TO SIR WITH LOVE

INDO-PACIFIC STORIES

7 February 1998


Arthur C. Clarke denies he admitted pedophilia, but the allegations against the author are proving hard to ignore, reports CHRISTOPHER KREMMER in Colombo

THE rambling, two-storey bungalow on Colombo's exclusive Barnes Place has become rundown over the years as age and ill health sapped the energy of its famous occupant.


But, like the crew of a space craft out of control, the staff of the great science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke have been galvanised by a crisis, and hasty attempts are being made to regain control.


The cause of the problem, appropriately for a man obsessed with futuristic technologies, is human error: the apparent admission by Sir Arthur that he'd had sex with pubescent boys. Why Clarke, named in the Queen's new year's honours list, should have chosen the eve of his investiture to make such controversial comments is a mystery.


The streets of this gracious neighbourhood are lined by stately mansions and are fragrant with frangipani. But the Clarke residence hunches inside high walls, and I am asked to provide proof of identity. The normally relaxed staff, unused to such formality, are apologetic, explaining: "You understand the situation."


Waiting for me inside is Valerie Ekanayake - Valerie Fuller of rural NSW before she met Hector Ekanayake, Clarke's business partner, in Sri Lanka in the 1970s. For two decades, she has been the sole womanly influence in a house in which men and computers have the numbers. She has been a regular travelling partner of the author as he criss-crossed the globe receiving literary and scientific honours, often accompanied by her three daughters, Cherene, 18, Tamara, 14, and Melinda,8.


With sandy hair, freckled skin and an accent which swallows its Aussie twang, she sits on a black leather couch, clutching a sheaf of messages of support from around the world, and gives the case for the defence.


"I am utterly devastated . . . simply appalled by the efforts by a few people to level these scurrilous charges against Arthur," she says.


"I, more than most people, know first-hand how much Arthur loves children. He is completely against any and all forms of pedophilia."


She blames "poison spewing forth from horrible people, most of them probably just jealous of his success and the fact that he has a happy family around him."

Hours later, Clarke stunned supporters and critics alike by attending a banquet hosted by President Chandrika Kumaratunga for the Prince of Wales, who was to have conferred the knighthood on Clarke during a visit to mark Sri Lanka's 50th anniversary of independence from Britain. The investiture ceremony was postponed at Clarke's request after the scandal broke, though he shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the prince.


The frail celebrity, dressed in a grey suit and supporting himself on a walking stick, hobbled bravely into the presidential palace in Colombo, smiling and chatting in the glare of the television arc lights.


The best-selling author cannot unsay what he has said. A tape exists of his conversation with Graeme Johnson, a reporter for London's Sunday Mirror. Those who have heard it say Clarke was asked repeatedly about claims that he had slept with under-age boys. Three times he avoided the question. The fourth time, he replied simply, "Yes. Yes, I'm sure," but dismissed the seriousness of the charge, or perhaps the question.


"Most of them had reached puberty . . . once they have reached the age of puberty, then it is okay," he said, blaming "hysterical parents" for causing most of the fuss.


"If the kids don't mind, fair enough."


The story was backed up with interviews with men who claimed to have had sex with Clarke and others who claimed to have procured for him.


Now Clarke tells a different story. In a written statement handed to reporters at the presidential reception he said: "These accusations are such nonsense that I found it difficult to treat them with the contempt they deserve. My conscience is perfectly clear."


The Clarke strategy is to cast doubt on the seriousness of his original comments, to attack the credibility of the witnesses quoted, and to threaten the media with legal action.


Clarke is a very important person in Sri Lanka. He pays no taxes on his considerable income - legacy of a never fully realised plan to turn the country into a tax haven for wealthy foreigners. He is vice-chancellor of Moratuwa University. The Arthur C. Clarke Centre for Modern Technology in Moratuwa, 30 minutes' drive south of Colombo, bristles with antennae. He is a welcome guest at diplomatic receptions.


Male homosexuality is commonplace, though illegal, in Sri Lanka. Clarke has not denied the widespread perception that he is gay, though the day after the accusations of pedophilia were published he told London's Sun newspaper: "There is no truth in the allegations. I have not been sexually active for more than 20 years." Clarke, who suffers from degenerative post-polio syndrome, has struggled for decades to keep his physical condition stable, undergoing a strict regime of rest, exercise and physiotherapy.


But a Colombo journalist describes how "our parents used to warn us not go near him. Even then, the rumours were around."


Sri Lanka's media, however, have studiously ignored the story - out of respect, some people suggest, for a great man. Others say the silence reflects fear of Clarke's influence.


When I interviewed him at his home in the early '90s, he came across as the ultimate dotty professor. His passion then, apart from doting on his pet chihuahua, was Vistapro, a CD-ROM which allowed virtual travel on the surface of Mars. His accent is halfway between Somerset and Mississippi, his laugh a cackle, and his urgent mind rarely rests on one subject very long. Conversations are crammed with facts, quotes, jokes and anecdotes, the banter slightly worn in the telling.


The scandal comes as a world in the grip of millennium fever is renewing its interest in the man who foresaw the development of space stations, shuttles and clever machines like "HAL" - the computer with a chip on its shoulder in 2001.


But Clark himself has little time for the Internet, impatient with its slowness and congestion of junk-formation. He is modest about his contributions to science. (Although best known for his Academy Award-winning screenplay 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-authored with Stanley Kubrick, his first claim to fame was a paper written in 1945 predicting the advent of satellite communications.)


"I may have accelerated the conquest of space by 15 minutes or so," he told The Times last year. With his books and gadgets, he has lived largely apart from Sri Lanka's devastating civil war, but the country's ancient history of culture and religion has enriched much of his work.


"I like the idea of cultural diversity - that's one reason I find it fascinating to be here in Sri Lanka. I'd hate to see us all wearing grey flannel suits, or grey flannel sarongs," he told an interviewer last year.


Clarke's fate now is largely in the hands of a pediatrician based in the southern port city of Galle, Professor Harendra de Silva, who heads the Child Protection Authority.


"Nobody will be protected," asserts de Silva, who has the power to raise the issue within a special task force on child abuse which can order a police investigation. The authority has so far launched two successful prosecutions in cases of pedophilia. The minimum sentence for a conviction is seven years in prison.


However, de Silva says the onus of initiating the process lies with complainants. So far, nobody has lodged any complaint against Clarke. "I have heard rumours that Clarke is a homosexual, but not anything about young boys. Many wild rumours go around about bachelors. But we need hard evidence."


Few Sri Lankans expect an independent investigation, yet with growing public concern about pedophilia, and new laws in place to deal with it, it will be difficult to sweep the Clarke case under the carpet.


"I'd be surprised if they could just let it drop," a Western ambassador told the Herald. "There is a fairly vociferous lobby here against pedophilia and the media does set its sights on foreigners."


-- The Sydney Morning Herald