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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (saturnalia festiva)


On the twelfth day before Christmas, Harpo the Cat said “Merry Christmas!” to me. He doesn’t really understand the difference between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars and so he gets the date wrong every year.

“Bah! Hard-boiled, stripey, peppermint sweet!” I said back to him. He looked puzzled, as well he might. He’s never seen a humbug, and even if he had, I doubt if he’d be very interested in it. Though I suppose I could sprinkle it with catnip...

Neither Bess nor Harpo bought me a Christmas present this year, unless you count the extremely small baby mouse I found in my left shoe one morning. I was mildly displeased by their lack of generosity since I’d already done a special shopping trip to buy them a packet of cat treats and a tin of sliced beef in gravy, which they I was sure they would hate because it was new.

Now that we were on the countdown to Christmas, Robin and I began to formulate our gastronomic plans for the festivities. “Perhaps we could turn the whole house into a drinkerie and eaterie establishment,” I suggested.

“Good idea,” said Robin, “but we need a name for it so that we can put up a sign.”

“Oh, I’ve already thought of a name,” I said. “I’m going to call it the Bar Humbug.”

“Will it be open to the public?” asked Robin.

“Of course it won’t be open to the public,” I said. “The only customers will be you, me, Bess and Harpo. And Santa Hats are banned.”

“What food shall we prepare and serve in the Bar Humbug?” asked Robin.

“How about smoked dascyllus aruanus?” I said, showing off my googling skills.

“What’s that?” Robin looked dubious. “Is it anything like salmon?”

“It’s very like salmon,” I said, “only completely different. It’s a small stripey fish found throughout the tropical waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans. It’s commonly known as the Humbug Damselfish, presumably because it looks rather like the boiled sweet.”

“Sounds appropriate,” said Robin, “but I think I’d rather have salmon.”

“OK – salmon it is,” I agreed. “But we’ll call it dascyllus aruanus anyway. Nobody will be able to tell the difference. Now, what about drinks?”

“The humbug cocktail sounds interesting,” said Robin who is also a good googler.

“What are the ingredients?”

“One part white crčme de cacao, one part crčme de menthe and four parts of milk.”

“That sounds a bit unhealthy,” I said. “All that milk is bad for the cholesterol levels.”

“You’re right,” said Robin. “Let’s be healthy, and have it without the milk. We could also try the Wychwood Bah Humbug beer which is a 6% alcohol by volume strong ale brewed by Marstons, in the English town of Witney.”

“Jolly good. Now that we’ve got all that settled, I think I’d better go shopping for supplies before someone else snaffles them all.”

The local supermarket opens at 6.00am, at which time it mainly sells worms to early birds. I quickly filled my shopping trolley with goodies and baddies, paid for them and took them home. I managed to do it all in less time than it takes to tell. Feeling extremely smug, I arrived home with a car full of frivolities only to find a gloomy Robin who had just been struck with a Christmas insight.

“We need to go shopping for presents,” she said. “Dylan needs a thesaurus and Ashleigh needs a teddy bear...”

As any fule kno, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle writted on bits of papre the biograffy of Nigel Molesworth of St. Custards, the goriller of 3B, wich is all abowte the full lowdown on skools, swots, sneeks, cads, prigs, bullies, hedmasters, criket, foopbal, dirty roters and stuf. Also lessuns with peoms to reed owt lowd, and chem. where big bangz and smels which are wurse than the the feeet of Molesworth 2 combined with the armpits of Peason delite all the senses.

The bukes were rekwired reeding all throo the 1950s and 1960s and maybe even the 1970s (chiz). They tort me wizard weezes and sukcessful skeems and all there is to kno about SPACE. So there. Laff! I thort Id never stop. They are classiks of lichratoor, though teechers don’t seem to think so.

“SILENCE!” thunder eng. lit. master as I give him my end of term book report. “There is no such books, impertinent boy. I shall hav to teach you culture the hard way. Report for the kane after prayers.”

