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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (lignator coitorum)

Alan Goes Screwing

Robin looked at the far wall of the newly decorated back room and frowned.

"Shelves," she said firmly.

"You think we should put shelves on the wall?" I asked.

"Shelves," she agreed.

It seemed like a good idea to me, and so we got in the car and drove to Bunnings, which is the largest hardware store for miles around. The instant we walked through the door, a Bunning clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, approached us. He brandished the magic chisel Excalibur, and asked, "Can I help you?"

"Shelves?" asked Robin tentatively.

The Bunning put down his magic chisel, and pulled out a map of the warehouse which he scrutinized with a pale pink scroot that he removed from secret orifice.

"Take a left turn at Aisle nine," said the Bunning. "Then go straight on until you come to a traffic island. Take the third exit and go past a pub called The Hard Wear And Tare."

"I've heard of that pub," I said. "Rumour has it that they do a very nice draught turpentine, though their methylated spirit leaves a lot to be desired."

"So true,' said the Bunning, "but they do feature a paint stripper every Monday, Wednesday and Friday lunchtime."

"Shelves!" hinted Robin.

"Turn right after the pub," continued the Bunning, "and then immediately left through the concrete jungle. Pay no attention to the garden gnome with his trousers round his ankles who is the principle water feature. Turn left again onto Aisle nineteen; you can't miss it, there's a plumbing display on the corner with a special discount on a transparent toilet that has goldfish swimming in the tank. Join the dual carriageway on Aisle forty two and take exit twenty seven. It's signposted 'nut screws washer and bolts'. Turn left, left and left again and there you are."

"Where?" I asked.

"Shelves," said Robin, and off we went.

The shelving section of Bunnings proved to be remarkably bereft of shelves. There were cupboards which had shelves in them and there were shelves which had wardrobes wrapped around them. But the closest thing to shelves that you could attach to a wall were flimsy, plastic covered wire contraptions with large holes in them for things to fall through. Nothing seemed suitable for our purposes.

"Shelves," said Robin wistfully, and she shook her head.

"Never mind," I said. "Let's go and have a look at Mitre 10. I'm sure they'll have lots of shelves."

"Shelves!" Robin brightened immediately and we headed off to the car.

The door into Mitre 10 slid welcomingly open. A young man in a blue pullover picked his nose. It didn't quite fit, so he picked another one. Satisfied, he turned to us.


"Shelves?" asked Robin.

"Over here." The young man gestured vaguely to the right hand wall of the store and ambled off into the middle distance. We followed him into the shelf section. It wasn't far.

Shelves of every size and shape stood to attention against the wall. Brown support brackets festooned the racks on every side.

"I'll have ten of those," I said, pointing at the proudest shelves. "And thirty brackets. I think every shelf should have at least three brackets to support it."

"Good idea, squire," said the young man. "Nice and sturdy. But we've only got seven shelves in stock and eighteen brackets to go with them."

"OK – I'll take those. Can you order three more shelves and twelve more brackets?"

"No problem, squire. Anything else I can help you with?"

"Shelves," said Robin.

"Screws," I said.

"Walk this way."

Hunching our shoulders, we lurched companionably across to the other side of the store where I found a jar of ideal screws. There was only one problem – it cost $60. I sucked air through my teeth and shook my head sorrowfully.

"Have I got a deal for you!" said the young man, not in the least put out. "Take a look at this! It's just incredible! Seeing is believing! What a bargain!!!!!!!"

Pocketing all the exclamation marks that had fallen on to the floor, he led me round the corner to a special shelf labelled 'Screw Sale'. There sat an absolutely identical jar of ideal screws with a price tag of only $5.

I expressed bewilderment.

"No, I don't understand it either," said the young man. "They pulled all the sale screws on my day off. I have no idea what criteria they used. Probably a random number generator. We've got one of those on special as well. Want to buy it?"

"No thanks," I said. "I'm trying to give them up."

Avram Davidson was a quirky writer; a man of self-referential, deeply nested subordinate clauses of enormous wit and erudition. Of course you needed a huge amount of skull space in which to store the relevant contexts before he (and you) got down to the serious business of unwinding the stack; but if you managed to keep up with him, the rewards exceeded all imaginings.

Much of the oddness of his prose came from the strange and wonderful arcana with which he peppered it. Odd facts and peculiar juxtapositions culled from old books of lore. Shortly before he died, Davidson published Adventures in Unhistory, a collection of essays that explicitly explored these sources and which probed and poked into the dusty corners of history and legend. He examined these things with a crusty scepticism and a scholar's dry wit. Everyone who read the book agreed that it was a tour de force. Unfortunately very few people read it for it was published in an extremely limited edition and copies of it change hands for thousands of dollars on the rare occasions that they surface.

But the good people at Tor have published a new edition of the book and now we can all read it at a reasonable price. I strongly urge you to do so; untold delights lurk within its covers. Here's a quote, to give you the flavour:

Although the wombat is real and the dragon is not, few
people know what a wombat looks like, but everyone
knows what a dragon looks like.

