Inside Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World
At the great science fiction writer’s Sri Lankan residence, our correspondent talks to friends and associates who remember a witty, enigmatic—and much-missed—friend.
Arthur C Clarke called this place his “ego chamber.”
And now, in a state of disbelief, here I am, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the office of a man who was arguably the greatest British science fiction writer of all time.
I sit down at his desk. At Arthur C. Clarke’s desk. An old Mac desktop stands sentinel. The wheelchair that the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey used to get around in from about 1984 onwards—after he was struck with muscle-wasting post-polio syndrome—is parked to my side.
I allow my gaze to rake across the extraordinary collection of artifacts—including undoubted ego-builders like an Oscar nomination, countless literary awards, and a knighthood from the Queen—with which the great science fiction writer surrounded himself day in, day out, for the almost 50 years he lived and worked in Sri Lanka.
He died almost exactly seven years ago, on March 19, 2008, aged 90, but here, in his old office, everything has been preserved just the way it was when he still lived.
This is no Arthur C Clarke museum, however, and it’s not open to the public. It’s just that the Ekanayakes, the Sri Lankan family with whom he lived for almost 50 years, simply can’t bear to clear these last bits of Clarke away.
And who can blame them?
The framed pictures and knick-knacks which cover every inch of wall and shelf space are an extraordinary testament to an extraordinarily full life; Clarke meeting the Pope, Clarke enjoying a cook-out with Buzz Aldrin and his family, Clarke talking with Wehrner von Braun, the genius inventor of the V2 ‘doodlebug’ guided bomb—a fiendishly clever device that wreaked untold devastation on Clarke’s homeland, Great Britain, in World War 2.
The author loved Britain, but clearly that was no reason not to respect the enemy’s scientific genius.
Serious astrological maps jostle for place with childish depictions of the heavens, and a framed front page of the New York Times from 1969 announces, “MEN WALK ON MOON.”
The bookshelves are stuffed with a vast and esoteric collection of books, including a Holy Bible and a copy of The Holy Qur’an sitting side by side.
One whole bookshelf is given over to translations and various editions of Clarke’s most famous work, 2001: A Space Odyssey. On other shelves stand an array of toys, knick-knacks and mementoes including a window climbing toy robot, toy cats, and small casts of Lord Buddha and various Hindu gods.
A large black and white photograph of a handsome young man catches my eye. This, I guess correctly, is Leslie Ekanayake, who died in a motorbike crash in 1977 aged 29—and whom Arthur eulogized in the dedication to his 1979 book The Fountains of Paradise, writing, “To the still unfading memory of LESLIE EKANAYAKE (13 JuIy 1947—4 July 1977) only perfect friend of a lifetime, in whom were uniquely combined Loyalty, Intelligence and Compassion. When your radiant and loving spirit vanished from this world, the light went out of many lives.”
On another wall is an extract from his 1945 paper, “Extraterrestrial Relays,” which famously proposed and described how a geostationary satellite could be used for communication technology. It’s an idea that changed the world, paving the way for mobile communication we all take for granted today.
Leslie’s brother Hektor Ekanayake, now 75, and the owner of this house, tucked away behind a high wall and protected by a security guard in an upscale Colombo street, is showing me around, his voice often breaking, and tears escaping down his cheeks as he recalls his dear friend. Hektor still lives here, in the main house on the other side of the courtyard to Arthur’s digs, with his wife Valerie.
Hektor met Arthur when the writer first moved to Sri Lanka full time in 1956. Clarke, a keen amateur diver, was drawn to the country by a combination of the warm seas and the tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in the majority Buddhist nation. Homosexuality was (and remains) technically illegal in Sri Lanka, but no-one has ever been prosecuted for the ‘crime.’
Clarke was gay, but he was also extremely discrete, unlike many of the other gay ex-pats who later flocked to Sri Lanka. He would certainly never have picked up a man on the beach or in a public bar as others did, one acquaintance, Vasantha De Silva (who happens to be Sri Lanka’s most famous hairdresser) told me.
Charlie Hulse, an American who has lived near and later in Galle Fort in the south of the country since 1974, and was the partner of the gay American writer Gordon Merrick, knew Clarke well.
Hulse, now 86, told me that his closeted behavior was at least partly because Clarke had a horror of embarrassing his farming family back home in rural Somerset, England, if his homosexuality was widely reported.
Hulse describes Clarke (who spoke in a broad Somerset accent until the end of his life) as “buttoned up” and “punctilious,” but says that a major part of the attraction for his relocation from England to Sri Lanka was to be able to express his sexuality.
“Nobody cared what you did,” Hulse told me. “You were just another crazy white guy.”
Clarke in fact had a lived a life of deep respectability in the UK. He moved to London before the outbreak of World War II, working as an office clerk in a government department. But it was during the war that his interest in science became a vocation. From 1941 onwards he helped develop radar technology, and, after the war, he went back to school, getting a university degree in maths and physics.
In 1952, he met and married Marilyn Mayfield, a 22-year-old American divorcee with a young son. They separated after just six months, although the divorce was not finalized until 1964. Clarke told his official biographer that, “The marriage was incompatible from the beginning.”
His marriage was known about in Sri Lanka but “never mentioned,” Hulse recalls. Clarke was made the editor of a science magazine after finishing his degree, but turned to full time writing in 1951, publishing his breakthrough novel Childhood’s End in 1953. Along with Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, he became celebrated as one of the “big three” of sci-fi writing.
It was therefore all the more extraordinary that he decamped to the remote former British colony of Sri Lanka just as he was starting to become truly successful in his field. His circle of friends included the most famous Sri Lankan architect of the age, Geoffrey Bawa and his brother Bevis (both of whom were gay) and also the designer Barbara Sansoni.