But this is skule where there are boys which are all repulsive, and no soft gurls except maybe Fotherington-Tomas who sa “Hullo trees Hullo birds.” ect.


Howard Waldrop is a science fiction short story writer. He’s written very few novels (and they are all quite short, barely novellas by modern standards). His huge reputation in the field comes entirely from short stories. He’s won many awards and is admired by both his readers, and his writing peers. That’s an amazing accomplishment, but it hasn’t made him rich. Sometimes it has caused him problems. In 2008 he had to have a quintuple bypass operation. The American medical system is not sympathetic to seriously ill poor people and he has not had an easy time of it.

In the introduction to Horse of a Different Color he says that he divides the stories in the collection into two categories – those from before his operation and those from after. To be honest I think that’s an artificial distinction. I can’t detect any difference in style or quality. All are as idiosyncratic and eccentric as you would expect from Howard Waldrop. I enjoyed every one, but some stood out more than others.

The title story tells of a pair of obscure 1930s vaudeville performers who go on a weird quest for the holy grail. The Wolf-man of Alcatraz, is a twisted re-telling of the well-known story of Robert Stroud, the famous birdman of Alcatraz. The King of Where-I-Go is a story about one of the last American children to be infected with polio before the vaccination programme effectively ended that terrible scourge. But because this is a Howard Waldrop story it also involves psychic experiments by the CIA and a time travel paradox. Avast, Abaft! is a literary combination of Gilbert and Sullivan and J.M. Barrie (and why not?). The Pirates of Penzance, while being pursued by H.M.S. Pinafore, discover Neverland and fall foul of Captain Hook. Well, it is a Howard Waldrop story after all and I did warn you about the eccentricity.

Dean Koontz, on the other hand, has written almost no short stories but he has turned out a frighteningly large number of huge doorstop novels. They are mostly potboilers, written for the money (and I’m certainly not condemning that as a motive). But every so often there is a nugget of gold buried in the dross and I have to confess that I enjoyed Odd Thomas quite a lot.

Odd Thomas himself is a 20 year old burger flipper in a small town called Pico Mundo (that translates as Small World – just one of many jokes that Koontz scatters through the text to add a little frisson of enjoyment to the story). Odd can see dead people. They never talk to him, but they do hang around him a lot. Once he saw the ghost of Lyndon Johnson getting off a bus in Pico Mundo. When Johnson noticed that Odd had spotted him, he dropped his trousers, mooned at Odd and then pulled his trousers up and got back on the bus.

Elvis Presley is much friendlier than the ex-President. Elvis spends a lot of time with Odd. They go for rides in Odd’s car. Being dead, Elvis never speaks. But he does cry quite a lot.

Odd is convinced that bad times are coming to Pico Mundo. A newcomer to the town, Bob Robertson, nicknamed the Fungus Man, seems to be the focus of malevolent forces and Odd has to race against time to discover what is going to happen and where it is going to happen. Then all he will have to do is prevent it from happening. Elvis is no help at all.

It’s a funny, tense story with overtones of horror. Koontz doesn’t pull any punches and the contrast between Odd’s sometimes humorous tone and the very real tragedies he experiences is ultimately rather moving.

The book has a huge number of sequels. I haven’t read any of them.

Dylan and Ashleigh are children who live just up the road from us. Dylan has ambitions to be a writer. He adores words and takes great pleasure from joining them together in interesting patterns. Someone at school told him that there was something called a thesaurus which would let him explore these patterns more flexibly, and now he knows that this is exactly what he needs.

“Well a thesaurus should be easy enough to find,” I said. “But we might have a bit of a problem with Ashleigh’s present.”

A couple of years ago, Robin gave Ashleigh a teddy bear called Horace, and he is Ashleigh’s pride and joy. Horace goes everywhere with Ashleigh. He even went on a winter holiday with her last year. Ashleigh was concerned that he might get cold, and so Robin knitted him some clothes with a special hole in the trousers for his tail. Horace loved his new clothes. Apparently they kept him very warm. But Ashleigh is now concerned that Horace might be feeling lonely. “He needs a sister,” she said solemnly to Robin as she sat on her bed, which was so covered with soft toys that there was barely room for Ashleigh herself. Fortunately Ashleigh is too young to understand irony. “His sister’s name will be Horacetta,” she announced.

