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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (commutatus vivus)

Alan And The Change Of Life

I was in the pub sipping a beer and reading a book, as one does, when a voice said, "Are you Alan Robson?"

I looked up, still half lost in the story I was reading. A man was staring at me. "Yes," I said tentatively.

He smiled. "John Simeon," he said.

Three decades of my life raced across the room and walloped me around the head. "John," I said, delighted. "It really is you!"

And it was. We spent the rest of the evening swapping scandal and playing catch up on each other's lives.

So now let me tell you all about John Simeon, the man who brought me to New Zealand in the first place, the man who completely changed my life.

# # # #

England in 1980 was a pretty depressing place for me. Ian, my best friend, had just moved to Holland, my family was being more than usually poisonous, and there were rumblings of big changes in my job. I'd survived one round of layoffs. It wasn't clear whether or not I would survive another. I wasn't even sure if I wanted to survive another. So I was fed up and more than half looking to move somewhere new. Preferably somewhere a lot further away from my immediate family.

Then one day Ian rang me all the way from Dordrecht in Holland.

"Have you seen today's Times?" he asked.

"No," I said. "Should I have?" I didn't normally read the Times, but Ian had it air-freighted to him every day at vast expense because he was addicted to the crossword puzzle.

"Yes you should," he said. "The New Zealand Dairy Board is recruiting programmers and they are holding interviews in London. You need to apply."

"Why?" I asked. "I don't want to go to New Zealand."

"Yes you do," explained Ian. "I want to come for a holiday and I'll need to sleep in your spare room."

"Oh, I see," I said. "You'd better give me the details then."

He read out the contact details and I scribbled them down. Interviews were being held in a posh London hotel and the advert said that all the candidates who were invited for an interview would have their travel expenses to London refunded. Suddenly I got interested. London was full of science fiction bookshops and I was running short of my favourite recreational drug. Here was a perfect opportunity to get a free trip to my dealers so that I could top up my bookshelves. There'd be a boring half hour in the middle of the day while I answered interview questions, but I was sure I could cope with that.

I polished up my CV and posted it to the address that Ian had given me. A few days later a letter arrived inviting me for an interview. Apparently I would be interviewed by John Simeon, the IT manager at the Dairy Board. I packed an empty suitcase that I intended to fill with books and set off for London.

I arrived at the hotel where I was greeted by a tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang to his voice. "I'm John Simeon," he said. "Come in, sit down, make yourself comfortable."

He had papers spread out on a desk. He picked up my CV and we went through the details of my life and career and he scribbled some notes as we spoke. John told me all about life in New Zealand and about what the Dairy Board did. I found him very easy to talk to, and because I was really there just to visit the bookshops, and because I wasn't all that bothered about the job itself anyway, I was very relaxed as the interview progressed. I just answered John's questions with the plain, unvarnished truth. I made no attempt whatsoever to bullshit or to gild the lily. In retrospect, I think that must have made a big impression on him. I remember one question that he asked.

"What do you know about indexed-sequential files and ISAM?"

"Nothing at all," I said. John made a note.

The interview proceeded and eventually we got to the point where John said, "And have you got any questions for me?"

"Yes," I said. "Why have you come all the way from the far side of the world just to recruit programmers?"

"Oh there aren't any programmers left in New Zealand," said John airily. "They've all gone overseas, mainly to Australia. So we decided to look further afield."

"But why come to England?"

"Because I want to go to Wimbledon," said John. "I just love tennis!"

I was beginning to understand how John's mind worked. We may have been from opposite sides of the world, but nevertheless we were very similar people.

"Can I take a photo of you?" asked John. "Just so I remember what you look like. I'm interviewing a lot of people and there will be many different faces sitting where you are over the next few days. I don't want to get confused."

"Yes of course," I said. John produced a polaroid camera. He pointed it at me and pressed a button. The flash went off and a small piece of paper slid out from the bottom of the camera. We waited while the image developed and then we examined it and we both agreed that yes, it did look a little bit like me. John stapled the photograph to my CV, together with the notes he had made.

"What did it cost you to get here for the interview?" John asked. I told him, and he gave me the money. We shook hands and I left to buy my books. It had all been a very successful day.

A week or so later a letter arrived from John. He was offering me a job. Goodness me!

