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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (festum hospes)

Wot Alan and Robin Did On Their Hols

It was the day that our holiday started. The plan was to drive to Hastings which is in Hawke’s Bay on the East coast of the North Island. There we would spend three days in a holiday home, together with several friends.

The area is known as Hawke’s Bay, but the actual bay from which the district takes its name is called Hawke Bay. This is not untypical of New Zealand geography.

It was the work of but several hours for us to pack our cases and and arrange them carefully in the car. Nevertheless, as we quickly learned through the magic of text messaging, Robin and I were still the first of the group to leave Wellington. Traffic was light and the drive was pleasant but, as with so many journeys in New Zealand, it tended towards the surreal.

The ladies public toilet in Greytown had a toy soldier painted on the outside. He was standing firmly to attention with his weapon shouldered.

A huge sign in the middle of absolutely nowhere said:

Papatawa Realignment

but it gave no clues as to who (or what) was being realigned.

The town of Woodville had a signpost pointing to an:

Antique Organ Museum

“Perhaps you could donate yours,” suggested Robin. “It is very old now and you don’t use it much any more. It’s quite out of tune.”

“I’ll send them a selfie of me playing on my organ” I said, “and see if they are interested.”

Dannevirke, a tiny town originally settled by immigrants from Denmark, had a large billboard on its outskirts which displayed a picture of a fierce Viking warrior wielding a double-headed axe – at best an ambiguous welcome to the town. Dannevirke also had an:

International Police Museum

which was housed in a minuscule building. Possibly, like the Tardis, it is much larger inside. There was an old New Zealand Highway Patrol car parked outside the museum. The car was longer than the building...

I haven’t seen one of those patrol cars for more than 20 years, which was when the Highway Patrol merged with the police and the cars disappeared overnight. I came over all nostalgic, but then I blinked and Dannevirke was suddenly many miles behind us.

In a town with no name, right in the middle of deepest farming country, a store offered:


Tractors, Lawnmowers and Chainsaws

On a long, straight stretch of road, I was overtaken by six cars all of which had number plates that started with G. “Why do all the cars that are overtaking me have number plates starting with G?” I asked Robin.

“Coincidence?” she suggested.

“No, it’s a rule,” I said. “You will notice that the car behind me whose number plate does not start with G is making no attempt whatsoever to overtake me. So it must be a rule.”

“Perhaps G is today’s letter of the day on Sesame Street,” suggested Robin. I was happy with that. It explained everything. Nevertheless, for the rest of our holiday, I couldn’t help noticing that all the cars that overtook me had number plates starting with G, except for the ones that didn’t – and these last were very few and far between. Clearly they were statistical anomalies, together with the occasional cheater. My favourite overtaker had the number plate APP947. I was of the opinion that he had every right to zoom past me and I felt no resentment at all. Clearly he knew that there was an app for that.

Shortly before he died, Sir Patrick Moore published an autobiography called, with typical dry wit, The Autobiography. Moore was a British institution. Probably everyone in the country knew his name and at some time or other I think everyone must have watched The Sky At Night, his television programme about astronomy. It was almost certainly the longest running television show in the whole world. In 2011, Moore presented the 700th episode! And through all of those many shows, he missed only one episode, when he was struck down with food poisoning.

His autobiography is never less than readable and it is full of fascinating insights – but nevertheless much of his life remains veiled in mystery. For all his outgoing, friendly and larger than life personality, he still had secrets to keep, and things he was not prepared to discuss.

He tells us almost nothing about his early life or his career during the war. The book concentrates on the period just after the war, when Moore left the RAF and re-entered civilian life. Almost all he says about the war is that in 1943 Lorna, his fiancée and the love of his life, was killed in a bombing raid. Moore never married – "there was no one else for me... second best is no good for me... I would have liked a wife and family, but it was not to be."

