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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (velox maximus)

Fast – Faster – Fastest...

Shortly after I attached a bell to my front door, somebody rang it.

"That's the disadvantage of a doorbell," said Robin. "You no longer have an excuse for not answering the door."

"Damn!" I said. "I suppose I'd better go and see who it is."

"Yes," said Jake the Dog. "Answer the door. Go on – answer the door. I want to lick whoever it is all over. I'm sure they'll taste wonderful. New people always do."

"I'll take care of Jake," said Robin. "You go and see who's at the door."

I opened the front door to reveal Bill, my next door neighbour.

"Hello," he said. "I've had a letter from Chorus, the people who are in charge of laying the fibre cables for UFB – that new ultra-fast broadband service they are starting to deploy. They say that they will have to dig up the driveway to get the cable to my house, and they need my permission to do that. Since you and I own the driveway jointly, I thought I'd better check with you."

"That's interesting," I said. "Have you ordered ultra-fast broadband?"

"No," said Bill. "The letter just came out of the blue. I didn't even realise that I could have the service connected to my house, so the whole thing came as a bit of a surprise to me."

"How strange," I said. "You see I have ordered ultra-fast broadband. Just the other day I signed up with the broadband service that 2degrees have started offering. They've taken my money and scheduled a day for Chorus to come and check the house out. But nobody has said anything to me about digging up the driveway. I wonder if they mixed me up with you because of the joint ownership?"

"I suppose that's possible," said Bill. "But the whole thing seems a bit like overkill to me – the copper phone lines all converge in that hole in the ground over there." He pointed to an enigmatic elliptical manhole cover midway between both our houses. "Surely they should just be able to drag the fibre through the same channel that the phone lines already use, without having to dig the driveway up. And then it's a simple matter of following the individual cables from there to each house and pulling the new UFB cable through the same ducts."

"I'd have thought so too," I said. "As far as I know, they always design those things with plenty of room so as to be able to lay new cables without having to do any digging. Underground cables would be impossible to maintain if they didn't do things that way."

"Well, I don't know what's going on," said Bill. "Let me know what happens when Chorus comes to check things out for you."

"I certainly will," I said. I shut the door and went back to Robin and Jake.

"What did he taste like?" asked Jake. "Did he taste yummy when you licked him? Why didn't you let me lick him?"

"He's Scottish," I said to Jake. "He tastes of haggis. Dogs don't like haggis."

"Don't they?" said Jake, clearly disappointed. "Oh that's so sad. Let's go for a walk to make up for it."

I've gone off Christopher Moore's novels lately – his last few have been rather weak adaptions of Shakespeare plays that never really came to life for me. But his new book Secondhand Souls is a true return to form and I loved it. It's a sequel to his earlier novel Dirty Job, and be warned, if you haven't read Dirty Job, you won't have any idea at all about what is going on in Secondhand Souls. In many ways, rather than being a sequel, Secondhand Souls is really a continuation and conclusion of the story that began in Dirty Job...

Charlie Asher is a death merchant. His job is to collect the souls of the newly dead in San Francisco and keep them safe so that that they can be passed on to a new life. Unfortunately there are other beings, known to mythology as The Morrigan, who like to feed on the souls of the dead. Obviously the Morrigan are not nice beings and equally obviously they are opposed to the work that Charlie and the other death merchants perform. The battle for souls in San Francisco is deep, dark, dirty and riotously funny.

When we left Charlie at the end of Dirty Job his soul had been trapped in a fourteen inch tall body which had the head of an alligator and a twelve inch willy that he had to wrap round his waist so as to stop it dragging along the ground. Quite a logical plot development, typical of a Christopher Moore novel...

As the new book opens, it becomes clear that there is a dangerous backlog of uncollected souls in San Francisco. All the death merchants seem to be falling down on the job. Their instruction manual (The Big Book Of The Dead) promises dire consequences if this ever happens but no dire consequences have come to pass. What on Earth can be going on?

To say any more would be a huge spoiler. Let's just say that the book exemplifies everything that Christopher Moore does best – his weirdly eccentric characters face bizarre situations that had me laughing out loud with glee. The story is snarky, rude, and extremely irreverent. Exactly my cup of tea.

It was my English teacher at school who introduced me to Roy Lewis' very strange novel The Evolution Man. It was published in 1960, so it would only have been three or four years old when I first stumbled upon it. I've read and re-read it intermittently over the years ever since, and it never fails to impress. I was very pleased to discover that it was one of the late Sir Terry Pratchett's favourite novels – he wrote an introduction to the book on the occasion of its republication a few years ago. You'll find Pterry's introduction in A Slip of the Keyboard, Pratchett's collected non-fiction.

