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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (magister ludo)

skool daze

Well i mite hav expected it. The game's up. They got
me just when i thort i was safe. So here i am back at
skool agane for a joly term chiz chiz chiz.
                                                             -Nigel Molesworth

There's a rather threadbare towel hanging in my kitchen. I dried my hands on it a couple of hours ago. It has a name tag on one edge, put there by the loving needle of my mother's sewing machine about forty five years ago and still firmly attached. Things my mother sewed always stay sewed. They would never dare to do anything else. The towel is the only physical object remaining from my school days; the only thing I have, apart from my memories, to prove that I was really there.

I have no other artefacts from that time of my life. I don't even have any photographs – all such memorabilia got thrown away after my parents died. By then I was living on the other side of the world and it seemed quite pointless to spend money shipping things such a distance just for the sake of sentiment. So it all vanished. Today I rather regret their loss, but at the time it made sense. Recently, thanks to the kindness of old friends, I've been sent scans of those old school photos, and I treasure them. One of the pictures forms the background behind the login screen on my computer and people look at it and play the game of "guess which one is Alan". I always give them a clue:

"I didn't have a beard when I was at school," I tell them.

It doesn't seem to help.

When only memories are left, it can sometimes be fun to take them out and prod them a bit, just to see what wriggles. Most of my time at school was spent listening to teachers haranguing me, so naturally most of my memories are of those teachers. Some were good teachers, some were bad teachers. Some were indifferent teachers and some were downright creepy teachers who probably should have been in jail. Nowadays I too am a teacher, and several times I've caught myself imitating some of those teachers of my youth who still dance and gibber in my head. Hopefully not the creepy ones, though.

The man who stands head and shoulders above all others in my memories is Mr Tennant, my English teacher. He taught me to be proud of my writing. I've always been a writer – from my earliest days I've scribbled notes, snatches of dialogue, poems and stories. I used to feel slightly ashamed of this habit and tried to keep it secret – writing was what other people did, they were real writers, I felt that I was just a dilettante, a scribbler who couldn't hope to compete. Nevertheless I always spent a lot of time and care on the essays I wrote for Mr Tennant. Writing was fun and an essay for an English class was a legitimate reason for doing real writing. I was always looking for justifications for my writing (these days I don't – nowadays I know that it is its own justification; but I was much less confident and less certain of things back then).

Mr Tennant never said much about my work in the class (apart from giving me good marks), but he certainly noticed what I was doing and in private he was always encouraging and supportive. Of course, being the man that he was, he couldn't do it without sarcasm. He had the sharpest tongue in the world. His words could make a week old corpse squirm with embarrassment.

He always claimed that he knew exactly who I was reading whenever I wrote an essay for him. I was a stylistic chameleon and my prose always seemed to transmute itself into the authorial voice of whatever library book I'd borrowed that week. He followed me through Leslie Charteris, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway (distinctive stylists all), though I was extremely puzzled when he accused me of Raymond Chandler since I thought I was channelling Len Deighton.

He kept telling me that I needed to find my own voice, to stop being so dependant on the voices of others and he assured me again and again that I really could do it. That early encouragement was very important in the development of whatever voice it is that I use in my writing these days.

Meanwhile, in the class, he provided me with the tools that I needed to make my writing more effective. We took sentences apart, looked closely at all the individual bits, sneered at them and then put them back together again. He taught me the structure of the language, and he taught me about the subtle rhetorical and grammatical glues that stick the words together. He taught me to love words and the patterns that they make. When all the right words line up in a sentence, they go click! as they slot in with each other. There is no such thing as a synonym.

Recently I destroyed a few hundred thousand words of juvenilia, much of which dated back to those school day scribblings. Many, many hundreds of thousands of words more remain intact. I've published two books and goodness only knows how many articles. I've written scientific papers and doggerel verses; computer manuals and comedy sketches; fiction and non-fiction. One year I made $500 from selling my words to newspapers and magazines (that was a high point – I've never made as much money before or since). Probably none of it would have happened without Mr Tennant.

And as an added bonus, he played clarinet in a jazz band. How cool is that?

Working With David is Michael Bassett's account of his life as a Minister in David Lange's Labour government. It's a curate's egg of a book. On the one hand it is a blatant attempt to justify every decision the cabinet ever made and to gloss over every policy failure; on the other hand it is an autohagiography designed to paint Michael Bassett himself as an omniscient genius; and on the gripping hand it blames the final collapse of the government directly on David Lange who Bassett describes as an utterly disorganised, dysfunctional, priapic alcoholic whose only strength lay in his wit. None of these statements are completely true, but none are completely false either so it is not surprising that the book fails to convince, though it is not without its moments of interest.

