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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (arborium occipitum)

Heads With Tales

Robin and I have two extra heads.

The first head came from Vanuatu. We were at the airport ready to fly back home at the end of a holiday. Our tummies were full of coffee and kava and our wallets were full of vatu, which is what the Vanuatuans call the cowrie shells that they spend in their shops.

“Perhaps we ought to change all these vatu back to New Zealand dollars,” said Robin, “since we are on our way home, and we do seem to have rather a lot of them.”

“Good idea,” I said and trotted off to the airport bank. The lady behind the counter looked at me with horror.

“You want to do what?

I proffered a fistful of vatu. “I’m the man with no name,” I said, making a subtle Clint Eastwood reference – perhaps it would frighten into compliance with my wishes. “And I want to be the man with no vatu. Can you turn these into New Zealand dollars, please?”




“Why not?” I was puzzled. I’d been spending vatu in all the local shops and hostelries for two weeks now. I’d even gone to a money machine and shown it a credit card whereupon it happily spat out vatu for me. But now it appeared that the process didn’t work in reverse...

“Because they are vatu,” explained the lady in the bank. “We can’t exchange them for other currencies. It doesn’t work like that. We can turn dollars into vatu, but we can’t turn vatu into dollars. The magic spells don’t work backwards.”

“Well what can I do with all my vatu?” I asked in despair.

She thought hard about the problem. She obviously wanted to be helpful, but she’d never been asked to turn vatu into dollars before. “Well you could take the vatu notes home and frame them and hang them on the wall as souvenirs of a wonderful holiday,” she suggested.

I did not find this thought appealing. “Do you have any other ideas?”

Her forehead crinkled with the effort of hard thinking. “Perhaps you could spend them?”

“Spend them?”

“Yes,” she said. “I know it’s a novel idea, but vatu are currency and you can spend them on things.”

“Can I spend them on New Zealand dollar notes?” I asked hopefully.

“No, you silly boy,” she said. “New Zealand dollar notes aren’t things you buy, they are just slightly mutated vatu; different colours and sizes, but basically the same thing. What you need to do is take your vatu to that souvenir shop over there in the corner of the airport and spend them on delightful island gifts and mementos.”

I returned to Robin and reported the slightly depressing results of my conversation with the bank lady. Robin sighed. “Sounds like a rip off to me,” she said. Why didn’t they tell us that before we went through customs and got trapped here in the purgatory of a no man’s land with only one shop in it?”

We went over to the souvenir shop and examined the souvenirs. All the usual tat was on display. Brightly coloured fabrics made in China, grass skirts and loincloths made in Japan. Genuine plastic coconut shells for drinking kava out of, bottles of coconut oil for greasing your hair imported at great expense from the Phillipines. And some native carvings which actually looked as if they might be local.

We examined the carvings. They were really rather well done and quite attractive. And they only cost twice as much as the native carvings we’d seen on display in the souvenir shops in the capital city, Port Vila. What a bargain! Who could possibly resist?

“It is a rip off,” said Robin. “It’s a conspiracy. They trap us in here with currency they refuse to exchange and they force us to spend it in the only shop available to us where the prices are sky high. Think of the profit they must be making!”

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s definitely a rip off. But we don’t really have much choice do we?”

“No, I suppose not.”

We examined the native carvings carefully and made our choices. We bought three gods on sticks, and a rather chunky head with mother-of-pearl eyes and an evil, grumpy grin.

“I think I’ll call him Cuthbert,” said Robin.

When we got home, we put the gods on sticks and Cuthbert on top of the downstairs bookcases so that they could supervise our guests when they browsed the bookshelves. I also entertained vague hopes that the gods on sticks would smite the cats with great and godly smitings when they scratched and bit the books on the bottom shelves. This last proved to be a vain hope and the cats remained unsmitten. The only thing the gods on sticks were good at doing was falling over every time the wind or an earthquake shook the house. We were constantly having to pick them up and put them back, and one of them broke an ear off when he fell over particularly forcefully one day. We referred to him as the lopsided god from that time on. He paid no attention. By now he’d had so much practice that he was really good at falling over, so we just left him to it. His missing ear didn’t seem to bother him at all.

