3rd October 1999
In this article published in the UK's Observer Magazine, Tim Adams in a critical analysis somewhat prone to sensationalism, sees Arthur C. Clarke as a man living in the past
I took a tuk-tuk to Sir Arthur C. Clarke's house. The motor bike-taxi weaved through the monsoon-rutted dirt roads of Sri Lanka's capital, past oxen carts and re-reconditioned Hondas and old men swerving on knackered bicycles, past women at the side of the road drying leaves and dyeing cloth and men pimping massages ('Nice girls, nice boys'), past teenage soldiers toying with machine guns, and barefoot children flying kites, and shacks selling tyres and Cokes and mangoes. Colombo looks more like a city out of Mad Max than 2001. When we finally came to a stop outside Clarke's walled compound, next door to the Iraqi embassy, the tuk-tuk driver acknowledged that we had entered a different world. 'Ah,' he said, grinning, 'you go to see the man in the moon.'
Arthur Clarke, of Minehead, Somerset, now 82, has long enjoyed a special status in Sri Lanka. The island nation's only celebrity expatriate lives, as he says, the life of a failed recluse. He is accorded unique tax-free status by a government permanently sandbagged against terrorism ('After all,' he argues later, with characteristic humility, 'I bring in millions, just from visitors, friends, TV crews and so on'); he is Chancellor of Colombo's University and Director of a new technology park; a bronze bust of him stands in the foyer of the old colonial Galle Face Hotel. For a while, he had the island's only satellite dish, which picked up television signals from 'Clarke's orbit'; more recently, he has proposed that a space elevator, a carbon-fibre cable car to the stars, should be 'tethered' to Adam's Peak. In the meantime, while NASA conducts its trials on his fictional prototype, the world's best-selling science-fiction writer contents himself with sponsoring the capital's traffic lights.
When I am ushered in to see him, he is nursing a stiffneck from watching the previous week's solar eclipse through one of his telescopes. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sarong, and in a wheelchair, he hands me, by way of greeting, the manuscript of a book that includes a passing anecdotal reference to him - 'Read this,' he orders - and then immediately decides he wants to have a lie down. 'Bed. Air con,' he informs one of his servants, who prepares the bedroom before wheeling him inside. He suggests I wander around his study for half an hour.
Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, has called Clarke the first dweller in the 'electronic cottage'. Holed up in Sri Lanka for 40 years, he has plugged himself in to evermore sophisticated global communications networks, and sits now surrounded by radios, monitors and speakers. The last time he checked when he keyed his name into a search engine on the Internet, there were 'a quarter of a million hits'. Geography, he says, has become irrelevant (he also predicts a single world time zone, the death of day and night). When I finally get to address a question to him, I suggest that all of this seems quite a long way from Minehead.
He responds, not with an answer but with an instruction to one of his assistants, Rohan, to go and fetch a painting. Partly as a result of his condition, post-polio syndrome, and partly because of his personality, benign monomania, he uses his numerous 'valets' as an extension of his thought processes. They orbit him in this private solar system; three hover to move him from his desk to his chair; a couple serve his tea, which is too milky ('Yeuch, what's that!') and sent back in disgust; another handles the remote controls of his various technologies, setting the volume on the television, which Clarke seems to employ almost entirely to watch videos of himself.
When Rohan returns, it is with a picture of the farmhouse Clarke grew up in, and which he has recently bought for his brother, along with a nearby manor house, to house what he calls the 'Clarkies'. 'I can close my eyes and I'm back there,' he says with his still-strong West Country vowels. 'Somerset,' he says, readjusting his sarong, 'is more and more real to me all the time.'
Clarke's forthcoming book, 'Greetings, Carbon-based Bipeds', a collection of essays and occasional writing spanning six decades, is as close as he will ever get to an autobiography. Reading it, you are struck by how, seemingly out of nowhere, his life has been punctuated by often brilliant flights of fantasy. Clarke was one of the Meccano generation of British boys, building replicas of the machines their fathers made. He had a crystal set and fabricated telescopes from cardboard tubes. His interest in fossils was excited one day when his dad, who died when Clarke was 13, gave him a Player's cigarette card with a picture of a dinosaur on it; his mother, who ran the local post office taught him to send messages in Morse code, he spent his pocket money on science-fiction magazines. Later, he became a member of the newly formed British Interplanetary Society, which met to discuss ways of sending man to the moon. 'Everyone thought we were totally nuts,' says Clarke.