Bassett does himself no favours. He presents the wisdom of hindsight as his thinking at the time and vast swathes of the book are tediously dull as he re-fights twenty year old political battles of no current interest to anyone in order to make himself look good. But he doesn't look good at all; instead he comes across as cold and utterly unfeeling. He welcomed both the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the earthquake in the Bay of Plenty because they took the attention of the press away from the quarrels that were breaking up the government. He seems not to have noticed the very human tragedies that lay behind both these incidents. Michael Bassett doesn't care about people, he cares only about winning the political infighting. The man is a robot, completely lacking in humanity. Time after time after time he fails to realise that the policies he argues about will ultimately have an effect on the lives of real people. He can't see that far out of the beehive. He can only see the winning and the losing in the game of government itself. It's almost as though, to Michael Bassett, government is its own justification.

By contrast, David Lange was overflowing with humanity, David Lange was full of feeling for his fellow men. David Lange was a warm man, not a cold fish. Bassett reserves his most bitter condemnations of Lange for those moments when Lange acted like a person rather than a politician. It is obvious from the tone of the book that Bassett regards these human frailties as unforgivable. He is particularly scathing of Lange's habit of going home in the evening with a video to watch or a novel to read. Why? Aren't politicians allowed to leave the job at the office sometimes when they go home? Obviously not.

Michael Bassett sets out to bury Caesar, not to praise him. Like Mark Anthony before him, he claims that the evil that men do live after them and the good is oft interred with their bones. But unlike Mark Anthony, Bassett is too stupid to realise that such orations are more likely to have the opposite effect to that intended. I was supposed to come away from this book disliking David Lange. I was supposed to come away from this book with the realisation that he had feet of clay. But instead I gained the realisation that David Lange was a person just like other people, and that he had frailties just like you and me. I came away from this book liking and respecting David Lange. The intention of the book was to tear him down. For me it failed in that hatchet job; it built him up instead.

But the book succeeded brilliantly in making me dislike Michael Bassett.

I've always enjoyed Robert Jones' polemics on life in New Zealand. My only complaint about his new collection of essays Jones On Management is that it is far too short, being only 126 pages of rather large print. But on the other hand, how many different ways are there of saying that management is just applied common sense, that common sense is a quality conspicuous by its absence in the population at large and that the possession of an MBA qualification is an absolute guarantee of utter incompetence in any human activity whatsoever? Jones claims that MBA stands for Master Of Bogus Academia and he is almost certainly correct.

When I went into the sixth form, I had to choose the subjects I wanted to study. I followed the siren song of the sciences and specialised in maths, physics and chemistry. I loved the logic and rigour of science. I loved the way it arrogantly took on the challenge of explaining the universe, trying to figure out what it all meant and how it all worked. Nevertheless, I embarked on that study with a real sense of regret. I could hear intellectual doors slamming shut all around me. I was reading C. P. Snow and that ominous phrase "two cultures" was ringing in my ears. I wasn't at all sure that I'd made the right choice.

One of the mandatory sixth form subjects was "General Studies", a catch-all course that tried, not always successfully, to round out our education by giving us at least a nodding acquaintance with things outside of our specialised areas of study. Here Mr Tennant came back into my life. He ran a history of science course, an odd subject to be taught by an arts person, but he proved to be both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about it. He was particularly good on the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (he of the silver nose and exploding bladder) but as well as bringing the personalities to life, he managed to explain the scientific ideas that these people were exploring as well. This was an eye-opener for me. Here was a man who obviously had no time whatsoever for the two cultures. If you straddle the fence, they don't always build the fence right through you. Sometimes your legs grow to compensate. I began to feel a lot more comfortable with my chosen specialisations. Another insight that I owe to Mr Tennant.

My favourite mainstream novelist is David Lodge. His new novel has the punny title Deaf Sentence and, like all his most successful books, it is semi-autobiographical. Professor Desmond Bates takes early retirement when his Department of Linguistics is merged with the Department of English. However he is not enjoying his retirement. The monotony of his days is relieved only by journeys to London to check on the welfare of his progressively more senile father. Bates himself is suffering from a loss of hearing which is a constant source of friction and social embarrassment. In the popular imagination, deafness is comic, blindness a tragedy. But as the book makes abundantly clear, deafness is no joke to the person suffering from it.