Cuthbert himself proved to be remarkably stable. Year in and year out he sat there on his bookshelf glaring at the world, and he never fell over, not once. Some people (though not the cats) found him quite intimidating.

Cuthbert was our first head.

Over the years, Robert Silverberg has published several different definitive collections of his short stories. He explains this bibliographic nightmare in the introduction to his latest definitive collection which is published in eight handsome volumes by Subterranean Press. Amusingly and confusingly, Subterranean Press have also published In The Beginning which is not part of the definitive short story collection but which contains some early short stories from AgBerg’s pulpy youth, none of which appear in the definitive collection even though the definitive collection also contains many stories from his pulpy youth that do not appear in In The Beginning. Confused yet? Jolly good...

The collections are definitive but they are not complete. As the introductions to the stories make clear, a complete collection is probably not even physically possible. The man just wrote far too many words...

So what’s to say? AgBerg is and was a writing machine. He has always been insanely prolific, but nevertheless his stories have never been less than competent, even in the early days when he was still learning his craft. When you read his stories in order of publication, it is astonishing how quickly he starts to produce the intricate, subtle stories that I always think of as typical of his maturity. The eight volumes that make up this collection, together with the sidestep that is In The Beginning deserve a place of honour on everyone’s shelves.

The stories are all preceded by an introduction that discusses the state of SF and (more importantly from the writer’s point of view) the state of the SF market, at the time they were being written. Right from the beginning Silverberg was very clear that he was writing in order to be able to pay the bills. I don’t think he’s ever had a job in any sense that you or I would recognise. Even when he was a student, he paid his way from the income he earned from his writing, so naturally he’s always been very sensitive about the state of the market.

But his educational background was in the literary arts rather than in the sciences, and he was always very conscious of exactly what it was that he was doing and why he was doing it. He had an almost instinctive understanding of story structure and an enviable ability to create characters and give them believable dialogue to speak. He would have been the first to admit that he was demonstrating skill in a craft rather than producing art. But as his reputation grew and as the field itself matured he was able more and more to produce art rather than craft. And that reversal of emphasis was much more satisfactory of course, from his own personal point of view. But while it may have satisfied his aesthetic soul, it didn’t necessarily pay the bills any more...

By the 1970s, the world in which we lived was changing almost day by day. The whole social and aesthetic approach that we took to almost everything that mattered in life underwent an enormous sea change. For almost the first time ever, absolutely everything was open to question. In terms of literature in general and of SF in particular, the influence of the New Wave was turning science fiction into a branch of avant-garde literature. The effect was particularly marked in England, and even America was not entirely immune to it. Silverberg embraced this change with enthusiasm and produced some absolutely brilliant work. Unfortunately his sales plummeted, for the SF readership in America proved to be considerably more hidebound and conservative than their European companions were, and America was still Silverberg’s main market. He was writing stories that were highly praised by his peers and which were loved by the reviewers and critics, but which were appealing less and less to his readers. Disillusionment set in and for a time Silverberg completely retired from writing.

But you can’t stop a writer from writing, and after some years of silence he returned again to the field. There were definitely many wonderful stories that emerged in this later period of his writing life, but he never again achieved the artistic heights that he had risen to in the 1960s and 1970s – perhaps because once more he started pandering to the tastes of his audience rather than to his own artistic sensibilities. Certainly his first major work on his return to the field was the terminally tedious (from my point of view, anyway) picaresque novel Lord Valentine’s Castle, which became an enormous best-seller! I never liked it much, but what do I know? Seemingly not much...

I found the middle volumes of these collected stories much more interesting than the earlier or later ones. Silverberg’s genius flowered in the 1960s and 1970s and while I think I own all of his major novels, it is the ones from this middle period that I’d be most sorry to lose. And, again in my opinion, his short stories follow exactly the same developmental curve as his longer works do.

But wherever you yourself fit in on the spectrum of AgBerg appreciation, these fine story collections from Subterranean Press will have something for you to enjoy. There’s no question in my mind at all – Robert Silverberg is a writer of genius.

