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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (canis ephemeris libellus)

Mr Jake's Diary


I was chatting with Jake the Dog, as one does, and I told him that I had bought a device to measure how far we walked together. It also keeps track of how many steps I've taken, how many calories I've burned and what my heart rate is.

"I hope it's not a fitbit," said Jake.

"No it isn't," I told him. "Why do you ask?"

"Those things are over engineered to the point of insanity," said Jake. "You can store your information in the cloud and examine it over time, rate yourself against your goals, share your results with your friends, the list goes on. Why does something so simple have to be made so complicated?"

"I agree with you," I said. "I can't for the life of me understand why I'd want to keep a record of my results over time, or tell anybody else about them. Anyway, the graph over time would be a very boring straight line. I walk almost exactly the same distance every day. I take the same number of steps and burn the same number of calories. You walk a lot more than me, of course, because you dash around a lot when I let you off the lead in the park. And sometimes you go for a swim."

"I think it would be much more interesting to record what happens on the walks rather than how far we go," said Jake.

"I agree," I said. "Why don't you start keeping a diary? I'll use my gadget to tell you how far into the walk we are when something interesting happens, and you can record the details."

"What a good idea!" said Jake. "Let's do it."

So here are some extracts from Jake's diary for today. And every day, of course, because dogs live completely in the moment.

Today – 0.1 km

We've just gone out of the front door and I can smell the cat who owns the cul-de-sac. I'm sure he's around here somewhere. Oh look! There he is over by the clump of lilac. I'll just drag Alan over there. Oh dear. The cat isn't moving and it's hissing at me. I don't like that. Alan! Get me out of here.

Today – 0.5 km

We're walking along the grass verge that leads to the reserve. The council has been mowing it and there are clumps of shredded, matted grass from the mower blades scattered here and there. Yummy! I love those things. There's a nice big chewy one right by my feet...

Today – 0.6 km

That was a lovely clump of grass. I enjoyed it so much that I think I'll throw it up so that I can have the pleasure of eating it again. Yes, I was right. It's ever so much tastier the second time around.

Today – 0.7 km

There's a car coming up the road. I'd better flop down on my tummy and watch it go past. Here it comes! Here it comes! Stop pulling so hard on my lead, Alan. I'm not getting up yet. I need to watch the car. Oh! There it goes, round the corner and out of sight. OK Alan, you can stop tugging now. I'm ready to carry on walking.

Today – 0.8 km

Look! There's Oscar and his mum. Oscar smells like a dog, but he doesn't look like any dog I've ever seen before. He's tiny, about the size of my paw. He is covered in fluffy white fur and when he stands on his short, fat hairy legs he just about reaches my ankle. I always sniff his bottom when we meet but he never sniffs mine because he can't reach it without a stepladder and nobody ever takes a stepladder with them on a walk. That would be silly. Even Alan's pockets, copious though they are, aren't big enough for a stepladder.

Oscar's mum says that when the cage he was in first arrived at her house, she honestly thought it was empty. The trouble with Oscar is that he doesn't know he's a small dog. He thinks he's just as big as me and he won't stand for any nonsense. I'm a bit afraid of Oscar, so I always do what he tells me.

Oscar and I have had a lot of erudite conversations through peemail. At the moment we're discussing the knotty problem of lapsarianism. He's a supralapsarianist and I'm an infralapsarianist and neither of us have ever managed to change the other dog's mind. Since Alan is clearly God (though Oscar is not convinced of this) I've asked him for a definitive ruling, but he just laughs, calls me a good boy and gives me a treat. That's OK – the treats are yummy. Perhaps I need to have a few more theological debates with Alan...

(This is Alan talking now...)

When I drastically trimmed my library a couple of years ago, I made sure to keep the books that mattered to me. Among these was the Firestar series by Michael Flynn. I've just been re-reading them. Because I wanted to.

