumble in the face of budding teenage angst. It was a moment of apotheosis; a baptism; an epiphany…

I gobbled up The Golden Apples in a day and wanted more! I found them, soon enough, in library and bookshop, and was soon drinking down Dandelion Wine, dosing myself with A Medicine for Melancholy, burning with the paper-shrivelling heat of Fahrenheit 451, leaping into the velvet darkness of outer space in pursuit of The Silver Locusts and jumping astride the backwards-running carousel in Something Wicked this Way Comes, about which I will write more on another occasion.

In 1974, many years after my first reading of Golden Apples, I wrote the author a fan-letter. Ostensibly, it was asking questions about our shared passion for the work of Walt Disney, but that was merely an excuse to tell the Pied Piper that I was captivated by his music!

Did I expect a reply? With the arrogant confidence of a twenty-five year old, I probably did! And I was not disappointed…

Ray’s answer came in instalments: an envelope of cuttings and articles on Disney (scrawled across one in his ubiquitous capital letters: “LETTER FOLLOWS IN ABOUT 10 DAYS!”); the following month, a postcard with a contact address for a veteran staff member at the Disney Studio who might assist me with my research; then, another month on, the awaited LETTER...

“This will have to be short," it began. "Sorry. But I am deep into my screenplay on Something Wicked This Way Comes and have no secretary, never have had one… so must write all my own letters… 200 a week!!!”

Short it was NOT! Ray signed off, added a post-script and then started another page and, picking up on a na├»ve comment from my original letter, let fly a barrage of counter-arguments, issuing challenges, demanding a re-think…

“P.S. Can’t resist commenting on your fears of the Disney robots… Any machine, any robot, is the sum total of the ways we use it. Why not knock down all the robot camera devices and the means for reproducing the stuff that goes into such devices, things called projectors in theatres? A motion-picture projector is a non-humanoid robot which repeats truths which we inject into it. Is it inhuman? Yes. Does it project human truths to humanize us more often than not? Yes…”

Closely typed - top to bottom, edge to edge - the letter exploded with thoughts and bristled with opinions.

I felt as if I had suddenly inherited a mentor, been adopted by a godfather, had received an embrace from a fellow lunatic-lover of strange and curious things and, totally unexpectedly and utterly undeservedly, had been given a present in the form of a Friend…


That is how it proved to be: a friendship that, to date, has spanned 32 years and is represented by stacks of letters, notes, cards and, most recently, e-mails; piles of books and mementos and memories of many meetings.

At one such, during the grand opening-day celebrations of Disney’s EPCOT Center (22nd October 1982), Ray autographed my copy of Twice 22 (a volume combining The Golden Apples of the Sun and A Medicine for Melancholy) with an inscription unique to the day, the book and our shared passion for Disney.



It was several more years before I managed to find a copy of the 1952 first edition of Golden Apples to present to Ray for signing...



By that time, I had made a unique addition to my Bradbury collection.

It appeared in a catalogue of animation art where it was described as: “Fantasy illustration showing a planet and a space ship. Signed by the artist”. The cataloguer obviously couldn't read the signature - and anyway 'Mugnaini' is not a common name - but I knew precisely what it was and where it came from! It was the headpiece to ‘The Wilderness', the fourth story in Golden Apples, and which (with the small amendment of an additional distant planet) had originally been used as the book's dust-wrapper design.


The picture now hangs in my study above a tottering pile of books authored by Ray Bradbury and our friendship continues to this day, with Ray still inspiring me, questioning me, clapping me on the back to encourage me and prodding me to think and to write…

In return, I have managed one or two small offerings, such as a few articles, a handful of radio dramatisations and the only gift I can ever truly give: unconditional love for a man who has made me see the world and myself, in a way I had never seen them before…


Read my interview with Ray, The Brabury Machine here.

[Portrait of Bradbury: Yousuf Karsh]

Sunday, July 16, 2006

IT MUST BE TRUE

It was in the 1950’s that Denys Parsons first made ‘SHRDLU’ a household name with the publication of It Must Be True: It was all in the Papers with illustrations by Ronald Searle.