Eventually a misunderstanding caused directly by his deafness threatens to have dire consequences. Bates finds himself inveigled into giving up his retirement to supervise a PhD student who is making a linguistic study of suicide notes. She has some interesting ideas and Bates, at first, is not completely averse to helping her. Then he finds a pair of her panties in his pocket when he gets home. Her behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre, and he starts to wonder if he made the right decision.

Like all of David Lodge's books, this novel is both funny and profound. There is food for thought here about mortality and ageing, about family relationships and senile dementia. It could have been a sad and gloomy book. Instead it is hugely entertaining and that makes the profundities slide down very easily indeed. I loved it.

Reginald Hill, he of Dalziel and Pascoe fame, sometimes takes time off to write hilarious comic novels about Joe Sixsmith, a portly negro ex-lathe operator turned private eye in Luton. It's been nearly ten years since the last Joe Sixsmith novel and I was starting to despair. But now we have The Roar Of The Butterflies and it's a wonderful book.

It's been a sweltering summer in Luton and there hasn't been much work for Joe. The thieves and fraudsters just stay at home and sweat. However in the posh, air conditioned environs of the Royal Hoo Golf Club, passions are building to a climax. Shocking allegations of cheating have been raised against Chris Porphyry. Joe is more than willing to investigate (after all, he hasn't anything else to do) and Chris introduces him to the club in the guise of a prospective new member. Joe rather enjoys the almost palpable sense of outrage this engenders. A fat black man as a member of the Hoo? Unthinkable!

Against all the odds, Joe rather likes Chris Porphyry – he may be an upper class twit with the features of a young and handsome god, but he's also a really nice person and Joe doesn't want to see him suffer the social odium of being caught cheating at golf. Despite the pressures that are brought to bear on him, Joe refuses to be put off his stroke and he follows his instincts. It isn't long before it becomes clear that there is much skulduggery behind this seemingly simple case. There might even have been a murder, though Joe can't find the body anywhere...

The book is sly, slightly cynical and very funny. They don't come any better than this.

Another very funny writer in this genre is Janet Evanovich and she is back with Fearless Fourteen, the latest instalment of the adventures of Stephanie Plum. If you have read any of the previous thirteen novels you know exactly what to expect from this one. If you haven't read any of the previous thirteen, go and read them before starting to read this one. They'll give you much more of an insight into what is happening in this instalment.

Fearless Fourteen is one of the best in the series so far. It has a complex and interesting plot, it pokes delicious fun at the social stereotypes associated with computer gaming (all you World of Warcrafters, read it and cringe) and Stephanie's underwear gets eaten. What more could anybody want?

Once I started to specialise in the sciences, I needed a firm grounding in mathematics. It's impossible to do any significant work in physics and chemistry without using maths. Unfortunately I was rather weak in maths. That was where another teacher, Mr Ludlum, came in. There's a certain cold pleasure to be taken from a mathematical proof. It isn't a coincidence that mathematicians refer to particularly clever solutions to any given problem as "elegant". Mr Ludlum understood this perfectly, and he knew exactly how to share it. He kept my head above the mathematical waters in which I was swimming. It wasn't until my second year at university when tensors entered my mathematical life that my life jacket ruptured with an enormous bang! and the waters rushed over my head and I drowned.

As I struggled with the mathematical underpinnings of physics and chemistry, I always took solace from Einstein's grumbles about how hard he found mathematics to be and how difficult he found it to describe his insights in the mathematical terms that were really the only possible language that could describe them and explore their implications. But at least he understood tensors, damn him, and he used them in his work. Perhaps that's why I didn't discover general relativity. Well, that and the fact that I was born fifty years too late.

Mr Ludlum's genius lay in making it all sound so easy. He would cover the blackboard with small, neatly lettered equations. He never missed a step out, he explained things clearly and precisely. Whenever he said "Therefore..." the conclusion he drew really did follow on from what went before it – it was never the baffling leap into magic and mysticism that it so often was when his colleagues used the word. Like Winnie the Pooh, I am a bear of very little brain and I really appreciated the baby steps that Mr Ludlum took. And I loved his beautifully dotted i's and his neatly crossed t's.

My handwriting has always owed much to the stylistic school known as drunken spider. I am perfectly qualified to write prescriptions. However after a short exposure to Mr Ludlum's blackboards full of nifty squiggles I made a conscious effort to re-style my own writing after his. It looked so pretty! I got just as much of an an aesthetic thrill from the appearance of a page full of neatly lettered equations as I did from the elegance of the logic that underlay them. Perhaps that's an odd reason for working hard at mathematics, but nevertheless it was a real one. I'm sure Mr Ludlum would have understood, though I never discussed it with him.

