When you are someone of Brian Aldiss’ stature, with such a sustained career and such a range of output, no single agent, editor or publisher can really do you justice. A bit like Dr Who - for whom, of course, Brian once wrote a short story - they regenerate every few years. Well, I was in the Aldiss Tardis for most of the past decade.
The tributes published since his death form a magnificent tapestry of critique and interpretation. The social media conversations about him defy the standard Twitter analytic tools. Christopher Priest in the Guardian wrote: “In a lifelong and prolific career [Brian] produced more than 40 novels and almost as many short-story collections. An ambitious and gifted writer, with a flowing and inventive literary style, he did not confine himself to science fiction. He wrote several bestselling mainstream novels, poetry, drama, two autobiographies and several film scenarios...edited a huge number of anthologies and produced a body of criticism that was remarkable for its energy and clarity. Aldiss’ work came as a breath of fresh air... He wrote lively, intelligent prose, shot through with subversive humour, linguistic novelty and human observation.”
One of Brian’s previous agents, Mike Shaw, wrote to me to say: “Brian will be remembered in so many different ways by so many, but always, I fancy, with humour and remembrance of that refreshing, robust, no-nonsense directness that took one’s breath away. And thank goodness!”
When we first spoke on the phone, which happened to be at the end of an afternoon, he said: “This conversation is the best news I’ve had in ages. I think it calls for a drink!” I later realised that perhaps I shouldn’t have taken this entirely to mean that in and of myself I was a cause for celebration, but that opening a good bottle of wine might have happened at around 5.30p.m. chez Aldiss in Old Headington, Oxford, anyway. But we did end up having some wonderful experiences to celebrate together.
That said, a few months after our first conversation, I was perhaps a little too long in responding to an email (in my defence, there used to be a fair few emails, each one full of new ideas and suggestions of avenues to explore). We had a slightly, in Mike’s words, “robust” conversation. But perhaps it served to seal the regeneration: in the years that followed, together we pulled off the feat of him not only having terrific publishers for his classics, but also one who rose to the challenge of trying to order the full range of his work, and embrace the new. Thus there were not only launches for retrospectives but dinners to christen the new, and Brian hit the festival scene afresh. And by that I mean not only the safe stomping ground of the Oxford Literary one, but pushing- the-boundaries-a-bit at Wilderness.
On another occasion, one of our foreign rights managers vividly remembers a call from Brian in which he declared: “I am going up in a helicopter today - tell everyone!” Those who were with him at Wilderness (our younger colleagues) said they “adored him - he was so funny and charming with us, and such a great storyteller”. Neil Gaiman recalled last week how he was “always a gentleman, full of anecdotes from his years as a writer, with a blustery charm and a delight in getting people’s backs up”. Besides the master works themselves - all now available in e-book format, of course - it’s his essential storytelling that we will all remember.
There is the great publishing story of how one of his early American publishers made an offer for several new works. His agent asked if he had any objection to renewing with this publisher. “I would prefer it,” he said, “if next time they didn’t feature the heavily cleavaged maidens, of which they seem to be so fond, on my book jackets.” Word was duly passed down the line. The message came back, “But Mr Aldiss, you have to understand, we buy your books so that we can put these ladies on the cover.” The deal went through.
Brian’s art trod a wonderful path between this world and others, places where things had their own logic but were also slightly upside down.One of the final times I saw Brian, he and his partner Alison encouraged me to choose one of his wonderful isolées - his colourful collages - as a gift. It being an abstract, the framer and I debated quite which way up it should go. I happened to be looking at it when news came of Brian’s passing. I spotted something small and decorative in the top left-hand corner. Looking more closely, I realised it was a signature. It was upside down.
Thank you, Brian, for giving us all something very special, for the big stories, and for helping us to see things just as clearly - perhaps especially clearly - when just a bit upside down.
Brian Aldiss, born 1925, died 19th August 2017.
Gordon Wise is an agent at Curtis Brown.