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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (Nummamorous)

Milo and the Burglars

Over the years my cat Milo has taken to climbing on top of me when I lie half asleep in bed. He makes himself comfortable and then begins to purr very loudly and dribble to excess. I have become quite accustomed to this – indeed I almost welcome it; and these days I find it very hard to get to sleep without ten and a half kilograms of noisy fur slobbering in my earhole.

One night recently we had all assumed our customary positions and were drifting lazily away when there was an enormous CRASH! followed immediately by the strident tones of a burglar alarm shrieking its head off. Sally reached the window before me because she didn’t have to remove ten and a half kilograms of cat and pour the saliva out of her ear first. Consequently she was rewarded by the sight of three youths racing in panic away from the dairy across the road. By the time I arrived the excitement was over, though the alarm continued to shriek. We rang the dairy owner.

Samuel R. Delany’s aunts, Sadie and Bessie Delany, were born in the 1890s. They were born free, but their father had been born a slave. After the civil war he worked in the Episcopal church, eventually being ordained a Bishop – the first ever Negro to achieve that office. Sadie was a teacher and Bessie was a dentist – the second black woman to be licensed to practice dentistry in New York. In their lives the sisters saw the USA change and grow as perhaps no other person ever has. They were born in the age of the horse buggy and they lived to see men walk on the moon and fly faster than the speed of sound. And they saw the lot of the negro in America change equally dramatically. The "Jim Crow" laws meant that even though the Civil War abolished formal slavery, black Americans were still very much second class citizens with their own schools their own shops – even their own drinking water! And all these were inferior to those owned by the whites. The sisters were active in the NAACP and Bessie particularly was quite passionate about the civil rights cause.

At the ages of 101 and 103, Bessie and Sadie were interviewed by Amy Hill Hearth, a journalist. And in Having Our Say, both Sadie and Bessie talk about the things they have seen and done during the first hundred years of their lives. "When you get real old, honey," says Bessie, "you lay it all on the table. There’s an old saying: Only little children and old folk tell the truth."

The truth is not always pretty. Being black in America has never been easy and the Delany sisters always had to fight for what they earned. But they were never bitter (though neither were they na´ve; they knew quite well what was happening). Perhaps the most poignant sentence in the book reads: "We loved our country, even though it didn’t love us back."

I found the book by turns moving, funny (the sisters had a wonderful sense of humour) and sometimes profound. When first published in America in 1994 it raced to the top of the best seller lists, and deservedly so I think. It is impossible to read the book without falling a little in love with the sisters.

Bessie died in her sleep on September 25, 1995 at the age of 104. Sadie died Tuesday, January 26, in Mount Vernon, New York aged 109. By an eerie coincidence, that was the very day I started reading the book.

It would appear that the burglarious youths had attempted to smash one of the glass panels of the door with what looked like a paving slab or a lump of concrete, thereby making two mistakes with one action. Firstly they failed to appreciate that the glass was reinforced, and instead of shattering and allowing them entrance it merely took on the appearance of crazy paving and sullenly barred their way. Their second mistake was being unaware that the alarm was configured to respond not only to movement but also to vibration and so it immediately went into panic mode as the concrete rebounded from the glass and the shockwaves spread outwards. Indeed, so sensitive to vibrations is the alarm that on occasion it has mistaken the sounds of over-enthusiastic early morning council rubbish bin emptiers for an army of marauding vandals and woken up the entire neighbourhood with its caterwauling. Mind you, who am I to claim it was mistaken?

The safety glass had bowed inwards from the concrete blow and it was blocking the mechanism of the sliding door. The dairy owner had to smash chunks of it aside – no mean feat. Eventually the alarm was silenced and all was made safe with plywood and nails. We returned to bed and soon the only sound to be heard was the rumble of a contented cat and the occasional splash as the level of the saliva lake in my ear rose another notch. Goldfish swam lazily hither and yon, frogs went ribbitt and a family of swans took up residence behind the third hair from the left and sealed and waterproofed their nest with wax. Sometimes my dreams verge on the bizarre…

Mary Brown first came to my attention as the author of a brilliant historical novel called Playing the Jack, but she has also written several fantasies. The Unlikely Ones concerns itself with the adventures of a group of seven mis-matched friends - a knight, a unicorn, a crow, a toad, a goldfish, a cat, and a girl called Thing (the narrator of the tale). These last five were slaves of a witch and each of them has a painful stone embedded in their body. The stones are of different colours, red, blue, green, milky pearl and flashing scintillant bright. Meanwhile elsewhere a dragon bemoans the theft of his jewels. Joint the dots and complete the picture of the storyline.

Pigs Don’t Fly concerns itself with the adventures of a group of seven mismatched friends – a knight, a dog, a horse, a pigeon, a tortoise, a flying pig and a girl called Summer (the narrator of the story) who has a magic ring.

