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More on Keith Roberts (1935-2000)

Graphic: Keith Roberts, Pavane

Several contributions about Keith Roberts had to be heavily cut for Ansible 160. Here's the full text sent by Brian Ameringen and Caroline Mullan, David V. Barrett and Malcolm Edwards.

Brian Ameringen and Caroline Mullan

We knew Keith both through Kerosina and when he was Guest of Honour at Beccon '87.

He was a talented and knowledgeable person and a wonderful raconteur, whilst being easily depressed by the ills of the world. He made friends easily and revelled in their company, either in their presence or by letter, but after a time seemed to find it necessary to find a reason to 'fall out' with them.

He was enormously talented both as a writer and as an artist and felt 'short-changed' by a world that wanted to exploit his skills (and profit from it) rather than recompense him in full. Some of his charges of 'creative accounting' on the part of his publishers do seem to have been valid (but obviously not Kerosina).

When he was 'up' he was a marvellous person to be with... and when he was 'down' trying to lift his spirits by looking on the positive side of things could leave you his bitter enemy. It was very sad.

We will miss him, cantankerous old bugger that he was, he had much charm.

David V. Barrett

In Lemady: Episodes of a Writer's Life, his strange, at times haunting, at times haunted autobiography, Keith Roberts quoted a reader's comment on his character Kaeti: "'I wouldn't want to meet her,' says a young enthusiast mournfully. 'She'd hurt me by not falling in love with me.'" The young enthusiast was me, and Keith (who normally didn't suffer fools too gladly) was so chuffed by my admission.

I only met Keith two or three times, though we corresponded intermittently for some years – long chatty letters, some of them written by Kaeti. There's no doubt that Keith loved Kaeti too – and that she bossed him around something rotten, for a fictional character. But then, Kaeti, the greatest of all his multi-girls, really was so real.

But the most real of all of Keith's characters – and this is what caught my attention way back in my teens, in Pavane, and then in every one of his books – was England: English countryside, and English towns. Englishness. And this was what exemplified Keith's writing: in a genre dominated by American style, for me he was the greatest writer of English science fiction of our generation.

I'm sad he's gone; I wish I'd known him better.

Malcolm Edwards

I got to know Keith in the early 1980s, when I was editing the Gollancz sf list, and wanted to reissue Pavane in an edition which would include the 'measure' ('The White Boat') which was included in the American edition but never, previously, in the British. Republishing an old book in hardcover is a fundamentally dodgy proposition, but Pavane did quite well, helped by its inclusion in Anthony Burgess's list of the top 99 postwar novels, which came out just before we published (Keith later accused us of having published the book solely to cash in on Burgess's book: this was typical). Then he contributed 'Kitemaster' to the first issue of Interzone, and I commissioned from him a novel in the manner of Pavane. We also put together a collection, The Lordly Ones.

Keith's reputation as a difficult author already preceded him, but he had taken on Les Flood as his agent, and Les was terrifically good at defusing Keith. I used to meet Keith for lunch quite regularly, always at a pub, usually the Lamb & Flag in Covent Garden, where we would drink a great many pints of Directors bitter. Keith was a big man, who at that time had a thick head of black hair; a couple of years later he developed alopecia, went bald, and when his hair grew back it was patchy and mostly white, which did not improve his state of mind.

One of the things about those meetings was this: I don't like bitter, never have. I drink lager. But as far as Keith was concerned, only London pansies drank lager, so if we were to have any kind of working relationship, bitter it had to be. He could be a very interesting lunch companion, if you get him off the betrayals with which his life was filled, because he knew a great deal about Covent Garden, and the theatre. But being with Keith was never relaxing, because you could always sense the volcano of rage, resentment and suspicion just beneath the surface. You were always walking on eggshells. When you were his friend, he would issue praise lavishly and embarrassingly; when he turned on you (always in letters, never in person), it was with an extraordinary mixture of bitterness and relish – his view of his fellow beings had been vindicated yet again.

It all went wrong between Keith and Gollancz over a minor thing: Penguin, who had published Molly Zero in paperback, wanted to remainder their residual stock because it had stopped selling. Unfortunately, at some point in the correspondence, somebody there misread a figure. The book had sold about 9000 copies and they had about 5000 left, but the person said in one letter that they had 9000 left. It was an obvious mistake, because the figure they quoted as stock was exactly the same as the figure they had previously quoted for copies sold. Not for Keith. For Keith it was incontrovertible evidence of conspiracy: they had inadvertently let slip the figure which proved that 4000 copies were unaccounted for, and that he had been cheated out of royalties. When our Rights Director politely wrote to him and explained, he wrote back a letter full of such ferocious personal abuse that she refused, understandably, to have anything more to do with him. I remember writing him a four page single-spaced letter in which I took him line by line through every royalty statement to demonstrate how all the figures were completely consistent. Result: a letter full of such ferocious personal abuse that I decided to have nothing more to do with him. More letters followed, at increasingly distant intervals; the last I heard from him was the round-robin letter about his illness. But I know how in fandom these rumours have a way of circulating and taking on an aura of fact, so let me try and put this one to rest: I am absolutely certain that all Keith's claims of being cheated by publishers (and later, of being blacklisted by library suppliers) are completely, utterly, totally without foundation.

Later, as I understand, the various people who started Kerosina solely in order that Keith's later books be published were, in turn, savaged by him. I'm afraid it was all too predictable.

I swore to myself I'd never have anything more to do with him, but after we [Orion/Millennium] started the SF Masterworks series, and then acquired the Gollancz backlist, Pavane simply had to be included. It comes out next month [November 2000], and with an irony somehow totally appropriate to Keith's life a finished copy arrived on my desk the morning I heard of his death. Speaking about Pavane to colleagues I said something to the effect that it was one of the finest sf novels ever written, by a man who at his best was a brilliant writer, but sadly also the most difficult human being I've ever had to work with.

Graphic: Keith Roberts, Pavane