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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (canus minor)

In Which Our Eyeballs Go Oblong

In 1953 the world was black, white and several shades of grey. It was the dawn of a new Elizabethan age and in London a grey young queen was about to ascend the throne. A man dressed in flowing grey robes would place a grey crown on her black hair and grimly grey lords and ladies would sing Zadok The Priest at her.

"What we need," declared my father in ringing tones, "is one of those new-fangled television things. It would never do to miss the Coronation!"

And so a black box manufactured by Pye entered the corner of our lounge. There was a sloping, corrugated section on the front with two brown, knurled knobs on it. Above the knobs was a small (probably 10 inch) screen. One knob turned the television on and adjusted the volume, the other knob controlled the brightness. There were smaller knobs hidden away at the back of the box – these controlled frightening things called the vertical hold and the horizontal hold. Only my father was allowed to touch those. My mother, if she was very good, was allowed to turn the television on and off. I wasn't allowed to touch it at all.

I don't think I ever actually saw the Coronation – or if I did, I retain no memory of it. But I do remember watching Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men, and Rag, Tag and Bobtail and Muffin The Mule (contrary to later salacious speculations, this last was not a sexual offence).

Another favourite programme was The Sooty Show. Sooty was a glove puppet, a little bear manipulated by his master Harry Corbett. Every week Sooty would get the better of the man with the hand up his bottom, and cover Harry Corbett with flour, water, cream cakes, ink, paint, eggs and any other messy substance that could be found. The poor chap would endure this torture with stoic calm.

"Bye, bye everyone. Bye bye," he would whine as the show came to an end and nameless substances ran down his face and dripped stickily on to his shirt. Sooty was hugely popular with everyone. My parents bought me a Sooty glove puppet for Christmas. I rejected it.

"It's ginger," I wailed inconsolably. "Sooty is grey!"

Nation is Terry Pratchett's latest, and probably last, novel. It is a dull book, overly allegorical, extremely preachy, hugely obvious and an enormous struggle to read. It is largely set on an island in the Pacific Ocean of an alternate world. The island is called The Nation and it has just been wiped out by a tsunami. Mau is the only survivor. Meanwhile, in the ruins of a ship called The Sweet Judy, young Ermintrude Fanshaw struggles with the realisation that she is the only survivor of the wreck. The ship was carried high on the wave of the tsunami and is now immovably embedded in the trees of The Nation. Ermintrude and Mau soon encounter each other – but they have no language in common and their cultural assumptions are poles apart. They manage a crude communication, but there is no real understanding. Other survivors from other islands drift in to The Nation. Soon it is a mixing pot of conflicting customs and contradictory beliefs. This is the clay from which Terry Pratchett moulds his story.

It soon becomes clear that he is more interested in social commentary than he is in telling a story. He wants to show us that things taken seriously by one society can often appear to be silly and pointless to another. In some cases, the unquestioned (and unquestionable) beliefs of one group can be offensive and completely beyond the pale to another. Conflicts easily arise because of the misunderstanding of opposing cultural imperatives.

All this is very obvious stuff, of course, and even Pterry is unable to breathe any new life into the tired old material. Nation is a dull book; more concerned with message than with story and utterly lacking in the wit and subtlety that we've come to expect from Terry Pratchett.

Michael Flynn's new novel The January Dancer is a traditional space opera. The dancer of the title is a pre-human artefact which Captain Amos January stumbles across when his ship stops off on an uninhabited planet for repairs. People fight, scheme and kill to gain possession of the dancer and it travels all around the sprawling, decadent interstellar community. Collectors want it, pirates take it, rulers crave it and they'll kill for it if they have to. It's a thrilling yarn straight from the high days of the pulp magazines with all the faults and all the virtues that implies. It's a curate's egg of a book, sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes very smelly.

Stephen King has a new short story collection. Just After Sunset is his first collection for six years. He'd got out of the habit of writing short stories; novels gave him more room to spread his literary wings. But a stint as guest editor for Best American Short Stories 2007 revitalised his interest in the form and this collection is the result. In many ways it is a return to his roots – there are supernatural tales, horror stories and sheer gross out disgusting stories (you'll never feel comfortable in a portaloo again after reading A Very Tight Place). Not unnaturally for a man who narrowly escaped death in a motor vehicle accident, King has thought hard about the afterlife and the two stories that use this as a theme (Willa and Ayana) are the most thoughtful and moving stories in the collection. Probably the poorest story is The Things They Left Behind which is a rather overly emotional and slightly embarrassing reaction to the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11th 2001. But if you ignore this slight misstep, Just Before Sunset is a powerful collection, ideal for the not overly squeamish reader.

