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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (lacrimae laqueare)

Alan and the Wet Spot


What? Was that a plink I heard? Surely not. It must have been on the radio. I hunkered down and listened to the music that the radio was playing, trying to distract myself from the weather that I could see through the window. Outside, the remains of Cyclone Ita torrented down from the sky. Ita had flooded the Solomon Islands and much of Queensland, and now it seemed hell bent on doing the same thing to New Zealand. Solid sheets of water flung themselves around with gay abandon as high winds blew the rain hither and yon, flattening the flowers in the garden and saturating the street. Rivers of storm water ran gaily into the drains. The radio told me that the farmers, who had been complaining about the drought, were now complaining that there was far too much water in their fields. Farmers are never satisfied...

Plink! Plink!

Strange how the radio was making that curiously metronomic noise. It didn’t fit the rhythm of the music at all. Harpo the Cat wandered into the lounge shaking his paws as if they were wet. “Hello, Harpo,” I said. “Have you been outside?”

“In this weather?” asked Harpo incredulously. “Don’t be daft. Who’d want to go out in rain like that? By the way, did you know that there’s a huge pool of water just by the front door?”

“No, I didn’t know that. I’ll go and look.”

I went out into the hall to see what was going on and there, by the front door, was a large puddle. My first thought was that Cyclone Ita had blown rain into the house through gaps underneath and around the door. It had always been a little loose in the frame. But as I bent to examine the door more closely, a drop of water fell on my head, right on the bald spot. Ouch! I looked up and all was revealed. Water was dripping regularly from the ceiling and plinking itself into a puddle. Damn! The roof was leaking. Bloody cyclones!

I mopped up the puddle, much to Harpo’s annoyance because he was drinking from it, and then I placed a bucket under the drips.

Plink! Plink! Plink!

The sound was getting on my nerves, so I lined the bucket with a towel. At least the drips were falling silently now. I went to my computer and examined the internet for roof experts. I found a man called Peter the Plumber who claimed to be a roof specialist. He lived just down the road from me. How convenient. I rang him.

“Hello. This is Peter.”

“Hello Peter. My roof has sprung a leak and I’m not sure what to do about it.”

“That’s not surprising,” said Peter. “It’s absolutely evil out there. I’ve just come home from my last job to get changed. I’m completely saturated. I squelched in my van all the way home. Good job it doesn’t have absorbent seats.”

“I can imagine,” I said. “I’ve never seen rain like this. It’s obviously exploiting a weak spot in my roof.”

“What’s your address?” asked Peter. “I’ll try and get round some time today.”

I gave him the necessary details.

Outside, Cyclone Ita carried on doing just what cyclones do best. The guttering on the house across the road was unable to cope with the influx of water and had overflowed, spilling dramatic torrents everywhere. Harpo the Cat and Bess the Other Cat sat on the windowsill watching the rain as it pounded the garden and smashed itself vainly against the windows..

“Make it stop,” said Bess. “I want to go out for a pee and a poo.”

“For once,” said Harpo, “she’s talking sense. You really ought to do something about it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but there isn’t anything I can do. I can’t control the weather.”

“Bloody useless, you are,” said Harpo, and he turned his back on me.

“I can’t wait,” said Bess. “Sorry, gotta go.”

She raced off to the cat flap and shot outside. About five minutes later she came back, looking very pleased with herself. “There,” she said, “that’s better. I’m pounds lighter now.”

“You’re also soaking wet,” I pointed out. “You must be the wettest cat in the whole universe. I can get a towel and dry you, if you’d like.”

“Don’t bother,” said Bess. “I’ll just climb up on your lap and saturate your trousers.”

A couple of months ago I wrote in praise of Dewey Lambdin's novels of adventure in the nineteenth century British navy. I've read a few more of them now and I'm starting to change my mind. Although the stories are exciting, and the social and political observations are always acute, Lambdin's writing style is starting to grate on me. For reasons best known to himself, he presents all his dialogue in a phonetic representation. This wasn't too bad in the early books which were mostly populated by native English speakers, but in the later novels we get hordes of Frenchmen, Russians, Germans etc. and it is all far too much to bear. After a few hundred pages of Frenchmen saying things like "No way to 'old eet, so far from ze ozzer posts, wizout cavalry for ze resupply, hein?", it all gets terribly wearying and the urge to close the book and never re-open it again becomes overwhelming.