D*U*C*K is a novella by Poppy Z. Brite. Brite initially made a reputation by writing extreme gothic horror stories set in New Orleans, but later turned to writing a series of mainstream novels and stories about New Orleans restaurants and the chefs who cook the meals in them. D*U*C*K is one of these stories. I’m a bit of a foodie – I love eating out in restaurants and finding new cuisine and I’m fascinated by the details of what goes on behind the scenes (I’m addicted to the Food Channel on the TV – if there’s nothing on worth watching, I always watch the Food Channel and it never disappoints) so I much prefer the foodie Poppy Z. Brite to the horror story Poppy Z. Brite.

In D*U*C*K, Ricky and G-man, the chef heroes of all these stories, receive an odd request. The duck hunting season is about to open and the duck hunters want to hire Ricky and G-man to prepare a banquet for 300 people with every course (including the dessert) being made from duck. What a challenge! Who could resist? This is their story...

It’s funny, it’s coarse, it’s often very crude and it’s utterly fascinating.

It seems there will be no more stories from Poppy Z. Brite. In August 2010 Poppy Z. Brite began a process of gender reassignment. These days he refers to himself as Billy Martin. Billy no longer regards himself as a writer. Instead he makes jewellery and paints pictures which he advertises on his web site and sells via ebay. As you might expect, the pieces he produces are edgy and distinctive. He may no longer be writing, but he’s definitely still an artist.

I first read Cyril Kornbluth’s novel The Syndic when I was about fifteen years old and I’ve re-read it about once a decade ever since. And every time I read it I find something new in it. That’s the mark of a powerful story...

It’s set some indeterminate time in the future. The American government, stifled by its own bureaucratic ineptitude, has fallen to an armed revolution and power in the continental United States is now divided between two criminal gangs, the Syndic and the Mob (both, presumably, offshoots of the old Mafia). The North American Government (NAG – what a wonderful acronym) is a government in exile, based in Ireland and Iceland. Much of the world is a howling wilderness – following the collapse of the financial system, only America has managed to retain some semblence of economic control (the American underworld has its own very specific ideas about the ways that money works, and they seldom correspond to the more conventional ideas espoused by bankers and economists):

The forests came back to England. When finance there lost its morale and couldn’t hack its way out of the paradoxes, that was the end. When that happens you’ve got to have a large, virile criminal class ready to take over and do the work of distribution and production. Maybe some of you know how the English were. The poor buggers had civilized all the illegality out of the stock. They couldn’t do anything that wasn’t respectable. From sketchy reports, I gather that England is now forest and a few hundred starving people. One fellow says the men still wear derbies and stagger to their offices in the City.

France is peasants, drunk three-quarters of the time.

Russia is peasants, drunk all the time.

Germany–well, there the criminal class was too big and too virile. The place is a cemetery.

Charles Orsino is a minor wheel in the Syndic. He survives an assassination attempt and volunteers to infiltrate NAG to investigate the possibility that they were behind it. The bulk of the book concerns his adventures in this role. Like Candide, Charles Orsino is an innocent abroad and his adventures are the springboard from which Kornbluth leaps hither and yon as he explores all the implications of his basic idea.

Like his frequent writing partner Frederik Pohl, Kornbluth’s strengths lay in his ability to satirise contemporary society and the the brilliance of The Syndic comes from this exaggerated basis. Listen to this (and remember that the novel was written in 1953 and Kornbluth died in 1958):

Bankers! You won’t believe it, but people used to beg them to take over their property, tie up their incomes, virtually enslave them. People demanded it. The same way they demanded inexpensive liquor, tobacco and consumer goods, clean women and a chance to win a fortune; and our ancestors obliged them. Our ancestors were sneered at in their day, you know. They were called criminals when they distributed goods and services at a price people could afford to pay.

And this:

..[the bankers] brought it on themselves. They had what they called laissez-faire, and it worked for a while until they got to tinkering with it. They demanded things called protective tariffs, tax remissions, subsidies—regulation, regulation, regulation, always of the other fellow. But there were enough bankers on all sides for everybody to be somebody else’s other fellow. Coercion snowballed and the Government lost public acceptance. They had a thing called the public debt which I can’t begin to explain to you except to say that it was something written on paper and that it raised the cost of everything tremendously. Well, believe me or not, they didn’t just throw away the piece of paper or scratch out the writing on it. They let it ride until ordinary people couldn’t afford the pleasant things in life.

