A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs

When SF author Keith Roberts died in October 2000, there was a peculiar sense of strain in the obituaries. They were lavish with deserved praise of his heartfelt, poetic writing, the love of English landscape that shines from all his best work, and the importance of Pavane (1968, reissued 2000) as one of the finest alternative-history books ever. But then came cryptic, coded references to "difficulties" with publishers ...

The trouble was that although Keith Roberts was a genius of a writer, he could be utterly impossible to work with. Perhaps he was a little mad. The form his craziness took was usually a sudden blinding realization that publishers and colleagues were cheating him, swindling him out of royalties, or generally doing him down. Now he'd seen through their little game, and said so in long letters crammed with personal abuse.

Since even editors are human beings who dislike being called horrid names, this tended to sabotage Keith's chances of doing further business with people he'd denounced. New small presses were founded by dedicated fans to make sure this important writer's books continued to appear. With fatal inevitability, he then quarrelled with the small presses.

You couldn't blame Keith for being a grumpy sod in his final decade. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1990. By late 1993, ghastly complications had led to his legs being amputated. Meanwhile, besides the writing, he'd been a stylish professional artist who illustrated his own and others' books – but uncontrollable hand tremors put an end to that.

When he mailed a circular about these sufferings to half the SF community, I expressed horrified sympathy in my own newsletter. Keith's reaction was all too typical, consisting of a stinking letter complaining that I'd invaded his privacy and obviously wanted to see him dead. But I apologized, I'm not quite sure for what, and he sent a forgiving Christmas card.

After his death at age 65, I begged obituary comments from his fellow authors. Mike Moorcock's reply went, in part: "Never knew a bloke so determined to destroy himself. I expected this earlier, frankly. I think it's a mercy someone that miserable is dead. Put that in your newspaper, Mr Langford!" Brian Aldiss allowed himself one sentence about brilliant work like Pavane before putting the boot in with, "Unfortunately, he became rather proud and quarrelsome. Literary agents and publishers (never mind his friends) did not care to deal with him...."

Christopher Priest put it more tactfully: "He was tall, bulky, amusing, paranoid, opinionated and intolerant of idiots (just about everyone)...." Keith's last publisher summed him up like this: "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."

But friends who didn't make the fatal mistake of having business relations with Keith Roberts remember him more fondly for personal generosity and long conversations over pints of real ale. Those who preferred lager still had to force down real ale, or face Keith's withering scorn.

Robert Holdstock writes: "There was a child-at-heart inside Keith, and an astonishing amount of information and historical anecdote which he clearly loved to share. I didn't know him well. I suspect he could have been a very caring man." Terry Pratchett knew him in the New Worlds magazine days, back in the sixties: "We met up a few times, went out to pubs, usually at very high speed in his car ... without deliberately invoking Tim Nice-But-Dim, he seemed 'a thoroughly decent chap'." Also in the sixties, J.G. Ballard briefly edited SF Impulse with Keith, and came away telling everyone with horror that this Roberts fellow was totally barking mad.

Gerald Kersh, another British author, wrote a famous line which Harlan Ellison loves to quote: "... there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armour, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment." It wasn't so much hatred as terminal exasperation that was felt by people who all too easily fell foul of Keith Roberts ... but yes, he suffered, and hurt himself most of all.

Now, as they say, he rests in peace. He left us some wonderful stories by way of memorial. As a couple of his small-press publishers wrote to me: "We will miss him, cantankerous old bugger that he was, he had much charm."

David Langford wants everybody to tell flattering lies about him when he's snuffed it.