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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (Ossuarianus)

Snap, Crackle, Pop.

Several sheets of paper blew in the wind and wrapped themselves around the fence. They looked most untidy and I determined to remove them. To think is to act. I strode across the grass. My left foot trod awkwardly into a hole in the lawn and twisted underneath me. I fell to the ground; my foot bearing the whole weight of my body at a most awkward angle. Something inside went CRACK and an excruciating pain shot up my leg.

"Expletive deleted!" I shrieked at the sky, and clutched my ankle.

Slowly and painfully I crawled on hands and knees back into the house. Vague memories of first aid lessons surfaced in my brain. Ice! Cool my ankle down and prevent swelling. I raided the freezer and sat for an hour or so with a packet of frozen sweetcorn pressed to the bottom of my leg. It was almost more uncomfortable than the pain had been. Water dripped onto the carpet and saturated my sock.

I poked experimentally at my ankle. Big mistake. When the world stopped twirling, around me I put the sweetcorn back. Maybe it would help…

After a time I attempted to stand. Success! I could even put my whole weight onto my left foot. More first aid lessons reappeared in my head – the ends of broken bones rasping together make a most distinctive noise. It is called crepitation. I listened carefully. No crepitation. Perhaps the ankle was just badly sprained.

From the corner where it lives I retrieved my walking stick; the one with the secret compartment for hiding brandy in. Unfortunately there was no brandy. Oh well, you can’t have everything. With its support I limped around for a time. Things got back on to more of an even keel. I sat for a while with a book.

Elizabeth Peters has been much on my mind of late ever since I read two of her novels concerning the adventures of Amelia Peabody, a turn of the century Egyptologist and archaeologist. I enjoyed them so much that I ordered all the remaining books in the series and I have been steadily absorbing them ever since. (Two more remain to be read The Falcon at the Portal which I am saving for a Christmas treat and Deeds of the Disturber which is currently out of print, though it is due to be republished early in the new year).

With the exception of The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog, I enjoyed them all immensely. This last, though, really is dire. Amelia’s husband is hit over the head and loses his memory. The bulk of the novel is concerned with Amelia’s attempts to bring his memory back. This is the same dull plot device that Edgar Rice Burroughs used to use when he ran out of ideas for Tarzan novels (I seem to recall at least three Tarzan books with this theme). It was tedious then and it is tedious now and the novel never takes off.

The remaining books however are little gems. Their strength does not lie in the plots. The plots are quite mundane – a corpse is discovered or an antiquity is stolen. Sometimes just for variety, both happen! No - what makes these books unputdownable page turners is the wonderful wit and the fully realised characters. Amelia herself is utterly delightful, her husband, the irascible Emerson, is a joy to read about (though I suspect that like just about every other character in the books save for Amelia and her immediate family, I’d find him impossible to put up with in real life). However the character that keeps me returning to these books is Ramses, Amelia’s terribly precocious son. We meet him first as an odious infant and thereafter at various high points in his life (in the later novels he is an adult, but just as fascinating as he was as a child). Ramses is fluent in Arabic (particularly in the more colourful phrases employed by the hoi polloi), reads hieroglyphs like a native and mummifies mice in an attempt to categorise the evolution of the technique through the various dynasties. His dialogue is long winded and full of large words (when his mother lets him get away with it, which is seldom). His conversation is often deliberately otiose, opinionated and screamingly funny. (He raises litotes to an art form). And while he has never, to my knowledge, spoken the words of my last two sentences, he would feel quite at home with those words in his mouth.

Elizabeth Peters has been alarmingly prolific, and just to see what her other books might be like, I tried The Camelot Caper. Jessica Tregarth comes to England from America to visit her dying grandfather. She brings with her (at his request) an antique ring that belonged to her father. She is barely off the boat when someone tries to steal the ring and soon she is running for her life as the villains (for no very good reason that she can see) close in on her. She meets a good Samaritan in the form of David Randall, a writer of potboiling gothic romances and he becomes her knight in shining armour as together they attempt to unravel the mystery.

