Arthur C Clarke at 85: "Six thousand miles from where I was born, at last I had come home"

By Paul Michaud
Paris, December 14 - No man is an island, exclaimed poet John Donne a few centuries back. But, as far as Arthur C Clarke is concerned, the science writer and visionary who celebrates his 85th birthday on December 16 could very well make a strong case that he and the island nation of Sri Lanka are practically one.

Certainly it’s part of the reason why Arthur Clarke’s birthday is celebrated every year as a sort of national holiday, with a special party held at the B’Mich, a Chinese-built concrete compound in downtown Colombo, attended by ministers and workers, white-haired men and little children, just about as eclectic a mix of people as you could have anywhere, but nevertheless highly representative of Sri Lanka as it is today.

In any case, it will soon be fifty years that Arthur Clarke has inhabited Sri Lanka, the tear-shaped Indian Ocean nation that he’s made famous throughout the world - notably through books like The Fountains of Paradise, but also his best-known work 2001: A Space Odyssey, a book much marked by the influence of ancient Ceylon, with certain of the stone columns of Anuradhapura bearing a strange resemblance to the megaliths present in the opening of his seminal 1967 work. On that subject I’m sure that my friend R B Edirisinghe, the celebrated archaeologist, will certainly have answers and explanations that I’m quite incapable of giving.

And as with Ceylon, Arthur Clarke is a strange mix of the past and the future, as if the two were intertwined, inextricably associated in a seemingly eternal pact between opposing forces that in truth are but one. Out in space, it’s as if Arthur Clarke had turned to the emptiest depths of the universe to pursue there the answers he’s so persistently sought usually unsuccessfully on earth, but found inevitably light-years away, just as the young 27-year old Arthur Clarke began to give a sense to his own universe only with the discovery of Sri Lanka back in 1954.

It’s certainly nor for nought that the Clarke Orbit, named in his honour, passes almost directly over the abode that he inhabits at Barnes Place in Colombo 7 - next door to the Iraqi embassy, he likes to tell visitors - which is a sort of somewhat spartan human-scale time-capsule that he inhabits notably with his pet Chihuahua Pepsi - the woman of his life, the secret force behind the throne, certainly the principal source of his inspiration - who, very nonchalantly and seemingly perpetually inhabits his shirtsleeve, and who, in return, does get a credit now and then in Arthur’s work - most recently in 3001.

Not for anything either that he evolved there the idea for a space-elevator that might one day allow him to make his way up into the skies, heave himself out of the wheelchair he’s now occupied a bit over a year - and reach the very orbit that very rightly bears his name.

And as with most people who turn to the stars in their quest for answers, Arthur’s greatness lies in his having remained faithful all his life to his childhood, to the little boy he once was. I always think of Arthur when I quote one of my favorite lines from the great French writer Georges Bernanos: "Qu’importe ma vie? Je veux seulement qu’elle reste jusqu’au bout fidele a l’enfant que je fus" (What importance has my life? All I want is that it remain faithful to the child I once was). No childhood’s end for Arthur. It never ended, indeed he became more childlike over the years.

And it is not for anything that he chose as part of his email address the word Blenheim, undoubtedly as near a Rosebud as any for Arthur, as it was the street (4 Blenheim Road) on which he was born back on December 16, 1917, when he came into this world in his Grandmother’s house in Minehead. Everything started there but in ways that I’d never envisioned before meeting Arthur so many years ago in Colombo.

Arthur, certainly a man of vision, but a man who also knew how to see, who saw, who sees - to quote another favorite line of mine, this one from the French painter Henri Matisse - "with the eyes of a child." For the little boy he’s remained has, with age, learnt to see increasingly with the eyes of the little boy who managed, while only in his early teens, to build his first refractor telescope.

Although during a recent visit with him at Barnes Place Arthur noted that he was "coasting along" and probably would no longer write, I do hope that he’ll change his mind. Especially as he now has a third eye, that (remaining after a celebrated dogfight of a few years ago with Rikki, Arthur’s pet terrier) belonging to his perpetual sidekick, Pepsi (or rather Lady Pepsi, as Arthur is wont to insist), Pepsi his chihuahua who never leaves his side and has the habit of falling asleep in his sleeve.

As I’ve often suggested to Arthur - Sir Arthur, indeed, as he’s become known these past few years - he should now focus on having Pepsi write her account of life with Arthur, for if anybody knows Arthur the man, the child, it is undoubtedly Pepsi. "All explorers are seeking something they have lost," writes Arthur in The City and the Stars (1956), and certainly the little boy lost - like Icarus one who often lost his way - has at last found in Pepsi the wings with which to fly even further towards the sun and into the stars, and, at last, to find his way.

In looking at one of my favourite photos, one of Sir Arthur and Lady Pepsi that I took several years back and which has now made its way around the world, in and out of such publications as USA Today, The Guardian, Le Monde, The Island and People’s Daily, I like to think of another line of Arthur’s, one delivered during a lecture tour back in 1959: "Six thousand miles from where I was born, at last I had come home."