His boyhood obsessions became more real during the War, when he was selected to join an American team to work on a top secret radar project, a microwave beam unit. It was while working on this system that Clarke wrote his 'satellite paper' for the magazine Wireless World. In his article, he calculated that it would be possible to find an orbit in space, at about 23,000 miles from earth, in which an object would remain fixed over a particular position on the planet, and which could therefore be used to bounce signals from. Clarke was paid ĢI5 for a theory that rocket-launched an industry that can now be measured in hundreds of billions of pounds.
In his spare time, Clarke was also writing fiction, based on his interest in space travel. His books and stories of that time and since then are a curious mixture of inspired imagination about the components of the future and clunking adventure-yarn cliches. Some people take his work more seriously than others. A recent report in an American tabloid suggested that the Apollo moon landing had been faked by the CIA 'from a script written by Arthur C. Clarke'. On reading the story, Clarke wrote to Nasa's chief administrator: 'Dear Sir, On checking my records, I see that I have never received any payment for this work. Could you please look into this matter with some urgency? Otherwise you will be hearing from my solicitors, Messrs. Geldsnatch, Geldsnatch and Blubberclutch.'
Despite his specialist knowledge, and because of his populism, Clarke has always had a slightly uneasy relationship with the scientific establishment. Most of his technical papers have, as he says, been published in Playboy. When referring to his technological foresight, he clarifies my terminology. 'I don't like to use the term predictions,' he explains. 'I prefer to say extrapolations. I make a spectrum of possibilities, and they include what I think might happen and what I hope won't happen. I'm always quoting Ray Bradbury, "I don't try to predict the future, I try to prevent it."
Clarke's current obsession is preventing the millennium, which, he argues, is a year early (there was no year zero), and which anyway will not be celebrated 'except by candlelight and to the sound of police and fire sirens' - he extrapolated the millennium bug in 1992. Some of his other guesses, as set out in his book, seem even wilder. By 2030, he suggests, we will have made contact with intelligent life on other planets. And by 2090, we will have discovered the secret of immortality.
Does he find it frustrating to be born into one of the last mortal generations?
He replies with the old Woody Allen joke: 'I'm not frightened of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens.' And in any case, the eternal future he envisages is not necessarily a corporeal one: 'Our brains would quickly be overloaded with any increase in life span,' he says, 'so they would have to be downloaded. But electronic immortality will happen soon, with all sorts of good results, and some bad results.'
I wonder if, when his own time comes, and in the absence of a neurological CD-Rom, he would like to have his remains fired off into space, as the psychedelic Professor Timothy Leary did a couple of years ago.
The idea does not appeal to him. Anyway, he says, he has a very vivid memory of stepping out of the elevator at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and there, standing in front of him, was Leary. 'One phrase flashed through my mind: A Magnificent Ruin. A lot of my Friends,' says Clarke, 'were ruined by drugs. I've never taken any. I drink one bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream a year, and that is the extent of my addiction.' And then he coughs weakly and rubs his deflated chest. He suggests suddenly that he would like to lie down again - perhaps it is the talk of death, maybe it is the thought of Bristol Cream - and that we should reconvene in the afternoon. He calls for his bedmakers and undressers, and he is wheeled away.
He first came to Sri Lanka in 1956 in order, he says, to scuba dive on the reef that surrounds much of the island. He had become interested in diving because it enabled him to experience the closest approximation to the weightlessness of space. He set up a diving school down the coast at Hikkaduwa, which he still runs with his friend Hector Ekanayake, who lives next door. In his early years on the island, however, he spent almost as much time in New York at the Chelsea Hotel, which was also home at that time to Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Miller, for whom Clarke, in his specs, was frequently mistaken. And it was there that he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick.