It’s a lot of fun, tightly plotted and with an ingenious ending, but it is definitely in the category of very light read-once-and-never-return-to fiction. I enjoyed it – but it didn’t inspire me to seek out more in the way that the Amelia Peabody stories did.

As the day progressed, the pain in my ankle increased. I kept expecting that it would even off, but it didn’t. It just went up and up, there seemed to be no top to the scale, just an ever-increasing agony which became more unbearable by the minute. Nauseating pain travelled up the whole of my leg. It was centred on the ankle, but it throbbed sickeningly all the way up to my thigh. The ankle itself began to swell again. By now I’d run out of sweetcorn (it was completely defrosted) and I began to contemplate the dubious virtues of a packet of peas; but the ankle was swelling up like a football and I started to feel that it might possibly be beyond even the power of frozen peas to affect a cure. It was time to give up. I rang some friends and asked them to drive me to the emergency clinic.

The doctor poked my ankle. "Does that hurt?"

I climbed down off the ceiling and he said, "I see it does."

"I can actually put my whole weight on it," I said. "I think it’s only badly sprained."

"If I was a betting man," said the doctor, "I’d put $20 on that. There’s no crepitation. But I’m not letting you out of here without an X-ray."

The nice lady in Radiology said, "It costs $15, you know."

I nodded wearily and handed the money over. She gave me a receipt and took me through. My leg was placed at various awkward angles and mysterious machinery hummed ominously. I limped back to the waiting room and about five minutes later the nice lady reappeared.

"Well," she said, "you’ve definitely broken it." She frowned at me. "You really shouldn’t be walking on it, you know."

I shrugged and she gave me an envelope with the plates in it. "Here – take these back to the doctor." I limped away…

"You lost your bet," I told the doctor. He looked surprised.

"Really? Let me see." He examined the X-ray plates closely. "Oh yes, there it is. See that dark line?" He indicated a shadow on the plate. I nodded. "That’s the break – just at the bottom of the fibula, where it joins the ankle. Hmmm – a bit higher up and you’d have to go into hospital to have a plate screwed on. But I think you’ll be OK with a plaster cast and a set of crutches."

In April 1746, two hundred monks connected themselves together with wire cables into a line more than a mile long. Then Jean-Antione Nollet, an eminent scientist, connected a battery to the cable and sent a powerful electric signal down the line. All the monks jumped with the shock of it. But the interesting observation was that the last monk on the line jumped at the same moment as the first. A signal had been sent more than a mile and as far as anyone could tell, it had travelled that distance instantaneously. The possibilities for communication across vast distances were clear. All you needed was enough monks…

Over the next hundred years, slowly and painfully, in the face of much opposition, a small band of eccentrics united the world through the medium of the electric telegraph. The first world-girdling network came into being.

It’s easy to draw superficial analogies between the modern internet and the telegraph. The similarity of the physical nature of the beast positively encourages it. But in The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage makes it very clear that the analogies are more than skin deep. The sociological as well as the technical implications are so similar as to take your breath away. Then, as now, people worried about security, about lack of bandwidth. People met and married over the telegraph, games were played over the telegraph, there were the equivalents of chat rooms and news groups. The book is an absolutely fascinating demonstration of the well known fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Today’s internet entrepreneurs would do well to read this book and learn from the mistakes (and the successes) of their eccentric predecessors.

A nurse took me into the plaster room and I lay on a trolley.

"How tight are your jeans?" she asked.

I demonstrated.

"They’ll have to come off," she pronounced. "Now – how do you want to handle this? Do you want to go home in your underwear or do you want to send one of your friends back to pick up a pair of shorts or something?"

I professed myself quite happy to go home in my underwear, but I was eventually persuaded to send my friend Martin off for shorts on the grounds that I didn’t really want to frighten the impressionable or induce an inferiority complex in those who were currently quite self assured. Martin was given instructions on working the burglar alarm and descriptions of where the shorts were to be found and off he went. I passed the time chatting to the nurse.

