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Why Elijah Page is the best folk singer you've never heard of "Close to tears, he left at the intermission": how Stanley Kubrick upset Arthur C Clarke


NewsHubSurely you’ve heard of Elijah Page? A voice from the past, yes, but a voice you remember: he played guitar and stood up alone to sing about injustice and heartbreak in the days when it still seemed possible to change the world. Dylan, Guthrie, Seeger, Page – performing in clubs and at festivals, for ­audiences that took those voices to heart, that shaped their lives according to the songs they heard.
In reality, you are unlikely to have heard of Elijah (or Eli) Page, because W B Belcher invented him for his debut novel – but Page is a pretty convincing concoction. A compelling performer in his day, he vanished from the scene and, it seems, disappeared completely, as the narrator, Jack Wyeth, relates. Wyeth is a Page-obsessed folkie, a millennial with father issues (his guitar-playing dad left when he was five) who drops girlfriends and dead-end jobs like so much change from his pocket, never able to settle, never knowing what he wants.
One day, out of the blue, he gets a call from Eli Page’s manager. Page is ready to write a memoir; all he needs is a ghostwriter. Wyeth takes the job and goes to upstate New York but when he gets there he discovers, perhaps unsurprisingly, that his task is not as straightforward as he’d hoped.
The American folk scene offers a good canvas for the shattering of youthful illusions. It is hard to avoid comparing this novel to the Coen brothers’ haunting 2013 film, Inside Llewyn Davis , in which Oscar Isaac plays a 1960s folk musician based on a singer called Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk gets a namecheck in Belcher’s book and, for those who love conspiracy theories, it may be worth noting that the writer who helped Van Ronk put his posthumously published memoir together was called Elijah Wald.
There’s more. Albert E Brumley’s 1929 spiritual “I’ll Fly Away”, which you can find on the soundtrack of the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? , also gets a mention here. This is the kind of knitting together that is intrinsic to folk on both sides of the Atlantic, where old tunes and new tunes circle each other and bind until it becomes hard to tell them apart.
Folk is – let’s be frank – always on the margins. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be a place for rebellion and protest. Both Eli and Jack are marginal figures – even in their own lives, it seems. What brings them together is a need to escape from the confines of the present day, though that desire takes different forms. Eli has become a crank, a near ­recluse: imagine Bob Dylan crossed with J D Salinger and you’ll start to get the picture.
Belcher’s portrait of small-town life and the dark currents running under any surface is well done, and it’s clear that the author knows the drill. He lives along the same river, the Battenkill, that winds through the book; he is also on the board of directors of Caffe Lena in New York, the most venerable folk venue in United States.
Perhaps, at times, the material is a little too close to his heart. One of the strengths of Lay Down Your Weary Tune is its sense of mystery, but that mystery is stretched out just a little too long. What is going on with Eli? Who is responsible for the strange spate of crime in town? The story is a good one – laced with lost fathers and vanished daughters – but like those long, long Child ballads, it wouldn’t have suffered by losing a verse or two. And sometimes the similes get out of hand: wine glasses that “chirped like falsetto birds” when they clinked; a spine curved “like a lazy creek”. It’s lovely, but occasionally distracting.
The characters, however, are vivid and true. Jack becomes enamoured of Jenny, whose connection to Page is a puzzle right to the end of the book. Jenny is soft and strong and real, and her attachment to her ex-fiancé, a bullying local police officer called Cal, perfectly convincing. Eli stays just out of focus – but by design, dimmed to himself as well as to the people who try to get close to him. In the final pages, Jack finds a moment in which he sees: “Everything was perfect and everything was perfectly broken.” That may be the vision he has to live by. I’ll be happy to listen to the next song Belcher chooses to sing.
Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W B Belcher is published by Other Press, 408pp, £13.99
People were frequently surprised to learn that Arthur Clarke and I were good friends. He is considered the doyen of optimistic, technical, Space Age speculative writers, believing our species’ salvation to lie entirely in scientific discovery and engineering invention, his fiction full of detailed explication, sometimes virtually indistinguishable from fact. I am usually portrayed as the iconoclast of the SF “New Wave”, rejecting physics for psychology and favouring social themes over space stories, tending to examine the downside of technology. Yet actually we shared similar ideals. Much of our early work anticipated advances in astrophysics while dealing with the psychic future of mankind.
