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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (felix, felix, felix)

Three Cat Tails

Tail The First – Porgy

This tail was inspired by (and is dedicated to) Leiber, a very Porgy-like cat who owns my friend Paul Riddell.


There are four ways a cat can sleep with you on the bed, and Porgy has thoroughly explored all of them, trying hard to find his favourite.

The first, and simplest, requires him to stretch himself out over my lower legs, thus effectively pinning me down and preventing me from moving at all during the night. This also has the amusing side effect of blocking the circulation of blood to my feet so that I wake in the morning, cramped, paralysed and grumpy. Porgy jumps off the bed, refreshed and rejuvenated by his night of comfy slumber. As his weight leaves me, the sudden rush of blood to my toes causes me to scream in exquisite agony, and a violent outbreak of pins and needles threatens to sever my feet from my ankles.

"That's a funny noise," says Porgy. "I hope it won't get in the way of breakfast."

"No, no," I mutter through clenched teeth. "I'll be with you as soon as I regain the power of movement. Just give me an hour or so."

Sometimes, for variety, Porgy moves to the other end of the bed and stretches out across the top of my head as he performs his world famous impression of a coonskin cap. I lie there like Davy Crockett in a coma while the top of my head keeps Porgy's tummy warm. He likes this a lot, and he purrs loudly.

Human beings radiate a huge amount of heat from the top of their heads. I have discovered by experiment that when Porgy prevents me from disposing of my excess heat in this manner, the temperature soon builds up inside my skull and eventually my brains begin to boil and leak out of my ears causing strange, nameless stains to appear on the pillow.

"Oh look," cries Porgy with glee, "a midnight snack!" He gobbles up the unexpected windfall.

I'm sure this is the reason why I have found it harder and harder to focus my thoughts in recent years. Porgy has feasted on all my spare brain cells. Now I have exactly enough left to allow me to eat and talk (as long as I don't show off by trying to do them simultaneously), but I no longer have any to spare for more intellectual pursuits.

By far the best way of sleeping with a cat requires the cat to stretch out by your side and place his head close to yours. This is cosy and snug and cuddly and it generates warm and emotional feelings for both animals involved when the cat purrs.

However Porgy has invented his own variation of this pleasant position. It involves him turning through 180 degrees and placing his bottom in close proximity to my face. This is a much less pleasurable experience, particularly since Porgy is prone to farting in the night. My dreams have taken on a distinctly brown tinge of late, and perfume features in them a lot.

"Get your bottom out of my face!"

"You're supposed to lick it clean," says Porgy, affronted. "That's what a good parent would do."

"Obviously I'm not a good parent."

"Oh well," Porgy heaves a long suffering sigh. "I suppose I'll just have to do it myself." He proceeds to do exactly that. I watch with mild disgust. I don't want to be reincarnated as a cat. They have to spend far too much time licking their bottoms. It's a rule.

There's no question that Clive James is a very erudite and a very funny man. Many of his books and television programmes have had me helpless with laughter as well as sometimes giving me pause for thought. Unfortunately Clive James is also a very pompous and very pretentious and sometimes very dull man as his new book The Blaze Of Obscurity makes abundantly clear.

It is the fifth volume of his ongoing autobiography, a project that has become less and less interesting as it progresses. This volume deals with the years when he made his living as a presenter of some of the most hilarious television current affairs shows that I have ever seen. Unfortunately he gives us few insights about the process of creating these shows. Instead he regales us with far too much pseudo-intellectual angst as he tries to find a scholarly framework on which to hang what he did to make us laugh. He seems utterly unable to admit that humour is its own justification – that's far too shallow for Clive. Instead we get page after page after page of dreary nonsense such as that which draws grotesque parallels between Japanese game show contestants whose underpants are stuffed full of testicle-nibbling cockroaches, and the samurai spirit that motivated the kamikaze pilots of the second world war. It's a tedious, self-back-patting book of little interest or merit.

Stuart MacBride is perhaps best known as the author of some of the most grotesque detective novels it has ever been my pleasure to read. So when I found that he'd decided to employ his gruesome talents in writing a science fiction novel, I immediately raced out and bought it. Unfortunately I found Halfhead to be a little bit of a disappointment.

The halfheads of the title are convicted criminals. They are lobotomised (to make them placid) and their lower jaws are surgically removed (because Stuart MacBride loves to write about icky stuff) and they are sent out into a never ending round of community service; toilet cleaning and the like. Dr Fiona Westfield is one of these halfheads. She was one of Glasgow's most prolific serial killers and probably deserved her somewhat grotesque sentence. But something must have gone wrong; now her lobotomy is starting to heal itself. She is waking up and she wants revenge!