"You can’t have a shower for six weeks," she informed me. "The plaster we are putting on now is not a walking plaster. You mustn’t put any weight on it at all or it will crack and we’ll have to start all over again. In a week or so, when the swelling has died down, we’ll change it for a fibreglass one. You can walk on that. But meanwhile you’ll be on crutches, I’m afraid." Like all medical people, she appeared to take a gloomy pleasure in telling me the bad news.

Presently Martin returned bearing a pair of black shorts and a pair of vivid Day-Glo shorts that could only be squinted at even with the protection of sunglasses. "Which would you like?" he queried.

I wimped out and took the black ones.

The nurse soaked some plaster-of-paris impregnated bandages and wrapped them around my foot and ankle and half way up my leg. She finished the job by covering it with a crepe bandage that she fastened in place with a patented gadget. Then she covered the patented gadget with a strip of sellotape, and it was done. "I’ll go and fetch your crutches," she declared.

Martin wandered over and stared at the X-ray plates which were pinned against a viewing screen on the wall. He spotted the break straight away. "That dark line doesn’t belong there," he said authoritatively. "That must be it."

"That’s right," I said.

He examined the X-ray closely. "Nice cartilage," he said. "See that gap there between the bones? That’s cartilage. Nice resilient surface, that. Wish mine was that nice." He relapsed into gloom, contemplating his lack of cartilage.

One of the classic fantasies of the 1970s was a book that somehow passed me by. Operation Chaos by Poul Anderson was a fix-up novel comprising several stories and novellas originally published in the SF magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. Long out of print, it has just been republished by Tor and I snapped it up with glee as soon as it appeared. Steve is a werewolf, his wife Virginia is a witch. Magic is a technological process describable in quantitative terms. You can apply the scientific method to it (a property it sadly lacks in the real world). In themselves the stories are common coin – mere battles against black magic and demons, but the gritty lived-in reality of the world that Anderson builds is so utterly fascinating, and the jokes about science and the scientific method are so entertaining that I was sorry when the story ended. A sequel (Operation Luna) has recently been published. Magical spectrographic studies have determined that there is life (of a sort) on the moon. A vast effort is launched to send people there to explore this life, but the first test launch of the flying horse (with broomstick assisted boosters) goes horribly wrong. Sabotage is suspected and soon Steve and Ginny are again drawn into a battle with evil adversaries. Amazingly, after a gap of more than twenty years, Anderson retains the mood of the original. The puns are just as wild, the weird combination of science and magic just as fascinating as ever it was. It is rare that a sequel meets or exceeds the power of the first book. Too often the magic (if I may be permitted such a word in this context) goes stale the second time around. But not his time – this time Anderson has created a truly outstanding book.

With Far Horizons, Robert Silverberg has come with a truly original idea for an anthology. Eleven writers were asked to return to the stories that made them famous and to write another episode set in that world. We have a new story of Helva, the Ship who Sang, a new Hainish tale from the Ekumen, a lost episode from the Forever War, and many others. There is something here for everyone – if you fell in love with these worlds the first time, you will love revisiting them though, of course, if you didn’t like them first time round, the collection is not for you. I found myself less than thrilled to go back to the Galactic Center, and to find out more about the Sleepless. But offset against that was the thrill of reading a new story of the Heechee, and of learning more about Hyperion.

Blue at the Mizzen is the latest and least of the Aubrey/Maturin tales of the eighteenth and nineteenth century navy. I think that O’Brian has grown tired of his heroes and is just dashing off the books for the money these days. Most of the action takes place off-stage, and like a one man Greek chorus, Stephen Maturin reports their occurrences in a long rambling letter to his beloved. It isn’t even a successful epistolary novel for the letter is itself somewhat dull. The humour that once enlivened the action and the dialogue has completely vanished. What a shame that is.

