Meet Mr Leonard Mead. He’s a guy who likes to walk through the city streets at night, striding along the empty pavements, breathing in the cold air.
Even on a dim November evening he leaves his house and sets off, enjoying the good crystal frost, feeling his lungs blaze like a Christmas tree. His shoes push through the autumn leaves that lie thickly on the ground.
Sometimes he stumbles on a clump of grass, because actually, walking isn’t that easy because the cement on the sidewalks is gradually being covered by vegetation. That’s because he is the only person walking on them.
What is everyone else doing? They are in their houses, watching stuff on their ‘viewing screens’.
As Leonard passes the homes with dark windows, he feels as if he is walking through a graveyard populated by tomb-like buildings, lit only by the occasional phantom flickering of a screen.
He’s a bit sniffy about the viewing matter to which everyone is glued, programmes featuring cowboys and the US Cavalry charging to the rescue.
You’d quite like to walk with Leonard. You could enjoy the physical exercise, the contact with the elements, shared observations of what you see on your route. You discuss books and films. He could expand on his obvious dislike of the Western genre, and his disdain for crime series, comedy, quizzes and light entertainment. You could talk about the fact that no one buys books or magazines any more. You could debate the realism of fantasy writing.
Sadly, you would not have the chance. Leonard is apprehended by an unmanned police car, and a metallic voice demands to know what he is doing.
In a series of staccato exchanges, he explains he is walking just for air, just to see. This doesn’t cut it. There must be something wrong with him. Hasn’t he got air conditioning in his home? Hasn’t he got a viewing screen? Clearly, there is something wrong with him. And so he is carted off to the Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.
The Pedestrian by Ray Bradbury, first published in 1951, is a short story that remains with you.
It comes to mind when you read reports and references to the decline of walking and how difficult it is to walk in towns and cities whose planning and layout, not to mention cultural norms, discourage pedestrians. And the viewing screens which stop people communicating with and engaging with the real world — ouch.
A light in the darkness
Leonard stands for experience, creativity, engagement, imagination, life, all the things which are celebrated in art.
His house is the only one in the entire city which is lit up, a square warm beacon in the cool darkness. We are not surprised to hear he is a writer, and only a little taken aback when that is marked down as ‘no profession’.
At the same time, you want to say to Mr Mead, hold on a second, not all ‘viewing screen’ stuff is rubbish. We take your point about the brain rot, we really do, but it’s such a shame that you will never know the joy of binge-watching a properly good box set…