Margaret Mahy's new novel The Magician Of Hoad has been described by some as her magnum opus. Certainly it's a story she's lived with for many years. In an interview on Radio New Zealand National, she described its evolution from a trilogy to a stand alone novel. She claimed that she had cut out much unnecessary detail and removed a lot of self-indulgent plotting. Perhaps so; but a lot of the self-indulgence is still there. I think she was far too close to this story and that she reworked it too many times over too many years. What remains is flabby, unconvincing and second hand; the book of a writer who didn't know how to stop when the story was finished and who polished all the glitter and gloss away.

The story starts with Heriot, a twelve year old boy who seems to have magical abilities (though he himself does not understand them, and finds them more than a little scary). He is taken from his family's farm to serve the King of Hoad as a magician. Attempting to escape this fate, he runs away and encounters the Hero of Hoad who shares power with the King in an uneasy alliance born of mutual distrust. Heriot barely escapes from the Hero with his life. Eventually he is recaptured by the King's men and starts his life as the Magician of Hoad. The bulk of the story is concerned with the political machinations that go with the title and we are treated to the usual set of mad princes, noble daughters and street urchins as the King, the Hero and the Magician dance around each other.

The whole effect of the story is curiously distancing and out of focus. Normally Margaret Mahy is a clean, crisp writer but here she is vague and imprecise as if she is viewing everything through misty spectacles. It is never entirely clear what is going on and it wasn't long before I stopped trying to work it all out. The Eight Deadly Words (I Don't Care What Happens To These People) occurred to me more than once. I persevered to the end, but it was a struggle. The settings and the characters never really came alive for me.

I don't normally comment on the covers of the books I read, but the cover of The Magician Of Hoad is so awe-inspiringly ugly that something really must be said. It appears to have been designed specifically to prevent people from buying the book. In the foreground stands a singularly unattractive boy with the revoltingly sulky expression of a spoiled brat. In the background, wielding a sword, is a ginger haired assassin. My first reaction on seeing it was, "Oh good – that horrible child is going to have his head cut off." I was mildly surprised, on reading the book, to discover that the deeply repulsive brat is actually Heriot himself. It made me even more predisposed to dislike him, now that I had a picture of what he really looked like! In marketing terms, the cover does everything wrong and whoever designed it is definitely not worth their over inflated salary.

What a relief it was to turn to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. There's a quote on the cover from Diana Wynne Jones. It says: "The best book Neil Gaiman has ever written." Diana Wynne Jones and I are of one mind; I cannot fault her description.

The story begins with a murder. The man Jack has killed a woman and a man in their bedroom. He has killed their older child in her bedroom and left her surrounded by toys and half completed models. Only the baby, barely a toddler, remains to be killed. But somehow he is nowhere to be found in the house. Instead he has escaped to the graveyard where, as the years pass by, he is raised and educated by the ghosts and looked after by a guardian who is neither alive nor dead. He is adopted by the ghosts of the Owens, and he is known as Nobody Owens, Bod for short, and he's a perfectly normal boy. He dresses in a shroud and he practices his fading really, really hard. He never leaves the graveyard, it isn't safe for him in the land of the living. And there are adventures enough to be had in the graveyard; there are ghouls and there's a witch. But eventually Bod has to return to the land of the living; he and the man Jack have unfinished business there.

In an afterword, Neil Gaiman admits that Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book had an enormous influence on the structure of The Graveyard Book (the similarity of titles is not a coincidence). Like Kipling's work, the book is built up of a series of self-contained stories that nevertheless follow an over-riding story arc. When you lead from strength like that it's almost impossible to go wrong and The Graveyard Book is perfect from beginning to end. It truly is the best book he's ever written.

There was only one channel, of course – the venerable BBC. It wasn't until 1956 that competition (in the form of ITV) appeared on the scene. Our ancient Pye television couldn't receive ITV; it had no tuner, having been built in the days when there was only one broadcast frequency, and it was inexorably bound to the BBC. My father steadfastly resisted the lure of ITV.

"We don't want that," he thundered. "It's got adverts on it."

I'd never seen an advert – they sounded fascinating and I was consumed with jealousy to think that my friends up the road could watch as many adverts as they liked on their more modern television set. I did eventually get to see ITV adverts and they were just as exciting as I'd hoped they would be. I'd go round to a friend's house and we'd watch ladies who extolled the virtues of washing powder and toothpaste, and we'd laugh at the cartoon salesman who raved about Esso Blue paraffin oil and who referred to himself, in moments of stress, as the Esso Blee Dooler (boom, boom, boom, boom; Esso Blue – I can still sing the jingle). In between the adverts my friend and I watched Popeye The Sailorman cartoons. They made a huge impression on me.