The nurse bustled back and I was fitted to my crutches, then I manoeuvred my way out to the reception desk where vast amounts of money were extracted from my shivering wallet. Clumsy in my crutches, I clomped one-leggedly towards the door, wishing for a parrot for my shoulder. I had an overwhelming urge to yell "Avast me hearties! Yo, ho ho and a bottle of rum," to the beleaguered hordes in the waiting room as I departed, but I resisted the temptation.

Martin took me home.

Over the next few days, the crutches lost what little charm they had once had. Walking on crutches involves persuading your body to perform a series of semi-controlled forward falls caught (if you are lucky) on the crutches themselves. Blisters soon developed on my hands and my shoulders and upper arms began to ache. But more importantly, I discovered just how many things you can’t do when both your arms are gripping crutches and neither is free to manipulate the world at large.

You can’t take a pee in the conventional way and you can’t wash your hands afterwards (not that you really need to).

You can’t pick up the corpses of birds and rats left as presents for you by grateful cats, and neither can you chase the gifts that are still alive. The score is currently two and a half cadavers and a live thrush with no tail but with a completely undamaged arsehole. You can’t clean up bird poop either.

You can’t clean your teeth. You can’t chop things up in order to cook them. You can’t go upstairs to play with your computers and most importantly, you can’t pick up the cats bowls in order to feed them (not that they need it, given their depredations on the local wild life). It would appear that some ingenuity would be required.

Blisters and aching muscles just had to be put up with, but all the other problems proved solvable. Strategically placed chairs allowed all the day to day functions to be performed. Once I was sitting down, both hands were free again. After that, the only major obstacle to progress was the depressing (and hazardous) realisation that every time I tried to walk through a doorway my black cat Milo was sitting in it, and every time I approached one of the strategic chairs, my black cat Milo was asleep on it. He got a little annoyed at being constantly crutched out of doorways and turfed off the nice comfortable new places to get his head down.

Going upstairs to play with my computers was a problem of a slightly different order. Eventually it was solved by pulling myself up backwards, bouncing my bottom on every step. The first time I tried this I was watched by a very puzzled Ginger cat who finally decided it must be a game. She came up to join in.

With Stonehenge Bernard Cornwell tells a tale of Neolithic Britain, inviting immediate comparison with Henry Treece who defined the form a generation ago. While perhaps not up to the standards of the master, Cornwell does a creditable job and I found the tale enthralling.

A stranger carrying a fortune in gold comes to Ratharryn. He is killed by Lengar, eldest of three brothers and heir to the chieftainship of Ratharryn. He appropriates the treasure for his father, though unknown to him his brother Camaban (an outcast cripple) has taken some of it.

The treasure corrupts the tribe. Under its influence Lengar will become a tyrannical chief, Camaban a visionary sorcerer and Saban, the youngest brother, will eventually build the temple that the world will come to know as Stonehenge.

The novel is dark and bloody, full of tragedy and grief. There is little happiness here, only short moments snatched between momentous events. Magic and superstition provide a dubious motivation for deeds which even their practitioners agree are at times morally doubtful. (And the results depend too often on coincidence, a weakness of construction that began to grate after a while).

But the sheer scale of the undertaking (both the book and the temple itself) commands respect. I enjoyed it.

When Roger Zelazny died, he left behind him two unfinished novels. Both were completed by Jane Lindskold. One (Donnerjack) was published last year. And now we have the second, Lord Demon. Kai Wren is a demon and a maker of bottles and pots. One of the heroes of the war between the demons and the gods, Kai Wren is known as the Godslayer, for in the last tumultuous battle, that is exactly what he did. Nonetheless, the demons lost the war, they were expelled from Origin and forced to rebuild their lives on another plane, one almost empty of chi, the god-force, the power that sustains. The bottles that Kai Wren makes are imbued with the essence of chi and many have powers unsuspected by their owners. As the book opens, Kai Wren is starting to suspect a conspiracy against him, though its nature is obscure.

The story plumbs the depths of the conspiracy. Loyalties twist and shift, motives are murky and subject to change without notice. Much of the history of the gods and the demons is revealed. It is a satisfyingly complex book, brilliantly completed by Jane Lindskold in Zelazny’s style (the joins don’t show).

