Saturday, July 03, 2010

Living The Dream

A couple of Fridays back the Luminous Beauty and I headed to the Southbank Centre for a screening of the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth, shown as part of the 2010 Meltdown festival. It may have seemed an incongruous inclusion to the programme of concerts and musical events but then Richard Thompson, the founder member of Fairport Convention and this summer’s festival curator, had composed the music for Erik Nelson’s profile of acclaimed writer Harlan Ellison, so that was all right.

We had invited the ever delightful Brian Sibley and David Weeks to join us, which turned out to be a very good thing because they were not only excellent company, especially when it came to looking after the Luminous Beauty while I waited to be served at the bar, but knew where we were supposed to be going. A regular at the BFI Southbank, and occasional visitor to the National Theatre and Hayward Gallery, I’d rarely visited the Royal Festival Hall or Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the staff there had so far been positively unhelpful.

Getting tickets the week before, the staffer at the Royal Festival Hall’s box office had looked decidedly put out when he discovered it was a free event, which meant that I wouldn’t be handing over any money. Arriving early on the night for a drink and a smoke out on the terrace, I’d asked the initial barmaid that served me where the Purcell Room was and she directed me upstairs when it turned out to be next door. Luckily Brian had given talks there in the past and showed us the way otherwise the pair of us would have been wandering about, hopelessly lost.

Almost the whole of the central section of the auditorium had already been taken, leaving us pretty much at the back row, but when we eventually sat down the four of us found we had an uninterrupted view of the back of the heads of the folk right up front. Maybe it was the arrival of the unexpected inclement weather that evening, or the fact that the England team were aimlessly kicking a ball about in Cape Town, but all the ninny lobcocks who had booked those seats failed to make an appearance, which was a shame because they really missed something special.

Erik Nelson had flown over specially to introduce his work, which, over the course of ninety–odd minutes perfectly captured the vitality and enthusiasm of his subject. An almost relentless barrage of bon mots, creative expletives, and testimonials from his contemporaries, the material had us all either howling with laughter or stunned into silence, particularly when, in an astonishingly affecting sequence, HE got to view and commentate on home movie footage of a family trip to Niagara Falls when he was a boy.

Meanwhile excerpts of readings from a number of his short stories also help dispel the misconception that HE is simply a science fiction writer. When I first came across his work back in my early teens, the UK paperbacks had erroneous cover illustrations, usually featuring nondescript spaceships, that didn’t correlate to any of the short stories included therein. When I first met him a decade or so on and we talked about his writing he explained:

[T]he great triad of writers who I worshipped were Poe, Kafka and Borges. It is in fact Borges who first taught me where my literary family resided. Until that time they had been calling me a science fiction writer, a fantasy writer, and I never wore the mantle comfortably and real science fiction writers were very uncomfortable with me... very uncomfortable. And I despised having those kinds of covers put on my books because I knew very well I wasn’t writing science fiction and I didn’t like flying under false colours and I also didn’t like encountering an audience that thought that was what I was writing.

When I first discovered Borges it was in The Library of Babel. It’s the story about where all the unwritten books are. It’s a great and classic story and I think it’s in the book Labyrinths. I read that story and I said “This is what’s... But this is what I’m doing?!” This is the resonance. I suddenly heard that one note, that one collusive note that exists in the universe: pure, clear, absolutely unsullied. And went from Borges to Luisa Valenzuela, who I met subsequently and just desperately fell in love with – a wonderful writer and a wonderful woman personally and she and I still communicate – Garcia Marques and Jorge Armado and Julio Cortázar. And I read these people and wept, wept like a child because at last, at last, I had come home.

My family was not Henry James. My family was not Jane Austen. My family were the writers of the Latin-American boom of the late-forties, early fifties. Ever since then I have written with more assurance and less self-conciousness the kinds of things I want to write. Like this story just this last year, 1993, I finally got into The Best American Short Stories. It’s a great honour, a great honour. In the whole field of fantasy there have only been five writers in all the years of The Best American Short Stories. There are only five writers who have made it into that collection and I am the most recent. And I did it with a story that is pure magic realism. Its pure Borgesian writing: The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.

