July 30, 2001
Went to see Arthur C. Clarke [b. 1917 – d. 2008]. He lives in a large compound in Colombo 7. The house has a nice garden on the side – but nothing opulent. He lives upstairs and his apartment and offices are accessed through a stairway on the side. One drives through a gate that opens mysteriously, by remote control. The stairway to his part of the house has a huge mural plastered over it – a blown up moonscape.
The stairway leads to a large office, stashed with computers, files etc. The walls are lined with commemorative plaques (‘my ego-room’ he said later). From there, one of the office staff led me into the study next door – a huge, pleasant room, lined with wooden bookcases. He was sitting behind the large desk at the far end of the room – in a wheelchair, dressed in a batik shirt and sarong. The sarong was loosely tied and kept coming undone. He has an alert, lively face, and a radiant smile. His hair is very thin on top and he has a belly shaped exactly like a pot. When I entered he waved and came shooting out from behind his desk, propelling himself in his wheelchair. He was full of energy and good cheer and had a hundred stories to tell.
We sat on a sofa, under a very sleek airconditioner. An array of remote controls was spread out on the table in front of him. He reached for one, saying ‘We don’t need this arctic air,’ and switched off the a/c – to my dismay for it was actually quite hot in there. Then he dispatched one of his people to get me a drink. ‘What would you like, hot stuff, cold stuff?’ I asked for a Coke/Pepsi but was given some kind of sharbat. He said: ‘I don’t know what it is but it will keep you from perishing of dehydration at any rate.’
He spoke in fits and starts and would break off every now and then to breathe deeply. ‘It’s when people like you come that I get too excited and then this happens.’
We talked about the situation in Sri Lanka and he said he didn’t know where it was going but things didn’t look good. Made a long face and said: ‘The war’s been going on for twenty years now.’ I asked whether he was pessimistic about the situation and he said: ‘I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies so I’m an optimist.’ But he shook his head in a rather dire way.
‘Have you ever thought of going back to England?’ I asked.
‘Never,’ he said, in a tone of flat certainty. ‘Never, ever.’ But after a moment’s reflection he added: ‘Of course, if things become catastrophic, I’ll have to leave. But I could probably go to Australia since the whole family’s there.’
I said: ‘Of course the government gains a lot from your presence here.’
‘Yes, I bring in a lot of money.’
‘And your presence is a kind of vote of confidence…’
‘Not of misplaced confidence, I hope.’ He sounded dubious.
He showed me his pictures and books: pictures from his days with the Apollo program, with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong; a poster of Apollo 13 signed by Tom Hanks; a beautiful picture of Elizabeth Taylor. A couple of months ago he was visited by the Admiral of the US Indian Ocean fleet.
‘As I was just saying to the Queen, I hate to drop names …’ He laughed uproariously and then added: ‘I’ve met the Queen and Prince Charles twice.’
His walls are plastered with pictures of his knighting.
There was a picture of H.G.Wells on his wall. ‘It’s the only picture signed by H.G.Wells and myself.’ Then he added: ‘I never met him you know.’
The thought that he might have met H.G.Wells amazed me. ‘When did Wells die?’
‘In 1945 – he lived to see the atom bomb, which he had foretold.’
There was a whole wall of books signed to him. Also a picture of George Lukas, superimposed on Darth Vader. He said years ago Kubrick had asked him to do a screenplay of a Brian Aldrich story, ‘Artificial Intelligence’. Kubrick (‘Stanley’) figured a lot in his conversation. ‘2001 [A Space Odyssey] has had an unexpectedly long life…’ When Stanley asked him to do this other screenplay he’d said he do it for free because of all that Kubrick had done for him. Apropos nothing, he said: ‘Every time I write the date this year it gives me pause. When I wrote 2001 [A Space Odyssey] it seemed so far away.’
I said: ‘I’m sure Orwell felt the same way about 1984.’
‘I never met Orwell,’ he said. ‘I met [his wife] Sonia though – she’d come to the White Horse.’
‘The White Horse on Hudson Street [in Manhattan]?’
‘No, the White Horse in London. All of us science fiction writers used to go there.’ [I think he meant the White Horse in Soho: http://www.beerintheevening.com/pubs/s/57/5762/White_Horse/Soho]
He’d spent a lot of time in the Chelsea Hotel in New York he said – had written 2001 there. In 1998 on his triumphant return to New York, he’d stayed there again. Later, talking about the Galle Face Hotel [in Colombo] he said: ‘It was the Chelsea East’.
I told him the Galle Face Hotel was not what it had once been. ‘It’s the only hotel,’ he insisted, ‘the Chelsea East. And of course I always stayed in the Owner’s Suite.’
Showed me pictures of Taprobane – the island of the southern coast of Sri Lanka where Paul Bowles had died. ‘Did you know him?’ I asked.
‘Paul Bowles? No, but he used to stay at the Chelsea in New York.’
One of the pictures on his wall belonged to a series in which he was dressed in a solar topee. He explained that he’d acted in Lester James Peiris’s film of Leonard Woolf’s Sri Lanka novel. ‘I felt I’d acted in Who’s Afraid of Leonard Woolf.’
He asked if I played table tennis and I said, yes. So then he invited me to go to the Otters’ Club with him and I accepted. This set in motion a complicated chain of preparations, in which his office staff served as nurses. They were very attentive and prompt – I think he runs a tight ship – no elderly victim, he. But first he wanted to tend to his e-mail – he gets about 200 a day.
‘And do you have a web site?’
‘Four hundred,’ he said, ‘or at least a friend of mine has recently compiled a list of four hundred worth visiting.’
‘Are any of them official?’
‘I’m sure many of them are, in one way or another.’
About the sale of his books, he said: ‘I have no idea how many of them are out there in the world. It could be 20 millions or 50 million or even more. No idea. There are so many pirated editions!’