As I commented in a review of the film, I have admired Ben Elton'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 writing, starting with Stark (1989) through to his most recent novel, 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 the planet and that we had 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. In fact, the closing paragraph of Stark is burned into my soul — it's a sad but sober summary of humanity.
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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. (Spoiler alert: skip ahead if you haven't read the book!)
The pioneers of Stark hated each other. They had created Hell in Heaven. They had escaped pollution on earth [in their rocket ships], only to discover that they had carried with them another pollution, a pollution that they could not escape. The pollution in their own souls.
I don't know how Ben felt about the 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 at the start of the Q&A about having been a "Pom looking into Australia" in 1988, on a Downunder tour with Rik Mayall, when he'd fallen in love with the bass player of their backup band. And how that led to him staying and setting his first 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.
A secret planet B?
Okay, so Ben and I didn't save the planet in the 1990s. 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!
© 2017 Robert Fairhead
N.B. This post is published on my blog at RobertFairhead.com.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story, and in 2021 Twelve Furious Months, twelve short stories written for the Furious Fiction writing competition.
Outside of writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Football with his son.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.