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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (ludus funem)

Jake and his Rope – a Sad and Poignant Tail

Every day Robin and I take Jake the Dog to a park where we can take his lead off and let him run free to play with all the other dogs. He enjoys this a lot, but we sometimes find it a little traumatic.

"Jake!" I yelled at the black and tan dot that was vanishing out of sight over the horizon. "Jake! Come back here!"

Jake paid no attention to me whatsoever. He was in hot pursuit of what he hoped would turn out to be a delightfully smelly dog bottom that he urgently needed to sniff, and nothing was going to distract him from that essential task.

"I think his ears are just painted on," said Robin. "They certainly don't appear to be functional at the moment."

"Sometimes I think they are only ornaments," I said. "Perhaps we should talk to the dog man about it the next time we take Jake to the Disobedience Class."

So that's what we did.

"The trick," explained the dog man, "is to give him some motivation to return to you. You've got to make yourselves more attractive than whatever it is that is distracting him at the moment. He needs a good reason to come back to you."

"How do we do that?" I asked. "Should I spray myself all over with essence of dog bottom?"

"That's probably a little extreme," said the dog man. "But we do need to discover something you can do that will get him excited. Is he motivated by food?"

"Not really," I said. "Most dinner times he won't even finish his meal unless I'm there supervising him, and he doesn't seem to care at all when the cats sneak in and steal some of it."

"Hmm." said the dog man. "So the treats you have in your pocket that you reward him with when he's a good boy aren't sufficient in themselves to grab his attention?"

"Indeed not," I said. "They are just icing on the cake of his day – nice, but not at all necessary."

"What about toys?" asked the dog man. "Does he like to chase a ball?"

"No, he doesn't. If I throw a ball for him he'll chase it once out of politeness, but then he loses interest. And he doesn't have an ounce of retriever in him. He never brings anything back. If I go and get the ball and throw it a second time he just looks at it and says, 'I already chased that once. Why do you want me to do it again?' Then he'll probably eat it, which is a really good way of making sure we can't play that game again."

"What about sticks?" asked the dog man. "Sticks are always good."

"He's not really a stick dog," I said. "Sometimes he'll be in a stick mood, and then he'll carry one around for a while, but his interest doesn't usually last for very long. He soon gets bored with it, and then he settles down and eats it. Sometimes he uses the splinters to pick his teeth. But if a leaf falls from a tree or a blade of grass waves in the wind, he will easily get distracted, and then that's the end of the stick – he just abandons it and chases off after his new interest."

"How odd," said the dog man. "I've never met a dog that couldn't get interested in toys and sticks. But of course he is a huntaway. What they want to do most of all is herd things. I once met a huntaway who was so frustrated at not having things to round up every day, that he tried to herd a flock of ants in his back garden. He wasn't very good at it. He just couldn't get the ants to pay any attention to him no matter how loudly he barked at them. He clearly found that very frustrating and he was not a happy dog."

"Oh yes," I said. "Jake certainly has very strong herding instincts. He's particularly good rounding up schoolchildren."

"That's impressive," said the dog man, "but it's a bit impractical. You can't carry schoolchildren round in your pocket when you go to the park. People might talk. Is there anything else that he likes?"

"He quite fond of his tug'o'war rope," I said. "We sometimes play with it in the garden. He seems to look forward to that."

"And where does the rope live?"

"It's just lying in the garden," I said, "so that he can play with it and chew on it whenever he wants to."

"I see," said the dog man. "Right – this is what you have to do. Put the rope away somewhere out of sight and take it with you to the park. Let him play with it there and nowhere else. Make the rope a special treat that only happens at the park, never at home. That way he'll really feel motivated to come back to you so that he can play tug'o'war."

Robin and I were both dubious, but we agreed to give it a try, and so the next time we went to the park, Robin carried the rope in a plastic bag. We let Jake off the lead and, as usual, he went racing off into the middle distance. But before he got out of sight, Robin pulled out the rope, waved it around and yelled, "Jake! Jake! Look what I've got."

Jake glanced casually back, did a double take and put on all his brakes. He skidded to a stop, scattering mud left and right (it had been raining hard earlier in the day and the ground was saturated). Wow! A rope! He came racing back and grabbed hold of it. "Tug! Tug! Tug!" cried Robin as Jake braced himself and pulled for all he was worth. "And… Let go!"

