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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (aqua regis)

By the time this is published, I will have had another birthday. There's nothing too surprising about that. Birthdays occur at regularly predictable intervals. Numerically there's nothing very special about this one, except that it is palindromic both the right way up and upside down. But it has a very special significance for me. Neither of my parents reached the age that I am now. So as far as I am concerned, every day from now on is a bonus.

There's another reason why this birthday is memorable as well. Read on for the story of what happened one day when...

Alan Had A Leak

As I walked along the side of the house, I could hear the sound of water gurgling away into the ground. Initially I thought nothing of it. Perhaps the washing machine was changing its cycle. Perhaps the toilet was flushing. However when the noise failed to go away for several weeks, I got suspicious. Either someone was having an inordinately long pee, or I had a problem with my pipes. On balance, the latter seemed more likely. I took a closer look and I found that water was gushing non-stop out of a couple of overflow pipes coming from the bathroom. Clearly something was leaking. Time to call a plumber.

So 'twas on the Friday morning that the plumber came to call. He examined the gush. He scratched his head and he delivered a deeply technical verdict. "Shit, oh dear!" he said feelingly.

"That doesn't sound good," I said.

"No, it isn't," said the plumber. "I think we're going to have to drill through the concrete slab the house is sitting on to get to the pipe that has the leak."

"That sounds costly," I said. "Not to say messy."

"Yes, to both of those things," said the plumber. "We're talking thousands of dollars, several days work and a lot of broken concrete. I think I need to discuss this job with my mate Mike. He's probably the best plumber in the district. He'll know what to do. I'll be back later on this afternoon." The plumber hopped in his van and drove off.

A few hours later, towards the end of the afternoon, Mike turned up to inspect things. He stared at the water gushing from the pipes and shook his head. "That's going to be a problem," he said. Then he removed the cover from the toby and shook his head again. "Oh, look," he said cheerfully. "You've got a leak in your toby as well."

I peered over his shoulder. A fine jet of water was spraying out from a pipe just where it vanished under the house. "So I've got two serious leaks then?" I asked.

"I'm afraid you have," said Mike. "The news just gets better and better, doesn't it? There's not much I can do for you today. We'll just have to leave it to itself over the weekend. But I'll be back bright and early on Monday. I suspect it's going to take quite some time to get to the bottom of this..."

Elizabeth Hand's Wylding Hall is a tale told backwards. The surviving members of a 1970s folk-rock group are being interviewed in the present day, and they look back on their days of fame, and they talk about their musical history and experiences.

Their manager at the time, a canny bloke, had arranged for the group to record their second album in splendid isolation at the eponymous Wylding Hall, an ancient country house. The album they created there made their reputation, but they were never able to repeat their success because Julian Blake, the group’s lead singer, disappeared somewhere within the mansion as the album was nearing completion and he has never been seen or heard from again.

So what exactly happened at Wylding Hall? All the people who were there have their own theories. Not all of them agree about what happened or about the sequence of events. Only the end result of Julian's disappearence is indisputable...

In the 1970s I was a huge fan of folk-rock music (actually, I still am). Elizabeth Hand has captured that moment in time absolutely perfectly. I'll swear you can actually hear the music welling up in between the paragraphs. She obliquely references a lot of people and events of the time which is an added bonus for the fanboys among us. But really that's just icing on the cake. In outline, the book tells a simple story, but it is beautifully told and the ending, while not unexpected, has a terrible dark inevitability about it. The novel is a stunning tour-de-force.

Honky Tonk Samurai is Joe Lansdale's eleventh novel about Hap and Leonard. Hap is white, heterosexual and a former '60s activist. Leonard is black, gay and a former soldier in Vietnam. Despite their very different backgrounds and world views, they are the closest of friends.

The story begins when Hap and Leonard observe a man beating his dog. Naturally they stop and rescue the dog (and beat the man up, because that's the kind of people they are). Their quixotic gesture is witnessed by an old lady who is so impressed that she hires them to investigate a cold case, the disappearance of her granddaughter several years ago.

It doesn't take Hap and Leonard long to discover that the used car dealership where the granddaughter used to work is a front for a prostitution and blackmail ring. Clearly there are unsavoury people involved with connections to organised crime, and it may well be that the girl they are looking for has been murdered because she discovered too much about what was going on.

There are signs in this story that Lansdale is growing tired of writing about Hap and Leonard. In some ways it reads like a contractual obligation novel. The banter between the two of them is as funny as ever it was, but the violence has got out of control. Leonard has become almost completely psychotic. Previously he always had good reasons for his violent behaviour (by his own lights anyway) but now he sometimes just lashes out for no very good reason at all. I used to like him as a character – I don't like him any more. He's changed, and not for the better.