There are four books in the series. The basic premise that underlies them all is that Mariesa Van Huyten, the heir to a vast industrial complex, is super rich and super powerful. She also has a neurotic obsession. She is convinced that the Earth is in danger of being hit by an asteroid. Such a catastrophic collision would certainly mean the extinction of most of the life on the planet, a thought she finds unbearable. Because of her power and riches, she is ideally suited to implement a programme to investigate the nature of the problem and to take whatever steps are necessary to avoid the catastrophe. The novels explore the details and the implications of her initiative.

To begin with there are two main strings to her bow – firstly she sets out to reform the educational system so as to lift it out of the doldrums into which she perceives it to have fallen, and secondly she initiates a research programme to develop a reusable single stage to orbit spacecraft. The first initiative will, she hopes, produce a body of talent that she can recruit to help her with her goals and the second will eventually open up low earth orbit to commercial development that will, almost as a by-product, give her the ability to investigate the asteroids that she is so frightened of.

It's not all plain sailing, of course. Politics and entrenched interests make it hard for any such programmes to even get off the ground (pun not intended), let alone succeed in their goals. And so, over four very long novels, we get a beautifully satisfying story full of political intrigue and complex manoeuvrings that involve a huge cast of characters from all walks of life. Interestingly all of the villains have their good points and all of the heroes have their bad sides. In other words, everybody in these novels looks and acts and feels just like a real person. This adds a genuine verisimilitude to the story and I found it very easy to become thoroughly absorbed in the plot. I knew all these people.

Combine all this with a genuine sense of wonder as the outer reaches of space are explored and amazing things are discovered and you have a recipe for an utterly fascinating tale that held me completely enthralled. I'm definitely very pleased that I kept these books on my shelves.

Night Shift is the third and (with any luck) the last novel in Charlaine Harris' Midnight trilogy. If you haven't read the first two books, don't start here. You won't understand a thing. But if you have read the earlier books you'll be pleased to find that a very satisfying conclusion is reached in this one. We learn just why the town of Midnight is what it is, we learn more about the backgrounds of the characters (particularly Lemuel and Olivia who have both been a little mysterious so far) and the witch Fiji finally realises her true potential as she saves the town from destruction.

The opening of the story is quite surreal. People are coming to Midnight and killing themselves at the crossroad. In a couple of cases, the would-be suicides actually come to Midnight to buy the weapons that they intend to kill themselves with! After one such suicide attempt is foiled, it transpires that the victim has no memory of what they were trying to do. It's almost as if they were in some sort of trance...

The hunt for the reasons behind the suicides forms the major plot thread that ties together the ongoing story arc that links all three books. But there are lots of other bits of business along the way such as the resolution of Fiji's on-again, off-again romance with Bobo and Lemuel's desperate hunt for someone who can read Etruscan.

I was impressed.

Thatcher Stole My Trousers is the second volume of Alexei Sayle's autobiography, following on from 2010's Stalin Ate My Homework. It describes his first ventures into what would eventually turn into the Comedy Store and the Comic Strip. It is full of lovely little gossipy asides about the other members of the troupe. As with the first volume, Sayle makes no secret of his on-going dedication to left wing political views. But he never loses his sense of humour about it and he is never afraid to have a slyly cynical dig at some of his more humourless comrades and their sometimes ridiculous opinions and points of view. Equally, Sayle is never blind to the practical shortcomings of his political philosophy and he is well aware of the potential for harm that can derive from it. If there is such a thing as an ultra-left wing realist, then Alexei Sayle is definitely one of them. When the Live Aid concert collected money to help combat the famine in Ethiopia, Sayle remembered the Arab Marxists with whom he had once shared digs in London. They and their friends had seized power in Ethiopia and were in the process of implementing their ideologies. Sayle writes:

I was certain if they were given 150m raised by the concert then they would just use it to pursue their wars and very little of it would go to the starving.

And, of course, that is exactly what happened. It's very refreshing to see such political realism peeking shyly through the propaganda and rhetoric. The book is thoughtful, insightful and very, very funny. What more could anyone want?