If that isn’t the global financial crises that bedevilled the last years of the last century and the early years of this one, then I don’t know what is. Kornbluth was a satirist but he was also a prescient writer. He understood how societal structures work and he knew how feeble their foundations were. The whole book is full of insights and that’s why my once a decade re-reads always show me new things. Again and again and again the satirical exaggerations of Kornbluth’s novel prove to be severe underestimations of the dumb stupidity of the reality of the governmental policies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. That’s clever writing and equally clever thinking.

And the book tells an exciting adventure story as well. What more could anyone possibly want?

A few years after we acquired Cuthbert, Robin went to Oz to visit her mum. She’s my favourite mother in law and her name is Phyll.

“I have a head,” said Phyll. “I’d like you to have it.”

Robin was puzzled. “Yes,” she said, I can see that you have a head. It looks like you’ve recently had the hair on it permed. Very stylish; it suits you.”

“No, no,” said Phyll. “You misunderstand me. I’m rather attached to this head and I intend using it for quite some time to come. You can’t take it away with you yet. But I have a spare one in the cupboard that I’d like you to have.”

“OK – show me,” said Robin.

Phyll rummaged in the cupboard for a while and then emerged holding a carved wooden head that gleamed darkly with ancient polish. He was a gentleman with slightly oriental features. He was wearing a complex headdress which was almost but not quite exactly like a turban. He looked proud, and somewhat aloof.

“I don’t know where he comes from,” said Phyll, “but he’s been in the family for generations.”

“He looks vaguely Javanese,” said Robin. “Did we have any family connections to the East India Company?”

“Not that I know of,” said Phyll. “But we do have several missionaries in our family tree. One of them might have brought him back from an expedition.”

The head smirked at her. It knew where it came from, but it wasn’t going to tell.

I wanted to like the new Terry Pratchett novel, I really did. But I’m afraid the whole thing fell a bit flat for me. The book is called Raising Steam and it tells the tale of the introduction of an exciting new mode of transport to Ankh-Morepork. But there’s something wrong with the book – the prose is leaden and dull, the Pratchettian insights into the way the world works are missing and the humour falls flat on its face. It’s the Discworld by numbers and it simply doesn’t work. Sorry, Pterry...

I could say much the same about Morning Frost the third volume in Jack Henry’s continuation of the Frost police procedurals that were originally written by R. D. Wingrove. I quite enjoyed the first two books in the series, but this one really didn’t work for me. As the story opens, Frost’s wife has just died and her funeral is taking place. A farmer ploughing one of his fields finds a human foot. There’s a little bit of a crime spree in Denton, a rape and a shooting and, much to Frost’s displeasure, a new computer system is installed at the police station. All the necessary elements to make the story are there but nevertheless I couldn’t help feeling that the book was mostly padding with the author trying very hard to think up bizarre, gimmicky crimes with devious motives, just so he could show off. The events of Morning Frost take us up to shortly before the story of Frost at Christmas which was Wingrove’s original first novel in the series. So I’m rather curious about where James Henry intends to take the story next. There isn’t any room for more prequels, so will we start seeing sequels instead? Watch this space...

Fortunately there’s always a new Ian Rankin novel to while away the hours. Saints of the Shadow Bible is at one and the same time the nineteenth John Rebus novel and the fourth Malcolm Fox novel. Rankin has lost none of his genius and this is an enthralling and absorbing book.

Rebus didn’t like retirement and now he is back in the force as a full time policeman. However it is a condition of his appointment that he accepts a reduction in rank. There aren’t any vacancies for Inspectors and so he takes up his new responsibilities as a detective sergeant. Ironically the inspector to whom he reports is none other than Siobhan Clarke who had been Rebus’ detective sergeant in the days when he was an inspector. It’s an interesting role reversal...

Meanwhile, Malcolm Fox is planning on leaving the Complaints department and moving back into mainstream policing. He is not unaware that this will be a difficult move – after all, as an officer of the Complaints he was involved in investigating many of the people with whom he will now be working. This will be a difficult transition. Officers from the Complaints are not popular with the rank and file.