There is a strong hint at the end of the book that this will be the very last Hap and Leonard adventure. If it is the last one, I don't think I'll be sorry to see the series end.

So 'twas on the Monday morning that the plumber came to call.

"We'll start with the toby," said Mike. "That's the easy one to fix because I know exactly where the leak is." He dressed himself in a face mask and ear muffs and then, brandishing a fearsome jackhammer, he attacked the concrete around the toby. It wasn't long before he had surrounded himself with shattered concrete. "Come and look at this!" he said, staring down into the huge hole he'd made in the ground.

A copper pipe was coming out at an acute angle from under the house. The angle was such that it was pressing hard against the corner of a brick. Over the years the friction between the pipe and the brick had rubbed a hole in the copper, and the result was a high pressure jet of water that was spraying everywhere.

"That's a rather silly angle to run the pipe at," said Mike. "I've no idea what the original plumber was thinking of when he put it in. But the good news is it's easy to fix. I'll break some of the brick off so the pipe isn't rubbing up against it any more and I'll replace the section of pipe that has the hole in it."

He was as good as his word, and a few minutes later the leak was fixed. "Now comes the difficult bit," said Mike. "Where on earth is the leak that is causing all that water to gush out of the overflow pipes over there? Since the pipes are coming directly out of the bathroom, I think we probably ought to start looking in the floor underneath the vanity unit, mainly because the vanity is easy to take out. But if we can't find anything there, we might have to demolish the bath..."

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," I said.

It didn't take Mike long to dismantle and remove the vanity unit. He had to tear up the lino, which made a bit of a mess, but that was nothing compared to the mess he made when he drilled down through the concrete floor under the vanity to expose the pipes that lay beneath it.

"Well," said Mike, "the bad news is that the leak isn't under the vanity."

"Is there any good news?" I asked.

"Sort of," said Mike. "The leak definitely isn't under the bath. So that's nice and safe, thank goodness. I've dug right down to the soil under concrete and it's quite dry off to the right where the bath is, but it's rather damp to the left which suggests that the leak is somewhere underneath one of the rooms to the left of the bathroom."

"So the leak is underneath the toilet?" I asked. "Or possibly the laundry?"

"It's certainly starting to look that way," said Mike.

"So I suppose the next step is to dig out the toilet floor and if you don't find anything, to start excavating the laundry?"

"I think I might try a more subtle approach first," said Mike. "I'll start outside the house and dig up the soil in the garden bed that's right by the gushing pipe. Let's see if I can pinpoint the leak more accurately before I start demolishing interior floors at random."

The particular bed of soil that he referred to was underneath a pile of stones that we had artfully arranged in vaguely decorative heaps. Mike piled all the stones into a wheelbarrow, thus completely ruining the subtlety of the design, and then he pulled up the weed mat that lay underneath them.

"Aha!" he said in triumphant tones. "Look at that!"

"What am I looking at?" I asked.

"The soil," said Mike. "It's absolutely saturated. We're obviously on the right track." He produced a large shovel and began digging into the dirt. After he'd dug down a foot or so, he had a moment of glory. "Got you, you bastard!" he cried. "Well sort of," he qualified.

A steady stream of water was flowing out between the bricks and down into the deep trench that Mike had dug along the side of the house.

"I think I'll leave it there for tonight," said Mike. "It's getting quite late and I don't really want to start demolishing the wall of your house until tomorrow when I'm fresher."

"Good idea," I said.

In Extremis is subtitled The Most Extreme Short Stories of John Shirley. He certainly pulls no punches in these dark, disquieting and blackly humorous tales. You'll need a strong stomach and a strong mind to cope with them; they are sick, twisted and brilliant.

Shirley starts where other authors stop – Cram (probably the best story in the book) is all about the space that lies between sex and death in urban populations. That's a territory that J. G. Ballard carved out for himself many years ago and once upon a time I would have said that Ballard had said all that needed to be said (or, indeed all that could be said) about that theme. Clearly I was wrong. Shirley heads off in directions that Ballard never thought of in his wildest dreams.

At the other end of the spectrum is I Want to Get Married Says the World's Smallest Man. It's a story about show-biz exploitation and wish-fulfilment. Even monsters have feelings and not all monsters are monstrous, sometimes the monsters are hiding inside a facade. Perhaps the story is less extreme than some others in the book, but nevertheless it is really rather sick and sometimes the laughs it invokes are guilty ones. Good on you, John Shirley.

As a contrast, consider Leo Frankowski. I must admit that I'd never heard of Leo Frankowski until the Canadian reviewer James Nicoll mentioned him in a blog post. The comments on that post were generally dismissive. Frankowski was viewed as rather sexist with an unfortunate attitude towards women. This annoyed me a little. I dislike the practice of applying modern social and political attitudes to books that were published before those attitudes were generally accepted. Frankowski's first novel was published in 1986 and may well have been written long before that. Dismissing his work because it doesn't conform to modern practices strikes me as unfair.