Robin released the rope and Jake tumbled briefly backwards. Then he recovered himself and, with the rope clutched proudly in his mouth, he did a happy-dance, leaping and prancing, shaking his head from side to side and making the rope swing backwards and forwards. The rope ends with their heavy knots shook all over his face and body, whipping him into a frenzy in a magnificent orgy of self-flagellation. Jake was clearly in doggy heaven.

"Yeah!" he said. "What a wonderful rope. Best rope ever!"

Then he glanced up and saw another dog. He dropped the rope and left it lying forgotten and forlorn in a puddle of mud as he dashed off to greet the new most important thing in his life. Robin picked up the muddy rope. "Well, that didn't last long," she said.

"Perhaps he'll get interested once he's finished sniffing the other dog. Try him again."

"Jake! Come here!" yelled Robin as she waved the rope enticingly at Jake. Drops of muddy water sprayed over her, leaving her fetchingly spotted in grey. Jake came racing back and grabbed the rope from her, and then he danced his happy-dance again.

"It's a rope! It's my rope! It's got mud and everything! Look how elegant the knots are."

Robin and I started to feel cautiously optimistic. Jake was being much better behaved. The dog man was right. The secret was definitely in the rope…

In my teens I fell in love with the magnificent short stories (and the slightly less than magnificent novels) of W. Somerset Maugham. Maugham himself was still alive at the time, though he was very old, and he was suffering from what these days we'd refer to as Alzheimer's, though then it was more usually called senile dementia. Maugham was still an enormously popular writer – all his books were in print, and dramatisations of his work often appeared on the television and in the cinema. Because of his popularity, there were lots of newspaper stories about his illness, his deterioration, and his eventual death. It all seemed very sad, and I found it hard to reconcile the picture painted by the newspapers of an incontinent man, barely able to recognise people and events any more, with the incisive and insightful author of what are probably some of the best mainstream stories I have ever read.

I remember lending a book of Maugham's short stories to a school friend. He was dubious. "Will I like them?" he asked. "What are they about?"

"You'll love them," I said. "They're about sex."

"Oooh!" he said, and dashed off to read them. Later he reported back to me. "The first story in the book seems to be about tennis," he said.

"Trust me," I said. "It's about sex."

He carried on reading and when he finished the story he came back beaming. "Remember that story about tennis?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"It's really about sex," he said. "You were right!"

That was Maugham's great strength. He had a wonderful insight into the passions that moved people and he knew just how to dramatise them in a way that grabbed hold of your attention and wouldn't let it go. Every story was a shining jewel.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings is a biography of Somerset Maugham. It is, quite simply, superb.

Biographical material about Somerset Maugham has always been a little thin on the ground, mainly because Maugham himself tried very hard to destroy as many records about his life and times as he could because he did not want his homosexuality to be public knowledge. (In truth, he was being more than a bit naive in this – it was quite clear to everyone that he was gay).

Maugham once described himself as "three quarters normal, one quarter queer", but the truth is probably exactly the reverse of that. While he did have relationships with women, his most passionate relationships were always with men – the great love of his life was his first secretary/companion Gerald Haxton and later, after Haxton's death, he transferred his affections to his new secretary Alan Searle. But he was by no means monogamous and he spread his favours widely. His parties were famous for their debauchery.

Maugham died two years before the British parliament passed the homosexual reform act that legalised homosexual relationships between consenting adults, and he lived the whole of his life knowing very well that he himself could easily be prosecuted and sent to jail – the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde when Maugham himself was still a young man was proof-positive of that, and Maugham took the warning of that ancient scandal to heart. He always tried to maintain at least a facade of respectability, thin though it might have been. But it is not really possible to understand the passion that infuses Maugham's writing without having some appreciation of just how deeply his own passions ran, and this area is where Selina Hastings' biography truly unravels the riddle that was Somerset Maugham.

