Arthur C. Clarke

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthu...

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. This was published by Harcourt in June 1956 and was the first release of this novel. The image is used to illustrate the article The City and the Stars. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up until relatively recently, the only way I knew of Arthur C. Clarke was as the host of some interesting documentaries about cool stuff that no-one could explain.

He was a bald guy who lived in Sri Lanka who posed questions about crystal skulls and markings in ancient Peru that only made sense when viewed from altitude. I knew he wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey and the follow-up 2010, but it never occurred to me just how prolific he was as a science fiction author.

It was only when I came across his books in the science fiction masterworks series that I realised just how many books he penned. Unlike many great science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke has the distinction of having two books released under the banner; Rendezvous With Rama and The City and the Stars. From reading the back covers, Rendezvous sounded more interesting, so that’s the one I read first.

Arthur C. Clarke has a great way of describing technical and physical things in a way that they make sense to the reader. He can bring them to life in the space of a few short sentences. In Rendezvous with Rama, the story revolves around a gigantic spaceship that visits our future Solar System so he has plenty of opportunity to exercise his craft.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling cheated when I reached the end. If I were unkind, I might summarise the plot as: a huge alien spaceship turns up; humans explore it; it buggers off taking all its secrets with it. At the end of the book, he explained little or nothing about the culture that built the spacecraft. Were they alive or dead? Were they benevolent or malicious? All we know is that they build cool spaceships populated with robots.

In all my disappointment about the first book, I felt reluctant to read the second. It was only when a friend recommended The City and the Stars that I picked up the book. I have to say – what a difference. If not much happens in the first book, the whole universe changes in the second book.

The action starts off in the sterile city of Diaspar. Everything is safe within the city’s dome. People are reproduced as necessary from within  the central computer’s memory banks and have to live according to preset conditioning. The central character, Alvin, is born with something no-one else seems to have; curiosity. He wants to know what’s out there and boy does he find out and changes the city, the world and the universe in the process. It’s a great novel and I was staggered to find out that he wrote it in the 50s. I was doubly staggered to find out that it was a rewrite of the first story he ever penned.

It’s hard to believe that Arthur C. Clarke wrote both books. The second is a masterpiece. The only criticism I have is that I don’t find his descriptions of people to be particularly evocative. But who am I to judge?

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Ice cold in Wadduwa

John Mills

John Mills (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not fanatical about black and white films but one of my favourites is “Ice Cold in Alex” starring John Mills, Anthony Quayle and Sylvia Syms. It follows a rag-tag group of people during world war two who make their way across the German occupied desert in North Africa in an ambulance, searching for the safe haven of Alexandria. It is a gruelling trip, so to help with their motivation, they promise themselves an ice-cold beer when they get there (hence the title). If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching.

I had my own “Ice Cold” moment when we were on honeymoon in Sri Lanka. We had booked an all-inclusive package so all food was included as were local drinks. The local beer was called Lion beer and it came either on draught or, as is the custom in India and Sri Lanka, in 625ml bottles. To begin with it was just about passable, but because of the heat, the beer became very warm very quickly.

After a few days, my taste buds had decided that there was no way another Lion Beer was passing my lips. When the barman came over, I asked what other beers they had. He looked confused. “Is there something wrong with the Lion Beer sir?” he enquired. I could have said yes, but I didn’t want to go through several iterations of the poor bar staff trying to fix something that had gone wrong long before the beer ever got to them.

A manager appeared and asked me what the problem was. I said to him that I simply wanted to know what other beers they had. After a long agitated conversation in Singhalese – one of the barman came over, looked conspiratorially left and right before whispering to me that as well as Lion Beer, they also had Carlsberg. Carlsberg – perfect! Just like in Ice Cold in Alex. I told him to get me one. He protested, saying that Carlsberg was going to cost me money – the Lion Beer was included. After a brief discussion where he realised that I was resolute, he despatched the other barman to go and find me a Carlsberg.

I began to really look forward to the ice-cold beer. I pictured myself as John Mills, hot, parched and desperate for a nice, refreshing glass of quality beer. The barman took a long time finding the bottle of Carlsberg, but I didn’t care , somehow the anticipation was almost as enjoyable as I knew the taste of this ice cold Carlsberg would be.

English: Detail of a Carlsberg glass. Galego: ...

