As I commented in a film review (Tall And True, October 2017), I have admired Ben’s work since watching him do stand-up comedy on TV in England in 1987. I also loved the hit TV comedies he co-wrote in the 1980s and 1990s, The Young Ones and Blackadder.
And I have enjoyed his novels, starting with Stark (1989), through to his recent, Time and Time Again (2014). So it was a great privilege to meet Ben in person after the Q&A. And to have him sign my yellowed copy of Stark, 30 years after I first fell in love with his work!
Back in 1989, environmental awareness and eco-protests were on the rise. World leaders were forced by scientific and public opinion to finally ban the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which had created a continental-size hole in the ozone layer. There was growing recognition of how humanity was trashing Earth and that there’s no “planet B”.
The world had also plunged into an economic disaster, with the Black Monday/Tuesday stock market crash of 1987 causing recessions in most developed countries. And yet, among our rulers and the monied class, Gordon Gecko’s “greed is good” maxim seemed to hold sway over the cries of, “What the heck are we doing to our planet!?”
Starting with Stark (1989) and followed by Gridlock (1991) and This Other Eden (1993), Ben created an eco-novel genre of his own. His unique combination of keen observation and scientific insight and trademark sharp wit and writing skills held a blow-torch to the bloated belly of capitalism and its siblings, corporate excess and environmental vandalism.
Ben spoke to my broadening late-twenties’ mind. He encouraged me to act and argue for our pale blue dot in the inky universe. And I often quoted passages from Ben’s books in my arguments — the closing paragraph of Stark is burned into my soul, a sad but sober summary of humanity.
I mentioned this to Ben when he signed my copy of Stark. However, after writing fifteen novels, numerous TV comedies, two musicals, and two films, it was hardly surprising he didn’t remember the paragraph. And so I had the pinch-myself honour of reading it to him.
Sorry, no spoilers — you’ll have to read it for yourself in Stark!
I don’t know how Ben felt heading those lines after all this time, but re-reading them sent the same tingle up my spine as when I first read them back in 1989!
A Pom looking into Australia
I also reminded Ben of a comment he’d made in the Q&A, how he’d been a “Pom looking into Australia” in 1988. He’d been on a tour Downunder with Rik Mayall and had fallen in love with the bass player of their backing band. And this led to Ben staying and setting his debut novel, Stark, in Western Australia.
Now, having spent half of the past 30 years living in Australia with his wife and kids, Ben said he felt like an Aussie when writing and directing Three Summers, an Australian film, with an Australian cast and crew.
And he kindly agreed to jot that early quote in my 30-year-old copy of Stark:
For Robert, This was written by a Pom looking in, in 1988.
A secret planet B?
Okay, so Ben and I didn’t save the planet in the 1990s, and the existential threat of climate change has replaced the fears of toxic air and water pollution that pervaded his eco-novels. And yet, despite the scientific evidence, there are sceptics, deniers and uber-rich who would have us carry on as always, preaching “growth is good” — as Ben warned in Stark and his other eco-novels!
It leaves me wondering if it’s because, as Ben envisaged, they’ve got an escape plan? They’ve found a “planet B”, to which we, the ordinary people, won’t be invited! We have reached an age where people and planets are as disposable as our gadgets.
Perhaps it’s time for me to re-read my signed copy of Stark and to start arguing and acting again for our pale blue dot!
Billionaires in Space (October 2021)
Four years since I wrote this blog post and thirty-two years since I read Stark, who could have imagined the spectre of billionaires blasting into space? Ben Elton, that’s who!
© 2017 Robert Fairhead
N.B. This blog post first appeared on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Robert Fairhead is a writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, and he writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media, and he's published two collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for full details.