Also, at some point, he must have received some quite extensive martial arts training. He mentions it in passing at several points in the book. Once, when he was collecting his car after a late evening at the BBC, he was approached by two teenagers with knives, clearly intent on mugging him. “Fortunately I was rather good at that sort of thing, so I laid them out.” He left one of them nursing a broken arm...

The Sky At Night always went out live and, over the course of so many shows, obviously there were many occasions where things went wrong. But Moore, speaking at 1000 miles an hour, always surmounted any problems. The most famous episode was the one where there was a fly loose in the studio. Moore opened his mouth to say something profound and the fly flew into it. Not pausing at all, Moore swallowed the fly and carried on talking.

He was president of the British Astronomical Association, the co-founder and president of the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA), and the author of over 70 books on astronomy. He also wrote many science fiction novels for children. Everything he wrote (including his autobiography) was composed on a typewriter that dated from 1908.

He was a talented musician; he played the xylophone, glockenspiel and piano. In 1981, at the Royal Variety Show, he played a solo xylophone rendition of the Sex Pistol’s seminal work Anarchy in the UK. He was a keen chess player and an idiosyncratic cricketer and golfer. He was the last of the renaissance men, interested in everything and talented enough to take that interest to sometimes surprising depths.

I devoured his autobiography avidly – like the man himself, it’s eccentric, and odd, very funny and very serious at one and the same time. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

In the late 1960s, Alexei Panshin published three novels that chronicled the adventures of one Anthony Villiers, a star-spanning, swash-buckling adventurer in the far future. The novels were called Star Well, The Thurb Revolution, and Masque World. There should have been a fourth book, tentatively entitled The Universal Pantograph, but it never appeared.

The novels gained a cult following, but they quickly fell out of print and became almost impossible to find. Now, has bundled them together as an ebook omnibus called The Adventures Of Anthony Villiers. I recommend it unreservedly.

Anthony Villiers wanders the interstellar Nashuite Empire in the company of a woolly, toadlike alien called Torve, who is a Trog. Villiers is a remittance man: he doesn't get along with his family, and so they pay him an allowance to stay away from them. He has become a wanderer, and an adventurer. Sometimes his travel plans change and he finds himself without funds, because his allowance has been sent to the wrong place, and then he is forced to rely on his wits to survive. He’s a very Simon Templar-like character and his adventures are more than a little reminiscent of the adventures of the Saint as chronicled by Leslie Charteris. This resemblance to the Saint is a deliberate and conscious decision by Panshin – several time Villiers refers to himself as Viscount Charteris, and I don’t know how Panshin could have stated his intentions and revealed his influences more clearly than that.

Torve the Trog belongs to a race that, following their defeat in a war, are now allowed to travel only within their own two star systems. A select few of them are officially allowed to travel within the Nashuite empire, but Torve is not one of those privileged Trogs. Nevertheless somehow he still manages to get through customs and immigration barriers everywhere he goes.

Perhaps he surmounts these obstacles because he does not believe in causality. In his philosophy, events do not effect each other and nothing depends upon anything else. Instead there are only “lines of occurence”. Things happen of their own volition. He is a somewhat fatalistic Trog. Never mind, he can always say “Thurb”.

The stories are narrated in a style that is curiously close to the mannered approach taken by Jack Vance (a master stylist who I admire above all others) and consequently I was predisposed to enjoy the books. And enjoy them I did! They are sensual stories, full of rich clothing, duels, assassins and bureaucrats, all of which are described within an incisively and very witty narrative. The books are stuffed full of dry irony and laugh-out-loud comedic episodes. What’s not to like?

Joe Haldeman’s new novel is called Work Done For Hire. It’s a near future thriller which may not even be science fiction at all (it’s a bit hard to tell).

Jack Daly is a former army sniper. He was honourably discharged from the service after being wounded in combat, and he makes a precarious living as a freelance writer. As the story opens, Jack has been approached by a Hollywood mogul to write a short novel that the mogul wants to use as the basis of movie pitch (an odd reversal of the more usual novelisation of an existing movie). The money offered by the mogul is huge, and Jack eagerly accepts the proposition. He starts to write a story about a rather perverse serial killer who eventually turns out to be a near-immortal alien from a far off star system.