So I read (and, as it happens, quite enjoyed) Frankowski's first novel. It's called The Cross Time Engineer and it concerns the adventures of one Conrad Schwartz, an American engineer of Polish descent who goes on a hiking holiday in the mountains of Poland where he is transported back to the year 1231, just ten years before the Mongol invasion that will devastate the land. Naturally Schwartz takes it upon himself to drag Poland kicking and screaming into becoming the most powerful military country in Europe. That will show the Mongols what's what!

It's a novel in the grand tradition of L. Sprague de Camp's magnificent Lest Darkness Fall and let me say straight away that Frankowski's book doesn't reach anywhere near the standard of de Camp's classic masterpiece. Nevertheless, Frankowski's book is not at all bad and I must admit that I had quite a lot of fun reading it.

So what about the accusations of sexism? Certainly it's there in the text, though it is nowhere near as bad as some of his critics have made it out to be. Schwartz has the time of his life bedding nubile young ladies (wish fulfilment, anyone?). But on the other hand, the nubile young ladies have the time of their lives bedding the randy Conrad Schwartz as well. Cake is both had and eaten. Of course Frankowski is loading the dice by making the female characters so compliant and willing, but nevertheless other incidents in the novel do make me feel quite strongly that if any of these ladies had said no to Schwartz, he wouldn't have taken things any further. By his own lights, he's a very moral man.

On balance, I don't regret reading the book. It has enough wit and incident to pass the time entertainingly.

So 'twas on the Tuesday morning that the plumber came to call. The trench alongside the house was brimming with water from the overnight overflow.

"Right," Mike said firmly, "let's start pulling bricks out." The trusty jackhammer started up again and it wasn't long before a couple of pulverized bricks fell out of the bottom of the wall, giving Mike access to the inside of the house. He shone a torch into the hole. "Can't see anything," he muttered. He reached into his pocket and took out a long thin sliver of mirror. Its irregular shape suggested that it was a shard from a larger mirror. Someone, somewhere was putting up with seven years of bad luck, but it wasn't Mike because when he pushed the mirror into the hole and shone the torch after it he could see much further into darkness than he had been able to before. And there, reflected in the mirror, was a copper pipe with water gushing from a hole. "I can see the leak!" shouted Mike triumphantly.

"Great!" I said.

"Well, perhaps," said Mike. "There's no way I'm going to be able to reach it from here. I'm going to have to pin-point it a bit more accurately and then go through the floor somewhere inside the house."

"Oh well," I said. "Do what you have to do."

Mike produced a steel tape measure and shoved it deep into the hole until the tip was just over the gush of water. He noted how far into the house the leak was, and the angle that the tape measure made with the outside wall, thus giving himself a nice hypotenuse to work with. He measured along the wall until he reached the point where a theoretical line could go at right angles into the wall and intercept the leak. A quick bit of pythagorean arithmetic completed the calculation of the triangle. "The leak is in the laundry," said Mike authoritatively. We went into the laundry and he pointed to a particular tile. "It's underneath that one," he said. "Right! Let's be having you."

Out came the jackhammer again. It made short work of the tile which quickly shattered into fragments. Then he began drilling down into the concrete. "Gotcha!" came a triumphant cry.

I came and looked into the hole. A short length of copper pipe had been exposed to the world. Water was shooting out through three large holes in it. "Good heavens!" I said. "How did that happen?"

"I'm not sure," said Mike. "There's a fairly amateurish weld in the pipe. That might have had something to do with it. Perhaps the welding torch slipped and weakened the remaining copper. Copper has quite a low melting point and can be damaged quite easily by too much heat in the wrong place. But I'm a bit worried about what I found embedded in the concrete as I dug through it. Look at this." He showed me a lump of concrete with something smooth and rubbery stuck in it. "That's what's left of a silicone sealant," said Mike. "Whoever laid this concrete originally knew very well that these holes were there in the pipe. Clearly they tried to fix them with a sealing solution before they put the concrete down. Completely the wrong thing to do, of course."

"What a bodgy job," I said, vaguely horror struck at the amateurish approach.

"Indeed it is," said Mike. "I've never seen anything like it before. That leak has probably been there for twenty years or more, gradually getting worse as time went on and the silicone started to lose adhesion."

It didn't take Mike long to replace the length of holey pipe with something whose structural integrity could not be faulted. "There," said Mike. "Everything's repaired. Now all I have to do is fix up the World War I battlefield that I seem to have made out of your garden, bathroom and laundry." We both stared gloomily at the shattered brick and concrete surrounding the trench line that zig-zagged all the way from the Swiss border to the English Channel. "I'll fix the toby first," said Mike. "Then I'll come back tomorrow to do the rest of it."

