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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (ablutum minorum)

Alan Pegs Out

When the weather is warm and sunny, wet clothes from the washing machine can be hung out to dry. My mother called it "pegging out" and she did it on Mondays. If the weather was unfavourable, she didn't peg out - instead she spread the damp clothes on a wooden frame she called a "clothes horse" which she opened up around the roaring coal fire in the dining room. Condensation caused by moisture evaporating from the drying clothes would stream down the inside of the windows and drip onto the floor, racing in matching patterns with the rain that streamed down the outside of the windows.

Sometimes my mother hung the clothes so close to the flames that they got scorched as they dried. That's why all my underpants had strange brown marks on them.

But whether she pegged out or whether she used the clothes horse, she did it only on Mondays. In Yorkshire, it is against the law to wash and dry the clothes on any day of the week except Monday. Yorkshire folk are deeply conservative and very suspicious of new-fangled ideas. Change is anathema in Yorkshire. My mother, ever the conformist, was scared that people might think her eccentric. So on Mondays she pegged out.

When Robin and I first moved into our house in Wellington, there was a twirly whirly framework in the back garden. A witch's hat sat on a pole and wires encircled it. Wet clothes that hung on the wires caught the breeze like sails and, if the conditions were right, the witch's hat spun in slow circles. Or not. Mostly not for it was old and creaky and its bearings had seized up.

"Oh, look," I said. "I can peg out."

"What a good idea," said Robin. "What's pegging out?"

I explained.

"But you go to work on Mondays," said Robin. "You won't have time to peg out."

"I have it all under control," I reassured her. "I'll peg out on Saturdays instead."

"They'll never let you go back to Yorkshire if you do that," Robin pointed out.

"I don't think I really care," I said. "There's nothing there for me any more. I've been away for so long now that I've even forgotten the words to the national anthem."

"God Save The Queen?"

"No - On Ilkley Moor Baht 'at."

"Ilkley Moor?"

"Baht 'at," I confirmed. "You can look it up on the internet. Mary Jane, worms, ducks and ritual cannibalism. Yorkshire folk have strange ways of passing the time..."

Conspiracies of Rome by Richard Blake is the first book of an announced trilogy which currently has four volumes in it with, presumably, many more to go. The novel concerns the adventures of one Aelric, a man from Britain who stumbles into heresy, fraud, high treason and murder in Rome in 609AD.

There seems to be a fashion at the moment for historical adventures set before, during and just after the Roman Empire. This is only the latest in a long line. However it is not without interest and I rather enjoyed it.

By 609AD the Roman Empire in the west was pretty much moribund. The Eastern Emperor, while nominally still influential in the West, was beset by troubles of his own and his representative in Ravenna (Rome itself had long since ceased to be the centre of government) was pretty much autonomous. The Lombards were quarrelling over what little was left of the Empire and the dark ages were overwhelming the world.

Novels like this read very much like the fantasy tomes that make the bookshelves creak so loudly these days. Do a search and replace, and turn Rome into Minas Tirith, Constantinople into Lankhmar, Aelric into Elric, Lombards into Orcs, and you might easily end up with a best selling fantasy. Indeed, there are definite overtones of The Lord Of The Rings itself in Blake's novel as his protagonists scheme and fight through cities full of the ruins of earlier, fallen glories. They were giants in those days, but their powers and abilities have long been lost. Perhaps that crossover explains the popularity of the theme at the moment. It's just more of the same but with real, instead of imaginary, history. Mind you, it's all so long ago and (in the case of the dark ages anyway) so obscure that it might just as well be imaginary. Certainly there's nothing to stop you from pretending that this book and others like it have been written by the fantasy author de jour. Perhaps it will add to your enjoyment. Or detract from it.

Aelric (or Alaric as the Romans call him, because they can't pronounce words in his barbarous tongue) has been compared to George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman by some reviewers. I'm not sure I'd fully agree with that. Certainly he has Flashman's share of cynical opportunism and he's not above robbing a corpse or two (or even creating a corpse or two) but his motives are pure and, by and large, unselfish. Something which could not be said of Flashman. Aelric/Alaric wants to try and push back the dark clouds of ignorance that are closing in on the world. To that end, he uses some of his ill-gotten gains to hire scribes to copy books from the ancient libraries of Rome. He wants to distribute these philosophical and religious and even scientific works far and wide throughout Britain. He wants to bring about a renaissance of knowledge in his homeland, although he never quite phrases it like this to himself of course.

Conspiracies of Rome is a fascinating book and Aelric is a fascinating character. I'm curious to see how he will progress through the later volumes. Will he succumb to cynicism? Will his ideals survive?

Matthew Hughes' novel The Other concerns the adventures of one Luff Imbry, a gourmet, a thief and a forger. He is large of belly and large of intellect and he makes his living in dubious ways.

Imbry is kidnapped and deposited on a remote, backward desert planet called Fulda. He is faced with several seemingly intractable problems. First and foremost he must, of course, secure his own survival. Secondly he must come to grips with the peculiar history, customs, religion, and political conflicts of Fulda. Understanding these will obviously help him to solve his first problem. Thirdly he must determine the identity and purpose of his kidnapper so that adequate and appropriate revenge can be taken. And fourthly he must try and work out how to return to Old Earth from a planet that has no space ports.