Alexei Sayle comes from the sharp end of British comedy. But there has always been a blunt end to the British comedic tradition as well; a blunt instrument that has long been used for beating the audience around the head with double (and sometimes single) entendres. And nothing exemplifies this bawdy humour more than the thirty or so hugely popular Carry On films that appeared irregularly from the 1950s onwards. Richard Webber's Fifty Years of Carry On documents this phenomenon with incredible precision (though sadly without much wit – Webber himself comes across as a humourless man).

The Carry On films were really just animated seaside postcards. In themselves, they were quite innocuous (as Spike Milligan famously said about something completely different, "It's all in the mind, you know."). Nothing explicitly dirty was ever said and despite the fact that Barbara Windsor lost her bikini top in Carry On Camping, not a boob or a nipple was ever seen on screen. The films were all good, clean wholesome smut. And thereby hangs their appeal, of course.

I remember queueing for hours to see Carry On Again Doctor in 1969 when I was a student. The cinema was packed, not a spare seat in the house, and the audience was crying with laughter at the tired old jokes about bedpans and enemas.

Webber is rather dismissive of my very favourite Carry On film (Carry On Screaming), which makes me somewhat sceptical about the value of his value judgements. Carry On Screaming is the only one of the series that I actually own on DVD and I've watched it several times. I freely admit that for me a major attraction is the utterly wonderful Fenella Fielding who plays Valeria Watt, the sister of the electrically powered mad scientist Orlando Watt (Kenneth Williams). I've been madly in lust with the shapely, husky-voiced Fenella Fielding all my life. It's such a pleasure just to watch her breathe in and out... in and out... in and out... Excuse me – I need to take a cold shower.

In one delightfully silly scene that has stuck in my mind since 1966 when the movie first came out, the gorgeous Valeria asks the police sergeant, "Do you mind if I smoke?". He says he doesn't mind at all. She sits there calmly, breathing in and out... in and out... in and out (excuse me again, I'll be back in a jiffy). Smoke starts to stream out of every pore of her body until she is completely enveloped in a roiling, boiling cloud. Wonderful, wonderful stuff!

The movies were all made on the smell of an oily rag. If any corner could be cut, then cut it was. Webber records that when they were making the Beau Geste parody Carry On... Follow That Camel in 1967, they borrowed a camel from Chessington Zoo. It had spent all its life walking on concrete floors and it turned out to be frightened of sand!

Despite the shoestring budgets and the rapid turnaround (each of the films took less than six weeks to make), the movies were all made with love and with care. They paid great attention to comedic timing (which is the whole secret of getting a laugh of course – the most unpromising material can corpse an audience if the timing is right). In 2007 a poll was taken to identify the funniest one-liner ever uttered in a movie. The winner, by a huge margin, came from 1964's Carry On Cleo when Kenneth Williams (as Julius Caesar) shrieked: "Infamy, infamy. They've all got it in for me!"

(Back to Jake's Diary...)

Today – 1.2 km

We're well into the reserve now. There's a thickly wooded valley to our left and I can smell rabbits and rats. Their scent trails criss-cross the ground that Alan and I are walking on and so I keep zig-zagging around Alan as I follow them. Alan is constantly spinning round to untangle the lead that I've wrapped around his legs. If his name was Jenny I could call him Spinning Jenny, but it isn't so I don't. Pity...

There's a man coming. Hello man! Look at me wagging my tail at you. Oh goody! He's stopped and he's scratching my ears. I think I'll jump up and lick his face and see if I can break his nose by banging my forehead into it. Why is he swearing? Why is Alan pulling me away from him so hard? He's a nice man. I want to lick him again.

Today – 1.5 km

We're hurrying across the bridge and leaving the man behind. There are lots of good smells wafting up from the gully beneath us. I've really got to stop and pee over the side of the bridge onto them. Hmmm... The troll who lives under the bridge looks rather angry with me. His head is quite wet. I wonder how that happened?