The work is going well but then a box shows up on his front porch. It contains a rifle, $10,000 and a note telling him that he must use his talent as a sniper to kill a man. If he refuses the task, his girlfriend Kit will die a horrible death.

Jack and Kit go on the run in an attempt to escape from whoever it was who provided him with the gun. But no matter how hard they try and stay underneath the radar, his mysterious employers always know just where they are going and exactly what they are doing. All the evidence suggests that they are being monitored by a super-sophisticated surveillance system. Eventually the mysterious villains kidnap Kit, and now Jack has no choice. He will have to go ahead with the assassination. And, of course, he’s got a novel to finish as well...

The adventures of Jack and Kit as they vainly try to escape their fate are interspersed with chapters from Jack’s own novel, which itself quickly turns into a tour de force of horror. Both stories (Jack and Kit’s adventures, and the “book within a book” that Jack himself is writing) are rip-roaring, thrilling, page turning tales that are almost impossible to put down. I raced through them, having a wonderful time with the twists and turns of Jack and Kit’s odyssey, and with the lascivious descriptions of how to cook human meat that permeate Jack’s own novel.

And then, just as he has done so many times before, Joe Haldeman rushes the ending, pulls a deus ex machina out of his hat and leaves far too many plot threads dangling. It’s almost as if he’d reached his allotted page count and therefore had to wrap it all up far too quickly for comfort. It leaves a nasty taste behind, and it spoils what, up until then, had been an utterly engrossing book. What a shame...

Despite the fact that all of us left Wellington at very different times, we each arrived at the holiday house in Hastings within three minutes of each other in our three different cars. One was an Audi A4, one was a Subaru B4 and one was a Citroën C4. ABC4 – it became imperative to park them in alphabetical order.

We explored the house and did a baggies for the bedroom we desired. You can’t break a baggies.

Once that was sorted out we investigated the other rooms. There was a huge kitchen, a dining area, a lounge and a breakfast nook. The bathroom was frighteningly modern and elaborate. There was a laminated A4 sheet of paper stuck to the wall with instructions on how to use the shower. It all looked quite scary and much more complicated than the instructions for the zero-G toilet in the movie 2001.

There was a control panel in the shower with buttons to press and a digital display window for error messages and the like. Perhaps I’d be able to send and receive email while rinsing my beard. Maybe I could post real time movies of my ablutions to YouTube...

Some of the buttons on the control panel turned on and tuned in the radio. One button activated the telephone – presumably the numeric keypad was for dialling phone numbers. One button controlled the light and a particularly complicated looking chorded keyboard controlled the sauna. The instructions on the wall were full of dire warnings about careful placement of the feet when turning the sauna on, so as to avoid terminal scalding of the extremities. Since there were no birch twigs, Alan for the thrashing of, and no snowdrifts, Alan for the jumping into, I resolved not to try the sauna. I wasn’t all that certain of my ability to turn the radio on or to make telephone calls either. I could clearly see that all my available brain power would be needed just for coaxing water from one of the many nozzles that poked out of every curve and crevice of the shower cabinet.

The next morning was the moment of truth. I approached the huge, plastic shower cabinet with some trepidation. I read the instructions one more time and then began some practical experimentation. It turned out that there were four separate showers built into the unit. There was an overhead shower in the ceiling, a detachable shower on a flexible hose for cleansing those hard to reach places, and two showers built into the walls on the left and right of the cabinet. The showers in the walls sprayed water horizontally rather than in the more conventional vertical direction. Small seats were moulded into the plastic below the wall showers and when you sat in them, high pressure jets of water pummelled you unmercifully on the back. A chromium plated control knob directed water through each of these shower heads in turn as you twisted it. My courage failed me at that point. I wimped out and showered conventionally. I decided to postpone my investigation of the shower seats – perhaps they would be best experienced in company...