So what is the book about? Goodness me, that's difficult to say. It's about everything really... It is set in the Pleistocene era and purports to be a first-hand account of the discovery of fire told by the son of the man who actually discovered it. But this is only the first of many such discoveries. The people also invent feathered arrows, capitalism and marriage outside the tribe. Soon they will be lords of all they survey. Won't they?

The cavemen talk to each other like mid-twentieth century schoolboys, and they all have names like Oswald, Ernest and Wilbur. They are all very well aware of how twentieth century people view the pleistocene and they have a firm grasp of the intellectual jargon that peppers informed debate. The book is full of pompous speeches about how everyone is on the cusp of transitioning from the pleistocene to the neolithic. The comedy of anachronism abounds throughout the book, and is the basis of all its humour. Obviously we aren't meant to take the story seriously – the whole thing is clearly a satire about the perils of technological and sociological progress. These perils  are such that eventually the narrator is forced to take matters into his own hands, and what he does next is cunningly revealed by the book's subtle subtitle:  How I Ate My Father.

A couple of weeks later the doorbell rang again.

"Where are all these people coming from?" said Robin peevishly. "And why do they keep ringing our doorbell? Two people in two weeks! Come on!"

"But it might be someone tasty," said Jake, ever the optimist.

This time the door revealed a man with a bright orange jacket and a badge that said Chorus. "Hello," he said. "I'm John. I've come to do a site survey for the proposed UFB installation to your house."

"Hello John," said. "What do you need to know?"

"Do you happen to have any idea where the current phone lines come in to your house?" he asked.

"Yes," I said. "It's that little white box on the side of the house over there."

We walked over and looked at the box.

"That's odd," said John. "There should be a pipe leading up into the box. The phone cable threads through that pipe into the box. Internally, the box is connected to the jack points inside your house."

We both looked at the box. No pipe.

"Interesting," said John. He produced a screwdriver and took the top off the box. Coils of cable were revealed. "Well, there it is," said John, sounding rather puzzled. "It looks like the cable comes up through the foundations of the house and then out through a hole in the wall into the rear of the box where it attaches to the internal wiring and goes back into the house again. I wonder why they did that. I've never seen a phone cable connected that way before."

"Is it going to be a problem?" I asked.

"Not as long as we can find how the cable gets through the foundations in the first place," said John. "It must feed through a pipe somewhere underground. If we can find that, we should be OK. I'll go and get my shovel."

He went off to his van and returned with a huge spade He started to dig a big hole in my lawn. He dug and he dug and he dug and then he dug some more. "Gosh," said John, "the pipe must be a long way down." The hole got deeper and deeper. Every so often John would stop and poke the ground gently with a trowel, then he would shake his head, say "No – that's not it," and start digging again.

"Shall I fetch Jake the Dog?" I asked. "He's really good at digging. Our back garden looks like a World War I battlefield after a serious artillery shelling. Unplumbed cavernous craters everywhere. He'd love to help you dig."

"No," said John. "That won't be necessary. I've finally found the pipe. Goodness me, it's a deep one. I wonder why they put it so far down." His voice had a hollow echo as it bounced off the crater walls from the bottom of a huge shaft that extended all the way down into the unfathomable chthonic depths of my lawn. He clambered out, covered in mud and smiles. "OK – all we have to do now is find where the main cable is, the one that the individual houses feed off."

"Oh, that's easy," I said, and I showed him the enigmatic ellipse that Bill had pointed out to me. John took the manhole cover off and peered into the elliptical hole that it revealed. "Yes, that's it," he said. "That's the main cable junction. I wonder which one of these feeder cables goes to your house." He tugged one, and the small white box on the side of Bill's house rattled. "Nope. It's not that one. That one's your next door neighbour." He tugged another one. Nothing happened. He tried another one and the same nothing happened again. "I'm not sure where those go," he said. "They must go to these other houses, but it's hard to see which cables belong to which house. I'll tell you what, I'll go and tug the cable where it goes into your house and you stay and watch here and tell me which cable in this rats nest moves when I do it."

"OK," I said.

John went to the house and tugged hard on the cable. I spotted movement and fixed my gaze on the relevant bit of wire. "Got it," I called. John came back and I pointed it out to him. He attached a tag so that it would be easy to find in the future.

"There," he said. "All done. They'll pull the UFB fibre cable from the junction box on the main road through to here and then they'll pull an extension through the pipe I've found into your house. Easy peasy."

"So what about digging up the driveway?" I asked.

"?" said John.

I explained what Bill had told me. "Nonsense," said John. "The duct from the main road to the junction box here is extra wide so that new cables can easily be dragged though. The only possible problem is getting it from here to your house, but now that I've found the pipe into your house, it's all routine."

"Will they need to dig up my lawn again?" I asked.