Today – 1.8 km

We're crossing the road now. There's another reserve on the other side. When we reach the road, I sit at the kerb until Alan tells me it's time to cross. Alan's very boring. We only cross when there aren't any cars coming. Where's the fun in that? I watch the cars as they go past. I'd really like to get closer to them, but Alan's a terrible spoilsport about it.

We're across the road and we've gone into the other reserve. The track is covered with acorns. I wonder what they taste like? Oh, yuck! They're horrible. I can't understand what the birds see in them.

Today – 2.0 km

I've got a stick. It's the best stick ever. Well, it will be the best stick ever once I've modified it a bit. There are a lot of twigs sticking out of it and they get in the way when I try and pick it up. What I need to do is bite them off one by one and drop them on the ground.

There – all the twigs have gone and now it really is the best stick ever. I think I'll pick it up and take it home with me.

Oh, look! There's Bobby the fox terrier. I'll just drop my stick for a moment so that I can say hello. Bobby's a ball dog. He's utterly besotted with chasing the tennis balls that his mum throws for him. I've never really understood what dogs see in that. Balls are very good to chew (well, actually, everything is very good to chew). But chasing them? No, not really.

Today – 2.1 km

Where's my stick? Didn't I have a stick? I'm sure that I had a stick. I must have been mistaken.

Today – 2.3 km

We've come out of the reserve and we're back to the main road. I'm just sitting on the pavement watching the cars and the cars are watching me warily as they go past. I think they might be wary because I'm a big dog. Alan's just told me to "Walk on". As usual he's waited for the worst possible moment. The road is completely empty. Oh! There's a fascinating smell here right in the middle of the road. I think there might have been a dead rabbit here once. I need to stop and appreciate the bouquet. Perhaps I'll roll in it. Why is Alan pulling so hard on the lead? He gets very annoyed with me when I do that. How come he can get away with it? This is definitely a them and us world. I'm one of us and Alan is one of them.

Today – 2.5 km

Is that a jogger? It is! It's a jogger. I like joggers. I can make them swerve.

Today – 2.6 km

Hello Rose. Rose is a full size poodle. She's just been clipped and she looks beautiful. Hello Rose. Hello Rose. Why won't you say hello to me, Rose? She never speaks to me. She's very stand-offish. Perhaps it's because she's French. Her mum always talks to Alan. Life isn't fair.

Today – 2.8 km

There's a children's playground just ahead with all the usual bits and pieces of apparatus in it. There aren't any children though. That's a shame. I like licking children. They are much tastier than adults because they have such highly refined soap avoidance skills. Never mind. In the absence of children I can at least eat some of the cork chips that line the playground. There's always a silver lining. Win some, lose some. It's all swings and roundabouts.

Today – 3.1 km

We're back on the road that leads to our house and there's a car coming. It's slowing down! I think I'll sit here and watch it. Oh yes! It's coming to a stop just by where I'm sitting. This is wonderful! I'm going to pull my ears back, grin all over my face and wag my tail just as fast as I can. There are two people getting out of the car. Hello people. Look at me. I'm Jake and I want to lick you all over. Look at me. Look at me.

Oh no! They ignored me completely. How could they do that to me when I'm wagging so hard? Just for that, I'm going to pee on all four of their tyres. So there.

Today – 3.6 km

We're home. The cat who owns the cul-de-sac is exactly where he was when we left. I'm not going to go and sniff him this time. I'm going to go into the house and I'm going to play with my stuffed chicken toy. Maybe Alan will throw it for me.

Michael Flynn Firestar Tor
Michael Flynn Lodestar Tor
Michael Flynn Rogue Star Tor
Michael Flynn Falling Stars Tor
Charlaine Harris Night Shift Ace
Alexei Sayle Thatcher Stole My Trousers Bloomsbury
Richard Webber Fifty Years of Carry On Century

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