Giles Woodforde talks to Brian Aldiss, author of 'Comfort Zone'

It’s difficult to know where to start with Brian Aldiss. He’s an accomplished poet and artist. At the age of 88 he still keeps a detailed diary of his life. But it’s his science fiction novels that have brought him world renown: “Brian Aldiss’s aliens demand a response,” wrote one learned American critic recently, “They’re eerie, as are the shaggy, horned phagors with their harneys instead of brains in the Helliconia trilogy; they’re repulsive, as are the 800-pound utods in the novel The Dark Light-Years.”

All of which seems a million miles away as I walk to Brian’s house in Old Headington. Leaving the bustle and roar of London Road behind, I first encounter a former work colleague, who is chatting to his new neighbour over the garden fence. This village scene is completely appropriate, for Brian’s new novel Comfort Zone isn’t set in a science fiction universe but right here on his own doorstep.

In the book, Headington’s Anchor pub is up for sale, following the departure of the landlady. Some of the regulars aren’t sorry to see her go, however, for she banned swearing in her bar.

“It’s partly the truth,” Brian chuckles. “I believe the punters left in droves as a result. The Anchor was, and is, actually the Black Boy. The pub’s real name has meant many things: originally it was just a little Negro, then that became a bit de trop, so he became a boy chimney sweep. Then they fell out of fashion. So now the sign depicts a black horse.”

The Anchor is threatened with demolition, and a weaselly council official admits that it might be replaced by a mosque. The hostile reaction to this proposal, I suggest to Brian, indicates a certain religious intolerance amongst some of his characters.

“I’m afraid that’s so. This is kind of non-mosque country so far as they are concerned. There is the Church of England, of course, but that doesn’t do any harm. And there is the very formidable-looking mosque just down Headington Hill, it looks very much like a prison behind giant walls to me.”

Comfort Zone is full of gently humorous observations about the elderly – the characters often forget each other’s names, for instance, or make unintentionally tactless remarks.

“Quite so,” Brian laughs. “I seem to remember there’s one bit where a chap goes to the funeral of an old friend. Afterwards he’s determined to go and console the widow, but she doesn’t need any consolation: she’s rather relieved, the old boy was a bit of a nuisance – I thought that was hilariously funny when I wrote it.” One of the delights of talking to Brian Aldiss is that you can never be quite sure whether he is pulling your leg, or not. I go on to ask him about the rumour that Finches of Mars, published earlier this year, is his last science fiction novel. “I said that just to pacify some poor creature who came to interview me! But I think it is probably going to prove to be the last one. I am now writing another novel, but I’m not making any progress. I’m good on sleep these days.”

One thing that’s definitely still in progress is Brian’s diary, or journal, which will one day go to the Bodleian Library. “They’ve been frightfully nice to me, and this is proof that I never wrote for money. Here’s the current volume, it’s number 77. The journal now occupies about two yards of shelf space. The Bodleian seems quite glad to have it, so once I’ve shuffled off the mortal coil, the journal will go to them. “Virginia Woolf once said: ‘If you wish to be read two centuries from now, keep a diary’. So who knows?”

Comfort Zone launch
Brian Aldiss launches the book tonight at Blackwells, Broad Street.
For tickets, call 01865 333623
Comfort Zone, HarperCollins, £9.99