English: Detail of a Carlsberg glass. Galego: Detalle dun vaso de Carlsberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually, the barman appeared, brushing the dust off a dark green bottle of Carlsberg. They set it down in front of me together with an ice-cold glass. Condensation formed on both the bottle and the glass. It suddenly occurred to me that they probably weren’t asked for Carlsberg that often, so I checked the date making sure that I wasn’t about to be poisoned by out of date beer. No need to worry – it was well within date.

I poured the contents of the bottle slowly into the glass. The contents looked like nectar and a nice frothy, white head formed. I brushed my finger down the side of the glass, feeling the cool condensation. I took a deep breath and then sank a large slug of ice-cold beer and promptly sprayed it all over the grass. It tasted worse than the Lion Beer!

I read the label; “Brewed under license by the Lion Beer Company Colombo”.

Just not cricket

The Hawk-Eye system used in the game

The Hawk-Eye system used in the game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A game of cricket on the lawn is as quintessentially British as a cup of tea or complaining about the weather. Before I understood the rules, it always seemed to me to be the most boring activity that one could undertake. Our trip to Sri Lanka coincided with the cricket world cup and the local members of staff, being completely obsessed about cricket, took it upon themselves to educate me on the intricacies of the game.

Because the competition was held in England that year, the time zones worked out perfectly. We could enjoy a leisurely morning followed by lunch before play started. As the players broke for lunch, we could enjoy dinner and  then play continued in the evening. At first the cricket scoreboard looked bewildering, but after a while I was talking about Duckworth-Lewis formulas with the best of them.

Of course fate dictated that England would play Sri Lanka whilst we were out there. The excitement in the hotel was palpable as we watched the game. England managed to win and the service the following day from the Sri Lankan staff took a distinct turn for the worst. We later read in the paper that the Sri Lankan cricket team had to wait for their luggage for 6 hours at Colombo airport and when it finally appeared, each case was covered in, ahem, helpful suggestions to improve their cricket.

Technology has enhanced the on screen viewing experience of cricket immeasurably. Just after every ball is bowled, there are camera shots from multiple angles available to replay in an instant. Hawkeye can predict the path of the ball in cases where the batsman’s leg gets in the way. We instantly know how fast the ball was bowled and we can see from a cluster of trajectories the different tactics the bowler is trying in order to get his man out.

For the batsman, we have the wagon wheel which shows the trajectory of every shot played with different colours indicating how many runs were scored on each ball. There is an appeals process now where players can challenge decisions when they think the umpire might have made a mistake. The statistics are available for every player whether they are batting or fielding.

Football matches are now riddled with statistics. I seem to remember that during England’s last game of the Euro, their percentage possession of the ball was 40% in the first half and even worse in the second half. Our pass completion was appalling and don’t get me started on the number of shots on goal. Nowadays, not only do you have to endure your national team playing like Accrington Stanley on a bad day, the message is pummelled home with statistics.

They have their detractors, but for me the technology improves the viewing experience immensely. I find the statistics strangely comforting. I’m not obsessed by sport, so anything that helps me to understand what’s going on is a good thing in my view. If it helps to ensure FairPlay – so much the better.

I’d like to think that all those statistics are gathered using complex methods to recognise when each player has the ball and measure the possession with pinpoint accuracy but somehow I suspect there is an army of little old ladies somewhere who click a button on a device every time their player gets the ball or completes a pass.

Unintended Sri Lanka

English: Ketchimalai Mosque- Beruwala, Sri Lan...

English: Ketchimalai Mosque- Beruwala, Sri Lanka Français : Mosquée Ketchimalai, Beruwala, Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just before our honeymoon, we received an apologetic letter from the travel agent we had used to book explaining that due to unforeseen circumstances, they had to cancel our trip and refund our money. This was not welcome news. We had weeks in which to find another holiday and it needed to be somewhere special. My wife to be was too upset so the task fell to me. I had never taken a package holiday in my life and every page in every brochure looked remarkably similar to me.

There was one location that called out to me. I don’t really know why, but Sri Lanka sounded exotic and I didn’t know many people who had been there. It also had the considerable merit of fitting within our beleaguered budget. I phoned my partner to explore the idea and she readily agreed. Moments later, the trip was booked. There was a note of mischief in my partner’s voice and she knew I didn’t want to go anywhere too adventurous so I looked up Sri Lanka.