After a week of stumbling I was starting to get used to my plastered ankle and I was coping quite well with the vicissitudes of life on crutches. I’d only tripped over Milo fifty three times and somehow I’d managed to avoid sitting on Ginger as I went upstairs. But all good things must come to an end, and so I returned to the fracture clinic to find out what fate awaited me.

"Just hop up on the table," said the jolly nurse, "and I’ll take the plaster off."

The table was at about chest height and I couldn’t for the life of me see how to get up onto it when I only had one leg. The nurse took pity on me.

"Kneel on this chair with your injured leg, stand up on it with your uninjured one, swing round on your foot and then down on to the table." She demonstrated these actions with a grace and fluidity that made it more than apparent that she had done it many times before. I followed suit, somewhat more slowly and clumsily, but eventually I was on the table.

"Make yourself comfy. I’ll be back in a minute. I’ve just got another one to remove first." She equipped herself with goggles, earmuffs and a circular saw and trotted off to another cubicle. Presently there came the sound of a hundred dentists’ drills as someone’s plaster was extracted. I began to wonder what was in store for me.

She came back into the cubicle and stripped off all her protective gear. "That was a tricky one," she remarked. "Now let’s have a look at you." Mine, it seemed, wasn’t nearly so tricky. She simply took a large pair of shears to it. Soon the cast fell away.

"My goodness me!" she exclaimed. "That’s colourful!"

I looked down at my newly nude leg. Most of my foot, all of my ankle and part of my lower leg shone purple, red, blue, and yellow in the most extensive bruising I have ever seen in my life. The ankle was still grotesquely swollen, giving the entire leg an oddly lop-sided aspect. This together with the rainbow patterning made the whole organ appear decidedly surreal.

"I’ll go and fetch the doctor now," said the nurse. "You just relax and enjoy the view. Pretty as a picture that bruising is – best I’ve seen all month!". She bustled off.

Presently the doctor appeared, clutching my original X-ray plates. This was a different doctor to the one I had seen previously; this one was a fracture specialist. He frowned thoughtfully at my bruises.

"Well," he said, "it looks like you’ve actually done a lot more damage to the soft tissues than you have to the bone. There’s been an awful lot of bleeding into the immediate area around the ankle. The fracture itself is quite minor and it should heal up nicely, but the tissue damage really is very extensive." He poked a particularly succulent blue bit.

"Ouch!" I hinted.

"Can you stand on it?" he asked. "Walk a few paces?"

On the face of it, it seemed like a mad request. Of course I couldn’t walk on it – it’s broken, for goodness sake! But I remembered that even before I was encased in my cast I had actually been able to put my whole weight on to it. No crepitation. Thus encouraged, I clambered clumsily down from the table and stood on my own two feet for the first time in a week. It felt most odd – I’d become so used to the plaster that I felt naked and unprotected without it. I tried a couple of steps. It worked!

"We’ll just put an elastic bandage on it," decided the doctor. "Take it slow and steady and you should be fine. Come back again in two weeks and we’ll see how you are getting on."

He turned on his heel and left. Meanwhile the jolly nurse was unwrapping an elastic bandage which she layered on to my leg with a special gadget. "You haven’t got a device like this," she said, "so what you will have to do is treat the bandage like a sock. Put it on and take it off in the same way you would with a sock."

I returned home and indulged myself in an orgy of hedonistic luxury. I took a standing up pee, I had a shower, I cleaned up a corpse.

Life was good. It is the sum total of all the little things that make up the pleasure in life and I hadn’t realised how much I missed those little things until they weren’t there any more.