"Hmmm," said John. "I'm just supposed to do a site survey to assess the feasibility. I'm not supposed to do any actual work at all. But now that I've got this far, it would be a shame to leave it half done and force them to start all over again. So I'll tell you what I'll do – I'll use the existing cable to make a pull through from your house to this elliptical junction and I'll also join the pipe up properly to the box on your house. Then I'll fill the the hole in the lawn. All they'll have to do when they come to connect you is use my pull through to get the cable into the house. A simple, five minute job."

He was as good as his word. He attached some blue plastic string to the phone cable by the house. Then he went to the main junction box and pulled my phone cable all the way through the underground pipe until the blue string attached to it arrived at the junction. Next, he doubled the string over and used the far end of the string to pull the cable and its attached string back through the pipe again and up to the house. This left a length of string threaded all the way through the pipe between the house and the junction box ready to be pulled through again when the UFB cable arrived.

He attached a flexible extension to the underground pipe he'd discovered and led it up the side of the house into the white box, where it should have been in the first place. Then he put all the dirt back into the hole. "OK," said John, "everything's ready for the cable guys now. It shouldn't take them any time at all to run the new cable. So now all I have to do is see what needs doing inside the house. Can you show me where you want the modem to go?"

"Of course," I said. "Come in."

Predictably, Jake licked him all over as soon as he came into the house. "Yum!" he said. "You taste of brussels sprouts. Are you by any chance English?"

"Yes," said John. "Brussels sprouts  are forever, aren't they?"

"Indeed they are," said Jake. "They're my favourite. Today must be my lucky day."

I showed John to the room where the modem would live and he took some photographs for the work sheet. "Simple," he said. "We'll take the cable from the outside box up into the roof and then down into this cupboard. We'll attach the connector to this wall, and all you'll have to do is plug the modem in and turn it on. Everything will look quite neat. All the cabling will be hidden."

"Sounds good," I said.

John produced a tablet with the work sheet details displayed on its screen. He attached the photographs he'd taken and made some notes about how the job should be handled. Then he passed the tablet and a stylus to me. "Just sign here," he said, "and we're good to go." I signed the work sheet with the stylus and John tapped a button on the screen. "There," he said. "I've emailed the details to head office and sent a copy to you. They'll come to do the job next Friday. There'll be two teams of people – one to lay the cable outside the house and one to do the work inside the house."

"Thank you," I said.

"Can I have another lick?" asked Jake.

"Of course you can," said John and he scratched Jake under the chin.

"You've got gritty bits," said Jake. "But they are yummy too."

"That must be mud from where I was digging," said John.

"Ah! I see," said Jake. "That happens a lot to me as well."

Sue Grafton has reached the twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet in her ongoing saga about the private detective Kinsey Millhone. The series started with A is for Alphabet, and continued with B is for Burglar, C is for Corpse. And so on and so forth. Now we've reached the letter X and the novel is simply called X, with no further qualification. Clearly X is not for anything at all. I can appreciate the problem she must have had. Very few words start with that letter and presumably Sue Grafton couldn't find any that would flow euphoniously off the tongue and at the same time convey the appropriate hint of delicious mystery. X is for Xylophone? Xenophobia? Xiphoid? Xebec? Xylocarp? None of these trip lightly off the tongue except possibly xylophone and it's hard to conceive of a significant xylophonic crime. I suspect she has probably made a very good choice by restricting herself to just the single, mysterious letter that marks the spot on the cover of the book...

There are three tangled plot threads in the novel. Initially, Kinsey is hired by a woman who wants Kinsey to track down a bank robber who has recently been released from prison. She claims that the man is her son who she gave up for adoption many years ago. However it soon becomes clear that the woman is pulling the wool over Kinsey's eyes; she is not at all what she appears, and everything she has told Kinsey is a lie. Meanwhile, the widow of Kinsey's friend Pete Wolinsky asks for Kinsey to help in finding some missing tax records. While searching through Pete's paperwork, Kinsey finds hidden hints about an unfinished case that Pete had been working on. The third major plot thread involves neighbours who appear to be stealing water from Kinsey's landlord Henry.

And so the game's afoot! If you know and love Kinsey Millhone, as I do, you'll welcome this latest addition to the series. My only regret is that Sue Grafton has just two more letters to go. What on earth is she going to do after she finishes her twenty-sixth novel? And will it be called Z is for Zucchini?

If you'd asked for  my opinion before I'd read The Swiss Spy by Alex Gerlis, I'd have said that the last thing the world needed was yet another World War II espionage novel. Generally speaking, I still stick to that theory, but I am willing to make exceptions and because The Swiss Spy is a particularly good example of the genre, I feel no shame in drawing it to your attention.

Henry Hunter is a British national who lives and works in Switzerland. As the world is gearing up for war, he is recruited by the British secret service. Switzerland is a perfect base from which to observe Germany's war machine, and the British expect great things from him.

