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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (sanguinis pressionem)

Under Pressure

When you move to a new town you will, if you are wise, register yourself with a doctor. The only downside to doing that is that sooner or later you will actually have to go and see your new doctor. New doctors won't issue repeat prescriptions without examining you first. And so, one fine day, I found myself in the doctor's surgery.

He donned a stethoscope and listened to me breathe.

"Say Ah!" he said.

"R!" I replied. "S, T, U, V, W. Arrr, Jim lad. Polly wants a nut."

"That's enough of that," he said. "Nice clear tubes. Steady heartbeat. No problems there."

He poked and prodded me hither and yon and then he took my blood pressure. He frowned, and then he took my blood pressure again. "I think I'll stop poking you," he said thoughtfully. "The stress might cause you to explode and that would leave nasty stains on the carpet."

"Is it a bit high?" I asked.

"Yes, rather," he said. "I think we'll monitor it for the next month or so and see how things go. Make an appointment to see the nurse once a week and then come back and see me when we've got enough data to see what the trend is."

To hear is to obey. Over the next month I watched gloomily as the nurse wrote down lots of high blood pressure figures in my file. I went back to see the doctor.

"Hmmm," he said. "It seems to be consistently high. Although there is one anomalous reading which is absolutely normal. I wonder what caused that?"

"That was the day I got my tetanus booster injection," I said.

"That's odd," said the doctor. "Most people's blood pressure goes up under the stress of having an injection. How strange that it caused yours to drop."

"Perhaps I should have an injection every day," I suggested.

"That might work," said the doctor, "but it does sound a bit extreme."

"Simple physics suggests that if we remove some of the blood from my body, the pressure in the body will drop as well," I said. "Boyle, Charles, Gay-Lussac and friends, not forgetting Avogadro the mole man. Of course they were talking about gases rather than liquids, but since a liquid is only a cold, incompressible and somewhat stodgy gas, the equations should still sort of work. For small values of work. Perhaps I could get a pet leech."

"That sounds a bit medieval," said the doctor. "We haven't used bleeding as a treatment for the last couple of hundred years or so. Mind you, I've always been a fan of the good old ways, so there may be something in what you say."

"Or perhaps I could have a tap attached to my wrist," I said. "Then every so often, as the mood took me, I could open it up and drain some blood away. I'd have to do it in private, of course, so as not to upset those of a delicate disposition. Perhaps I could combine it with visits to the toilet."

"The engineering might get a bit complicated," said the doctor. "The blood would probably clot and clog up the pipes. You might have to change the washers and replace the seals rather frequently."

"Oh I'm sure we could do something about that," I said. "This is the twenty-first century, after all. Mind you, if we do put a tap in my wrist, I'll have to change my name to Petronius. You can call me Pete, for short."

The doctor looked puzzled. "Why would you need to change your name?"

"Gaius Petronius, sometimes known as Petronius the Arbiter, committed a very slow suicide using that very method in the year 66AD."

"I didn't know that," said the doctor. "Tell me more."

"He got on the wrong side of the Emperor Nero," I said, "which apparently wasn't a very hard thing to do. Lot's of people managed it. Anyway, Nero ordered him to go home and kill himself by slitting his wrists, which he duly did. But rather than letting himself bleed out quickly, he put tourniquets around his wrists and threw a big party for all his friends. Every so often, as the evening progressed, he would slacken off the tourniquets and bleed a bit, then he'd tie them up again and get on with the party. When the dawn broke and it was time for him to die, he opened the tourniquets up for the final time and let the last remnants of his blood trickle out. Apparently there wasn't much left by then. Everybody said it had been a fantastically good party. What a shame he couldn't do it again the following week. I bet his blood pressure was really quite low towards the end. I'm sure I could make that work for me."

"I think we ought to go for a more conventional treatment to begin with," said the doctor. "I'll prescribe some blood pressure lowering pills, and you probably ought to try and lose some weight as well. It doesn't matter what you've got, if you drop a few kilos, the chance are good that you won't have it any more."

I left the surgery with a prescription, and some suggestions for a diet and exercise regime. I began taking the tablets, eating salads, and going for 10 kilometre walks with Jake, my dog. My belly button stopped being an outie and went back to being an innie again. I drilled some new holes in my belt to stop my trousers falling down, and I discovered that I could put on my socks by watching how they fitted over my feet rather than by doing it all by touch alone.

"Look Jake," I said. "I've got toes!" I wriggled them to prove it.

"So you have," said Jake. "How unusual. Can I lick between them where all the yummy bits are?"