Maugham himself did write a kind of literary autobiography (A Writer's Notebook) but it said little or nothing about his personal circumstances. There was also a rather bitchy biography, written by his nephew Robin Maugham, shortly after Somerset's death (Somerset and all the Maughams) which is really not all that insightful. It is much more an attempt at self-justification than it is an analysis of his uncle's life. Robin himself was as camp as a field full of tents, and he may well also have been one of Somerset's multitude of sexual partners. Somerset really didn't care where he dipped his wick, and a kind of incest with his own nephew would have appealed to his rather grotesque appetites. During his lifetime, he paid Robin vast sums of money to try and stop Robin from publicising his decadent lifestyle. But once Somerset was safely dead, Robin clearly felt that the bargain no longer applied.

Apart from these two rather insubstantial books, very little biographical material on Somerset Maugham has appeared. However in the half-century following Maugham's death, society's attitudes to homosexuality have changed markedly and much new material about Maugham's life has been found in the personal papers that his friends and colleagues left behind when they died. So now the time is finally right for a proper biography, and that is exactly what Selina Hastings has given us. This really is is the definitive work about Maugham's life, warts and all, and I gobbled it up eagerly.

Maugham's writing has fallen out of fashion. You seldom see his books on the shelves any more and his reputation has declined. His strongest stories were his tales of the old British Empire that ruled most of the world during most of his lifetime. Maugham himself was a great traveller, always on the move, always making notes about the places that he saw and the people that he met. He wrote stories about the scandals associated with the men and women who worked in remote administrative outposts, and he could conjure up a profound sense of place and time with just a few well chosen words. What Kipling did for India, Maugham did for the Pacific, for Malaya, for Burma and (to an extent) for China. The scenes and the customs he described have long since vanished from the world, which probably accounts in part for his current obscurity. But the passions that he wrote about are timeless and consequently he still remains one of my favourite authors.

Many years ago I travelled on a train from Beijing, through Manchuria and across the seemingly never-ending Siberian steppes to arrive (eventually) in Moscow. On such a long journey you need a large book to read. I chose to re-read Somerset Maugham's early novel Of Human Bondage (published originally in 1915). It's a hugely fat book which I'd read and enjoyed several times in my teens. And I loved it all over again as the slow Soviet train rumbled its way through the endless Siberian pine forests.

If you have any interest at all in W. Somerset Maugham, then you owe it to yourself to read Selina Hastings' fascinating biography.

It has recently come to light that the fantasy novelist K. J. Parker is really Tom Holt in a skin. I've not read any of Parker's novels (though I am looking forward to doing so). However I have recently read a collection of Parker's short stories and essays called Academic Exercises and, knowing now that Parker is really Holt, I was very struck by the style of the telling of the tales – it reminded me a lot of the style that Holt uses in his historical novels (as opposed to the style of his humorous fantasy novels), many of which were published under the somewhat transparent pseudonym Thomas Holt. Clearly he reserves pseudonyms for his less frothy works. I wonder if he has any more of them up his sleeve…

I always preferred Holt's historical tales to his fantasies, and that is why, on the strength of Academic Exercises, I fully intend to explore more of Parker's work.

The stories in Academic Exercises are fantasies set in a pseudo-medieval world. Most of the protagonists are university students or teachers who are adept at the practice of what the hoi polloi call magic but which they themselves refer to as science, though they don't yet really understand the principles that underlie it. Parker has a lot of fun satirising academic feuds, hence I suppose, the overall title of the book. But he doesn't stop there – the stories also have a lot to say about organised religion. In one story a bunch of impoverished students invent a new religion which makes them all very rich. But did they invent it to make money or did the supreme being cause them to invent it to make His glory known? There's a knotty theological problem for you!

The stories are funny, pointed and thoughtful. And as an added bonus the collection also includes three essays examining the mechanisms of historical warfare which I suggest may well change your mind about Hollywood's largely nonsensical portrayals of armoured men fighting with swords and laying siege to towns.

The no longer quite a planet Pluto is much in the news at the moment. Some absolutely stunning pictures of Pluto and its moon Charon have been sent back from the New Horizons spacecraft. So clearly, this is the perfect time to read How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown.