Furthermore, Lambdin even commits sins with English – in the narrative sections he uses the word “lieutenant”, but in the dialogue it is consistently spelled “leftenant”. It drove me mad, so it did.

I've given up on Lambdin. But fortunately I've found someone even better!

Alaric Bond has written five novels (so far) and I've enjoyed every single one of them. They are, I suppose, typical examples of the genre. However the characters are well drawn and sympathetic. The reader easily identifies with them, cheers their triumphs and weeps at their tragedies. And it comes as a genuine shock when they are seriously wounded or killed. Bond's viewpoint characters are many and varied – common sailors as well as officers of various ranks. He never concentrates on any one person to the exclusion of others. There is some degree of continuity – several of the characters appear in more than one book and their careers progress in interesting ways. But Bond is not afraid to put them in peril, and there is no guarantee that any of them will survive unscathed. This adds an edge of verisimilitude to these stories that I've never experienced in novels by other writers. We know that Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin and Horatio Hornblower will all survive to fight another day. The same cannot be said of the characters in Alaric Bond's novels.

Alaric Bond has now replaced Dewey Lambdin in my affections.

Diana Wynne Jones died before completing The Islands of Chaldea and it was finished by her sister Ursula. There is a fascinating afterword by Ursula where she talks about growing up with Diana, listening to the stories that Diana was always telling. She scoured the manuscript of The Islands of Chaldea again and again, looking for clues as to the direction Diana intended the story to take. She must have succeeded very well, for she records that of all the people who have tried guessing where Diana stopped and Ursula took over, not one person has ever managed to identify it correctly.

Aileen is twelve years old, the latest in a long line of the Wise Women of Skarr. Unfortunately she fails her initiation. She worries that perhaps the magic has skipped a generation. But soon other, more immediate problems take her mind off this concern.

Four islands make up Chaldea. Logra, the largest and most magical, has been isolated by a magical barrier from the other three for decades. But a prophecy claims that someone from Skarr will gather a man from each of the other islands, destroy the barrier, and unite all four islands again. According to the King of Skarr, that someone is Aileen’s Aunt Beck. And so Aileen and her Aunt set off to fulfil the terms of the prophecy. But it soon becomes clear that someone is opposed to the quest and it isn't long before Aunt Beck falls victim to a magical attack, leaving Aileen in charge. And of course, Aileen starts to discover that she has much more magic within herself than she thought she had...

In some respects this is a traditional coming of age story. But it's by Diana Wynne Jones so of course there is much more to it than that. The four islands of Chaldea are easily recognisable as slightly distorted versions of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales and on another level, the story is a love letter to the mythology of the United Kingdom. There are plenty of references here for those that have eyes to see them, and it certainly adds a unifying depth to a story that might otherwise have seemed more than a little arbitrary and thin.

But mostly this novel is a last chance to enjoy Diana's delightful wit, her quirky view of the world, and her staggering skill at bringing together seemingly unconnected, arbitrary plot threads into a wonderfully coherent whole.

There is one type of story that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck and sends authentic shivers down my spine. An empire has collapsed and now, centuries later, the empire is just half-forgotten legend and lore. But the traces that it has left behind can still have a profound effect on the lives of the characters in the story. Isaac Asimov used this idea in his Foundation stories and so did J. R. R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings. Now Jane Lindskold has used the idea in Artemis Awakening, and what a magnificent job she has done with it.

These days Artemis is a rather bucolic, sparsely inhabited planet. But the loremasters tell of a time when it was a pleasure planet used by the “seegnur”. Adara is a huntress. She and her puma Sand Shadow are out hunting when they see a strange looking shooting star. Following the traces it has left, they find a crashed spaceship from which they rescue Griffin Dane. Griffin is a historian and archeologist from what remains of humanity’s star spanning civilization. His studies have revealed long forgotten references to the old empire’s pleasure planet and he has come to investigate. But the loss of his ship and all of his equipment probably means that his investigation will be over before it has begun. Adara is not so sure – she knows people who have studied the old days, people who she is sure will be able to help Griffin. Perhaps the few surviving seegnur sites might even have equipment that can get Griffin off the planet again and get him back home to his family! Griffin is less certain about this. His studies have told him that during the last battle that destroyed the empire’s outposts on Artemis, the combatants, in a fit of childish pique, scattered nanobots that destroyed the techological infrastructure of the planet. If they couldn’t have the planet, neither could anyone else! Those nanobots are probably still active. After all, the current society on Artemis is not itself a technological one.