Once the credits rolled every stayed in their seats as, for an extra bonus, Mr Nelson took to the stage along with the writer James Moran and, through the wonders of modern telecommunications, briefly interviewed HE from his home in Sherman Oaks. Even more astonishing for anyone who has either seen him speak on the lecture circuit or spent any time in his company, HE kept his answers remarkably short and sweet.

Though the documentary may not have played to a packed house it satisfied a small, dedicated audience who were more than happy to be there, and was the perfect primer for people who are only aware of “the dark prince of American letters” from his various credits on television shows like Star Trek and The Man from UNCLE. At least for those who couldn’t be bothered to come along to the Purcell Room Dreams with Sharp Teeth is available on Region 1 DVD. If HE had appeared in person I’d like to think it would have been a sold out event, but with today’s fickle audiences who can tell.

This month at the BFI Southbank, the Film Science: Future Human season includes a screening of four-part drama serial Chimera, followed by a Q&A with writer Stephen Gallagher and director Lawrence Gordon Clark on Monday, 5th July, starting at 6:00pm. Later on the Brian Clemens: Auteur of The Avengers season features two live events: Brian Clemens on The Avengers on Thursday 22nd July at 6:20pm), which is preceded by a screening of The Avengers episode A Touch of Brimstone, and then Brian Clemens in Conversation a week later on Wednesday 28th July at 6:30, where he discusses the rest of his film and television career. Amazingly there are still tickets available for all three.

Granted neither writer will be able to help people wanting to break into the industry by giving them tips on how to get a commission for the typical load of toss like Doctors or Holby City, but given that they both worked in genres that don’t seem to exist in television any more, what they’ll have to say should be nothing less than fascinating.


At 2:13 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

Great to finally meet you at the NFT, or the BFI, or whichever piece of its confusing signage one opts for...

The secret of your identity is safe with me, Bruce. Let's do it again some time when you don't have to run off.

Or was that flight?

At 1:28 am, Blogger qrter said...

I love that documentary. Harlan Ellison is a fascinating person - a great writer and a humongously annoying person, or so it seems. It's a good combination and the film shows both parts of the man well, I feel.

There's another 45-minute discussion between Ellison and Neil Gaiman on the dvd. Very entertaining. Well, I say 'discussion', 'monologue' is probably the better word.

At 10:02 pm, Blogger Brian Sibley said...

It was a brilliant doc and a great evening! We loved it and you and the Luminous Beauty! :)

At 11:55 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


It was great to meet you too. I was really bowled over by Chimera. Now that the technical difficulties and other various issues are gradually getting resolved I can finally publish the post about it, which has been on the sidelines gathering dust. Very best of luck with the pilots. Hopefully our paths with cross again soon and next time I won’t scoot off so quickly.


A great writer certainly, an annoying person I’m so sure about, although at one time or another everyone can be annoying, it just depends at what degree. When I first met him we talked briefly about the private person and the public persona. Having been an actor in his early years, appearing on Broadway and was in the chorus of the original cast recording of Kismet on Columbia Records, the version of Harlan Ellison that appears on the lecture circuit is an exaggerated version of his true self.

If he has a reputation it’s because, like a lot of people, he believes in good manners, common courtesy and informed opinions, most of which are sorely lacking in both the younger generation and a lot of professionals in the business. Whereas a lot of folk, when faced with the complete opposite, will bite their tongue, HE will put louts in their place And if you ask his opinion on something you’ll get the unvarnished truth, which a lot of folk don’t always want to hear. Treat him with respect and there’s no problem at all.

When I was invited to the house it happened to be the day of the weekly garbage collection, as I was leaving, after he had said goodbye, I looked back and he taking crossing the street barefoot and wheeling his neighbour’s empty bin back up their driveway. And I’ll always be grateful that he introduced me to Hawaiian bread, which is bloody delicious.

Still have to get the DVD but I can imagine the discussion being very one-sided. I had lunch with him some years later where we were joined by a journalist. The young lass asked just one question and his reply lasted almost the length of the whole meal, filling up both sides of her tape recorder. You can always interrupt him and make it more of a conversation but then you have to ask yourself, whose voice would you prefer to listen to, yours or his?


It was a great evening and both the Luminous Beauty and myself feel exactly the same way about you and David. We must get together for an evening out soon.


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