Without pausing to think, I immediately wrote back accepting the offer. I knew that if I thought about it too much, I'd chicken out because the idea of uprooting myself and going so far away was very scary. But once my letter of acceptance dropped into the post box, I felt I was committed. I couldn't back out now.

An Exile On Planet Earth is a collection of essays by Brian W. Aldiss. It is published by the Bodleian Library to celebrate the deposit of the Brian Aldiss archive in the library.

It's a wide ranging collection covering much of Aldiss' life and experience. He chats about science fiction of course (how could he not?) and along the way he comes up with perhaps the best definition of SF that I've ever seen. He claims that "Science Fiction stories are the fables of a technological age" and he goes on to justify that claim in a tightly argued essay that was originally published as an introduction to a collection of SF stories that he edited.

Aldiss also has an entertaining insight into the making of the film Zulu, and he has profound thoughts on the relationships between science and civilization.

But all is grist to his mill – in several essays he goes back to the Balkans, a place he first visited when it was still called Jugoslavia. He nicknamed it "Jugland" and wrote a travel book about his experiences there. In the essays he contrasts what he saw in Jugland with what he sees now as the disparate republics that Tito held together largely by force of personality try to come to grips with the realities of post-Tito independence.

And always there is writing, the business of his life and the thing which gives his life meaning. He talks a lot about the composition of some of his novels and relates them to things that were happening in his own life at the time – for example, the bleak childlessness of Greybeard was a direct response to the break up of his first marriage and the loss of his children when their mother took them away with her. He has a whole essay about the writing of Hothouse and there is a lot of autobiographical introspection which, he says, eventually gave rise to the material that was published as Walcot, a contemporary novel which takes the whole history of the twentieth century as its canvas.

But he does not concentrate only on his own writing. There is a glorious essay in praise of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago and he also has a lot to say about Thomas Hardy, a favourite author of his though I cannot say that I agree with him here – I always found Hardy to be an unremitting bore. Oh well, you can't win them all...

An Exile On Planet Earth is a slim, but very thought provoking and insightful book.

A Blink Of The Screen is subtitled The Collected Short Fiction of Terry Pratchett because that is exactly what it is. Unfortunately, Pterry has written very little short fiction and so the book has had to be padded out with juvenilia in order to give it a reasonable page count – for example there's a story here that Pterry wrote when he was only 13 years old. It reads considerably better than most stories written by 13 year old boys, but nevertheless it would probably never have seen the light of day without Pterry's substantial reputation to prop it up.

The reason for the dearth of material is because, as Pterry himself admits, he is not very good at short stories and he absolutely hates writing them. He tends to think in novel length chunks. He finds the short form just too limiting, and he is not at all happy writing within the imposed constraints of the medium. There is one utterly brilliant story in the collection about Granny Weatherwax, and it is very noticeable that it is by far and away the longest story in the book. This is not a coincidence. In Pterry's case there is a direct correlation between the length and the quality of the story.

A Blink Of The Screen is not without interest, if only to see how Pterry's writing has developed over the years. But it is, at best, a very minor work which is probably only of interest to completists.

Rudy Rucker has a new novel called Turing and Burroughs. He describes it as a beatnik SF novel and I suppose that's as good a description as any. Rucker is not noted for writing stories with sensible plots, but this one is a bit bizarre even for him. The story assumes that Alan Turing, the founder of the modern computer age, did not commit suicide in 1954 as history claims. Instead he applied knowledge gained from his researches into the computational basis of biological life to disguise the dead body of his lover as himself. He then fled to Tangier where he fell deeply in love with beat author William Burroughs. Together they mutate into giant shapeshifting slugs (as you do) and run from the FBI. Along the way, they raise Burroughs’s wife from the dead, and end up getting involved in the development of H-bombs at Los Alamos. The novel ends with a thermonuclear blast of transformational transcendence. So to speak.

Neal Stephenson is primarily thought of as the author of extremely large novels about extremely erudite subjects like cryptography and the development of the scientific method. Some Remarks is a collection of essays which detail his thoughts on the ideas that underlie his fiction. As you might expect, he thinks deeply as well as broadly, and these extremely dense and detailed essays are not an easy read. The same comments can sometimes be made about his novels...

The essays have such depth, subtlety and sophistication that I could only absorb a few pages of the book before I had to put it down and spend some time trying to assimilate what I had just read. Once it was safely digested, I could return and read a few more pages. Lather, rinse, repeat. It makes for slow reading.

