A Visit to the "Clarkives"
at Dene Court by John C. Sherwood
PART ONE OF THREE PARTS
AUGUST 12, 1999 - The affable-looking man standing in the British version of a Pizza Hut parking lot outside the Somerset town of Taunton turned out to be the fellow I was seeking. Neither of us was wearing a red carnation -- but we each figured that the other was the right guy. And we were right.
He was Brian Thomas, and enthusiastically I introduced him to my wife, Katari, and my son, Nathan. It was 12 Aug. 1999, the day after a spectacular total solar eclipse, and our family had just driven in that morning from Cornwall for a cosmological rendezvous of a different kind.
Brian is Arthur C. Clarke's technical advisor, a former satellite-communications specialist who has worked in the United States and now is closely associated with the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation - as well as its plans for the Arthur C. Clarke Space and Communications Centre at Minehead, Clarke's Somerset birthplace.
Thomas also keeps an eye on the exchanges posted in the mailing list for the Arthur C. Clarke Internet Fan Club. In a transatlantic telephone call this past spring, Brian had asked me if I might alert members of the list to the foundation's need for widespread support in obtaining a Millennium Fund grant in the United Kingdom. Who was I to decline? We also talked at length about various issues relating to Sir Arthur, and when I told him that my family and I planned to visit the United Kingdom in July, he immediately invited us to visit -- and to visit Sir Arthur's brother Fred at his home, Dene Court.
As it happened, I'd been in touch with Fred Clarke in recent months. Fred had provided some literature regarding plans for the Clarke Centre, and had kindly helped me to obtain a copy of Neil McAleer's authorized biography of his brother -- so difficult to locate these days! Fred, too, had invited me to come to Dene Court sometime. Little did either of us think that the opportunity would come so quickly!
At left, Dene Court, home of Fred Clarke.
In late 1967, my high school English class was assigned to research and write papers about British writers. I chose not to write a paper about a dead poet, so I opted to learn more about Arthur C. Clarke, whose stories had always intrigued me. Graciously, the late Isaac Asimov provided me with Clarke's agent's address, and Scott Meredith kindly forwarded my letter full of questions to Clarke at Sri Lanka. The result was a class paper that became (for a brief time) the most complete biography of Arthur C. Clarke ever written (McAleer has since surpassed my youthful, 50-page effort).
I had caught Arthur Clarke just a few months before he was to become super-famous with the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey." He had provided detailed information for my paper and even had the MGM publicity department send me a publicity packet for "the movie I'm working on." I sent Clarke a copy of my paper, and he not only encouraged my meager skill, but talked to me twice by telephone about it and even sent a copy of it to a Readers' Digest associate editor who was preparing an article about Clarke and the film (that editor also encouraged me to keep writing). Until about 1973, Clarke and I maintained a correspondence that served as the impetus for my profession as a journalist and editor. My gratitude to Sir Arthur has, as a result, been never-ending because, to a large extent, I owe my professional career to his inspiration.
From 1968 to 1970, Nora Clarke, Sir Arthur's mother, also had responded to my questions with assistance, information and even photos that now can be found on the Web site I devote to photos of her son. And I found decades later that Sir Arthur's brother carries on the tradition of hospitality and gracious generosity.
A day before the eclipse, I called Brian from our B&B lodgings in Lanner, Cornwall, to alert him that we indeed had arrived. We set up the Pizza Hut meeting-place two days hence. Eclipse Day was filled with activity. First there was the grand event at 11:11 a.m. (from our hilltop vantage point, clouds obscured our view of the solar disk but the darkness and full-circle "sunset" effect were breathtaking), then a visit to Tintagel Castle and finally an unplanned emergency trip to a hospital for National Health Service attention for a long-ignored jaw infection (it resulted three weeks later in root-canal work in a Pennsylvania dentist's office, but I digress. ...).
We'd severely misjudged the extent of traffic exiting Cornwall on Eclipse Day Plus One. We arrived in Taunton considerably late, but hasty phone calls had kept us in touch and informed. Eventually, Brian, Katari, Nathan and I found ourselves all standing in that Pizza Hut lot, where we spent about half an hour talking animatedly about various Clarke-related subjects until we realized that we should move on to Dene Court. With Brian leading the way, we steered our rental car through Taunton a few miles north to Fred Clarke's home -- a short distance from Bishop's Lydeard and the Ballifants farm where Fred, Sir Arthur and their two siblings were raised by mother Nora.
At right, Brian Thomas (left) discusses the future of the "Clarkives" with Fred Clarke.
As we arrived, Fred emerged from the house, full of gracious hospitality and eager to share his afternoon with us. He is in his 70s, but didn't appear slowed by the fact that, some days before our arrival, a heavy stone had managed to drop onto his foot and that he had to rely on a walking-stick. Fred Clarke spent the rest of the afternoon on his feet, busily heading to and fro, getting this and that for our inspection or pleasure, and taking the kind of interest in us that we had expected to lavish on him. It was an astonishing demonstration of great energy and charm on Fred's part. Sir Arthur is not the only one in his family with depth of curiosity and breadth of understanding.