And so the scene is set for a magificent picaresque novel. It’s a quest, it’s a story of the exploration of the unknown, it’s a tale that pursues half-understood clues to mysterious ends.

Such a story only works well if the characters involved in it come alive in the reader’s mind, and that will only happen if the back story is thoroughly worked out in the author’s mind. Without that unifying solidity, the story structure can quickly turn into essentially arbitrary incidents that never quite gell into a coherent whole. It is clear that Jane Lindskold fully understands this, and that she has worked very hard indeed to give her characters and settings the depth that they require. As a direct result of this careful preparation, everything about Artemis feels extraordinarily real. The world is properly lived in, and the people who live there fit perfectly into their world.

Adara is a fascinating character, and her puma Sand Shadow is just as interesting. They have a crude telepathic bond with each other. Also both are adapted – genetic modifications have given Adara the ability to see in the dark and hands that are almost paws. Sand Shadow has paws that are almost hands and Griffin wins her affection by teaching her some new knots to tie! He also introduces a game of marbles to which Sand Shadow quickly becomes addicted. And yet despite these genetic alterations, Adara remains completely a human being and Sand Shadow remains completely a cat. Humanity and felinity are defined less by the shape of the body than they are by the attitudes of the mind that lives within that body.

The genetic modifications that define Adara and Sand Shadow are not common on Artemis. Presumably they were initiated by the seegnur for their own mysterious reasons – the seegnur seem to have regarded the inhabitants of Artemis as a kind of servant class, clay to be moulded for specific roles on the pleasure planet. Griffin meets more adapted people on his quest, some of them very strange indeed. It starts to become apparant that this strangeness may not be quite as arbitrary as at first it appeared to be. There is something happening behind the scenes, something that will profoundly affect the outcome of the tale.

The story progresses to a nicely satisfying end, but threads remain to be ravelled up and I’m very eager to see what happens in the next novel. I’ve fallen a little bit in love with Adara (and I’ve fallen a lot in love with Sand Shadow). By the end of the book, Griffin has made much headway in his quest, but there is still a long way to go. I dearly want to know how (and if) he will succeed.

Artemis Awakening grabbed hold of me and simply wouldn’t let me go. I quickly found myself resenting having to put the book down in order to do mundane things like cook a meal and go to bed. I was living on Artemis and travelling with Adara, Sand Shadow and Griffin. I hated to leave them. Who knows what might have happened to them while I wasn’t there...

Plink! Plink!

What? I went out to the hall to investigate. Water was still dripping from the original place in the ceiling, but there was now an extra drip a bit further along from the first. There was no bucket under this second drip and so it was plinking steadily onto the floor again. Heaving a deep sigh at it, I went and fetched another bucket and towel, and I mopped up the new puddle.

I pottered around the house doing this and that. The radio took a gloomy delight in telling me about the many horrible things that were happening all over the country as Cyclone Ita wreaked havoc here, there and everywhere. Trees blown down, roofs ripped off, power cuts, landslips and flooding. A few drips from my ceiling started to seem quite minor in comparison.

Plink! Plink!

Oh, no. Not again? Out in the hall, a fresh drip had appeared. Another bucket and another towel. Perhaps it wasn’t a minor thing after all. I telephoned Peter and explained the situation. “I’ll be round about five o’clock,” he said, and he was as good as his word.

He was carrying a stepladder. “How can I get inside the roof?” he asked.

I showed him where the trapdoor into the roof was, and he adjusted his ladder, climbed up it and shone his torch around. “I can see the leak,” he said triumphantly. “Do you want to see it?”

He got down and I clambered up and pointed myself towards the front of the house. “What am I looking for?” I asked.

“There’s a dark brown patch on the beam,” he said. “That’s the water soaking into the wood.”

I saw it. “I can see it,” I said. “What do we do now?”

“I’ll have a look outside,” said Peter.