‘SHRDLU’ , along with ‘ETAOIN’ and ‘CMFWYP’ represented the first three columns of keys on the compositor’s type-setting machine (similar to the ‘QWERTYUIOP’ of the typewriter/computer keyboard) but, in Parson’s fertile imagination, ‘Shrdlu’ took on life as the wanton mischief-maker responsible for all the gaffes, howlers and misprunts that daily found their way into books, newspapers and magazines and onto the signage of contemporary life…

“Sexi-detached Bungalows, new £3500”

“It is not considered polite to tear bits off your beard and put them in your soup”

"WANTED: Unlimited number of fig-leaves. Telephone Brighton -------, after 7 pm"

"Order Rings by Post: state size or enclose string tied round finger”

“To the Fairy Glen - five minutes walk. BEWARE HEAVY LORRIES”

Other volumes - such as Can it Be True and All Too True followed illustrated by noted cartoonists of the day and the material stood the test of time into the 1960s as a series of popular paperbacks beginning with Funny Ha Ha and Funny Peculiar...

"One person was arrested last night on suspicion of being concerned with this morning's murders"

"If the motion were passed, no strike action would be taken by NALGO without a ballet of all its members"

"JACK'S LAUNDRY: Leave your clothes here, ladies, and spend the afternoon having a good time"

And a notice that might well still be on display outside the Doge’s Palace in Venice: “DO NOT INTRODUCE DOGS, STICKS, SUITCASES, TRESTLES ETC…”

Many of the oddities and sillinesses gleaned by Parsons are as amusing today as when they were first perpetrated forty or fifty years ago: “We offer foam rubber cushions at rock bottom prices...”

One can only speculate on what a very jolly website he would have created if he had been writing and collecting into the era of the Internet!

I'll leave you with this shocking piece of news: “FATHER OF TEN SHOT DEAD - Mistaken for rabbit...”

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A Little Book of DUMB QUESTIONS

At just £2.99 from Boxtree Books A Little Book of Dumb Questions, compiled in 2001 by the ubiquitous Michael Powell (author of 101 Illnesses You Don't Want to Get, A Little Book of Crap Advice and Dung) is the perfect addition to your loo-side library.

Almost all are worth revisiting and there are too many favourites to actually call any of them 'favourite'. Ones I'm particularly keen on include:

Doesn't 'expecting the unexpected' make the unexpected expected?

Why isn't 'phonetic' spelled the way it sounds?

Is there something you can take for kleptomania?

Can you imagine a world with no hypothetical situations?

If gifts are free, what is a 'free gift'?

Is it possible to be totally partial?

Why isn't there more than one in every crowd?

Can you be a closet claustrophobic?

If all the world's a stage, where is the audience sitting?

and

What's the word for when you can't remember the word?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The (Autographed) STORY of WALT DISNEY

"How much is it?" I asked, and held my breath.

"Forty pounds," he replied.

It's more than thirty-five years ago now, but I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.

It was an awful lot of money.

I was just twenty years old and had not long been bitten by the Disney-bug.

My fascination with Disney movies had been suddenly intensified when I borrowed R. D. Feild's book, The Art of Walt Disney from my local library. Here was someone who, unlike my Mum, didn't think of 'cartoons' as the kind of kid's stuff you ought to have grown out of by the time your voice breaks.

I wanted a copy of The Art of Walt Disney more than anything else in the world and began scouring the second-hand bookshops, which is how I stumbled on Fred Zentner. He later became The Cinema Bookshop in London’s Great Russell Street, but then he sold film books, stills, posters and other gems - including a copy of The Art of Walt Disney - from the basement of The Atlantis Bookshop, in Museum Street, just round the corner from the British Museum. Once found, I began, bit by bit, buying up Fred's stock of Disneyana.

Then came the day when he placed into my hands a copy of The Story of Walt Disney as told by Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, to Pete Martin.

It was a first edition American hardback, published by Henry Holt & Co (New York) 1956.

It still had its original dustwrapper with a design by Disney studio artist Al Dempster and, what's more, it was ----- SIGNED!

On the half-title page, in green biro, with that distinctive bold handwriting was the inscription: 'Best Wishes Walt Disney'.

It was his very signature - including the little circle over the 'i' in 'Disney' that I emulated in my own signature. This man - whom I had never met but who exercised an obsessive fascination over me - had held this book, opened it and inscribed his name inside.