Many years after our first meeting I gave a party where I introduced Arthur to William Burroughs, the Beat author of Naked Lunch. No one expected them to have a lot in common, but they spent the next few hours together, sipping orange juice, occasionally asking for the music to be turned down because it was spoiling their conversation.
Born two days (and 22 years) apart, we met when I was 15, shortly before he went to live permanently in Sri Lanka. He was humorous, encouraging, egalitarian and generous, as interested in exploring the sea as examining outer space. We would generally meet whenever he was in England, usually at the Globe pub in Hatton Garden, where would-be writers could chat casually with established authors such as John Wyndham, John Christopher and C S Lewis; the SF fraternity had moved to the Globe from the White Horse in Fetter Lane in the mid-1950s. Arthur had already written his light-hearted Tales from the White Hart (1957) in affectionate memory of the Fetter Lane pub. Before the war he and some fellow SF writers had shared a flat in Gray’s Inn Road. His flatmates already called him “Ego” because of his total absorption in the subjects that interested him. He cheerfully accepted the nickname.
Born and raised in Somerset, Arthur came to London in the late 1930s to work as a pensions auditor for the Board of Education, but space travel was already his chief enthusiasm. An active member of the British Interplanetary Society, he grew up reading all the SF he could find, most of it in US pulp magazines, though H G Wells and Olaf Stapledon (the author of the epic Last and First Men ) remained his chief influences. He contributed frequently to the pre-war SF fanzines, co-editing Novae Terrae (“new worlds”) in its original form. One flatmate and fellow editor, William F Temple, described him as highly strung and given to “sudden, violent expressions of mirth”.
After working on radar in the RAF during the war, Arthur received a first-class degree in physics and mathematics from King’s College London, and sold a few speculative articles, including one to Wireless World that proposed communications satellites in space. His first sales of professional fiction were to Astounding (later Analog ), at that time the most prestigious American SF magazine, specialising in speculation based on hard science, with a strong emphasis on space travel. His later work – including his novella Against the Fall of Night , which became his first novel, The City and the Stars (1956) – appeared in rather more garish pulps such as Startling Stories. His fiction quickly brought him popularity with readers and in less than a decade he became known, with Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlein, as one of hard SF’s “Big Three”.
“Hard SF” is distinct from the kind written by Orwell, Dick or Ballard, which specialises in social and psychological speculation. Arthur’s work was distinguished from that of his peers by an almost mystical lyricism and a faith in a future where mankind would rid itself, through science, of its primitive and brutal characteristics. (Unlike Heinlein, with whom he eventually fell out over the American author’s support for Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plans, he had little interest in military space fiction.)
At first his factual books, such as The Exploration of Space (1951), were more successful than his fiction. He was soon able to support himself by his writing, becoming a leading expert on rocketry and space travel, ready whenever the media needed a piece about space exploration. He even advised the creators of the running story “Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future”, which appeared in my favourite comic, the Eagle , and whose images prefigured those of 2001: a Space Odyssey.
He developed a keen interest in scuba diving; it was one of his chief reasons for moving to Sri Lanka in 1956 not long after the breakdown of his first and only marriage, which had lasted just a few months. He returned to England often, always staying with his brother Fred, his sister-in-law Babs and his mother, Nora, in suburban London. Occasionally he came with a diving partner, Mike Wilson, and brought film of their expeditions with him. He was extremely proud of his underwater discoveries, which included the lost Koneswaram temple in Trincomalee, an important historical site.
Some time after his arrival in Sri Lanka Arthur developed a profound friendship with the diver Leslie Ekanayake, whose family adopted him. He dedicated his 1979 novel, The Fountains of Paradise , to Leslie, describing him as the “only perfect friend of a lifetime, in whom were uniquely combined Loyalty, Intelligence and Compassion”. In 1977 he suffered a terrible emotional blow when Leslie was killed in a motorbike crash just before his 30th birthday. Arthur continued to live with the Ekanayake family until he died. He was buried next to Leslie. The family and his many friends in Sri Lanka describe Arthur as a gentleman of great generosity and spirituality, even though he was anti-religious and placed mankind’s salvation entirely in its own hands.

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