“Show me how the shower works,” demanded Robin, “so that I don’t have to read the manual.”

Once our shower adventures were over, we decided to head out into the wild blue yonder. Havelock North beckoned so that’s where we went. It proved to be a pretty place, full of foodie shops. I found myself tempted by a 2kg jar of capers, an ingredient that I use so rarely in my cooking that I would certainly be able to leave at least 1.98kg of capers to my great-grandchildren. I felt pleased about being able to make such a substantial bequest to my descendents. However Robin dissuaded me from purchasing it.

“You have no children,” she pointed out, “so the likelihood of having great-grandchildren is small.”

Convinced by this logic, I put the jar of capers back on the shelf.

Like all the towns in this holiday area, Havelock North was full of signposts telling you what you could and could not do on the streets of the town. The signposts were all pictorial. There were no words to be seen on any of them. Presumably this was for the sake of the tourist hordes. Even people who cannot read English can understand pictures. Everyone understands pictures; they are a universal language. That’s why graphical user interfaces on computers are so successful, so intuitive and so completely unambiguous.

As we walked along the footpath, I found myself puzzling over a distant sign that showed a stick figure standing legs akimbo on a horizontal black line. There was a firm diagonal drawn though the stick figure, suggesting that whatever action the figure was doing on the black line was strictly forbidden. The black line was clearly the footpath and the stick figure was clearly a person walking along it. Obviously there was only one possible explanation.

“Oh look,” I said, “pedestrians are not allowed on the footpath. Perhaps we’d better start walking in the road.”


Everyone stopped and stared at the sign.

“Don’t be silly, Alan. It means no skateboarding.”

As we got closer to the sign I realised that the black line the figure was standing on was indeed a stylised skateboard rather than the footpath I had initially assumed it to be. Oops! Nevertheless I was still completely correct. There was indeed only one possible explanation...

Obviously I was sorely in need of coffee and a cheesy muffin.

Over coffee, we discussed where to go next. We decided that the Te Mata Winery was in need of a visit, so that’s where we went. Much wine bluffing was indulged in, together with lots of spitting and not a little swallowing. I was sorely tempted by a huge, multi-gallon bottle of red wine. I could not reach around its circumference, and while I could peek over the top of it, I had to stand on tip-toe to do it. The whole thing was a bargain at only $1,342.98.

“It won’t fit in our wine rack,” said Robin firmly.

Damn! Yet again I was foiled in my quest to buy gigantic comestibles. Clearly it was time to drive to Napier for lunch. We parked on Wine Street, near The New Zealand Wine Centre which sold wines from all over the Hawke’s Bay area and beyond. A sign outside the shop told us that this was a liquor ban area...

Napier has art deco everywhere you look. I embraced a statue of a 1920s flapper who was walking her dog and Robin took compromising photographs of us. The statue blushed and her dog peed streams of concrete on my leg.

Unfortunately there was no big food to be found in Napier and so, after indulging in a small lunch, we decided to drive back to Hastings.

“Let’s go the pretty way,” said Robin.

I turned left onto the back country roads. We drove through lots of scenery, interspersed with tiny clusters of buildings which were closely followed by lots more scenery. Somewhere between Napier and Hastings we passed a large hospital which was directly across the road from a cemetary and crematorium. It was unclear whether this juxtaposition was a coincidence or a manifestation of efficient business management. I inclined towards the former on the grounds that there is no such thing as efficient business management.

Later, in the middle of nowhere, we passed a home-made billboard which proclaimed:

Leaving the mundane

and entering

the uneventful!

We were home in time for tea.