While all this was going on, I began to cough like someone with a sixty unfiltered cigarettes a day habit. Gauloises, naturally. Gitanes are a second best.

"That's a nasty cough," said Jake.

"I think I must have picked up a cold in the doctor's waiting room," I said. "Doctor's surgeries are such terribly unhealthy places. I can't think why people bother with them. It'll go away in a week or so. That's what colds do."

Stephen King is always typecast as a horror writer. Certainly the early works that made his reputation were brilliant examples of the horror genre. However if you consider the body of his work as a whole, it soon becomes clear that his range is very much broader than that. He seems to be equally at home in any of the major genres, but he has also written enough non-genre stories to make it obvious that, in another life, he could have held his head up proudly as a mainstream author. In other words, Stephen King is a brilliantly talented writer who, quite rightly, pays little real attention to the constraints of genre conventions. He just writes the story that best illuminates his idea of the moment, without paying any attention at all to the limitations of categories.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams is a new collection of his short(ish) stories. Some of the stories have appeared before in other places, some are brand new. Each is prefaced with an essay describing the circumstances surrounding the writing of the story. Inevitably these essays have autobiographical elements to them – things happen in a writer's life, just as they happen in the lives of all of us. The difference is that a writer uses them as inspiration. The rest of us just shrug and move on. I greatly enjoyed the essays and, to my mind, they add a lot to the power of the stories. I really love peeking behind the scenes!

But what of the stories themselves? Some of them are so ridiculous that you wonder how King managed to make them work at all. Others are truly profound and moving. I said that King had a wide range, and this collection exemplifies that in spades.

Mile 81 is one of the more ridiculous stories. A broken down station wagon is parked in a motorway service station car park. If the people who come to investigate what it is doing there get too close, it opens its doors and eats them. How can a story with such a stupid premise possibly work? I have no idea. Nevertheless it does. In terms of its impact, Mile 81 is actually one of the strongest stories in the collection. If it doesn't scare you, you have no soul.

At the other end of the story telling spectrum is Batman and Robin have an Altercation. A man takes his senile father out for dinner. As the meal progresses, some uncomfortable truths emerge about their lives together. The observations about dementia, alcoholism, infidelity and the pain of a family falling apart are unerringly accurate.

King's great strength lies in his ability to perfectly capture insular, and sometimes bigoted thinking (though he is not blind to the fact that people can transcend this if the circumstances are right). His ear for dialogue is spot on and his introspective observations are always convincing. He can draw a living, breathing, fully rounded character with just a few well-chosen words that make the person step right off the page and into your life. You know all these people. They are you. Stephen King has made a career out of bringing monsters to life but, as this collection proves, not all monsters are necessarily supernatural constructs.

Peter Millar's rather clumsily titled novel The Shameful Suicide of Winston Churchill is an alternate history novel. The premise is that after the Nazis were defeated in World War II, the western allies turned on the Soviet Union and turned the war against fascism into a war against communism. This is not a completely far-fetched concept. In the real world, Churchill did put that idea forward, but he was unable to persuade the other leaders to go along with it. In the world of the novel, it turns out to be a very bad idea indeed because the Soviet forces greatly outnumber those of the allies and the Soviets roll forward into Europe, and eventually into England before their momentum fades away and they draw boundary lines in the sand. England becomes a divided nation, with a communist South and a capitalist North. London is a divided city with a Soviet zone and an American zone to administer it. A wall is built between the two zones so as to prevent the people in the communist zone from escaping to the other side.

The novel itself is set firmly in the communist zone in 1989. A London policeman investigating a  murder is drawn into a conspiracy directed by an anti-Communist underground.

The parallels between the London of the novel and the Berlin of the real world are obvious. Indeed, Peter Millar was a western journalist who lived for a time in East Berlin and who saw the wall come down from the other side, as it were. Perhaps he is just too close to his material, because the heavy-handed one-to-one correspondences that he draws between the events surrounding the Berlin wall of reality and the London wall of the novel leaves little room for originality and they make the plot very predictable. Furthermore, the novel becomes quite preachy at times, and the characters are really just ciphers – you can clearly see the strings that the novelist puppet-master is pulling. Consequently the reader is generally at least one step ahead of the writer, and the story contains few surprises. It's a slow-moving novel which doesn't quite work. And that's a pity. I really enjoy a good alternate history novel. Unfortunately, this isn't a good one.