"Mum," I insisted, "I want to eat spinach!"

My mother was bewildered, but obedient. I'd never previously been observed to voluntarily allow potentially poisonous things like vegetables into my mouth. Indeed, on the rare occasions that my mother managed to force a pea or possibly a bean into me, I immediately threw it back up. So I wanted spinach did I? She shot off to the village shop where, to her mild surprise, they actually had some spinach for sale. She cooked it and served it and I rejected it immediately.

"That's not spinach," I insisted. "That's yucky green stuff. Spinach is grey!"

I have since come to realise that the only food that could possibly be shown accurately on the television of the day was porridge, the world's only grey food – if indeed it is a food at all; opinions on this differ. But as a child I lacked such sophisticated insight. The fibrous green mass on my plate could not possibly be spinach. I practised projectile vomiting for a while in order to take my mind off it.

My father eventually succumbed to the lure of ITV. Seduced, I suspect, by the prospect of extra cricket, he had words with the man in the TV shop. An ugly black box was bolted on the side of the Pye television. This was supposed to allow us to re-tune it so that we could watch ITV, but it never worked very well. The picture was shimmery and it faded in and out. The sound was crackly. Eventually my father couldn't stand it any more and the Pye, that faithful workhorse, went to the great television studio in the sky and other, more anonymous television sets replaced it.

In the early 1960s, the BBC fissioned, rather like an amoeba, and turned into BBC1 and BBC2. This last was supposedly a more intellectual channel and it was full of panel games where talking heads declaimed pompously about art, music and literature. On one such show, a poem was read to the panel:

She (We gave her most of our lives)
is leaving (Sacrificed most of our lives)
home (We gave her everything money could buy)
She's leaving home after living alone
For so many years. Bye, bye

"That's a Beatles song," I said.

"Rubbish," said my father, who knew everything about everything. "They wouldn't put pop music trash on a show like this."

The panel had obviously never heard the poem before and they were very impressed with it. They discussed the cleverness of the imagery and the honesty of the emotions it portrayed. They begged the host to reveal the name of the talented poet who had produced such a marvellous work. This poet, they were sure, had a brilliant future.

"Well actually it's a Beatles song," said the host.

"See?" I said to my father.

"Humph," he replied.

To a man, the panel then repudiated everything they had previously said. The imagery was a little clumsy, the rhythmical patterns were flawed, the emotions at best second hand. An obviously juvenile work, shallow and trite.

This kind of two-faced intellectual snobbery was rife throughout BBC2 and it wasn't long before popular pressure caused programmes such as this one to vanish from the airwaves. BBC2 then became pretty much indistinguishable from BBC1. I'm not completely convinced that this was a good thing.

By now the television companies were starting to broadcast some of their programmes in colour. The programmes were also a lot more daring than they had been in the past and every so often, if you were very lucky, the leading lady in a bodice ripper would indeed have her bodice ripped. Attracted by the prospect of bare breasts in glorious flesh tones instead of gloomy grey, my father got a colour television.

Only about half the programmes were broadcast in colour. Every day my father would carefully check the details of that day's potential viewing in the Radio Times (BBC) and the TV Times (ITV) and make a list.

"Dad, can we watch..."

"NO! It's in black and white!"

He seemed to regard it as almost heretical to watch black and white programmes on a colour TV. He also harboured the vague suspicion that if the colour TV showed too many black and white programmes, its colour tanks might dry out through lack of use and render the set inoperable. Only the constant watching of colour broadcasts would keep the tanks topped up and their contents properly moist. Fortunately the number of programmes broadcast in colour increased daily, so the colour tanks on our television set were constantly being replenished. This kept my father very happy.

Ben Elton is thought of more as a comedian than a serious novelist and there is a tendency to try and read his books as if they are part of his comedy act on stage. That's a mistake. There aren't any jokes in Past Mortem. It's a very gritty detective story and it held me enthralled. The detective hero is called Edward Newson – he's a bit of a high flyer, very young to have reached the exalted heights of Detective Inspector. But his saving grace is that he is extremely good at his job. He catches killers. However his current case is quite baffling. There have been a series of killings. The dead men all had numerous enemies, because they were all bullies who seemed to take a personal delight in the pain and humiliation of others. And they have all died in painful, gruesome and humiliating ways. Everybody seems happy that they are gone. At first Newson is hard pressed to find any connection between the killings, apart from the gruesomely ingenious manner of their deaths. The victims did not know each other, they had no acquaintances in common. There seems to be no common ground.