As everybody knows, the Discworld is supported on the backs of four elephants that stand on top of the great A’Tuin, the world turtle that slowly swims through space to an unknown destination. What is not so widely known is that once there were five elephants, but one fell screaming through the sky and landed hard enough to split continents and raise mountains. The elephants of A’Tuin are such huge beasts that they have nerves of gold (for better conductivity) and bones of rock and iron. And they have fat. Lots of it. The dwarves of Uberwald make a nice living, thank you very much, mining and exporting the fat. The best fat (and suet) on the Discworld comes from the mines of Uberwald…

Thus begins the new Terry Pratchett Discworld novel The Fifth Elephant. Sam Vimes is a Duke (by virtue of being married to a duchess) and therefore will (in the opinion of the Patrician) make a perfect ambassador to Uberwald. He sets off (grumpily) leaving Carrot in charge of the watch. However Angua receives a mysterious visitor in the night and learns that there is trouble back home in Uberwald. She races off to try and help with Carrot (and Gaspode the Wonder Dog) in hot pursuit. Thus Sergeant Colon is temporarily promoted to Captain and is put in charge of the Watch, with disastrous effects on discipline and efficiency. Even Nobby doesn’t like it.

In Uberwald, Vimes finds an unstable three way power game going on. The dwarves want to crown a new Low King, but it seems that someone has stolen the Scone of Stone, and without this historic piece of dwarf bread, the coronation cannot proceed. The werewolves, under the erratic leadership of Angua’s brother perceive a power vacuum, and the Vampires are playing a mysterious game of their own. All of them have designs on the Ambassador from Ankh-Morepork. Vimes, Angua, Carrot and Gaspode face tremendous danger.

Lately the Discworld novels have taken on a new lease of life. They reached their nadir with the abysmal Hogfather but the quality has climbed steadily since then. The best of the new bunch gain their strength from their themes. Pterry has brought a much darker viewpoint to his world of late. There are fewer jokes than once there were (and they are much deeper, more subtle jokes than ever they were before). The novels are about serious things, politics, the abuse of power, the plight of the ordinary folk beneath the tyrants’ heel. Sex. There is a potential for greatness here and The Fifth Elephant bids fair to meet that potential. You might almost accuse Pterry of the crime of committing Literature.

But just because these depths are there, don’t think it isn’t an entertaining book. It is enormously entertaining and those who delight in the game of spot-the-reference will have a field day (take that Checkov, and help me in to Uncle Vanya’s trousers, and isn’t it just WONDERFUL that they don’t have cherry orchards in Ankh-Morepork? Believe it or not, that’s a vital plot point).

Put this one at the top of your Christmas list.

I still couldn’t walk properly without support and I limped to the shops with my walking stick. "Chuff, chuff…me old war wound playing up, don’t you know...chuff chuff…remember it well, up to me neck in muck and bullets…"

Over the next few days the bruising started to fade to a much less startling shade and even the swelling started to go down. Getting out of bed in the morning remained agony – the ankle stiffened up overnight and even moving it (let alone walking on it) remained problematical until it loosened up again. This generally took twenty minutes or so of limping (I still needed crutches for this bit; "Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!"). After that it became bearable and I could attend to the usual morning tasks. Showers remained difficult – one slip on the soap would probably snap the leg in two and clambering in and out of the bath was a scary balancing act. But I managed it. One day at a time.

Wish me luck for future recovery. Break a leg…

Elizabeth Peters Crocodile on the Sandbank Mysterious Press
Elizabeth Peters The Curse of the Pharaohs Mysterious Press
Elizabeth Peters The Mummy Case Warner
Elizabeth Peters Lion in the Valley Avon
Elizabeth Peters The Last Camel Died at Noon Warner
Elizabeth Peters The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog Warner
Elizabeth Peters The Hippopotamus Pool Warner
Elizabeth Peters The Camelot Caper Tor
Tom Standage The Victorian Internet Berkley
Poul Anderson Operation Chaos Tor
Poul Anderson Operation Luna Tor
Robert Silverberg (ed) Far Horizons Orbit
Patrick O’Brian Blue at the Mizzen Harper Collins
Bernard Cornwell Stonehenge Harper Collins
Roger Zelazny and Jane Lindskold Lord Demon Avon
Terry Pratchett The Fifth Elephant Doubleday

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