Arthur and the Ego Chamber
SIR ARTHUR was lost in his own world, as usual. The last time I saw Arthur C. Clarke, the visionary author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, his hearing had gone.
This columnist was interviewing him on stage in Sri Lanka last year. I shrieked each question into his left ear until I was red-faced. But he misheard everything I said.
The result was that (a) the audience got a good laugh at the total disconnect between what I asked and what he replied, and (b) Arthur ended up ignoring me and talking about whatever came into his head, which was a darn sight more interesting for all concerned.
Sir Arthur, who died [on March 19th], had a wicked sense of humour. Talking about claims that UFOs regularly visit this planet, he said: “They tell us absolutely nothing about intelligence elsewhere in the universe, but they do prove how rare it is on Earth.”
He first approached my family in 1956, when he was diving addict hanging out on Unawatuna beach on the south coast of Ceylon. He wanted my father, a newspaperman, to print something he had written. The stuff was bizarre, mind-boggling and unrealistic, but kind of fun – so my Dad agreed.
Good call. To be brutally honest, Arthur wrote some of the most forgettable human characters in literary history, but his non-human ones (such as HAL 9000 the computer) were absolutely riveting.
Our families became friends. His house in Colombo was famous for three reasons. It had a satellite dish on top, long before anyone knew what a large metal dinner plate on one’s roof could do. It had its own elevator—an unheard-of luxury in a private home. And there was his souvenir-filled study, which he called The Ego Chamber. “This is a bit of a spaceship, and here’s a chunk of the moon,” he would say, holding up items from his shelf.
“Yeah, right,” we said, not knowing whether we dare believe him.
Clarke became totally Asian. He wore a sarong on his lower half and a Nehru jacket on his top half. His friends were all locals. He lived on curry.
But he never lost his sense of humour, which infected everyone. When US astronauts returned from the moon, one of them phoned him: “We want you to know that we were sorely tempted to call NASA and say, ‘Hey, Houston, we found this big black monolith thing on the dark side of the moon.’”
He took revenge on people who didn’t take him seriously. He revealed to everyone that the short story that became 2001: A Space Odyssey was written for the BBC, but was rejected.
And then there was his dig at a lawyer who gave him bad advice. Arthur famously came up with the concept of orbiting satellites. A lawyer friend thought the whole idea was too far-fetched and told him not to patent it. Arthur put this anecdote into an essay entitled How I Lost a Billion Dollars in My Spare Time.
At his birth anniversary party in December, Arthur C. Clarke told folk that it wasn’t his birthday. “It’s my 90th orbit of the sun,” he explained.
Goodbye, Arthur. We’ll miss you, but your tales will orbit forever.