I wanted it! No, I craved it! But, FORTY POUNDS... Forty pounds for a book? My mother would go bananas! Besides, I couldn't afford it. I didn't have forty pounds. I didn't know when I ever would have forty pounds. But, right there and then, I desired that book with a passion that, call me eccentric if you will, I have scarcely felt about anything since.

But, FORTY POUNDS... It was way beyond my meager means. Then Fred Zentner showed himself to be a man who understood the full anguish of desire, because he made me an offer. If I paid him ten pounds a month for the next four months, he would keep the book for me until I had paid the full forty. Month by month, I made my pilgrimage to The Atlantis Bookshop, looked at the swirling green signature and paid another ten pounds. Then, one day, it was mine.

Fast-forward thirteen years. I am standing in the Archive at the Walt Disney Studio in Burbank, California, talking to Archivist, Dave Smith. I am there researching a television documentary about EPCOT and I mention, in conversation, that the prize of my Disney collection is an autographed copy of The Story of Walt Disney.

Dave Smith laughs and asks a question that almost brings the universe crashing down around my ears.

“Are you sure it's actually signed by Walt Disney?”

“Of course! It says so, in green biro: ‘Best Wishes Walt Disney’!”

“That may be,” he replies, “but many people at the Studio - some of them distinguished animators - signed books and pictures on Disney's behalf.”

I look stunned. But, Dave goes on: “The Disney signatures by these other artists are more like the famous logo signature that appears on Disney movies and merchandise. Walt's personal signature, however, is quite distinctive. Would you like to see a GENUINE Disney signature?'

Nothing could be simpler: within seconds I could know whether or not I owned the real thing. Or, I could leave things as they were. Except, of course, that now I couldn't. Dave Smith had sowed the seed of doubt...

I hesitate for no more than a second. “Yes, let's see a GENUINE Disney autograph…”

Then, relief and joy! “It is just like mine!”


When, a few years later, I got to know Diane Disney Miller, I asked her about the book and she told me that her father used to sign copies for sale in the bookshop at Disneyland, which was very probably where my copy had originally been purchased.

She also explained that whilst The Story of Walt Disney carried her name as author (and, indeed, included several of her own reminiscences) it had been Walt himself who had collaborated directly with Pete Martin on the book. However, her father had decided that it would be better if his life-story were presented as if told by his daughter partly because he felt that to tell it himself might appear arrogant, and partly because he wanted the recently married Diane to earn some money.

A decade passed and I found my self in San Francisco working with Diane in co-presenting a radio series for the BBC about her father. On this occasion, I had carried the treasured volume with me and I asked her to add her signature to the book’s title page.

Diane was modestly reluctant - since, as she had already told me, she didn’t consider herself in any sense the book’s ‘author’. However, she eventually relented and graciously inscribed the book: “For Brian Sibley - a very good friend - Respectfully, Diane Disney Miller”


A few more years down the road, I attended the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary ‘Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Myth’ in which I appeared as an interviewee.

By this time, I had acquired a British edition of The Story of Walt Disney published by Odhams Press (London) in 1958.

At the party afterwards, chatting with Diane and her husband Ron, I produced this volume and asked whether the book’s Non-Author would oblige with another inscription!

Appreciating the joke, she unhesitatingly agreed...

Beneath the printed sub-title - ‘An intimate biography by his daughter, DIANE DISNEY MILLER, as told to Pete Martin’ - she wrote: “Actually, Brian - we know better, don’t we? Warmest, warmest regards, Diane.”


Nowadays, the autograph business is big business: copies of the recent reprint of The Story of Walt Disney with Diane's signature sell for several hundred dollars and someone, in a recent American auction, paid over three thousand dollars for a copy of the original edition signed (also in green biro!) by Walt.

So, all in all, I think that original - and seemingly astronomical - forty pounds of mine was money incredibly well spent!

It is not, however, for any financial value that I treasure these volumes, but for the even more valuable memories and associations that they hold…

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

ALICE’S ADVENTURES in WONDERLAND

I was probably three or four years old when my parents first read me Alice's Adventures in Wonderland - dreamed up by Lewis Carroll 144 years ago today - from a large book of stories, poems and puzzles which happened to contain Carroll’s masterpiece in serialised form throughout the volume accompanied by John Tenniel’s famous illustrations.