Actually the books aren’t as bad as these small plot summaries might make you suspect, but the stories are undeniably similar (and there are close similarities of plot and character to Playing the Jack) as well. Of them all, Pigs Don’t Fly is the weakest, partly because Summer is such an exasperatingly stupid girl that I kept wanting to shake some sense into her and partly because it is so episodic that it quickly becomes obvious that the rather thin plot is just being stretched out with incident until the page count is long enough, whereupon it stops. There is a sequel, Master of Many Treasures, but I simply couldn’t get interested in it. Summer runs away from the man she had promised to marry at the end of Pigs because she has come to realise that it is really the pig that she loves (or rather the odd being that the pig has metamorphosed into) and so she sets off on another quest accompanied only by the dog this time. However she is, if possible, even more stupid and unobservant than last time and I lost patience with her.

In the 1960s Robert Sheckley made an enormous name for himself as the writer of quirky, surrealistic novels such as Mindswap and Dimension of Miracles. The he lapsed into semi-mediocrity with a few novelisations and some moderately entertaining though quite routine detective novels. He wrote a brilliant short story called "The Seventh Victim", turned it into a bad novel called The Tenth Victim, and then wrote several very feeble sequels to it. I began to despair of him.

But now he has written Godshome, and he is right back where he belongs, on top of the world. Arthur Fenn is a professor of Comparative Mythology. He has financial problems. Coming into possession of a magic spell that allows him access to the gods, he rather naively invites one of them back to Earth. Several of his friends follow, looking for adventure and excitement and lots of parties. The book is guaranteed to offend every religious sensibility and I loved it for that. It is real, surreal and irreal at one and the same time. It is also very, very funny.

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! on my front door. "POLICE!" yelled a dark blue voice. Pausing only to empty my ear into a nearby bucket, I struggled into a dressing gown and let the policeman in. He seemed to think I had rung the police to report the attempted burglary and he wanted to take a statement At the time I wasn’t sure where he had got that idea from (being half asleep I wasn’t thinking too coherently) but later I realised that he was confusing our telephone call to the dairy owner with the official report made by the dairy owner and by the security company that monitors his alarm.

I didn’t think he would be very interested in the lake levels of my inner ear and such proved to be the case (though Milo the Cat sucked up to him shamelessly and got a good stroking as a result thereby increasing his dribble count to a stratospheric value – he always was a pushover for anything in uniform). I handed the conversation over to Sally who was the only one who had seen anything of note. Her description of the youths was vague – which was hardly surprising given that she only saw them for a split second through a fog of sleep. The policeman was most understanding. He apologised for waking us, stroked Milo one last time and splashed away towards his car.

Neil Gaiman has been attracting my attention more and more of late. For a long time I paid him little attention for he worked in a medium (comics) that had little attraction for me. But his novel Neverwhere (adapted also as a television series) was so amazingly good that I had to sit up and take notice. Now with Smoke and Mirrors he has a collection of short stories to his credit – and mostly they are indeed to his credit. They range from the stunningly brilliant ("Chivalry" wherein Mrs Whitaker finds the Holy Grail in an Oxfam shop) to the incredibly dull (most of the stories written in verse – I never did like stories written in verse; go ahead; call me a bigot). But this curates egg has so many magnificent parts that you will not waste your money should you purchase it. Neil Gaiman is starting to assume a place of honour on my bookshelves – another novel is currently winging its way towards me. It would seem that Mr Gaiman has become astonishingly prolific in the last year or so.

I bought The Hanging Garden on the strength of a good review, but I regretted it. It is a detective novel and the hero (one John Rebus) has apparently appeared in many previous books. Perhaps this explains why I simply couldn’t muster any interest – the relationships between the characters (and indeed the very identity of some of the characters) has presumably been laid down and explored in many of these novels. Coming into the series towards the end (as it were) I found that I was quite bewildered. Not only did I find it hard to work out who was who, I wasn’t even sure what they were doing, why they were doing it or (in some cases) to whom they were doing it. The confusion was such that I abandoned the novel half-read, so it is perhaps unfair of me to comment on it. For all I know all contradictions are resolved brilliantly in the latter half of the book. But I’m afraid I will never know…

If you don’t cry at the end of The Snow Falcon you aren’t human. A man returns to the small Canadian town where he was born. A divorce and a shooting are in his past and he hurts, and like an animal he comes home to lick his wounds. A small boy sees his father die in a hunting accident and suffers massive trauma and refuses to speak. A snow falcon blown south in a storm is shot by a hunter. All three work out their pain and their destinies together.

It sounds like the tritest of soap operas and in less skilled hands than Harrison’s it probably would be. But in lean and careful prose he makes you care about these people, makes you live in their world and see things through their eyes. There really was a lump in my throat at the end. Read it and weep.

Excuse me, I need to change my trousers. Milo’s been asleep on my lap for the last hour and I’m a bit damp in the general direction of my thighs…


Sarah and A. Elizabeth Delanywith  Amy Hill Hearth Having Our Say
(The Delany Sisters First 100 Years)
Bookman Press
Mary Brown The Unlikely Ones Baen
Mary Brown Pigs Don’t Fly Baen
Mary Brown Master of Many Treasures Baen
Robert Sheckley Godshome Tor
Neil Gaiman Smoke and Mirrors Avon
Ian Rankin The Hanging Garden Orion
Stuart Harrison The Snow Falcon Harper Collins

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