in Somerset is not the sort of place to encounter
things from outer space. It is a well-mannered little
coastal town with a harbour and a long stretch of
beach. When you look round the town it does not take
much imagination to believe you have stepped back in
time. There’s a train station full of old yet still
working steam engines; the streets are full of floral
displays and are very clean; and, every other house
looks like it should be on a postcard or in a
In such a genteel place it is surprising that the residents have allowed an amusement arcade to operate on the front, and even more surprisingly there’s a huge Butlins holiday camp within easy walking distance. The distinctive peaks of the camp’s Skyline centre are easily visible from the town, and it provides a reference to modernity lacking from the general ambiance of the town itself.
I went there this summer with my mother, wife and three children from 2 to 9 August, 2003. One evening my wife and I were walking to the town centre when we spotted a blue plaque on one of the houses. I was not very interested in it, but my wife took a look at it. As she read the plaque a man in a T-shirt swigging from a beer can looked out from a first floor window. I was intrigued to learn that the plaque notes that this is where the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was born on 17 December 1917.
The next day we went back to Blenheim Road and saw that the house overlooks a small park that in the current heatwave proved very popular. The park is well-tended but it has the worst toilets you can imagine.
Sitting in the park I remembered how impressed I was when I fist saw 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Majestic cinema, Scunthorpe, back in the 1970s. After that I read all the Arthur C. Clarke books I could get hold of, and I also viewed as many Stanley Kubrick films as possible.
In my essay Two Views of 2001 I argue that Kubrick had the vision and drive to make this film something that transcended the usual space adventure yarn and irrevocably changed the rules for sf cinema.
Over the years I think Clarke’s novels have become stale and dated. They are full of exciting stories about the pleasures and curses of technology but they are let down by the poor characters and dialogue that creaks like an old ship lost at sea. At their core Clarke’s novels, and much of his non-fiction, reinforce his belief that we are intelligent monkeys who with our technological skills can transcend our earthly prison. Kubrick’s methodical filmmaking style suited the need to portray space exploration realistically on the cinema screen for 2001 but he also had the nerve to send us hurtling beyond our fancy gadgets to arrive at our spiritual destiny as children of the Universe. The combination of Clarke and Kubrick in 2001 perfectly matched the mood and dreams of the 1960s.
Looking back at the film it’s expectations have been reversed. Space exploration has become literally and metaphorically a dead-end rather than the salvation of mankind (women figure very little in the film or in Clarke’s writings). In contrast, computers have come to dominate our lives and are far from killing us off in the manner of the film’s monstrous HAL. Instead of outer space we embrace cyber space.
Returning to Minehead
the unobtrusive blue plaque seems to be the only
indication of Clarke’s residence here. The space age
looking Skyline at Butlins could well have featured
in one of his stories but the only signs of invasion
are those of US cultural icons and dominance rather
than of little green men.
In 1992 Arthur C. Clarke made a return visit to Minehead where there was a screening of 2001 and an exhibition of props from the film. This visit and lots more information about the making of 2001 can be found at:
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