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

That was the year that was

ROBIN: Well Alan, you've been a retired gentleman of leisure for a year now. I've had you under my feet for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for three hundred and sixty five days and we haven't killed each other yet. How about that?

ALAN: Yes -- that must be some sort of a record. By and large, retirement has been a wonderful experience and I'm enjoying it heaps. Let's hope the next few years are just as much fun as the last year has been.

ROBIN: Do you miss not going to work every day?

ALAN: Certainly not. I've always regarded work as an irritating intrusion into my hobbies. I'm glad it's out of the way now, and I really don't miss it at all. Interestingly, just a few weeks ago I got an email from someone at the office asking me to come out of retirement for a few days and do some consultancy work for them. I had no difficulty whatsoever in turning them down.

ROBIN: So what have been the highlights of the last year?

ALAN: Moving house was the first thing. I think we both found it very stressful, though the end result has been well worth while. Even the cats seem to have settled well into their new home.

HARPO: I didn't like it at first, but it's definitely grown on me. There's long grass to hide in next door and sometimes small creepy creatures scuttle past.

BESS: It's warm. I like that. Lots of sunshine to curl up in.

ROBIN: And then, of course, we got a dog called Jake.

JAKE: Hey! That's me!

HARPO: Now that was a definite lowlight of the year. Who needs a dog? Nasty, smelly things. And he keeps eating my breakfast biscuits, damn him. I don't approve of that.

ALAN: Yes, but you sneak up and eat his biscuits when he's not looking. And you drink out of his water bowl. Fair do's!

HARPO: That's different!

BESS: And he keeps stealing our toys and chewing them to bits.

ALAN: But you don't play with those toys. They've been sitting untouched in your toybox for the last twelve years,  ever since we bought them for you.

HARPO: That's got nothing to do with it. They're OUR toys.

JAKE: Great toys! They've got all this fluffy stuffing in them which expands to fill up most of the room when I rip them apart. Some of them have got bells on, which is a bit scary, but on the positive side, none of them squeak.

HARPO: That can be arranged...

ROBIN: But at least we gave you somewhere safe to escape from Jake. Both you and Bess made nests for yourselves in my office and you come in and out through my window as the mood and hydraulic pressure takes you. That was wonderfully bracing in the middle of winter. There's nothing I like more than an ice blast through an open window to wake me up in the morning.

BESS: I thought it was really good that you built a dog proof door across the entrance to your office so that we could stand there and hiss at Jake from a position of perfect safety.

ROBIN: Yes -- it is only a sheet of cardboard with a small hole cut in it to allow you and Harpo to come and go at will. But somehow Jake knows that it is utterly impossible for a dog to jump over it or knock it down.

JAKE: Looks like a force field to me. Feels like one too. I don't trust force fields.

HARPO: You've been reading too much science fiction.

JAKE: There's no such thing as too much science fiction.

ALAN: That's my boy!

JAKE: Hey! Isn't it time for a walk? Let's go somewhere with lots of babies in prams. I like babies in prams. They are usually smeared with peanut butter and vegemite and they taste really yummy when I lick their faces.

ROBIN: Have you been reading any interesting books this month?

ALAN: Funny you should ask me that. As it happens, I have.

The Greedy Bastard Diary is ostensibly Eric Idle's day by day diary describing what happened on the road as he toured with his new show from city to city across America, with occasional trips across the border into Canada. The book does indeed talk about life on the road, and about the process of refining the show based on the reactions of the audiences it plays to. So certainly the book delivers what it says on the tin; it really is a tour diary. But it's a lot more than that as well. Eric Idle's speculations about life, the universe and everything spin hither and yon as incidents on the road inspire thoughts and anecdotes. The book turns into both an autobiography and a meditation on the philosophy of comedy. The whole thing is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.

Despite what other reviewers might say, this is not a funny book, though it does have its amusing moments. Actually, I've read several of Eric Idle's books and I think that statement is true of all of them. His books tend to be reflective and sometimes inspirational. They are very rarely funny. All of them are much deeper than they might appear to be from a casual glance, and all of them are brilliant. The Greedy Bastard Diary is probably the most brilliant of them all.