I also enjoyed looking at a page covered with multiple instances of alpha, beta, gamma, delta, pi, epsilon, theta et al and thinking, that's all Greek to me.

I never claimed to have a sophisticated sense of humour.

I've been steadily reading through the Dresden Files novels that I started on last month. Sometimes it has been rather a struggle. I am getting quite fed up with blow by blow accounts of the fights that Harry Dresden has with the various bad guys who keep trying to kill him and I've reached saturation point; so much so that now, when a fight breaks out, I just flip forwards twenty pages until the fight is over and then I start reading again. Since books three, four and (to a certain extent) five consist of almost nothing but hugely long descriptions of fights, I managed to read them rather quickly!

Books three and four really are the pits. Harry does nothing constructive at all. He just bounces around completely under the control of events set in motion by other people. All he seems to do is fight bad guys. Again and again and again to the point of tedium. If these had been the first books I had read in the series, I would have given up on it immediately. They have almost no structure or plot worthy of the name. Every event seems to be just another plot coupon designed to get Harry into yet another fight. He scarcely has time to breathe. I was reminded of all those interminable light sabre fights in the Star Wars movies that made me want to scream, "For goodness sake stop fighting each other and get on with the story!" Unfortunately, just like Star Wars, books three and four have almost no story to get on with. So instead we have another fight to fill up the page count.

I'm also still finding Harry Dresden himself to be a very, very annoying person. He's an arrogant, conceited, opinionated prig. He's full of advice for other people and he gets very annoyed when they won't follow his advice. But he himself invariably ignores the advice that he is given by those supposedly wiser than himself. According to Harry, Harry always knows best. However the plain fact of the matter, of course, is that he does not know best. This is proved time and time again as the bad guys consistently get the better of him. There'd have been almost no fighting in books three and four if Harry had just paid a little bit of attention to what people were telling him loudly and clearly.

Harry is extraordinarily judgemental and unforgiving. Ebenezer, one of the members of the White Council, was Harry's childhood mentor. He adopted Harry and brought him up and taught him about magic and its uses. Harry hero-worships him and loves him to bits. And then Harry finds out that Ebenezer is required by the White Council to perform tasks which Harry finds morally repugnant and which seemingly contradict all the lessons that Ebenezer taught him about living. Immediately he locks Ebenezer out of his life and refuses even to talk to him. Ebenezer's actions have put him beyond the moral pale. Harry only ever sees black and white; there are no shades of grey in his world and he refuses to admit that Ebenezer could possibly have any justification at all for the things he has done. Actions speak louder than words to Harry, and Ebenezer's actions, being repulsive to Harry's somewhat quaintly naive world view, make him Harry's enemy. And so, just like that, a lifetime of love and respect is completely wiped out and Harry turns his back on Ebenezer.

I also find Harry's almost medieval attitude to women extremely frustrating. By definition, for Harry, women are frail and fragile creatures incapable of looking after themselves and incapable of doing bad things. Time and time again Harry is saved by tough women stomping the bad guys on his behalf and time after time the bad guys are actually bad girls. But nevertheless Harry still persists in his flawed, chivalric attitudes. Harry never learns from his experiences – he's far too arrogantly convinced of his own rightness for that. It's impossible to teach Harry anything unless you beat it into him with a blunt object, and even then the lesson won't last.

It's very hard to read a long series whose viewpoint character (and first person narrator) is someone I despise so much. Fortunately in the later books some of these excessive attitudes are toned down slightly and also the people with whom he shares his adventures are much more interesting and more mature than Harry himself (even Mouse the dog is more mature than Harry is) and this helps to an extent. Nevertheless I am finding Harry harder and harder to stomach and it is getting harder and harder to read my way right to the end of each book. I have two more to go, but I'm really not sure that I'm going to bother.

In The Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy Douglas Adams taught us just how important it is to know where your towel is at all times. Mine is hanging in my kitchen, wrapped around my schooldays. I dried my hands on it a couple of hours ago.

Michael Bassett Working With David Hodder Moa
Bob Jones Jones On Management Poseidon Publishing
David Lodge Deaf Sentence Harvill Secker
Reginald Hill The Roar Of The Butterflies Harper Collins
Janet Evanovich Fearless Fourteen Headline
Jim Butcher Grave Peril Roc
Jim Butcher Summer Knight Roc
Jim Butcher Death Masks Orbit
Jim Butcher Blood Rites Roc
Jim Butcher Dead Beat Roc
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