The book is a compendium, an examination of mermaids, mandrakes and mammoths, the unicorn, the phoenix and the roc. It tells of Prester John and Sindbad and even Aleister Crowley and the later Emperors of Byzantium. It discourses on werewolves and dragons and it talks of the wonderful origins of Hyperborea.

This is not a book to read in a sitting; it is far too rich a fare for that. This is a book to dip into at odd moments. Read a paragraph here, a chapter there, then put it away again with your soul enriched by Avram Davidson's wonderful writing and the oddness of the many things that have happened in the world.

If you are willing to stretch a point, you might almost call Robert Littell's new novel science fiction. Certainly Vicious Circle is an alternate future history, but whether or not that makes it SF is moot at best. But who cares? It's a great read, and that's all that matters.

An Israeli government official is assassinated. A few days later, a Mossad hit squad kills a Hamas leader in retaliation. Nothing odd here; unfortunately we read about it every day in our newspapers. But Littell takes his story a little way into the future. There is a new President in America, a woman of great vision. She brokers a fragile peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But then Isaac Apfulbaum, a well known fundamentalist rabbi, is taken hostage by Dr. al-Saath, a legendary Palestinian terrorist. He demands the release of scores of high level Palestinian political prisoners as his price for releasing the rabbi. The leader of the Mossad hit squad whose adventures opened the book is given the task of finding and freeing the rabbi.

As the Israelis close in, the terrorist and the rabbi find themselves caught up in an extraordinary relationship. They develop bizarrely close bonds, united by common experiences and a curiously similar philosophy. They find that they are not so different from each other after all.

There have always been hidden depths in Robert Littell's books. He was a cold war poet to rival John le Carre and Len Deighton. But unlike le Carre, whose books degenerated into trivialities after the cold war ended, and Deighton, who has fallen silent, Littell has gone from strength to strength. There are deeply uncomfortable lessons for us all in Vicious Circle, as well as an exciting story.

We took the shelves home and I measured the wall more carefully than I had in the past. Eight things immediately became clear to me, and I rang Mitre 10.

"That order I gave you for three shelves and twelve brackets," I said.


"Can you add two more shelves and six more brackets to it?"

"So that's five shelves and eighteen brackets in total?"

"Yes please."

"The brackets come in boxes of twenty." The voice sounded peeved.

"But I only need eighteen."

"Well I suppose we can put the extra pair into stock."

"Good idea," I said. "You'll be amazed at the wonderful flavour they'll add to your casseroles."

"You can pick the items up next week," said the voice, and it rang off.

I looked around thoughtfully. All I had to do now was screw thirty six brackets into the studs that were hiding behind the plasterboard and then attach twelve shelves to the brackets. Simple really.

First find your studs. I composed an advert – studs needed to satisfy a lady who wants shelves.

"Shelves," said Robin, deeply moved.

The advert failed to produce any studs. Only high technology could help me now. I invested in a stud finder – a gadget guaranteed to beep loudly and turn its green light red in the presence of studs. Such equipment, I am told, is de rigueur among builders apprentices, who are much given to boasting.

Beeping and flashing, I set to with a will. However a multitude of semi-random results soon forced me to the reluctant conclusion that while there may well be lots of virile studs concealed beneath the surface of my yellow wall, there was also a plethora of dweebs, dwarves, dwangs and similar builders jargon in there as well. Mapping this confusing array of timber was turning into a problem somewhat akin to finding my way through a twisty maze of passages, all alike. And, Murphy's Law being what it is, I just knew that as soon as I drilled a hole it would bypass every single solid block of wood and pierce itself deeply into insubstantial nothingness.

Walls are just like atoms. No matter how large and complex their internal structure, they nevertheless consist mostly of empty space. And just like atoms, the bits that make up the walls are in constant motion. When a solid particle is identified, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle guarantees that any attempt to drill into it is doomed to failure. As soon as you pick up a drill, the wood will move to one side. Your only hope is to take it by surprise. Mark the place carefully with your finger, distract the wood by singing a song (I'm a lumberjack and I'm OK) and drill straight into it. Put in a screw immediately to hold it firmly in place and prevent any further movement. Then clean up the blood from your drilled through finger.

Using this infallible technique, I soon had thirty six solidly anchored brackets each one checked against its neighbour with a tape measure and a spirit level. Nevertheless, despite such care and attention, one shelf exhibited a slight list to starboard. I suspect the house may have twisted slightly when I wasn't paying attention.

As I fitted the shelves side by side across the wall, I realised that the room was a most inconvenient size. The shelves were not quite long enough to run all the way across. There was a half inch gap between each pair.

It seemed to me that I had three choices. I could join the shelves together in the middle of the wall, leaving a quarter inch gap between each shelf and the two end walls; or I could put the shelves flush to the end walls and have a gap running up the middle of the wall. Or perhaps I could fill the gap running up the middle of the wall with a vertical support brace. I experimented – and found that two shelves standing on their edges filled the gap nicely and ran from floor to ceiling giving a most pleasing effect. I could easily anchor them in place by attaching small brass braces to the edges of the shelves and the upright, which would have the additional beneficial effect of firmly supporting the edges of the shelves. Without some such construction, the edges had a tendency to go boi-oi-oi-ng, with possibly fatal consequences for anything stored too close to them.