To while away the hours between shows as the tour bus crossed the country, Eric Idle spent the time re-reading Dickens. He considers Dickens to be a marvellously funny writer who has had a great influence on his own comedic style. He traces the evolution of the famous Four Yorkshiremen sketch to some passages from Hard Times, which he quotes to great effect.

I've never thought of Dickens as being particularly rib-tickling before. His deliberate attempts at comedy (such as The Pickwick Papers, for example) are, in my opinion, really rather dire. On the other hand, the scenes in David Copperfield where David is trying to screw his courage to the sticking place in order to propose to Dora certainly do have their amusing moments. It must be at least fifty years since last I read David Copperfield. We studied the book at school when I was fifteen and I haven't read it since. Nevertheless, I remember those sections clearly. They still have the power to make me smile, so perhaps there is something to Eric Idle's theory after all...

One of the important influences on Eric Idle's life was his very close friendship with the musician George Harrison. His memories of George are the most tender, insightful and moving sections of the book.

Eric Idle is a lot more than just another comedian, a lot more than just an ex-Python. And The Greedy Bastard Diary is a lot more than just another showbiz memoir.

Stars, edited by Mike Resnick, is an anthology of stories that have been inspired by the songs of Janis Ian. Janis is a singer/songwriter who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s. Probably her most famous song is At Seventeen:

...Inventing lovers on the phone
Who called to say, "Come dance with me"
And murmured vague obscenities
It isn't all it seems
At seventeen

As she says in her introduction to the book, Janis Ian has been a lifelong science fiction fan and when she met Mike Resnick at a convention they got along like a house on fire. It turned out that many of the writers she admired were equally admiring of her songs. So the idea of an anthology based on her songs seemed like a natural next step to take. The list of authors who agreed to write stories for her reads like a who's who of science fiction. Terry Bisson, Joe Haldeman, Gregory Benford, John Varley, Jane Yolen, Diane Duane, and Janis Ian herself who turns out to be as good a story teller as she is a song writer. Every story in this anthology is first class, illuminating the lyrics that inspired them, getting to the heart of the songs while at the same time staying true to the sense of wonder that is the hallmark of all good science fiction. This really is a collection that deserves a place of honour on your bookshelves.

Matthew Hughes is offering a collection of his short fiction for sale from his website and also from It's called Devil or Angel and Other Stories. Most of the stories appeared originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. In his introduction to the book, Matthew Hughes describes the stories as "old-fashioned sf" and who am I to quibble? As it happens, just like Hughes himself, I grew up reading stories like these and I'm more than happy to continue reading them today.

I seem to have been reading  a lot of short stories this month. Pamela Sargent's collection  The Mountain Cage and Other Stories is a particularly good one. Highlights include a story where vice president Dan Quayle (dingbat of blessed memory) becomes an astronaut and goes to Mars and a companion story in which Hilary Rodham (who in this alternate universe is married to the physicist Richard Feynman) flies to Venus.

James Nelson writes seafaring stories of wooden ships and iron men, somewhat along the lines of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels and Forester's Hornblower books. Unlike many other authors in this overcrowded genre, his novels are not collections of cliches. Like O'Brian, he has an ear for authentic dialogue and a deep knowledge of the social and political issues of the day. The French Prize is set a few years after the American Revolution. Jack Biddlecomb is the captain of the Abigail, a merchant vessel bound for Barbados. He is unaware that he is a pawn in a game of politics designed to engineer a war between France and the new nation of America. And so the scene is set for deep sea adventure as the Abigail is stalked by a French corvette...

ROBIN: And have you learned any life lessons from your first year as a gentleman of leisure?

ALAN: Yes I have. I've learned that picking up dog poo is a great way to keep your hands warm on a cold and frosty winter morning. When it comes to plumbing the secrets of the universe, I don't think you can get any more profound than that.

Eric Idle The Greedy Bastard Diary IT Books
Mike Resnick Stars DAW
Matthew Hughes Devil or Angel and Other Stories Matthew Hughes
Pamela Sargent The Mountain Cage and Other Stories Open Road
James L. Nelson The French Prize Macmillan

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