Stephenson is never less than interesting, but his interest encompasses much that is obscure. You really do have to admire the man!

Of Merchants And Heroes is the first novel from Paul Waters. The story is set at the end of the third century BC. Rome's long war with Carthage is drawing to a close. The Carthaginian armies have been expelled from Italy and are in retreat. But a new threat is emerging as Philip of Macedon begins to flex his muscles. Against this background of turbulent times, we meet Marcus whose father was been murdered by pirates when their ship was captured on a journey to Corfu. Marcus was the only survivor of the massacre and he vows vengeance.

As Marcus matures, circumstances take him to many of the great cities of Greece and Rome. He begins to move in the circles of the wheelers and dealer and he falls deeply in love. His vengeance on the pirate, when it comes, seems oddly anti-climactic in comparison with the larger events that have consumed his life as he has grown up.

Paul Waters really gets inside the mind of his hero and makes us see his world through eyes that are very foreign to our own. Marcus is not a twentieth century man in a toga, he is very much a product of his time. It seems clear to me that Paul Waters is to Rome what Mary Renault was to Greece. And I know no higher praise than that.

The bureaucratic wheels began to grind. I had to have a medical exam. I had to apply for permission to come and live and work in New Zealand. I was invited to come for an interview at New Zealand House so as to determine my fitness to live in the country. I was greeted by another tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang in his voice. Good heavens! Did they all look and sound like that?

He sat me down and gave me some leaflets and we chatted a bit. I flipped through the leaflets and was appalled to find that New Zealand didn't have colour TV yet and that when I arrived in the country I would be eligible to be conscripted for military service. I asked the man about those two rather worrying details.

"Oh, no," he said. "Don't bother about that. We've had colour TV for donkey's years and we got rid of conscription ages ago. But unfortunately we printed far too many of those leaflets and my boss won't let me update them until we've run the stock all the way down." He looked mildly embarrassed, and he blushed slightly through his sun tan.

"There is one formal question I have to ask you," he said in his official voice. "Do you have a criminal record?"

"No," I said.

"Oh come on," he said, relaxing again. "Surely you can do better than that? Look, it's Friday. I've had a really slow and boring week. Can't you be an axe murderer or something?"

"I got a speeding ticket about five years ago," I offered.

"No, no," he said. "That won't do at all. Damn! I suppose we'd better let you come to New Zealand then. I can't see that I have any other choice." And he stamped several bits of paper rather viciously with a large rubber stamp. It looked as if I was on my way.

A few weeks before I was due to fly to New Zealand, John Simeon left the Dairy Board to start up his own software and consultancy company. So when I finally arrived in the country I was met at the airport by yet another tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang to his voice. Yes, they really were all like that. Goodness me! "Hello," he said. "I'm Mike. I'm your new boss."

Mike got me settled in and introduced me around. "Because you are new," he said, "and because you don't know much about how the Dairy Board operates, we are going to start you off in our maintenance section. The Dairy Board was one of the first companies in New Zealand to get a computer and we started developing our systems in the 1960s. You'll be looking after those older programs, fixing bugs and adding new features. Once you get really familiar with how everything works, we'll see about moving you to the development area where you can start writing new stuff."

In the 1960s, everyone involved with computers was an amateur. Computers were very new and nobody fully understood how to program them properly yet. Everybody was learning together on the job. I found myself trying to understand and tweak stuff which, by modern standards, was the most appalling junk.

"Who wrote this nonsense?" I demanded. I looked at the name of the author at the top of the program listing – John Simeon! I called down curses on his name as I struggled to cope with his legacy.

Actually, I quite enjoyed the technical aspects of my job at the Dairy Board, but the office politics were byzantine, distinctly unpleasant, and sometimes quite vicious. The staff turnover was enormously high and I quickly came to understand that the real reason they had been recruiting programmers in England was because they'd used up all the programmers in New Zealand and Australia, and nobody wanted to work for them any more. So now they recruited their staff in places where their reputation hadn't spread to yet.

It wasn't long before I too handed in my notice and so found myself at a bit of a loose end. I went to talk to an employment agency where a tall, sun-tanned man with an antipodean twang to his voice said, "There's a small software and consultancy company looking for a programmer at the moment and I think you might fit the bill. I'll arrange an interview for you with the company's owner. He's called John Simeon. I'm sure you'll like him."