The fact that all the victims were bullies gives it away, of course. It's a revenge fantasy played out in real life. Like most people I was bullied at school, though never (thank goodness) to the extent portrayed in this book. However I have seen it happen. One boy that I was at school with was driven to a nervous breakdown and his parents had to remove him from the school. Of course, as is always the case, the school authorities denied that it was happening and refused to treat it seriously. I can easily imagine that the dreams of my bullied friend came close to the events described in this novel.

It's a deeply unsettling book. Ben Elton understands his source material very well (perhaps he too was bullied at school and perhaps this novel is his revenge). It isn't a comedy, it's deadly serious; it's the best thing he has ever written.

Dead Famous, on the other hand, is light and very amusing. It's another Ben Elton whodunit, but this time he's just having fun by slyly mocking the unrealities of reality TV with the inflated pig's bladder of his wit. He also plays the traditional whodunit game with a twist that is all of his own – we don't even find out who's been murdered until about two thirds of the way through the book, although we know from page 1 that a murder has been committed.

It all takes place in a Big Brother like environment. Ten people are locked together in a house under constant camera surveillance. They can't even go to the loo without the camera watching them. Every week, one contestant will be voted out of the house. The last one left will win a fortune. One house, ten contestants, thirty cameras, forty microphones and one murder. Every event before, during and after the murder has been recorded. Nevertheless the police still do not know who the murderer is. It's a classic mystery solved in the classic way. Everyone gathers together in the end and the murderer is unmasked in the grand old manner. I loved it!

These days Anthony Bourdain is best known as a peripatetic gourmet, wandering the world and stuffing his face with exotic nosh. But in a past life he was a chef and a novelist. Bone In The Throat is a very funny novel about about murder, the mob and cooking. Tommy is a sous chef. Perhaps it won't be long before he's a chef – his boss has an expensive drug habit. But in his sober moments he's still a great cook. Tommy respects that and is in no hurry for promotion. Tommy understands respect; his family have been connected to the mob for generations. But Tommy himself would rather cook. Nevertheless Tommy, because of his family connections, finds himself involved in a mob hit in his kitchen. The killer dismembers the body with the chef's favourite knife, ruining the blade in the process; the chef is furious when he finds out. The bits and pieces of the body are stored in the kitchen's garbage bags to await collection. Tommy doesn't like it. Tommy has problems...

Bone In The Throat is grim, bloody and screamingly hilarious. Just perfect to read with dinner.

As the years passed, I moved from house to house and from country to country. Televisions came and televisions went. None of them made much of an impression on me. However each of them (sometimes in combination with other gadgets) allowed the reception of more and more channels. Eventually Robin and I found ourselves with about 50 channels to watch, most of which broadcast utter rubbish 24 hours a day.

All of the televisions that we watched this rubbish on had one thing in common; they contained bulky cathode ray tubes which projected a square picture. As time went on, we began to find this more and more frustrating since a significantly large proportion of the programmes we were watching were now being broadcast in high definition with an oblong aspect ratio. Watching these on square screens was, shall we say, a distinctly sub-optimal experience.

"We need a new television," said Robin. "One of those beautifully slim LCD ones that are specially set up for oblong pictures."

I had to agree with her. The world was imploding into a financial crisis and spiralling into a recession. I had just seen $8,000 vanish from my life savings in less than a week. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that now was the absolutely ideal time to spend lots of money on a new TV.

"Let's round the loss on my superannuation to $10,000," I said. "That gives us $2,000 spending money."

"Shopping!" exclaimed Robin and she went to get the car.

The new Sony Bravia in my life dominates the lounge. It has a gigantic 42 inch oblong screen. My father's original Pye would just about be able to accommodate the newsreader's nose, as long as the newsreader doesn't have a cold. Audio cables connect the television to my stereo system, and an S-Video cable connects it to the Telstra-Clear decoder. 50 channels of appalling mediocrity are sharp, crisp, colourful and stereophonically loud. Bill and Ben make political statements on TVNZ one, Popeye eats authentically green spinach on the Cartoon Network, the ladies in the adverts extol the virtues of washing powder and toothpaste. Robin and I watch it all, enthralled.

But sometimes, as the old, familiar images from my childhood invade my lounge (albeit in colour), I suspect that not a lot has really changed since the 1950s.

Terry Pratchett Nation Doubleday
Michael Flynn The January Dancer Tor
Stephen King Just Before Sunset Scribner
Margaret Mahy The Magician Of Hoad Harper Collins
Neil Gaiman The Graveyard Book Bloomsbury
Ben Elton Past Mortem Black Swan
Ben Elton Dead Famous Black Swan
Anthony Bourdain Bone In The Throat Canongate
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