He wandered around the house looking up at the roof and shaking his head gloomily. “It’s a steel roof, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said.

“There’s nothing I can do while it’s still raining,’ he said. “Steel roofs are very dangerous when they are wet. They get very slippery. One wrong step and you slide off and crash down. Then you have to start looking for money as a down-payment on a wheelchair. We’ll just have to wait for the sun to come back.”

“I checked the weather forecast,” I said. “It looks like it’s going to be raining for forty days and forty nights.”

“Well, for the moment just keep collecting the drips in the buckets,” said Peter. “She’ll be right. But you might want to consider building an ark. I’ll be in touch when and if the sun comes back.” He squelched out to his van and drove off into the storm.

Plink! Plink!

Another drip, another bucket and another towel. I was rapidly approaching a bucket crisis. The rain continued to fall in Niagara-like torrents. The street looked more and more like a river and less and less like a street. The inter-islander ferry chugged slowly up the street against the current. A dead elephant and Russell Crowe floated past in the opposite direction. I stared suspiciously at my coffee – what on earth was I drinking? Once the hallucinations went away, I turned on the television. There weren’t enough pictures on the radio for my liking...

However the reality reported on the television was even more unbelievable than the visions I’d made up for myself. A farmer driving a 14-tonne digger rescued a woman trapped by flood waters on the roof of her car. He stretched the digger’s arm out to her and she scrambled into the bucket which then swung her ignominiously to safety. She and the farmer both took selfies as the rescue progressed. If there aren’t any films and photographs then it never happened.

It has often been speculated that J. R. R. Tolkien's experiences in the trenches of the First World War were reflected in many of the landscapes and battles of The Lord of the Rings. John Garth, in Tolkien and the Great War attempts to give chapter and verse to this influence.

Tolkien's son Christopher gave John Garth access to Tolkien's own personal papers, letters and other documents. Using these and other official records from the time, Garth manages to trace Tolkien's wartime experiences at the Battle of the Somme.

Initially, Garth discusses Tolkien's pre-war school days, where he made lasting friendships. Together with three friends, he formed a literary discussion group called the TCBS – the letters stand for Tea Club and Barrovian Society. All the members of the TCBS served during the war and two of them died on the Western Front. As Tolkien himself remarked in an introduction to The Lord of the Rings, “… by 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” There is no doubt that these events marked him for life.

Garth also links Tolkien's love of languages and poetry, and his immersion in Norse and Gothic literature and mythology, with the events in his life and his war. He prints some of Tolkien's early poems (they are very bad, Tolkien was still a very young man) which contain hints of what was to come. He goes on to show how his later, famous works were inspired and directed by his wartime experiences. He even goes so far as to suggest that if there had been no Great War, Tolkien might never have amounted to any more than an academic who dabbled with story telling. If his writings had ever been published at all, he might well have been seen as only a minor writer, perhaps he would have been no more than a twentieth century William Morris.

But the war casts a long, dark shadow over Tolkien's creativity. "Middle-earth,” says Garth, “ ...looks so engagingly familiar to us, and speaks to us so eloquently, because it was born with the modern world and marked by the same terrible birth pangs".

Garth makes a very good case for this point of view, and the book is a truly fascinating study of both Tolkien and of some of the seminal events of the early twentieth century.

When I was a student, I spent a huge amount of time studying Michael Faraday's insights into the properties of electricity and magnetism, and the elegant mathematical equations that James Clerk Maxwell derived to put Faraday's ideas on to a more formal basis than Faraday himself was able to achieve. Faraday and Maxwell's ideas were a scientific revolution at least on a par with the twentieth century's more famous ideas of relativity and quantum theory. (I studied those as well, but they were nowhere near as pretty, nowhere near as elegant). In Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field, Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon combine the biographies of these two great scientists to give a picture of the development of what was certainly the crowning achievement of nineteenth century physics. It's a fascinating tale which talks at length about the personal lives of both Faraday and Maxwell as well as about their intellectual achievements. I absolutely loved it!

As part of another project, I've been re-reading some novels by Clifford D. Simak. He's a largely forgotten writer these days and most of his books seem to be out of print. That's a shame. There was a time when he was regarded as one of the great writers. Robert Heinlein himself once said: " read science-fiction is to read Simak. The reader who does not like Simak stories does not like science-fiction at all."