Alice’s creator once wrote:

“Still she haunts me, phantomwise, 

Alice moving under skies 

Never seen by waking eyes…”

And she haunted me, too. Over the years, I collected many different editions of this book and its even better sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There with illustrations by all manner of artists from Arthur Rackham to Walt Disney.

I became fascinated by Carroll and his alter ego, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; I joined The Lewis Carroll Society , eventually became its secretary and was the founding editor of the Society’s newsletter, Bandersnatch.

One of my dearest friends from my Carrollian days was the fine literary scholar, bibliographer and bookseller, Denis Crutch.

It was from Denis that I bought the most treasured item in my Alice collection - an 1870 edition of the book, inscribed by the author to one of his child friends, Ada Chambers Butler.


“I’m sure I’m not Ada,” [Alice] said, “for her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all…”

Only when the men finally arrive to carry me off to the debtor’s prison, will I ever consider parting with this particular volume - and I doubt I'll do so then since I can think of no better companions in adversity than Alice and her weird Wonderlanders!

Monday, July 03, 2006

The 13 CLOCKS & The WONDERFUL O

I bought this book when I was 13 years old and was outraged that it cost FOUR SHILLINGS! True that is the equivalent of just 20 pence, today, but at the time (1962) Puffin paperbacks only ever cost two shillings - or, at most, two-shillings-and-six-pence!

I didn't regret the outlay for long: these two enchanting fantasies simultaneously introduced me to the extraordinary imaginations of author James Thurber and illustrator, Ronald Searle.

The 13 Clocks is, on the face of it, standard fairy-tale fare: wicked-hearted dukes, beautiful princesses, daring suitors, strange beings and, naturally, magic! But, thanks to Thurber's unique squint on life it contains curiously unexpected twists and turns and unforgettable characterisations, such as that of the Duke of Coffin Castle (within whose gloomy abode were 13 clocks that wouldn't go):

"He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales... One eye wore a velvet patch; the other glittered through a monocle, which made half his body seem closer to you that the other half."

The Wonderful O is fable as only Thurber knew how to tell a fable - and, therefore, should be read as he wrote it and not spoiled by a description! This story lingered long in my memory and affection and, many years later, when I had just started writing for the BBC, The Wonderful O became the first piece of writing that I dramatised for radio!

The illustrations which were newly commissioned for this edition (and probably explained the inflated price-tag) are classic examples of Searle's ‘sixties style: the good people look as if they were drawn from life, the villains like caricatures of theatrical celebrities caught strutting their stuff on the boards of the Old Vic or some other London theatre.


The line is always assured, however, itchily-scratchy, and the use of the black-and-white medium is clearly that of an artist who was - and indeed still is - a true successor to Gilray, Cruickshank & Co.

Shortly after buying this book, I discovered How To Be Topp, the glorious misadventures of schoolboy, Nigel Molesworth, created by former-teacher Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle and set in the classrooms, corridors and dormitories of St Custards, an anarchic educational establishment that was probably situated not a million miles from Searle's infamous girl's school, St Trinian's.


Anyone interested this artist’s diverse legacy of illustration, should visit Matt Jones’ excellent blog, Ronald Searle Tribute.

When Puffin published The 13 Clocks and the Wonderful O, the series’ editor, Kaye Webb (who, at that time, was Searle’s wife) wrote: “We are proud to have this book in our Puffin series; we are pleased Ronald Searle has illustrated them for us; and we are sure all readers of all ages will enjoy them.”

Sadly, today, the volume is out of print, but seek it out second-hand: it might cost more than 4/- but it will be worth every penny of whatever you pay.

I still go back and re-read the book, forty-four years after I first bought it--- In fact, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll do that right now!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The DA VINCI COD

Chris Riddell's delicious collection of "illustrations to unwritten books". Executed with a detailed and meticulous draughtsmanship that recalls the Victorian line engravings of John Tenniel and the like, The Da Vinci Cod provides (as its title suggests) wittily ludicrous visualisations of deliciously perfect puns!

Haven't we always wanted to read Alice in Sunderland, A Brief History of Tim and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Umpire?

Other beguiling favourites include, The Screwtape Lettuce, The Valley of the Trolls and The Day of the Trifles!

Walker Books, 2005, £5.95