Once upon a time, the solar system had nine planets. The furthest planet from the sun was called Pluto. It had a few odd characteristics that weren't shared by any of the other planets, but surely that didn't matter? As more discoveries about the area of space occupied by Pluto came to light, it began to seem that rather than being a somewhat small standard planet, Pluto was actually more likely to be one of the larger members of a family of objects belonging to something called the Kuiper Belt. Eventually the International Astronomical Union, convinced by the arguments, demoted Pluto from its status as the ninth planet. Mike Brown's book tells the story of this process, and his own involvement in it. It's a very light-hearted book which has a very serious subtext – the best of both worlds really. The book is crammed full of lots of good jokes and stories, but it also describes a lot of complex astronomical details that have to be properly understood in order to appreciate the arguments that led to Pluto's demise – the humour is the sugar that helps the technical medicine go down. But it is also a very human story, for while all this was going on, Brown's baby daughter was born, and he found himself more and more involved with her upbringing. Her story and Pluto's story are inextricably mingled together.

Despite his close involvement in the demise of Pluto, Brown was more than a little sorry to see it go. After all, Pluto was the only planet in the universe named after a Disney character. Surely that had to count for something? Depressingly, says Brown, every time he tells this joke at least half his audience seems to think that he's being serious...

The combination of humanity and "cold" science leavened with delightful humour is irresistible. Brown has written a wonderful book.

Jane Lindskold's novel Artemis Invaded is a continuation of the story that began in last year's Artemis Awakening. Artemis, the pleasure planet constructed by the long-vanished seegnur, is slowly coming more and more alive as the artificial intelligence that controls it becomes more self-aware. Adara the Huntress and her puma Sand Shadow are learning how to communicate with Artemis and, to their surprise, they discover that there are areas of the planet that, as far as Artemis is concerned, simply do not exist. Probably these are more repositories of old seegnur technology. Griffin Dane, the explorer, scholar and archaeologist that Adara rescued when his shuttlecraft crashed on the planet, is keen to investigate. Perhaps he can use the technology to contact the mother ship that he left in orbit so that he can get back home.

Meanwhile, someone else has landed on Artemis and now the plot thickens...

There is a lot of deep history in the back story of Artemis. Although the novels are adventure stories in the grand old tradition, they are a lot more than just that. Jane Lindskold has clearly thought very deeply about the world she has constructed. It is so much more than just the thinly disguised <insert country of choice here> which is all too common in lesser books by lesser writers. The framework within which the story takes place is really firm and quite fascinating. Consequently I found it very easy to suspend my disbelief, and to dive in to this strange new world and share the adventures of Griffin and Adara. They are solidly-written people and the problems they face feel all too real.

The plot is satisfyingly complex and we continue to learn new things about the vanished seegnur, and about who and what replaced them in the universe. Griffin's family values have an increasingly important role to play in the story and Griffin himself is revealed to be not quite the nice and wholesome guy that he seemed to be in the previous book.

It has been a long time since I came across a story that grabbed me the way this one has. Clearly there are secrets still to be revealed. I am impatient to find out what they are.

Robin, Jake and I walked further along the riverbank and we met a very wet dog called Cynthia who had just been for a swim. She was a singularly ugly pit bull, but she had a lovely slobbery personality and she was happy to say hello to all of us. Because she was a pit bull, she was wearing a studded collar. But because she was a girl, it was pink. It was really quite fetching, and Jake was clearly besotted with her.

"Hey Cynthia," said Jake, "you're a pretty thing. Would you like to sniff my bottom?"

"I don't mind if I do," said Cynthia, and they both went through the usual doggy ritual.

"I've got a rope," said Jake proudly.

"Show me," said Cynthia.

Jake picked up his rope and shook it a little and he did a little happy-dance around Cynthia. The ends of the rope whipped both of them a bit and Jake grinned. Surely this would make him irresistible.

"Huh," said Cynthia. "Call that a rope? That's not much of a rope."

She turned her back and trotted away to her mum and dad, leaving Jake alone and bereft. He was utterly disconsolate. "Typical," he said. "You show a girl your best rope and all she does is spurn you." His ears drooped and his tail went down between his legs. He was a picture of misery. He picked up his rope and walked slowly down into the river. He dropped the rope into the water. It floated off downstream, gradually sinking slowly as it got more and more waterlogged. Eventually it sank out of sight; the current carried it away, and we never saw it again.

"Oh well," said Jake gloomily, "I suppose that's that." Then he perked up a little. "Have you got any treats in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?"

Selina Hastings The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham John Murray
K. J. Parker Academic Exercises Subterranean Press
Mike Brown How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming Spiegel & Grau
Jane Lindskold Artemis Invaded Tor
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