Yesterday, at the BBC World Book Club in Broadcasting House, I had the treat of listening to 88 year old Sci-Fi guru, Brian Aldiss, discussing his novel, Greybeard. At the end of the interview, Harriet Gilbert asked him for how long he had been writing and whether he was motivated to keep going. His face lit up. He told us about stories recently uncovered by The Bodelian that he’d written when he was 14! And then he said that of course he still loves writing: “I can’t resist going on.” As he signed my book, we talked about Oxford where he lives and where I grew up and he told me about his latest novel which, like Greybeard, is set amongst the dreaming spires. Still writing novels at 88, that’s quite something.
The interview was unlike any other I have heard at the BBC World Book Club. His mind, still bright and alert, wandered around a huge range of topics, sometimes deeply personal, often drifting far away from the question. And yet, as it he case with the Aldiss’s of the world (and, in my experience, with many great teachers), the venturing off took us to more interesting territory than we would have reached had he simply answered the question.
What he came back to time and again was the central premise of his novel: a world without children. As I’m 26 weeks pregnant, this theme felt particularly poignant. The idea is based on his own experience of losing his children to divorce, of having his beloved little girl and little boy taken away from him. He wrote Greybeard whilst living in a one bedroom slum after having sold his house to pay for his wife and children to move to the Isle of Wight and the novel. He said that : ‘Writing the novel had nothing to do with Science Fiction and everything to do with the sorry of my own situation.’ Most writes shun questions about their personal life; Aldiss wanted to bare his soul and to show how it is the personal, more than the intellectual, that informs his writing.