If that sounds like the outline of a novel by Jack Vance, that is not completely unintentional. Hughes deliberately writes Vancean novels partly as an homage to the master and partly, I think, because that is just naturally how his mind works. Interestingly he never descends into pastiche. His plotting and his style all contain echoes of Vance but nevertheless Hughes maintains his own individuality throughout. This is an amazing feat, and I'm not at all sure how he does it, but nevertheless he does, and he brings it off magnificently. The Other is a tour de force and I loved it.

Luff Imbry, the hero of The Other has previously appeared in several short stories. These stories are available for download from the Angry Robot web site. Go to:

and follow your nose. The price is very reasonable and the stories do not have any DRM built in which is a big plus. Well done Angry Robot! I strongly urge you to visit the web site and buy the stories. I've bought them and they are, each and every one, little gems.

Frederick Forsyth had a huge impact in the 1970s with novels such as The Day Of The Jackal, and The Dogs Of War. Unfortunately his subsequent novels were largely forgettable, routine thrillers; potboilers that never amounted to much. What made his early novels so distinctive and so brilliant was their concentration on procedure, the detailed minutiae that lay behind the grand schemes of assassination and mercenary recruitment. It's all very well saying you want to kill a president or invade a country. But how do you actually go about doing it? Most of us wouldn't know where to begin. Forsyth showed us how.

With The Cobra he has returned to that level of detail. The U.S. President (unnamed in the novel but quite obviously Barack Obama) has become disgusted by the horrors that illegal drug trafficking have brought to his country. He decides that something has to be done about it. He is going to stamp out the international trade in cocaine. He arbitrarily declares the drug traders and their cartels to be terrorists which immediately gives him powers against them that he didn't have before. As an aside, this in itself is a terrifying development. Where does the line get drawn? Suppose one day the president decides to declare insider traders, or doctors who perform abortions, or people who smoke cigarettes to be terrorists? What then for you and me and the man in the street? Nobody's safe...

Anyway, back in the story, he employs the ex-CIA director Paul Devereaux to head a team to implement what has now become a legal war, albeit a somewhat unconventional one with unconventional tactics. Devereaux (whose nickname is The Cobra) has a pretty much unlimited budget and the power to enforce cooperation from any arm of the government. Effectively he has carte blanche to devise and implement a scheme to put the drug barons out of business.

Given that premise, Forsyth lays out how it could all work. He makes a very convincing case – nobody is invulnerable, no business cannot be undermined when you really work at it. The story is very convincing and the details are immaculately worked out. This is Forsyth's best novel since The Dogs Of War and it works so well for exactly the same reasons that made that early novel so powerful. Perhaps, finally, Forsyth has found his own unique voice again.

Robert B. Parker was an American crime writer. He made his reputation with a series of fairly hard boiled novels about a private detective called Spenser. However towards the end of his life he started another series about a failed policeman called Jesse Stone. The first of these novels is called Night Passage. Stone is introduced as a Los Angeles policeman who has dived deeply into a bottle after his divorce. The drink is ruining his life to such an extent that no other policemen will have him as their partner and pressure is put upon him to resign, which he eventually does. He starts applying for jobs in other jurisdictions. He is interviewed for the job of Chief Of Police in the small town of Paradise in Massachusetts. He is drunk at the interview, slurring his responses to the interview questions and reeking of bourbon. Inexplicably he is offered the job. He accepts and sets off to drive across the country from the west coast to the east. Perhaps when he arrives in Paradise he will have sobered up sufficiently to make a good job of the task in front of him. It soon becomes clear that Stone has been hired because Hathaway, the corrupt chairman of the Board of Selectmen (whatever that might be!), believes that this will allow him to control and manipulate Stone for his own ends. Unfortunately for Hathaway, Stone proves to be made of sterner stuff than that. He has his weaknesses, but he also has an integrity that will not allow him to fall that far. It seems that Hathaway has bitten off more than he can chew and it isn't long before Jesse Stone starts to clean up the town.

In many ways it's a stereotypical book. We've seen characters like these a thousand times before. The plot, while complex, has little originality. But none of that matters. Somehow, Parker, that consummately professional writer, manages to make a work of art out of junk, showing yet again (if it really needed to be shown) that no matter how tired the ingredients are, a good writer can always make something fresh and new from them.

Lawrence Block's collection of short stories The Night And The Music brings together all the short stories he has written about Matthew Scudder, his most enduring and popular series character. Many of the tales are just vignettes, but there are a sufficiently large number of fully fleshed out tales to make the collection worth while, though without the broader appreciation obtained from reading the novels, some people might find them a little thin.