And she's rather peckish as well – you can't eat if you haven't got a lower jaw to masticate with.

It's a silly book set in a rather silly near future where the authorities wield onomatopoeic weapons known as whompers and thrummers which go whomp and thrum and disintegrate stuff. If you like silly books mixed up with lots of gore and really unbelievable characters, you might like this one.

Henry Porter generally writes contemporary spy thrillers. However with The Dying Light he has turned his hand to a near future semi-SF novel. It is supposed to be a dire warning about the surveillance society that permeates modern Britain, but the novel is really just propaganda thinly disguised as a story.>

There's no doubt that Britain is the most spied upon and most regimented place on the planet (with the possible exception of American airports). The progressive loss of personal freedom in the name of anti-terrorism is a national disgrace. And there is no doubt that it will get worse before it gets better (if indeed it ever does get better). It's a situation that clearly needs to be publicised, dramatised, ridiculed and held up to scrutiny. It is clear that Henry Porter feels very strongly about this and I cannot fault him for that. But he's let his outrage show too much and his novel consists of cardboard characters mouthing platitudes designed to illustrate the author's thesis. It's preachy; there's too much message and not enough drama. It's a political polemic with dialogue and it would be much stronger and more convincing if it was recast as non-fiction. As it stands, it is merely thin and unconvincing.

Tail The Second – Bess

The lizard had lost two legs and a tail and seemed unlikely to be able to regenerate them in the near future. It lay bleeding on the kitchen floor. Bess licked her lips and burped reflectively.

"Does it taste like chicken?" I asked.

"No," she said. "It tastes like lizard."

"Well, go on then," I told her. "Finish it!"

"I'm not sure I want to," she said and coughed a bit.

"What's wrong? Doesn't it taste very nice?"

Bess coughed again. "I've got a frog in my throat," she said and threw up copiously on to the lino.

"Ribbit!" said the frog as it hopped out of the pool of vomit and hid behind the fridge.

Hardball is the latest instalment in Sara Paretsky's ongoing saga of private detective V. I. Warshawski.

Claudia is a poor, old, and very ill black woman. Before she dies she desperately wants to find out what happened to her nephew Lamont who vanished without trace more than forty years ago. Warshawski is not hopeful – after all this time it will be almost impossible to find out what happened. But she is persuaded to take on the investigation.

Lamont disappeared shortly after a 1966 race riot that involved a visit to the city by Martin Luther King. An activist was killed, and the racial tension over the event is still palpable all these years later. Many of the potential witnesses are openly hostile when Warshawski questions them. Others, of course, are now dead and some are in prison. One key witness seems to have vanished into thin air.

Warshawski quickly becomes embroiled in the events of forty years ago. They take on a personal dimension when she begins to suspect that her own father may have been part of the police contingent at the riot. She doesn't want to believe that her father could have been involved in the corruption and venality that she is starting to unearth, but the evidence is convincing.

Then a young and rather dizzy girl called Petra, a young cousin from Kansas, comes to Chicago to work on a high-profile political campaign. Petra is given a quick promotion (which Warshawski finds highly suspicious, given the young lady's utter lack of two brain cells to rub together), and then she simply disappears.

All these events are connected, of course, and Sara Paretsky ties it all up very neatly.

One of the things that has lifted the later books in this series well above the norm is that in them not only does Paretsky tell an exciting story, she also has much to say about contemporary American politics. Here she draws close parallels between the anti-communist hysteria of McCarthy era America and the anti-muslim hysteria of the present day. Along the way she has many things to say about racial prejudice and the bigotry, hatred and violence that has always characterised white America's reaction to anybody whose skin colour differs slightly from their own; particularly negroes, of course. It all makes for an unsettling read. I suggest you go out and read it immediately. Yes, it really is that good.

Audrey Niffenegger (she of the unspellable and unpronounceable surname) has finally finished her next novel. Her first, The Time Traveler's Wife, took the world by storm in 2004 and left us all panting for more. Now, after five long years, we have Her Fearful Symmetry. And it's a great book!

The story begins with the death of Elspeth. Her lover, Robert has a flat in the same building as Elspeth and is devastated by her death. Elspeth leaves her London flat to her nieces, twins who live in America, under the condition that their mother (Elspeth's twin sister, Edie) never steps foot in the flat. Obviously something drastic must have happened to have caused such bad blood between Elspeth and Edie, though strangely, when Elspeth learns of her terminal illness she starts a regular correspondence with Edie and it becomes clear that they are still very close to each other.

The 20 year-old twins, full of quirky thoughts and behaviours, move to London and Robert, intrigued and haunted by their resemblance to Elspeth, largely ignores them though eventually he meets up with them while he is giving a tour of Highgate Cemetery.