Simak was a clever writer, often a very funny writer, and a surprisingly deep thinker. Hiding behind the surface of his sometimes quite whimsical stories were serious speculations about the nature of reality and humanity's place in the universe. If you stumble across his books in the second hand bookshops of the world, I suggest you buy them immediately. I don't think you can go far wrong with any of them.

Another great, but forgotten, writer is Jack Finney. One of his claims to fame was the novel The Body Snatchers which became a very famous film called Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But the novels that cemented his reputation were From Time To Time and Time and Again. (As an amusing bit of irrelevant synchronicity, it's probably worth mentioning that Clifford D. Simak also wrote a novel called Time and Again. Don't get the two confused!).

The two Finney novels are a nostalgic re-rendering of nineteenth century America told through the eyes of a twentieth century time traveller. They are, at one and the same time, touching, warm and irresistibly moving. Jack Seabrook's study Stealing Through Time is an examination of Finney's life and work. Finney was a very private man and Seabrook found it hard to dig up many details of Finney's life. Nevertheless some things are a matter of public record and Seabrook weaves the two strands of Finney's life and work together in an utterly fascinating literary biography. If you have fond memories of Jack Finney's stories, you owe it to yourself to dig out a copy of this book.

Plink! Plink! Plink!

Oh no! Not another drip? Yes, another drip. The only remaining drip catcher that I could lay my hands on was a dirt tray which the cats didn’t use any more because they preferred to go outside. We’d long ago thrown away the kitty litter that was in it and stored the tray safely in the laundry in case we ever needed it again. I took it out, lined the tray with a towel and positioned it carefully. Harpo watched closely.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I explained.

“Why are you using my dirt tray?”

“Because you don’t.”

“But I might,” said Harpo. He walked widdershins around the tray a couple of times and then he climbed in, curled up and went to sleep. He didn’t seem to care that Chinese Water Torture drips were falling on to him with monotonous regularity. Bess and I went to our more conventional beds and slept the night away. When I got up the next day, Harpo was still soggily asleep in his dirt tray.

Amazingly, the rain had gone away overnight and a weak sun was peering shyly through the heavy clouds. I checked the weather forecast. Today appeared to be an oasis of meagre sunshine which would quickly turn back into rain on the following day. I rang Peter the Plumber.

“It’s not raining,” I pointed out.

“I’ll be there in an hour or so,” he said and once again he was as good as his word.

He climbed up on the roof and spent a couple of hours loudly hitting things, then he climbed down again. “I’m about eighty percent sure I’ve fixed it,” he said. “You can never be completely certain with leaks, but I think I’ve got it. I’ve re-sealed some bits where the sealing seemed to have perished and I’ve fastened the leaky area down a bit more securely. But I suggest you keep the buckets there for a while just in case.”

He packed his gear away and drove off.

Despite what the weather forecast said, since Peter repaired the roof there has been no significant rain to speak of at all and consequently I haven’t heard a single plink for several days. Therefore the current state of the roof remains undefined. Fixing the roof guarantees sunshine for exactly the same reason that washing the car guarantees rain. Clearly the weather gods were insulted by what I did, and they have gone away to sulk. Because it is uncertain as to whether or not the repair has solved the whole of the problem, the buckets remain in place for the time being. Harpo has slept in the dirt tray every single night. He at least is very pleased with what I have done. When I finally come to remove all the buckets and wash all the towels, Harpo’s wrath will be terrible to behold. I do not expect to survive it unscathed.

Dewey Lambdin H.M.S. Cockerel Ballantine
Dewey Lambdin A King's Commander Ballantine
Alaric Bond His Majesty's Ship Fireship Press
Alaric Bond The Jackass Frigate Fireship Press
Alaric Bond True Colours Fireship Press
Alaric Bond Cut and Run Fireship Press
Alaric Bond The Patriot's Fate Fireship Press
Diana Wynne Jones The Islands of Chaldea HarperCollins
Jane Lindskold Artemis Awakening Tor
John Garth Tolkien and the Great War HarperCollins
Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field Prometheus Books
Clifford D. Simak The Goblin Reservation Berkeley
Clifford D. Simak Out of Their Minds Sidgwick & Jackson
Jack Seabrook Stealing Through Time McFarland
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