He reset the toby in the ground and filled the trench with concrete. I called Jake the Dog to look at it. "Don't you dare walk on the wet cement," I instructed him.

His ears drooped and his tail went down between his legs. "But that's what dogs do best!" he protested.

"I don't care," I said. "Leave it alone. If I find any paw prints in it I'll send you to bed without your favourite rope. And then what will you do when you want to play bondage games in the wee small hours of the morning?"

"You win," said Jake, horrified at the thought of a ropeless night. "I won't walk on the wet cement."

"OK," said Mike, "I'm off now. See you tomorrow morning."

Who can resist a novel called The Still Small Voice of Trumpets? Certainly not me. It was first published in 1968 and I must have read it shortly after it was first published. I recall my mother getting it out of the library because the title intrigued her. She read it and passed it on to me, thinking I might enjoy it as well. She wasn't wrong...

It quickly fell out of print, of course, as these things do. But the stalwart folk at Wildside Press have resurrected it, as they have resurrected so many of the sadly neglected works of the mid-list authors from the middle decades of the twentieth century. Good on them!

The book is one of a series that Lloyd Biggle wrote about the Interplanetary Relations Bureau (IPR). Their motto is "Democracy imposed from without is the severest form of tyranny", an axiom that some of todays politicians would do well to ponder. The job of the IPR is to bring democracy to the societies on newly discovered planets so that they can be inducted into the galactic federation. Obviously their motto greatly constrains what they can and can't do to bring this end about.

IPR agent Forzon is assigned to the planet Gurnil which seems to have some unique problems in that it has a well entrenched monarchy and citizens who show little desire to change the way things work. Forzon is puzzled as to why he might have been assigned to the planet. On the face of it, his specialities (music and the arts) do not seem applicable to Gurnil's problems. Certainly the natives have a strong aesthetic appreciation of beauty in the abstract, and of its concrete representations in the arts, but they seem to have virtually no political awareness and no interest at all in the benefits of changing the status quo. The rules of the IPR mean that Forzon is allowed to introduce only one technological innovation, so all he has to do is find some way for a single change literally to revolutionize the entire world. There's a pretty puzzle.

Biggle's solution to this problem is entertaining, clever and believable. The book holds up very well even after all these years. It may not be at the cutting edge of SF any more (if, indeed it ever was) but it definitely has a lot going for it.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Lloyd Biggle was not primarily a scientist or an engineer and neither was he a practitioner of any of the softer sciences such as sociology or economics. He had a PhD in musicology (his thesis was on the music of the medieval Flemish composer Antoine Brumel, a composer who, I am sure, we are all less than familiar with) and his major concerns in all of his stories centred around the arts in general and music in particular. For me, this always made his stories stand out from the crowd (I certainly shared his interests in the arts) and I vividly remember seeking his novels out as and when they were published.  The Still Small Voice of Trumpets has certainly stood the test of time as far as I am concerned, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again.

So 'twas on the Wednesday morning that the plumber came to call. He replaced the vanity in the bathroom and concreted over the floor in the laundry. Then he went outside and cemented two bricks into the side of the house. He shovelled all the dirt back into the trench, and laid the weed mat down on top of it. Then he piled the artistic stones back on to the weed mat. Amazingly, the final design was infinitely more subtle and attractive than it had been before.

"There," said Mike. "All that's left for you to do is to glue the lino back in the bathroom and put down a new tile in the laundry."

"That should be easy enough," I said.

"And you will need to take all the brick and concrete that I dug up to the tip. It will be a lot cheaper for you to take it yourself. There'll be an extra charge on the invoice if I have to take it for you."

"Ah, the invoice," I said. "Have you any idea how much all this lot is going to cost me?"

"Well," mused Mike, "the cost of materials for repairing the pipes is about $10."

"That sounds quite reasonable," I said, starting to feel a faint glimmer of hope.

"But the three days it took to find the leak and to clear up after myself will cost you well into four figures..."


There is no doubt that the final bill will leave a very large hole in my bank account. But I cannot bring myself to resent it. The leaks had to be fixed – I had no choice in the matter at all. Mike did a truly superb job. Once he'd finished, the only trace left behind was one broken tile in the laundry and some torn up lino in the bathroom – both completely trivial things. Such a professional service is well worth paying for.

If I ever have any more problems with my waterworks, I will immediately pick up the phone and ring Havelock North Village Plumbers. I know they'll do a first class job.

Elizabeth Hand Wylding Hall Open Road
Joe R. Lansdale Honky Tonk Samurai Mulholland
John Shirley In Extremis Underland Press
Leo A. Frankowski The Cross Time Engineer Baen
Lloyd Biggle Jr
The Still Small Voice of Trumpets Wildside Press
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