Following a trend, Lawrence Block has self-published his new novel The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons. It’s the eleventh novel in his Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Bernie owns a second hand bookshop and sometimes, when the mood takes him, he goes out burgling. In this novel, Bernie is commissioned by a man whose name probably isn’t Smith, to steal various items that he needs for his collection. Smith is an obsessive collector and money is no object. Bernie himself stands to make a lot of money from Mr Smith’s obsession...

The plot is fairly predictable, and there are no surprises. But you don’t read Bernie Rhodenbarr books for the plot, you read read them for the jokes, the bits of business and the sparkling dialogue. They are delightfully funny books full of wit and wisdom, and this one is no exception. It is stuffed with literary lore, obscure facts about unsuccessful American presidential candidates, and speculations about the people who signed the Declaration of Independence. It might have lots of steamy sex as well, but that all hides behind asterisks, so we’ll never know.

Zoe Sharp is a new writer to me. Quite by accident, I stumbled across her web site and discovered that she was the author of a series of thrillers which looked intriguing. So, in for a penny, in for a pound, I invested in them. In one sense, it turned out to be a wise decision because I loved the books. In another sense it was perhaps a mistake, because I stayed up far too late, reading them avidly well into the small hours of the morning. I simply couldn’t bear to go to sleep before I found out how the story ended.

The books tell of the adventures of Charlie Fox, a young woman who excelled in the special forces training that she took in the British army. However her army career came to a sudden and sordid end when she was raped by some of her fellow trainees. In the first novel, Killer Instinct, she is back in civvy street and making a precarious living as a self defence instructor. She gets a job as a bouncer at a local club but soon comes to suspect that there is a link between the club and a rapist who has been terrorising the neighbourhood.

In many respects it’s an ordinary thriller. However Charlie springs to full three-dimensional life almost from page one. She is so easy to identify with and to sympathise with when things go wrong (and they do go horribly wrong). It’s also very nice to see a martial arts expert who doesn’t litter the landscape with bad guys and wander away unhurt and whistling. Yes, Charlie knows how to fight and how to defend herself but that does not make her invulnerable. She’s just as human as everyone else. She can be hurt, her bones can be broken, knives and bullets hurt her just as much as they hurt everyone else. In other words she’s a real human being.

In later books, Charlie falls in with some old army pals and eventually becomes a professional bodyguard to the rich (and sometimes famous). And so again we have a story arc that ignores the genre clichés – Lee Child (for example) has written umpty um novels about his hero Jack Reacher and at the end of the thousandth novel Reacher is a little bit older, but nothing much else about him has changed. Charlie Fox, on the other hand, is constantly growing, constantly changing as a result of what happens to her in her various adventures. The Charlie of the later books has learned lessons that the earlier Charlie could well have benefitted from. Bugger! Life is so unfair.

I like Charlie. Her adventures are utterly enthralling, and Zoe Sharp is a brilliant writer.

The next day we went to the beach at Waimarama, as one does. We drove past Waimarama Heights which was at the bottom of a high cliff. Along the way we noticed a large paddock full of de-horned unicorns that were pretending to be white horses, but they didn’t fool us for a minute.

The high spot of the trip was undoubtedly the road works that we came upon next. Large men driving large machines were busy laying steaming tarmac and grit. They had carefully obliterated most of the information on the road signs that set the speed limit in the area at 70kph, and now all that was left on the signs was an urgent instruction to travel carefully forward at 0kph. Frustratingly, further down the road I could clearly see a sign which allowed speeds of up to 30kph, once that point was reached. But if I obeyed the rules and travelled at 0kph up to the sign, our holiday would be infinitely extended – no bad thing in itself, but I could envisage it causing problems on the day I was due back at work. Fortunately my car had a special Japanese gear setting that allowed it to travel slowly forward at very large values of zero kilometres an hour. Phew! Problem solved.

Once past the road works, we speeded up again and it wasn’t long before we reached the coast. Large waves crashed against the yellow sand and marched in step up the beach.