Fox’s final case with the Complaints is the investigation of a thirty year old murder that occurred when Rebus was a young detective constable working with a team of people who, to a large extent, considered themselves above the law. They were interested in results and were not overly picky about how they got those results. By modern standards (and even largely by their own standards) the team was definitely corrupt in many ways. They regarded themselves as the eponymous saints of the shadow bible, but who is to say that they weren’t really sinners?

Fox works with Rebus on the investigation. Initially Fox seems to think that Rebus might also have been dirty, but eventually he comes to accept that Rebus was too wet behind the ears at that stage of his career. That’s not to say that Fox considers Rebus to be blameless. He thinks that Rebus has bent and broken too many rules to be properly trusted. But sometimes there’s the benefit of the doubt.

The investigation plays out against a modern political scenario involving a Scottish referendum on independence from England. A murder threatens to destabilise both sides in the referendum campaign. A Justice Minister is killed and a prominent business man who was once one of the shadow bible saints is involved in it. Ghosts from the past are still having an effect on the present.

This is a strong, subtle and sometimes profound novel. Not only does it tell an enthralling story (you just have to keep turning the pages) it poses interesting moral and ethical dilemmas as well. It isn’t just a story, there’s a lot more to it than that. Ian Rankin just goes from strength to strength.

Robin returned home with the head, quite excited by her new acquisition. “We need a special head display area,” she declared. Cuthbert would really look rather distinguished if he was sitting side by side with this new head.”

I couldn’t help agreeing with her, and looked around for inspiration. We have a rather ornate and handsome bookcase in the lounge which is full of autographed books. There’s a recessed lip at the top which, as far as I could see, was just begging for a head. So I put the new head up there. He gazed regally around, Lord of all he surveyed. It definitely suited him; his personality shone through. He smiled contentedly.

“I’ll go and fetch Cuthbert,” I said and I went downstairs and rescued Cuthbert from his old position and brought him into the lounge. The gods on sticks grumbled a bit when I took him away, but I ignored them. They’d long ago proved their impotency and I no longer paid much attention to them. I put Cuthbert up on the lounge bookcase side by side with the new head. They looked warily at each other.

“Hello, I’m Cuthbert,” said Cuthbert.

“Hello,” said the new head. “I’m the new head. I’d offer to shake hands, but I haven’t got any hands to shake with. I’m only a head.”

“That’s all right,” said Cuthbert. “I’m in much the same position myself. But I’m pleased to meet you, all the same.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” said the new head and they settled down together quite happily.

“They look good,” said Robin, “but that’s rather a large display area and I think it’s a bit empty. We need more heads so that they can take it in turns to supervise.”

“You’re right,” I said, “but I’m not sure how we could go about acquiring more.”

“I have an idea,” said Robin. “Come with me...”

She took me out into the back garden. Washing lines lay in lazy catenary curves between the fences. “See?” she asked.

“No, not really,” I said. “What are you suggesting?”

“We’re having a party next week,” said Robin. “The house and the garden will be thronging with guests. Many of them will come out into the garden in order to smoke cigarettes and possibly to indulge in other unsavoury substances. They will wander around admiring the weeds and enjoying the prickly bits in the lawn. Perhaps they’ll indulge in their secret vice of squeezing cat poo between their toes as they explore the flower beds.”

“Yes,” I said. “So?”

“Many of them will have over-indulged in spirituous liquors. Wine is a mocker and strong drink is raging. All will rage, all will stagger, all will be mocked.”

“Yes,” I said. “So?”

“The washing lines are all at head height,” said Robin. “Let’s replace them with razor wire. I bet we’ll have a lovely collection of heads by the time the party finishes.”

“Cuthbert will be pleased,” I said.

“So will the new head,” said Robin, and we smiled at each other.

Robert Silverberg Collected Stories Subterranean
Robert Silverberg In The Beginning Subterranean
Poppy Z. Brite D*U*C*K Subterranean
Cyril Kornbluth The Syndic Project Gutenberg
Terry Pratchett Raising Steam Doubleday
Jack Henry Morning Frost Bantam
Ian Rankin Saints of the Shadow Bible Orion
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