Most of Charles McCarry's novels form a series detailing the espionage exploits of a CIA agent called Paul Christopher. However Lucky Bastard is a stand alone novel which is only indirectly about espionage. Instead, it is a wickedly clever political satire. The eponymous bastard is called John Fitzgerald Adams, known colloquially to one and all as Jack. He believes himself to be the unacknowledged son of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Like his father, he's politically ambitious and very sexually promiscuous. He soon comes to the attention of the KGB and it isn't long before they take him under their wing and begin to groom him for high office, keeping him compliant with lots of sex. Their ultimate aim is to install a Soviet agent as the President of the USA. Jack is very keen to comply with their scheme. Presidents get lots of pussy.

Clearly McCarry is poking fun at the Clinton years in the White House, though in an afterword he is careful to deny that the novel is about anybody from real life. Nobody who reads the novel will believe him for a moment, and I don't suppose he expects them to. I suspect the denials are there simply as an attempt to prevent the litigious from suing him back to the stone age.

The story is told by Dmitri, a cynical, world-weary Russian who has a deliciously dry wit. Dmitri is the case officer assigned to guide Adams into the White House. He is thoroughly familiar with the way that self-interest guides far too many political decisions, and he is a master at using intelligence operations, subversion, corruption, blackmail and threats to manoeuvre his agents into positions of power and influence.

Of course there's nothing new under the sun. Richard Condon came up with a similar premise in The Manchurian Candidate back in 1959. But McCarry's novel is much stronger (and much funnier).

Even Dogs in the Wild is the twentieth novel that Ian Rankin has written about John Rebus. Several novels ago, Rebus retired from the police force. But he's far too good a character to leave on the shelf, and Rankin keeps bringing him back. Here the police force borrow him as a consultant to work on the investigation of a shooting at the house of his long time foe and some time grudging friend "Big Ger" Cafferty, the former (and now, like Rebus, possibly also retired) head of the Edinburgh crime scene.

Meanwhile, a police task force arrives from Glasgow to keep track of a couple of Glasgow gangsters who seem to have ambitions in Edinburgh. Malcolm Fox (about whom Rankin has written several other novels) is assigned to keep an eye on this investigation.

And in yet another plot thread Siobhan Clarke, who was Rebus' protégée many of the earlier novels, is looking into the murder of a prominent Edinburgh citizen with a successful career as a lawyer and a judge behind him. His career culminated with his promotion to the dizzy height of Scotland's senior prosecutor.

Are all these plot threads connected? Of course they are, though it is quite a long time before the connections become clear. And the slow emergence of the reasons that link them all is a major part of Rankin's artistry, of course. If Rankin isn't careful, people might start accusing him of committing literature.

A week later I went back to the doctor. I was now coughing so much that I was unable to say more than two consecutive words without having to have a hoick. I hadn't slept for three nights because I simply couldn't stop coughing long enough to persuade my extremities to relax and shut themselves down for the duration. Jake was complaining about the noise and threatening to report me to the council, the noise abatement society and the SPCA. I explained all this to my doctor.

"Not to worry," he said cheerfully. "It's a well known side effect of the blood pressure medication. About ten percent of people taking those tablets get it. Pity really, because that stuff is very good indeed at lowering the blood pressure. Never mind. I'll prescribe something else."

Gradually the cough faded away as the old medication flushed itself out of my system and the new stuff took over. Under the twin influences of diet and exercise, the kilos dropped off me and fell splat! on to the floor. I discovered that, for the first time in nearly fifty years, I could twirl my grandmother's signet ring freely around on my finger. I inherited it when she died. I was seventeen years old. That ring has never left my finger since the day I first put it on. Mind you, for most of the years that I wore the ring it fitted so snugly that I couldn't have taken it off if I'd tried! Now, if I'm not careful, it may fall off my finger all by itself and roll down a drain. I've promised myself to keep a watchful eye on it, and I'm trying hard never to straighten my finger out just in case...

Ten kilometre walks have started to feel like a stroll in the park, and on some days Jake and I do twelve kilometres. One day we did fourteen. The next day Jake went on strike.

"Come on, Jake," I said. "Walkies!"

"No," said Jake. "I'm not going. If you like walking that much, go by yourself. I'm going to stay at home and chew on my stuffed chicken, thank you very much. Perhaps I'll inhume a bone a bit later on as well."

I went to see the doctor again.

"Come back in three months when the prescription runs out," he said. "At the moment you are within normal operating parameters."

Stephen King The Bazaar of Bad Dreams Hodder and Stoughton
Peter Millar The Shameful Suicide of Winston Churchill Arcadia
Charles McCarry Lucky Bastard Random House
Ian Rankin Even Dogs in the Wild Orion

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