“Oooohhh!!!” shrieked Robin in delight. She raced into the sea, caught a particularly powerful wave and body surfed elegantly back to land. “I’m an empowered woman,” she yelled. “Even after all these years, I can still body-surf. I’ll show the young whippersnappers a thing or two.”

And she did it again, and again and again to rapturous applause.

Since Robin was now empowered, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to visit Te Mata Peak. From a distance, the peak could be clearly seen as a dragon-spine ridge spanning the horizon. We drove slowly up a long and winding road. Signs urged us to take extreme care. The road got narrower and narrower and there was a sheer drop on each side. I drove more and more slowly, but eventually, no matter how hard I tried to stop it happening, we reached the top and parked the car. Way, way below us, Hawke’s Bay stretched out as far as the eye could see and sometimes even further than that.

“Look, there’s the winery that we went to.” It was a tiny dot far below us. We got out of the car and braced ourselves against the fearful wind that seemed intent on blowing us over the edge and tumbling us out into space. There was a sturdy fence all around the peak with firm rails to grasp on to, but nevertheless I was completely unable to force myself to go that close to the edge. I was particularly unnerved by the hang-glider launching pad that was cunningly placed over the sheerest drop of all.

Extreme Danger

said the sign on the hang-glider platform.

Keep Off!

I felt that this was very good advice.

Robin, still empowered, overcame her usual vertigo and got right up to the fence, much closer than I could manage. She slowly turned around and around, soaking up the whole panorama.

“Oh, wow!”

On the way back home, we stopped and took photographs of the unicorns.

That evening we ate out at 1024, a very posh restaurant which is owned and operated by an old friend of one of our party. We had a reservation for 7.00pm and when we turned up we found, somewhat to our surprise, that we were the only patrons. That was when we discovered that 1024 is not normally open for dinner – they only do lunches. But they’d opened the restaurant as a one off special, just for us. We felt suitably honoured.

The owner came and talked to us. “Since I last saw you,” he said proudly, “I’ve opened sixty-one restaurants.”

There was a pause while we did the mental arithmetic. That averaged lots and lots of restaurants a year. We were suitably impressed.

The food was simply, but inventively, cooked from locally sourced ingredients and served with smooth local wines that matched the dishes perfectly.

“I never know what will be on the menu until I see what’s available that day,” said the owner. “And even then I often change my mind about how to prepare it once I get going.”

The food was, of course, absolutely superb in every way and it wasn’t long before we were all suitably stuffed and suitably satisfied.

In the car on the way back, Robin said, “That was a wonderful meal and it still is. Every time I burp I get a different flavour.”

We all tried her suggestion out, and she was right! What a bonus! We were suitably impressed by the meal all over again.

On the last day of our hols, we went to the museum in Napier. In the basement was a display detailing the hugely destructive earthquake that had devastated the region in 1931. There were photographs of the rubble strewn streets, quotes from survivors describing their ordeal, and a transcription of the messages that went backwards and forwards as the rescue effort was slowly put together. The rescue teams were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that faced them. The city’s infrastructure was completely destroyed. There was no water to fight the fires that broke out and what little was left of the city just burned away.

It was a distinctly moving display and, given recent events in the country, quite disturbing. In a very sombre frame of mind, we spent the rest of the day just looking at the sea. There’s something very soothing about the stately march of the waves upon the shore.

The beach had lots of stones. Robin sorted them all by size and by colour. Then she put the very best ones in a bag and brought them home.

Patrick Moore The Autobiography History Press
Alexei Panshin The Adventures of Anthony Villiers
Joe Haldeman Work Done For Hire Ace
Lawrence Block The Burglar Who Counted The Spoons Lawrence Block
Zoe Sharp Killer Instinct Busted Flush Press
Zoe Sharp Riot Act Busted Flush Press
Zoe Sharp Hard Knocks Busted Flush Press
Zoe Sharp First Drop Busted Flush Press
Zoe Sharp Road Kill Busted Flush Press
Zoe Sharp Second Shot Busted Flush Press
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