We had our instructions. We knew just what to do.

There are three problems with Christmas shopping for presents at peak times. They are car parking, car parking and car parking. Full of trepidation, we drove to the mega-shopping centre, and headed into the car park, driving past a sign that said:

Car Park Full

along the way. Inside, we joined a queue of slowly moving vehicles trundling round and round in ever decreasing circles, hoping vainly for a space to appear as more fortunate shoppers than ourselves packed up their cars and departed. Suddenly the car ahead of us had a stroke of luck. There was a space! Now all that the driver had to do was reverse into it. No problem!

He reversed and straightened, reversed and straightened again, and then again and then one more time. But it did him no good whatsoever. He couldn’t get his car into the parking space no matter how hard he tried, and tried and tried again. Back and forth, forth and back. Nothing worked and he was getting more and more flustered. Eventually he gave up, and got out of the car. His girl friend got out of the passenger side and walked round to the driver’s side. He held the driver’s door open for her, she hopped in and he closed the door.

Vroom, vroom!

With one immaculate manouevre, she reversed straight into the parking space. Just like that. Her less skilful boyfriend tried to save face by standing and waving his arms as if giving her directions, but he didn’t fool anybody. We all knew that she was the brains behind the wheel. She got out, locked the car, and off they went to shop. He looked very shame-faced, and she looked triumphant.

Meanwhile we continued to play the circle game. Round and round and round...

“There!” said Robin. “That’s a space!”

She was right. Unfortunately it was only accessible backwards. My turn to reverse...

“Well done, darling!”

Robin understands exactly how to be a perfect wife. We left the car and went off to shop.

Paul Doherty has written a seemingly never ending series of locked room medieval whodunits under the generic title of The Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan. The stories all take place in the 14th century during the reign of Richard II. Richard himself is too young to reign openly and the realm is firmly under the thumb of the Regent, Sir John of Gaunt. The eponymous brother himself is a Dominican monk who is a close friend of Sir John Cranston, the Coroner of London. All the books have roughly the same plot – someone is murdered in mysterious and inexplicable circumstances. The realm is in peril. John of Gaunt is angry. Cranston and Athelstan have a limited time to come up with the goods or face the consequences. Athelstan has a brilliant insight at the last minute. The mystery is solved, the ingenious murder mechanism is explained. The murderer confesses and is sent for trial and execution. Everyone lives happily ever after until the next book.

The stories are so formulaic that you might wonder why you should bother reading them. But what rescues them from mediocrity is Paul Doherty’s wonderful sense of time and place. He brings the fourteenth century alive in all its smelly, scrofulous brutality. Don’t read the books for the story, read them for their utterly brilliant evocation of a society which is close to us in time but which is quite foreign to us in its attitudes.

Peace Work is the seventh and last volume of Spike Milligan’s wartime biography. The war is over. Milligan has been demobbed and is back in Blighty. What now? In the late 1940s Britain was still recovering from the war. Jobs were scarce and Milligan had no skills other than the ability to fire explosive artillery rounds at carefully chosen targets – a skill for which there was little demand in civvy street. He had some small musical talent and a love of avant garde jazz. Together with some like-minded friends, he drifted into playing gigs in various clubs. He lived in lodgings in Notting Hill. In a rather chillingly macabre moment, he records that the previous tenant of the same lodgings was Neville Heath, a rather notorious murderer who had been hanged the year before Milligan moved in.

The book rambles along with no real structure and very little humour. It seems mainly to be diary entries – went there, played this club, got drunk, got laid. Rinse, lather, repeat. Once the book is long enough to satisfy the publisher’s requirements, it stops. The goons are on the horizon and they would, of course, bring Milligan fame and fortune. But all of that is still to come as the autobiography ends.