Somewhat to my surprise, John remembered me from that interview in London all those years before. We chatted backwards and forwards, reminiscing a bit and contemplating the future. It was all very informal and comfortable and, just as before, I found him very easy to talk to. We laughed at each other's jokes and we had similar opinions on many things. John backed his original judgement and offered me a job for the second time. I accepted immediately.

The next few years were very happy ones as I worked directly with John on a variety of projects. We both had a lot of fun and we enjoyed each other's company. But the late 1980s were a time of great change. Sharks swam in the business seas. Big companies gobbled up small companies and grew fatter as a result. Eventually time and circumstance caught up with John. His little company vanished from the scene, and each of us went our separate ways.

The slightly neurotic hitwoman who is the viewpoint character of J. B. Lynn's novels is called Maggie Lee. She's had a rather unfortunate life – her mother is in a mental hospital; when she was a child her sister was murdered and another sister vanished without trace. And now she has just been in a car crash which has killed her only remaining sister, and the sister's husband. Their small daughter is in a coma in hospital.

This is not a promising basis for comedy, but J. B. Lynn tries hard – you have to give her that.

As a direct result of the accident, Maggie has been left with concussion and the ability to talk to animals – specifically a wise-cracking lizard and a doberman pinscher who has a very poor grasp of grammar.

By a remarkable series of coincidences that I won't bore you with, Maggie gets herself hired as a hitwoman. The fees she receives for this are her only hope for paying the massive medical bills that her comatose niece is racking up.

J. B. Lynn is obviously aiming to write the same kind of humorous thriller that Janet Evanovich and Lisa Lutz are writing. Unfortunately she comes a very poor third in the race. Her humour is too contrived and her plotting abilities are weak. She also has the irritating habit of dropping heavy hints about the dubious backgrounds of her characters and then never resolving the hints in a satisfactory way. There are obviously great revelations to come in later books in the series as the hints are followed up, but I'm not sure that I care very much. The first two books have let too many dangling plot threads that leave me feeling frustrated rather than fulfilled.

The stories are mildly amusing, but I wouldn't go any further than that.

Ian Rankin made his literary reputation as the author of a series of detective novels about a lone-wolf policeman called Rebus, a man with a rather cavalier attitude to the rules of policing. Eventually, in the eighteenth novel in the series, Rebus had grown too old to continue serving with the police and he retired. Rankin turned his writerly eye in other directions and began a series of novels about a completely different kind of police officer. Malcolm Fox works for the Complaints, the branch of the police that investigates possible criminal activity by front line policeman. The Fox novels were extremely clever and subtle stories and it was soon clear that Rankin had another hit series on his hands.

In Rankin's new novel Standing In Another Man's Grave we meet Rebus again. He is working for a cold case unit. He is a civilian now, with no formal police powers at all. Not that this holds his investigations back. He is looking into the mysterious disappearance of some young women. The trail of disappearances goes back to the turn of the century and Rebus thinks he has spotted some common factors which link them together. However it isn't long before Rebus' rather anarchic and rule-bending methods of following through on the cases brings him to the attention of Malcolm Fox. Time for the sparks to fly!

So is this the nineteenth Rebus novel or is it the third Fox novel? Yes it is!

Oh – it's also a thrilling and absorbing read. Ian Rankin truly is a brilliant writer.

It was quarter of a century before John and I met each other again. But then one day we both chose to go to a certain pub in Auckland at exactly the same time...

Only one thing worries me now. In the past, every time I've bumped into John after a few years of separation, he's profoundly changed the course of my life. So now, of course, I'm starting to wonder just what's going to happen to me next?

Brian W. Aldiss An Exile On Planet Earth Bodleian Library
Terry Pratchett A Blink Of The Screen Doubleday
Rudy Rucker Turing And Burroughs Transreal Press
Neal Stephenson Some Remarks William Morrow
Paul Waters Of Merchants And Heroes Macmillan
J. B. Lynn Confessions Of A Slightly Neurotic Hitwoman Avon
J. B. Lynn Further Confessions Of A Slightly Neurotic Hitwoman Avon
Ian Rankin Standing In Another Man's Grave Orion
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