On the other hand, Step By Step is a non-fiction semi-autobiography, the closest Block has yet come to revealing what makes him tick. The bulk of the book is concerned with Block's late-in-life obsession with walking and running marathon distances. I must confess that I found these passages less than enthralling. There are only so many ways you can rhapsodise about putting one foot in front of another. But these rather dull episodes are interspersed with tales of his early writing life (he was mainly writing pornography in those days) and these parts are quite fascinating. The book is a mixed bag and I'm lukewarm about it, but nevertheless I learned a lot about the character of a man whose writing skills I admire greatly. To that end, I suppose it was worth while, he said, praising with faint damns...

With Renfield, Barbara Hambly has chosen to re-tell the story of Dracula from the point of view of one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel – the fly/spider/rat eating slave, Renfield.

Like the original book by Stoker, this is an epistolary novel with some narrative interpolations. It largely consists of extracts from Renfield's diary (complete with a detailed total of the number of insects he has eaten that day) and some of his letters. Given that Renfield is locked up in Dr. Seward's asylum, there are some incidents that he simply is not in a position to have observed. That's where the narrative sequences come in.

Hambly sticks religiously to Stoker's original narrative (indeed, she even quotes sections directly from the book). But she expands upon it, inventing a plausible past for Renfield, and this adds an interesting perspective to the legend.

Vampire stories are everywhere these days and most of them are rubbish. Renfield takes us back to the roots of the legend. It isn't rubbish.

For a while, all went well. The Gods of Yorkshire failed to notice my ex-pat eccentricities and pegging out on Saturdays was a great success. But then, one day I hung a supersaturated solution of tee shirts on the contraption and the witch's hat, unable to take the strain, fell off its perch and shattered. Pegging out was no longer an option.

"What shall we do now?" I asked Robin.

"I'm not sure," she said. "Perhaps we should steamboat."


"You know!" She struggled with the word for a while. "Headblock?"

"That's not quite right," I said. "Can you be a bit more precise?"

"Two syllables," she explained. "Means thinking hard. Earwig? No. Anyway, why do ears need artificial hairy extensions? That doesn't make any sense. All the very best ears are bald... I know! Brainstorm!"

"Yes!" I was enthusiastic. I went into the back room and picked up the favourite cardboard box belonging to Harpo The Cat, the one that is only half the size of his body. He sleeps in it so often that the corners have torn away and now it is perfectly flat. Nevertheless it still looms large in his affections. I placed it carefully in the middle of the lounge floor.

"What's that for?" asked Robin, puzzled.

"Whatever you do," I said, "don't stand in it while we think this problem through. We'll only be able to solve it if we think outside the box, rather than inside it."

"Of course," said Robin. "Harpo will kill us if we stand in his favourite box."

"Well, yes," I said, "that is a point worth taking into consideration. But it is a well known fact that all traces of rational thought vanish when you step inside the box. You must have noticed how stupid Harpo looks when he climbs in and falls asleep. Boxes collapse brain wave functions. Everyone knows that."


"Well, cats and physicists anyway. Don't step in the box. Now, about this pegging out. We have a problem to solve."

"Maybe we need to move the paradigm," said Robin.

"No, we can't do that," I protested. "Shifting a paradigm around is dangerous. People might not notice that we'd moved it and they'd trip over it in the middle of the night on their way to the toilet. Anyway, I like the paradigm where it is. I think it looks pretty, standing on its plinth."

"I've got the answer," said Robin. "It's really very simple. All we have to do is string a bottom line between the boundary fences at the end of the day. That will add a synergistic improvement to the pegging out experience going forward. Problem solved."

"You're a genius," I said. "See? Thinking outside the box always works." I put Harpo's box away again before he noticed that I'd moved it.

It wasn't long before I had the back garden criss-crossed with a tangle of plastic coated string. Spiders built webs that joined the tangles together giving them extended walkways on which they could bask in the sun while they sucked thoughtfully on a fly. Caterpillars festooned the lines with cocoons that swung in harmonic motion as the wind tickled their fancy. On sunny Saturdays I pegged out between the obstructions and the clothes soon dried.

And then one Saturday, while pegging out as usual, I turned away from the line to pick up something moist and squidgy from the basket. When I looked up again the tangle of lines had broken and there was washing all over the lawn. The constant friction between the sections of my complex construction had finally worn through one line and it had collapsed under the strain of my underwear. Who wouldn't?

I retrieved the fallen garments. They were covered in grass clippings and seeds. New Zealand seeds all come equipped with velcro-like hooks and they latch firmly on to any passing surface. Cats, tee shirts, knickers and bras - seeds don't care, they just like to hang on to stuff and never let go. Washing the clothes again would take care of the grass clippings, but all the seeds had to be removed one by one by hand. There had been a dozen things hanging on the line when it collapsed and each one had more than a hundred seeds firmly attached. I counted them all...

The Gods of Yorkshire are not mocked. Pegging out only works properly on Monday. Doing it on Saturday sows the seeds of destruction.

Richard Blake Conspiracies Of Rome Hodder & Stoughton
Matthew Hughes The Other Underland Press
Frederick Forsyth The Cobra Signet
Robert B. Parker Night Passage Berkley
Lawrence Block The Night And The Music William Morrow
Lawrence Block Step by Step Telemachus Press
Barbara Hambly Renfield Berkley
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