Looking back at that time, Clarke suggests that the film was one of his three greatest achievements (along with his satellite idea, and providing the inspiration for Star Trek). The film, famously, took many years to make; Kubrick required Clarke to write a full-length novel of the story before they worked on the script. The pair first met, he recalls, 'in Trader Vic's bar in New York. Stanley wanted to do "the proverbial good science-fiction movie". I took him to see Things To Come, the H.G. Wells classic, made in 1936, and I remember Stanley's reaction: "What are you trying to do to me. I'll never see a movie you recommend again." Haaa.'
The night they decided to make 2001, they saw a UFO from the roof of Kubrick's apartment. They took it as a sign. 'It was a beautiful night, with a bright full moon. This light moved up into the night sky and stopped right above us. We checked in the New York Times, which listed the movements of satellites, and there was nothing. We looked at each other. And then, a little shamefacedly, we called the Pentagon and they admitted that, yes, it had been a satellite. It went straight overhead, and I suspect the computer missed it for that reason. Still, it seemed a good omen at the time.'
The rest is, of course, history, though when the film was released, it received a mixed critical reception. Clarke asks a valet to find a video of an MGM party, at which he was required to sell the idea of the film to a roomful of executives. The video shows the bald and horn-rimmed author deftly fielding questions about little green men from moguls with cigars.
Kubrick and Clarke stayed in touch after the film was made, up until the former's death earlier this year. Clarke remembers his greatest collaborator with nothing but admiration, but Kubrick's respect for Clarke was not unqualified. In his recent memoir of the late director, Frederic Raphael points out how 'Stanley could become impatient with the very experts on whom he had depended: Arthur C. Clarke, for instance, had become too regularly effusive in dispensing intelligence. "He keeps sending me all these faxes. Every day I get a shit-load of stuff from him." When asked about his screenwriter, Kubrick was apt to joke: 'Arthur Clarke? Isn't he some nut who lives up a tree in India?'
The Arthur Clarke on the video screen, confidently talking now about the likelihood of life on other planets, looks anything but a nut. 'That man is a total stranger to me,' says Clarke as he sits smiling at a freeze-frame of his egg-heady former self. And then he turns to me: 'Are you recording this?' He doesn't want me to miss his finest hour.
Although Clarke is apparently happy to watch endlessly on screen this version of himself he does not recognise - he knows these tapes by heart - he is far less forthcoming about his personal life. I had read somewhere that he used to keep a journal. I ask him if he would ever consider publishing it.
'I used to keep a journal from, I guess, the Thirties,' he admits. 'There are volumes and volumes of it which are all in the Clarkives now. They are,' he adds, oddly, 'to be sealed up for 30 years after my death.'
Why on earth are they to be sealed up?
'Well,' he says, 'there might be all sorts of embarrassing things in them...'
What kind of things?
He doesn't answer.
I ask him what he considers to be the most impor-tant relationship of his life. Clarke was married once, in 1953, for less than a year, to a glamorous woman from Florida, who died some years ago. When in the past he has been asked if he is gay, he has replied archly that he is 'merely mildly cheerful'. On the wall above his desk, beneath a photograph of his mother, is a picture of his business partner Hector's brother, Leslie, a Sri Lankan in his late twenties. Clarke was very close to Leslie, who died in a motorcycle accident on a bike that Clarke had given him. Clarke's house in Colombo is called 'Leslie's House'.
Still, he replies to my question that his main relationships have been with his dog Pepsi, and with the youngest of his friend Hector's three daughters, all of whom he has 'adopted' and helps to bring up.
A curious exchange then follows. I ask him if he was damaged by the allegations on the front page of the Sunday Mirror from last March, which accused him of 'paying for sex with young boys'. 'Oh,' Clarke says understatedly, 'that was very unpleasant, of course, and luckily there was no problem whatsoever. I immediately got the police in and they disproved the whole damn thing.'
Are you suing the Mirror?
'Well,' he says, 'that's why I don't want to talk about it.'
So how did it come about?
"Two journalists came to interview me,' he says. 'I said nothing that I would've regretted if they'd quoted it accurately. I don't understand their motivation. Or I do.
"He [Clarke points to a picture of himself and Prince Charles] was coming, and they wanted to create some embarrassment. But every single one of their facts was refutable. I have signed affidavits...'
