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24 August 2017
I first met Brian Aldiss in 1969, when I was still an undergraduate. He’d come to give a talk at my university. I was travelling down to London the next day, and spotted him on the station platform. After the talk he had gone off to stay with Kingsley Amis, and a long evening ensued. I’m sure the last thing he wanted that morning was to be accosted by an enthusiastic young student, but — being Brian — he was welcoming, and we travelled together. By the time we reached London he had promised me a short story — commissioned by the TLS but then rejected — for an amateur magazine I was planning. Two days later, the story arrived. Two days after that, came a follow up letter: Had I received it? What did I think of it? Over the years I came to see this whole episode as typical of Brian: hugely welcoming, enormously generous, but with a smidgen of writerly insecurity.
Flash forward twenty years. I had become Brian’s editor at Gollancz, initially for the greatly expanded second edition of his definitive history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, and then for his fine autobiographical novel Forgotten Life. I sent out proofs of the latter to writers I thought might appreciate it, and almost by return appreciative quotes came in from William Boyd, Anthony Burgess, Iris Murdoch, William Trevor. It was clear that he was a writer greatly admired beyond the realm of SF, with which he was inevitably identified, being its most prominent British practitioner.
For his 65th birthday, in 1990, Frank Hatherley (a BBC producer who had become Brian’s film and TV agent), Margaret Aldiss and I put together a festschrift, A Is For Brian, to be sprung on him as a surprise present. We sent out 43 invitations and got back 38 contributions, an unbelievable hit rate. I’ve been looking through it this morning. Contributor after contributor, in addition to admiring the range and accomplishment of his work, attests to his enormous joie de vivre. Doris Lessing writes about an on stage conversation she attended between Brian and fellow writer Robert Silverberg at a conference in Florida: “I didn’t want to miss a single word. I didn’t want it to end.” Kingsley Amis says: “I think he is the only man I know whom I admire and respect both as a writer and a toper.”
I’ve deliberately concentrated here on writers not particularly associated with SF. But in that world he was a colossus: arguably the greatest British writer since H.G. Wells. And for more than sixty years he was the life and soul of the party. Everyone who spent time with him came away with great memories and an anecdote or two. He was – and I don’t say this lightly – a great man.