Mark Oldfield’s novel The Sentinel is set in Spain during and after the civil war. I know about the history of this time in outline, but until I read the novel I knew very little about the detail. In particular I knew nothing at all about the atrocities of Franco’s dictatorship after the civil war was over. By the 1950s, Spain was a very strictly ruled and repressive society. The secret police were all powerful and corrupt. So called enemies of the state were ruthlessly hunted down, tortured and killed.

In 2009, long after Franco’s death and the restoration of the monarchy, Ana Maria Galindez, a forensic investigator, discovers 15 bodies in an abandoned mine. The bodies date from the early 1950s. At that time, Comandante Guzmán was the head of the Brigada Especial, Franco’s secret police, and even in those brutal times, he was notorious for his brutality. It seems clear that these bodies are yet one more example of Guzmán’s ruthlessness.

Three story lines interweave themselves through this long book. There is the contemporary investigation being run by Ana Maria Galindez, there is the story of Guzmán’s appalling career, and there are scenes set during the civil war itself at the battle of Badajoz.

The story of Guzmán himself is so atmospheric, so tense and so well told that the other stories all pale in comparison. Indeed, the contemporary tale of Ana Maria Galindez is so very clumsy, so unnecessarily melodramatic and so full of such clumsy dialogue that it kept breaking the spell of the novel. I found myself flipping pages through her tale because she was getting in the way. I wanted to get back to the brutal, sadistic, corrupt and claustrophobic tale of Guzmán himself. Also, for a long time, I was puzzled as to how the civil war tale of Badajoz related to the other stories that the novel was telling. However it did eventually lead to such a shockingly cynical revelation about Guzmán’s early life that I was pleased, in retrospect, to see it there.

But frankly, the novel would have been a lot stronger if it had concentrated only on the tale of Guzmán’s life as head of the Brigada Especial.

There’s a tendency to think that self-published novels must be bad novels. After all, the argument goes, if they were any good, surely a “real” publisher would have bought them. There’s more than a degree of truth to the argument – ever since the ebook revolution made it so easy for people to make their words available to all and sundry, I’ve read a lot of self-published novels and most of them are pretty dire. But there’s always the exception that proves the rule. Let me tell you about Frank Zafiro, whose books are quite, quite brilliant.

Zafiro writes American police procedural novels set in the (fictional) River City which bears some resemblance to Spokane, where Zafiro himself lives. He’s obviously sticking to the “write only what you know” rule for he is himself a serving police officer. All the novels have an overall story arc in the sense that there is a crime which is solved by the end of the book. But structurally the novels are made up of a series of vignettes as the police officers go though their normal working day. Some of the events are related to the story arc, some of them are not. All are character building – and therein lies Zafiro’s talent. He really makes you care about each and every character and takes you right inside their skin.

In a sense, you could say that Zafiro’s novels are rather like a cross between the novels of Ed McBain and those of Joseph Wambaugh.

Like McBain, Zafiro’s stories are set in a fictional place. Characters come and go – some live, some die, some resign and some are sacked; some careers flourish and some do not.

Like Wambaugh, Zafiro concentrates on the grittier aspects of police work. He pulls no punches and tells us precisely what the officers see and do on the street. Unlike Wambaugh, Zafiro puts very little humour in these episodes and that, I think, makes his stories so much stronger than Wambaugh’s. The grotesqueries are downplayed in the interests of realism. Sometimes you need a strong stomach when you read a Zafiro novel.

It’s best to read the novels in order because the later ones contain spoilers for the earlier ones. Ultimately these books are not about the cases that the police are presented with, they are about the people who are investigating the cases. It’s the mark of a great novelist that he can make you really care about the people who live inside his pages.

The thesaurus proved to be as easy to find as I had suspected it would be. We went straight to the book shop and bought a very handsome volume which was almost the same size and shape as Dylan himself. There was no doubt that he’d find it both thrilling and useful in equal measure once he developed sufficient muscles to both lift and open it. But the teddy bear proved to be a horse of a different colour.