He fishes a letter out of a file. 'I shouldn't show you this,' he says. The letter is from Rupert Murdoch. The proprietor of the News Of The World offers Clarke sympathy and support at his treatment by the tabloid press. Murdoch is an old admirer of Clarke's - there is a section about their friendship in William Shawcross' fawning biography; the Australian also pays Clarke handsomely through his publishing company HarperCollins. But before I have a chance to ask the relevance of Murdoch's support in this instance, one of Clarke's servants has, on cue, found a new video for me to watch. On the 48 in. screen behind me, somewhat alarmingly, Murdoch, at a dinner at the Mansion House in London, is suddenly interviewing Clarke by satellite in Sri Lanka about his defining role in the communications revolution. Clarke has his assistant replay the audience's applause for me. 'What a remarkable, remarkable man,' says Murdoch twice.
When I turn back to Clarke, he has picked up another piece of paper. 'I am a patron of Dian Fossey's gorilla fund,' he says. He points to a signed photograph of Elizabeth Taylor on the wall. 'She's a fan,' he offers, apropos of nothing.
So, is he going to sue the Mirror?
'I'm waiting to decide whether to sue.'
But he must want to clear his name?
'Well,' he answers, 'I'm 82...' What hurt most, Clarke says was that after the initial report, there was a string of follow-up stories. Angela Lambert, the strident voice of the Daily Mail, having declared Clarke a couple of weeks previously the century's greatest visionary, suddenly decided in retrospect that he was the 'most repellent man she had ever met'. 'What annoyed me about that piece, a very nasty piece, was that she referred to my "handsome young valets". It's just absurd. They're all very nice, but you've seen them, I clearly didn't choose them for their looks...' When he says this, one of the servants, a paunchy man in his forties, winces just a little. 'Anyway,' he says, 'at this stage, there's nothing to be said.'
To reiterate his point, Clarke then abruptly insists that we go to the Otters Aquatic Club, where he goes most afternoons, for a fruit juice and a game of table tennis against all-comers. On the way out to his big old Mercedes, he points to a photograph of the Queen. What did she say, I wondered, when the knighthood was finally conferred at the end of last year. 'She said, "I hear you're having some trouble back home," says.
At the Otters Club, a slightly down-at-heel sports complex, we take a seat at the side of a pool in which Sri Lankan families are splashing about. Cut off from his electronic life, Clarke seems less concerned that he has missed an e-mail. His conversation moves quickly: from the storylines he wrote for Dan Dare, to the fossilised Tyrannosaurus Rex egg he bought with James Cameron, to the time he met Ted Turner at a party given by Jacques Cousteau ('I said he owed me 10 per cent of his income. We've been friends ever since'). He explains how he is planning a new series of Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, and I ask what has been the most mysterious of the mysterious things he has found. 'The oddest thing is these vitrified forts in Scotland,' he says. 'I just thought, how the hell? After all, lasers were not common in the Stone Age. But the giant balls of Puerto Rico are also quite something.'
And then, in a roundabout way, he returns to what he calls 'last year's unpleasantness'. 'What I might do is write up this whole thing one day for one of the quality papers. You've seen what this place is like,' he says, gesturing around the swimming pool. 'All the top executives bring their families here. It was characterised in these tabloid papers as "a notorious den of degenerates". There has never been any scandal associated with the Otters. And I should know. I've been a member here for 30 years.'
The only vice to which Clarke readily owns up is being an infomaniac. On the hour, he tunes in his Sony radio to catch the World Service news. The longer you spend with him, however, the more you realise that the news which interests him most is that which involves himself. On the way back to my hotel, he insists on giving me a brief tour of the city. 'I was filmed in there,' he says. 'I found the architect of that building a job with Kubrick'; 'I am patron of that foundation/friends with that government minister'. As we draw up, he is having his valet search the glove compartment for something. 'Do you know the music of Mike Oldfield?' he wonders. Before I have time to prevent him, he has in his hand a copy of a CD. 'He wrote this suite based on my book Songs From Distant Earth...' he is saying. Rarely have I been more relieved to get out of a car.
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