I read with alarm that the island lay close to the equator with a tropical climate and that it had the highest incidence of snakebite death of any country in the world. It was going to be my first visit to Asia and the culture was completely different to anything I had ever experienced before. Still, the Arabs liked the island so much, they named in Serendib (which is the origin of the word Serendipity).

When we stepped off the plane, I assumed that we were in the wash of the nearby engines, but as we walked towards the terminal I realised that it really was that hot. Inside the Terminal, it was chaos. I have never seen so many people scurrying around like ants. Eventually we located our luggage among the unlikely items spinning around the luggage carousel such as fridges and parcels tied up with string and made our way to the Coach.

Our escort explained that the hotel lay 38km away so the journey would take approximately 3 hours to get there. The flight had taken 11 hours from Heathrow, so we were both shattered and assumed that one of those figures must be wrong, but as we wound our way through the roads of the capital, we began to understand why.

English: Auto rickshaw in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lan...

English: Auto rickshaw in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka Français : Tuk-tuk à Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Outside the coach windows, there was bedlam. The roads teemed with bicycles, motorbikes, trikes (called Tuk Tuks we were to learn), cows and elephants. We were used to traffic travelling in an orderly fashion. There were vehicles on the wrong side of the road. Sometimes it looked like there was going to be a head on collision before one vehicle or another gave way. All this was played out to a cacophony of car horns. Some like klaxons. Some playing out a melody. All of them noisy.

There were paradoxes everywhere we looked. A line of children dressed in pristine school uniforms filing their way out of a hut at the side of the road. A stunning car dealership standing amongst a number of ramshackle dwellings made of oil drums and wooden pallets. A lady fastidiously sweeping the small area outside her hut. Western fast food outlets serving unrecognised Asian variations on their menus.

Arriving at the hotel, the tiredness seeped away as we tucked into a welcome cocktail. The complex lay on the coast amongst a stunning rainforest backdrop next to a single railway track. The noises coming from the trees sounded like a special kind of music to me. A constant varying chorus of insects and birds, the occasional interjection by some kind of ape all accompanied by the sound of the wind through the trees.

Sri Lanka : Kandy

Sri Lanka : Kandy (Photo credit: artist in doing nothing)

Stowing our things quickly, we were eager to explore so we set out around the complex. The accommodation surrounded a large grassy area with a wooden shaded bar in the centre. Playful chipmunks crawled around the bar area and danced among the tables. The staff were friendly and it didn’t take too long for the chipmunks to come over and introduce themselves either. They would jump onto your table and look at you as if to ask for a chip. If you gave them one, they held them vertically in both hands whilst periodically nibbling.

At Dusk each night, a couple of guys went around the complex carrying a lantern ringing a small bell every so often. We asked a member of staff why they did it. He shrugged and told us it was a ritual. I asked why they seemed to be in such a tearing hurry, eager to know the back story behind this “ritual”. The guy looked furtively in each direction to make sure no-one was listening before bending down to tell us conspiratorially that the ritual had been invented by a visitor from the travel agency and the reason they dashed around was because they thought it was ridiculous.

The hotel had an onsite elephant which made several appearances resplendent in a gold filigreed howdah and bejewelled cape. Lizards clung to the hot hotel walls and occasionally you could see a long line of huge ants making their way nonchalantly across the path. As we walked across the lawn one day, I saw a snake just by Julie’s feet. Knowing that it was best not to make any sudden noises, I delayed telling her until later, which was just as well because when I did, she made a lot of noise.

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka

Tea plantation in Sri Lanka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Venturing outside meant crossing the railway track. Hoards of cyclists went past in each direction. Each of them smiled and waved. Many of them said hello. I was amazed at how friendly everyone was. A steam train rattled slowly past. If you think your morning commuter train is crowded – this train had people on the roof, people hanging onto the sides and people precariously hanging out of the windows.

Someone had told us about a shop called Liberties in the nearby town so we hired a tuk tuk one day. I had imagined a glass fronted shop, but this was more like a narrow horse box with a stable door on the front. Inside the walls were covered in shelves piled high with clothes of all descriptions. An army of young boys crawled acrobatically up the shelves retrieving anything requested.

Our Sri Lankan odyssey was over all too soon and it had been the perfect holiday. The lead up to getting married can be quite stressful and we arrived back after two weeks invigorated and excited by everything we had seen. We must return one day, because there is plenty of Sri Lanka that remains undiscovered to us. If it hadn’t been for the apologetic letter from the travel agent, we probably never would have gone there – serendipity indeed!