So to speak.

“Where do you buy teddy bears?” I wondered.

“Duh!” said Robin. “In a teddy bear shop of course.”

“Where’s the teddy bear shop?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Robin. “Why don’t you go and ask the lady in the information booth over there?”

“I can’t do that,” I said, horrified at the very idea. “Men are genetically incapable of asking for directions. You go and ask.”

“Oh all right.”

The information booth in the shopping centre was occupied by a woman who appeared to be answering queries largely in gestures. “Where’s the teddy bear shop?” asked Robin.

“Up,” she said, making a corkscrew motion with her left arm, to indicate a transition to the next level, “and then over that way.” Her prehensile and multi-jointed arm, which was now high over her head, turned abruptly through 180 degrees and a sharp finger pointed the way to the teddy bear shop. We followed her instructions and lo and behold! There was the teddy bear shop.

The first thing that met our eyes when we entered the shop was a huge, noisy machine. A gigantic, transparent plastic cube sat on top of a red mechanism. A loud fan continuously circulated shredded polystyrene up and down and round about inside the cube. It was a fascinatingly hypnotic display, and after a while my eyeballs started contra-rotating in sympathy with the flying particles.

On one side of the red mechanism was a plastic protuberance with a fat, red cover protecting it. A notice on the machine exhorted members of the public to refrain from stuffing teddy bears. This, it proclaimed, could only be done by official teddy bear shop staff, all of whom were certified in advanced stuffing techniques.

Boxes of flaccid bears sat on the floor. It seemed that one had to adopt a bear and then the shop staff would use the machine to stuff it to the required degree of rigidity. How intriguing! I couldn’t wait to see it all happen.

Samples of pre-stuffed bears were pinned to the walls and Robin surveyed them carefully. None of them looked like Horacetta and so we examined the boxes of flaccid bears more closely. They looked and felt quite grotesque, and corpse-like as they flopped loosely in our hands. It was clear that, one and all, they needed reviving with a really good stuffing.

“Horacetta!” With a cry of triumph, Robin selected the perfect sister for Horace. An eagle-eared teddy bear shop staff member immediatly materialised by Robin’s side.

“Well chosen,” she said. “And for an extra $2 we will put a heart into her before we stuff her.”

“Oh yes,” said Robin, “that sounds like a good idea.”

The lady produced a red, fabric heart and gave to Robin to hold. “Make a wish on the heart,” she said. And when you’ve done that we’ll put it into Horacetta and then bring her to life with the magic machine.”

Robin concentrated hard on the heart and made a deeply important wish. The lady opened up Horacetta’s back and put the heart deep inside her chest. Then she removed the cover from the protuberance on the red mechanism, revealing a slim pipe which she inserted into the hole in Horacetta’s back. She pressed a button. A pump throbbed and Horacetta began to fill up and fill out with shredded polystyrene. When Horacetta was sufficiently shapely, the lady removed her from the red mechanism and sewed up the hole in her back with quick, expert stitches. “There you are,” she said triumphantly as she handed Horacetta over to Robin.

Christmas was now complete.

Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle Down With Skool Penguin
Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle How To Be Topp Penguin
Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle Whizz For Atoms Penguin
Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle Back In The Jug Agane Penguin
Howard Waldrop Horse of a Different Color Small Beer Press
Dean Koontz Odd Thomas Bantam
Paul Doherty The Nightingale Gallery Severn House
Paul Doherty The House of the Red Slayer Severn House
Paul Doherty Murder Most Holy Severn House
Spike Milligan Peace Work Penguin
Mark Oldfield The Sentinal Head of Zeus
Frank Zafiro Under A Raging Moon Smashwords
Frank Zafiro Heroes Often Fail Smashwords
Frank Zafiro Beneath A Weeping Sky Smashwords
Frank Zafiro And Every Man Has To Die Smashwords
Frank Zafiro Some Degree Of Murder Smashwords
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