Elspeth, meanwhile, is finding death a little odd. She manifests as a broody ghost, trapped in her flat watching over her nieces as they begin their new lives in London.

Audrey Niffenegger has an enviable ability to write fully developed characters who leap off the page. Despite the fact that the story concerns two sets of twins, all four of them have distinctly separate personalities and there is never any doubt at all about who is who.

And Highgate Cemetery itself is almost a character in its own right. Its history and its landscape wind throughout the book binding the protagonists together.

This is a novel about love and loss and duty. It's about relationships and intimacy and the loss of innocence. It's a twenty first century ghost story and it's the oldest story in the world. It's wonderful.

Under The Dome is Stephen King's latest blockbuster. In essence, it tells a very straightforward story. One day a transparent dome appears around the New England town of Chester's Mill. Everyone is trapped inside it – the outside world has no way of breaching the dome. The story then simply examines what happens to the people inside the dome.

It's a very gloomy story. Things deteriorate rapidly. It soon becomes clear that there is no real hope of survival (unless the source of the dome can be found and destroyed). The town soon divides into factions, with the self-seeking bad guys on a power trip to improve their own lot at the expense of everybody else. Furthermore, the bad guys always seem to win and win and win again. Every plan the good guys come up with to foil the bad guys fails miserably. Eventually, when all hope is lost, a deus ex machina ends the story.

Essentially, Under The Dome is simply a re-write of William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. That makes it an unnecessary book as well as a profoundly depressing one.

Tail The Third – Harpo

From a distance, Harpo can easily be mistaken for a tree hugging hippy. He's long haired and laid back and he smokes only the highest grade catnip. Closer investigation soon dispels the illusion.

"Don't let the long hair fool you. I'm not a hippy. I like violence!"

I'm very glad that the fashion for wearing dress shorts at work has largely vanished from contemporary New Zealand. My left leg is mostly scabs and scars and I am ashamed to bare it in public. Harpo carries a full complement of concealed weapons and he is an expert in their use. Superficially they look like claws and teeth, but that's just a cunning disguise. Really they are stealth swords that can rip you to shreds without warning from right across the room.

Sometimes, after a particularly soothing roll-up of the mellow weed, Harpo will relax enough to allow Robin to stroke him. If I come any where near him, he invariably threatens to terminate me with extreme prejudice, but Robin is allowed to stroke him until she isn't allowed to stroke him any more. Removal of permission to stroke usually involves the spilling of blood One day she called me over in mid-pat.

"Harpo's got dags," she announced. "Have a feel."

I was dubious – I'm fond of my fingers and poking Harpo's matted fur seemed like a good way to have them ripped out by the roots. Nevertheless I ventured a tentative poke. The coat on one side of his body was an almost solid mass of tangled fur.

"We could try brushing it out," I said dubiously.

"You come anywhere near me with a brush and you'll regret it," announce Harpo. His demon eyes glowed red with fury.

"Time for plan B," said Robin. "You put him in the travelling cage and I'll phone the vet."

Robin headed for the phone while I dressed myself in an ex-police kevlar stab-proof vest, a riot helmet with a specially strengthened perspex visor, heavy leather leggings and welding gloves. Thus protected, I manoeuvred Harpo into his cage, losing less than a pint of blood in the process. I'm getting rather good at putting Harpo in his cage.

He howled all the way to the vets.

"Help! I'm being catnapped. Call the police. Help! Help!"

But when we got to the vet, he was an absolute pussycat, bumping heads with the nurse and purring like a train. The nurse was smitten.

"Awwwww! Diddums gorgeous den?"

"You'll pay for this," whispered Harpo in my ear. "Just wait until I get you home." His claws hissed from their sheaths and then withdrew.

Clippers were produced. They buzzed and whirred and great solid lumps of fur fell from Harpo's side leaving him exposed and curiously piebald.

"Brrr!" he shivered. "It's suddenly got cold in here."

The nurse held a mirror up so that he could approve the short back and sides that had been inflicted on him. Harpo examined his reflection carefully. On one side he was his normal long-haired hippy self. On the other side he was a skinhead with anti-social tattoos and bovver boots.

"You utter, utter bastard!" cried Harpo. "Now I'm going to have to beat myself up!"

Clive James The Blaze Of Obscurity Picador
Stuart B. MacBride Halfhead Harper Voyager
Henry Porter The Dying Light Orion
Sara Paretsky Hardball Hodder & Stoughton
Audrey Niffenegger Her Fearful Symmetry Jonathan Cape
Stephen King Under The Dome Hodder & Stoughton
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