Saturday, 5 March 2016

Arthurian Legends

A science fiction writer, inventor and undersea explorer investigated myths in his own television series, and unfortunately became the target of a particularly unpleasant one, himself, many years later.

Arthur C Clarke 1917 - 2008
In the '70s it was Leonard Nimoy who brought the world’s mysteries into our living room via his acclaimed In Search Of series.

His successor in the early ‘80s was a bald, bespectacled West-Countryman. He didn’t have Nimoy’s star power or charisma, but to my friends and I he was a star of a completely different magnitude - Arthur C Clarke wrote one of the greatest films ever made: 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I discovered his other novels he fast became one of my heroes.

The men behind 2001, writer Arthur C Clarke, and director Stanley Kubrick.
He pioneered groundbreaking work on the early warning radar system during World War II and later the concept of geostationary satellites; predicting their potential for global communication. He commentated live on the Apollo 11 moon landing, served as a patron for charities combating polio and preserving gorillas, was an avid diver who discovered a sunken temple off the Sri Lankan coast and wrote 80 novels.

The day before my birthday I decided to treat myself to a book and spotted the television ‘companion book’ to the series I’m alluding to: Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, in a second-hand bookshop. It’s one of those books I always meant to get, a lot of people I knew owned it, but somehow I never got around to it. Picking the book up from a pile not yet shelved, I’d just noted its perfect condition when the shop-owner asserted: “Five dollars”.

Happy birthday to me…

But before we return to his wonderful television series Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, lets address a little bit of ugliness first.
Already having been appointed a CBE, Clarke’s knighthood for services to literature was announced in the 1998 New Year’s honours list. However, when the Sunday Mirror accused him of paedophelia, he requested the investiture be delayed until his name was cleared.
After an investigation the accusation was found to be completely baseless (and possibly part of a Sri Lankan conspiracy to discredit Clarke and embarrass Britain on the occasion of a royal visit by Prince Charles).
Clarke received his Knighthood in 2000 and five years later, the highest civil honour Sri Lanka could bestow: the Sri Lankabhimanya.

Unfortunately, that kind of defamation can still cause irreparable damage, and I know I’m not the only person to have been more aware of the accusation than his exoneration.

Clarke scuba diving in Sri Lanka
Moving on…

The book I parted with a princely sum for was published in 1980 to correspond with the screening of the Mysterious World series, and is redolent with the graphic design of that time, heavy egyptian serifed headlines and neatly drawn key lines around the many photographs.

It’s also delightful, more or less following the format of series with separate chapters on everything from lake monsters to UFOs to the Tunguska explosion. The book is actually written by Simon Welfare and John Fairley, but each chapter is closed with a comment from Clarke, where he gives his personal interpretation of the particular mystery.

Each time the impression that Clarke believes mysteries are important because they are so far unquantifiable, is apparent. Do any of us really want to see Nessie or a sasquatch caught, scientifically labelled and corralled? Surely this would only diminish our sense of wonder about the world (to say nothing of the harm it would do to these new species)?

It is also fascinating to read about the the science of the day being applied to less glamorous phenomena like ball lightning and the moving rocks in Death Valley, and to see how little we’ve advanced in thirty five years to come any closer to a definitive explanation.

A scene from last year's television adaptation of Clarke's novel Childhood's End.
Clarke ends his remarks in a playful fashion:
“Mysteries are fun. Even if they are only nature’s practical jokes, they add to our enjoyment of the marvellous universe around us…
If we can find the answers to as many as ten percent, I should be very pleased - and surprised.
And even if we got the answers to one hundred per cent, there are plenty more where they came from…”

When Arthur C Clarke’s death was announced in March 2008, I just happened to be listening to the radio at the time. The National programme played this excerpt from 2001 as a tribute...

The two least emotional characters in cinema history,
Dave Bowman and HAL 9000, break your heart


  1. "Next Week: Monsters from the Deep."

  2. I'd forgotten all about that! Genius!