There was only one problem. I rang Mitre 10.

"I need two more shelves," I said.

A very patient man took my order. And lo! It was done.

"Shelves," squealed Robin with delight.

Richard Bachman was the name on the cover of some of Stephen King's early novels. He died long ago, of cancer of the pseudonym, but he left one book behind. It's called Blaze.

In the introduction, Stephen King refers to the book as "...a trunk novel...". In other words, he wrote it, didn't like it and filed away to be forgotten. But coming across it again more than thirty years later, it didn't seem nearly as bad as he remembered it. He put it through the typewriter one more time, giving it a little bit of a spit and a polish and now there is one last Richard Bachman book in the world.

Clayton Blaisedell Jr., commonly known as Blaze, was a bright child. But his drunken father threw him down the stairs one too many times leaving him with a deep groove in his forehead and a damaged, simple-minded brain that could barely cope with the complexities of life. He grew up in institutions and prisons. In later life, he hooked up with George, a seasoned criminal with whom he made a good living as a con artist.

George has an ambition – he wants to pull off one big job that will earn him enough money to retire on. He decides to kidnap the baby heir to a huge fortune. After all, a baby won't be able to describe his kidnappers when he is released. It should be an easy way to earn a million dollars, with little risk of being caught.

Before he can put the plan into practice, George is killed and Blaze is left alone. But some small bit of George remains behind. Blaze hears him talking in the other room and from the back seat of his car. Perhaps the plan to kidnap the baby can still go ahead. Blaze is sure that George will help him. Hasn't George always helped him, always looked after him?

There's nothing nice about kidnapping a baby, of course. But nevertheless, Blaze is one of Bachman's most memorable and sympathetic characters. This is a story of surprising strength and sadness. It ends as you'd expect it to end, with both triumph and tragedy. It's impossible not to identify with and sympathise with Blaze. Bachman has pulled off a tour de force by making the bad guy good in many surprising ways. This is not just the story of a kidnapping; it's the story of Blaze's life and of all the choices that were made by other people on his behalf, and of all the opportunities that never happened for him.

It helps, of course, that the book is a very explicit homage to Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. Much of its strength derives from that (when you borrow a theme, always borrow from the masters). But it's certainly strong enough and original enough to stand proudly on its own two feet. I'm very glad that Stephen King rescued Bachman's book from the trunk. It deserved to see the light of day.

Interestingly, Blaze opens with a quote from John D. MacDonald:

These are the slums of the heart.

I've been continuing my reading of John D. MacDonald's stories about Travis McGee. I'm two thirds of the way through now – there are only six left to read and I'm rationing myself as severely as I can. I don't want to come to the end. These books are too good to ever end, though I know that they must.

I suppose these books come from MacDonald's "middle period". They are getting steadily more sophisticated. The girls aren't sand bunnies any more (though they still all seem to want to sleep with McGee; that man got an awful lot of sex). The crimes are cleverer than they were in the early books – indeed in at least one book it doesn't become clear until about half way through that a crime has even been committed at all, or that another one is contemplated. These are subtle books, make no mistake about it.

McGee is marked by his adventure, both physically and emotionally. In far too many books in this genre, the hero takes a beating, shrugs it off and then goes after the bad guys. When McGee takes a beating he ends up in hospital, sometimes for months, and the recuperation is long, slow and painful. When people that McGee is close to are hurt or killed, he goes into a black depression which is hard to come out of. The internal and external scars have marked him and the lessons they teach him are lessons he will apply in later situations. He grows and changes. The Travis McGee of The Turquoise Lament is not the Travis McGee of the earlier The Girl In The Plain Brown Wrapper. Too much has happened to him in the meantime.

And again and again and again while you read these stories you are struck by a phrase, or an introspective paragraph, or an observation on the way that the world works which is just so exactly right that you have to put the book down for a minute simply in order to admire the wonderful words that have just grabbed hold of you and shaken you up. MacDonald can make you cry with a well placed comma; he can make you angry with a paragraph of denunciation, he can make you laugh at the eccentricity of simply being alive.

In case you can't tell, I'm simply loving these books.

Thirty six brackets, each of which required six screws; three into the wall and three into the shelves. Twelve brass braces each of which required two screws. Two hundred and forty screws. That's a lot of screwing.

And it put a great big smile on Robin's face.

Avram Davidson Adventures In Unhistory Tor
Robert Littell Vicious Circle Overlook
Richard Bachman Blaze Scribner
John D. MacDonald The Girl In the Plain Brown Wrapper Fawcett
John D. MacDonald Dress Her In Indigo Fawcett
John D. MacDonald The Long Lavender Look Fawcett
John D. MacDonald The Scarlet Ruse Fawcett
John D. MacDonald The Turquoise Lament Fawcett
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