But Henry is not entirely the straightforward man he appears to be. He has a secret agenda which he believes that the British know nothing about. But he couldn't be more wrong. Henry's secret was one of the main reasons that the British recruited him in the first place, and they are involved in a deep game where both ends are being played blindfold against the middle. If that sounds complicated and confusing, it's meant to be. They were complicated and confusing times.

Gerlis has researched the period well. The novel is full of authentic sounding slang and its historical accuracy cannot be faulted. Both these things add verisimilitude; and the world that Gerlis paints feels very real and very lived in. He is particularly good at evoking the paranoid, police-state that was Nazi Germany. At times the German citizens seem to be more scared of their own police forces than they are of the Allied armies massing beyond their borders!

Gerlis tells a very dark story in which there are no heroes. Everyone's a bastard, but some are more bastardly than others.

One of my big heroes is Clive James – television and literary critic, philosopher, poet, and novelist. He's a particularly deep thinker with a wicked sense of humour that expresses profound truths with often side-splitting turns of phrase. In 2010 he was diagnosed with leukaemia. He also has emphysema, as a result of which he is more than a little susceptible to massive infections that frequently send him to hospital for long periods so as to have increasingly stronger antibiotics pumped into his veins. He has spent the last few years living with the inescapable fact of his own imminent death. Hardly a time to embark on any long term projects, one would have thought. Nevertheless that is exactly what he has done. Latest Readings is a chronicle of the books he has been reading and sometimes re-reading over the last few years. And they are, of course, the last ones he will ever read...

Sometimes he revisits old friends – he records his pleasure at encountering Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim again, a book he remembers from his youth as being dull and unapproachable. He still considers it to be dull, but age has sharpened his perceptions and now he admires Conrad's acute observations; observations that had passed him by when he was younger and more callow. (Clearly I'm not yet old enough or ill enough for Conrad. I still find him tedious with no redeeming characteristics at all).

James has also been re-reading Hemingway, and considers him to have been rather a sad case, a conclusion with which I cannot quarrel. Hemingway squandered his talent, lived life to excess and died too young and far too broken.

But despite the fact that his own life is drawing to its end, Clive James is not afraid to tackle large, new reading projects. He discovered Patrick O'Brian lurking on his daughter's bookshelves and he was immediately hooked by the sea-faring exploits of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. It is a brave man who begins to devour a series of twenty very fat books when there is no certainty that he will live to read the last one. But that is exactly what Clive James did. He devoured the books avidly, one after the other in quick succession, always buoyed and sustained by his early discovery that there exists a sailor's knot called a cunt-splice, though what it might be useful for he cannot say. And surely that is a large part of the charm of these books? The world would be a sadder and a meaner place if it had no cunt-splice in it.

I consider myself privileged to have lived in a world that has Clive James in it. It will be an emptier place when he leaves it. Latest Readings is a bittersweet book.

The following Friday the door bell rang again.

"If this keeps happening, that bell will soon wear out," said Robin. "Three visitors in three weeks. Who on Earth is it this time?"

There was another Chorus man at the door. "Hello, I'm Michael," he said in a strong Seth Efricen eccent. Like New Zealanders, South Africans only have one vowel. They use the letter 'e'. We use the letter 'i'. Both of us keep the other four vowels as spares for emergency use only, and sometimes not even then. It makes for interesting, though often confusing, conversations.

"You must be the inside team," I said. Over his shoulder I could see the outside team making full use of the pull through that John had left for them. Everything seemed to be going smoothly. UFB cable slithered underground and reappeared by the house in record time. "Come in, Michael," I said.

"Hello," said Jake enthusiastically as he draped yards of wet tongue all over Michael. "Oh wow! Biltong! I love biltong. Today's another lucky day."

I showed Michael around the house and he compared what he was seeing with the photographs on his work sheet. When he was happy with what needed doing, he attached a cable to the white box outside the house, took it up into the roof and then down into the cupboard. He attached another white box to the cupboard wall. "Thes es where yer medem plegs en," he said.

I unpacked the modem that 2degrees had sent me. I powered it up and plugged an ethernet cable into it. The other end of the ethernet cable plugged into the handsome new box on the wall. Lights flashed and, just like that, I had a blindingly fast internet connection. It all seemed quite anti-climactic.

My internet connection is four times faster than it used to be. Everything seems to happen instantly. Massive files download in nothing flat. Blink and you miss them. Robin and I are both thrilled to bits with it. Jake is not so sure.

"Why won't it download a bone?"

Christopher Moore Secondhand Souls William Morrow
Roy Lewis The Evolution Man Penguin
Sue Grafton X
Alex Gerlis The Swiss Spy Studio 28
Clive James Latest Readings Yale University Press

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