Clarke would frequently make the five-hour trip to see Hulse down in Galle, and would stay several days, sometimes calling in at the diving resort of Hikkaduwa en route, which he and Hektor had helped popularize.
Mim Scala, the author of the London memoir, Diary of a Teddy Boy, lived on Hikkaduwa beach for a year in 1972.
“Arthur was very modest,” Scala recalls. “He looked like a bank clerk from Guildford, and dressed like one too. I once asked him if had any royalties from his geostationary satellite and he said, ‘No. What would I do with a hundred billion dollars anyway?’”
As time went on and his older family members died off, Clarke became more relaxed about his sexuality (he also switched from wearing a suit to a sarong), but he never publicly came out. When journalists enquired, “Are you gay?” they were usually told, “No, merely mildly cheerful.”
Clarke met Hektor because Hektor worked in the diving business, and was in the process of setting up a diving school in the remote northern town of Trincomalee, which would become one of Clarke’s favorite dive locations (he discovered the underwater ruins of the famous temple of Koneswaram there in 1956) until the civil war made “Trinco” too dangerous to visit in the 1980s.
The two became friends. Clarke soon rented living and office space from Hektor—the same space that would become the ‘ego chamber’—and came to regard the Ekanayakes as family (Clarke is buried in the Ekanayake family plot, next to Leslie).
It was Hektor who introduced his brother Leslie to Clarke. Leslie—who hated diving and was afraid of water, according to Hektor—worked for Clarke, managing his household, cooking and cleaning, and the two became friends.
Hektor adamantly refutes any suggestion that his brother and Clarke were lovers, saying, “No, no. They were very good friends,” when I ask the question directly.
Clarke was not rich by Western standards when he arrived in Sri Lanka (that would have to wait till the movie of “2001” came out in 1968), but he was enormously wealthy for Sri Lanka. He had a Mercedes and a driver as well as a powder blue scooter which he used for zipping around town. Both these vehicles are preserved in Hektor’s garage.
In 1962, Clarke had suffered a severe attack of poliomyelitis. His apparently complete recovery (he even regained his form at his favorite sport, table tennis) was deceptive, and in 1984 he developed post-polio syndrome, a progressive condition characterized by muscle weakness and extreme fatigue.
It was however during these years that his greatest popular success happened. He became a household name for his television series investigating paranormal phenomena: Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994). All of them were filmed in Sri Lanka.
Clarke surely enjoyed his success, as his “ego-chamber” attests. But he did not dine out on it, and was not much seen out and about in Colombo’s hot spots.
Hektor would sometimes not see him for weeks, despite living across the courtyard. When he did see him, he would ask, “What are you doing, Arthur?” and Clarke would invariably reply, “Writing a book.”
Clarke spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair as a result of his post-polio syndrome.
These should have been tranquil years for the grand old man of sci-fi, but the peace was shattered when, in 1998, days before he was due to be knighted, the British Sunday Mirror tabloid published a story claiming Clarke was a pedophile.
It should be noted that everyone I spoke to in Colombo who knew Clarke was adamant that the stories were completely untrue.
“He liked young men, say 20, 25, but the idea of him with children…no, no,” said one friend, who did not want to be named.
However the crowd Clarke hung out with were seen by some as lecherous towards younger native men. Another expatriate in Galle said that Clarke and his friends—Bawa et al—were collectively known as “The Lizards.”
“We just stayed away from them,” the person said.
Clarke—who was 80—denied the allegations of pedophilia and was cleared by a Sri Lankan police investigation, but he did not pursue the matter through the British courts.
Hektor Ekanayake remembers those grim days for Clarke clearly: “He was very upset. My wife told me that he cried, although I didn’t see it. Arthur is homosexual … but to put a thing like that when he was to be knighted.”
Hector was particularly disgusted that it was “English people” who “came all the way” to Sri Lanka to blacken his name.
“That’s why I am really angry,” he says.
After Clarke developed post-polio symptom, and with Leslie dead, Hektor became his main carer. “I used to sleep under his bed. When he had post-polio syndrome. There was no attendant close to him. I did. I washed him and things like that.”
Life was difficult but there were bright spots, and one of these was diving. “He went for a dive, a 90ft dive and he was perfect,” Hektor recalled. “In water he can do everything. He can swim very well, better than walking. In 90 feet of water he is very calm and quiet. Very happy—making a lot of fun underwater. Only problem that we have is when we want to bring him up into the boat, he was not strong enough to hold the ladder. So we push him into the boat. But getting into the water is nothing.”
Did Arthur have a long-term boyfriend?
“He had no particular friend like that,” says Hektor.
Was he lonely? “I think he was a lonely person, but his books were the important thing,” says Hektor. “All the time he was thinking about invention, invention, invention, write a book.”
Ultimately, however, Clarke remained something of an enigma even to those closest to him, like the Ekanayakes.
“Actually, finally, I don’t know exactly what he really wanted too much,” says Hektor. “I asked him once, ‘If you were living on an island with nobody there what will you do?’ He said, ‘If I have a typewriter, that is quite enough.’”
A tear escapes his eye.
“He was a very nice man. When those (journalists) came from England they said to me, ‘What sort of man is he?’
“I said, ‘I will tell you the truth. Write it down, get the tape. The Sri Lankan Buddhists will not like it but I don’t care. I have never seen Lord Buddha alive,’ I said. ‘But if you ask, ‘Who is Arthur Clarke?’ that is Arthur Clarke. Lord Buddha. That much I know he is. He will not harm anybody. That is Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha is Arthur C. Clarke.’”
Clarke would likely have been entertained by his friend’s epitaph. The great futurist, who claimed that religion had “hijacked” morality, left written instructions for his funeral that stated: “Absolutely no religious rites of any kind, relating to any religious faith, should be associated with my funeral.”