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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (homo facere)

The Man Who Didn't Do

Ever since we moved to our new house, Robin and I have wanted to replace the front door. After twenty years of non-stop sunbathing in the fierce Hawke's Bay sunshine, the original door was looking very old and wrinkled, rather like W. H. Auden crossed with a walnut. It really should have used more sun block in its misspent youth. Slip, slop, slap...

The door was cracked, splintered and peeling and there was a dull grey patch of rot in the bottom left hand corner. Fitting a door is a special skill. People serve apprenticeships to learn how to do it properly.  I know my limitations, and so I went hunting for someone whose profession it was to sell me a new door and hang it for me. The interweb giggles quickly found me a company who, in the interests of nomenclatural verisimilitude, I will call DoorsAren'tUs, because that is not its name. The company was run by a gentleman called Harry, which is not his name either.

Ring, ring.

"Hello, DoorsAren'tUs. Harry speaking."

"Hi, Harry," I said. "I need a new front door."

"Front door?" Harry sounded puzzled. "Oh, no squire. Front doors are far too tricky. I don't do front doors. Back doors maybe..."

"Well can you come and look at it anyway and maybe give me some advice about what I should do next?" I asked.

"I don't do advice," said Harry. "But I suppose I could come and take a quick look."

We arranged a time, and Harry arrived exactly an hour early on the dot. "Sorry," he said when I pointed this out to him. "I don't do time."

"Well, never mind. You're here now," I said, "and you are standing right at my front door. What do you think of it?"

Harry poked at the door with a firm finger. "Ow!" he said as a splinter sank deep into his flesh. He put the finger in his mouth and sucked vigorously. "I think you need a new door," he mumbled around his finger. "This one's falling apart."

"That's what I think as well," I said. "Can you do anything for me?"

Harry looked at the door frame. "That frame's aluminium," he said. "Tricky stuff, that. I don't do aluminium joinery."

"I don't need a new door frame," I said. "I just need a new door to hang in the existing frame. And the door itself is wood. Can you do a wooden door?"

"Yes," he said grudgingly. "I might be able to manage that. Let's take some measurements."

He whipped out a tape measure and measured the door carefully. Then he shook his head sadly. "That's a very old door," he said. "They don't make them like that any more. Modern doors are all about 5mm thicker than this one. That means that it won't hang very well in the frame. It will stick out and obstruct the knuckle of the hinges so the leaves won't have enough room to rotate around the pin. We'll probably have to shift the hinges out a bit to accommodate the extra width and get enough freedom of movement. But that will leave holes in the aluminium where the screws used to be. I can't fill holes in the aluminium. Remember, I don't do aluminium."

He handed us a catalogue of doors. "See anything you fancy in there?" he asked.

Robin and I pored over the catalogue and came to a decision. "That one," I said, pointing it out. Harry make a note. "OK," he said. "I can order that for you and get someone to hang it. It will probably take about two weeks to get the door delivered from the factory. But you will be responsible for staining and varnishing it once it arrives. I don't do staining and varnishing."

"Do you know anyone who does do staining and varnishing?" I asked.

"Freeman's Painters and Decorators are quite good," mused Harry. "I've used them before..."

"So can you arrange for them to do it?" I asked, though I had a feeling that I knew what the answer would be.

Harry didn't disappoint me. "You'll have to do that yourself," he said. "I don't do arrangements."

Jack Hight has written a brilliant trilogy of novels dealing with the life and times of An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, more popularly known as Saladin, the Arab general who defeated the Crusaders in the decisive Battle of Hattin in 1187, thereby effectively denying the Christians any access to the Holy Land, apart from in a few isolated enclaves.

I didn't know much about Saladin before I read these novels. He'd been mentioned in passing in our history lessons at school, but only in the context of the life of Richard the Lionheart, his great enemy on the third Crusade. Until I read the books, I was quite unaware of the fact that the Crusaders weren't Saladin's only foes. Then, as now, the Arab world was rife with both political and religious factions, all of whom fought each other fiercely, neither asking for nor giving any quarter. So it was quite an eye-opener for me to read about Saladin's armies battling other Arab forces for the control of strategic cities. At the same time, it was profoundly depressing to learn that almost nine hundred years ago Shia and Sunni Moslems were constantly at each others throats as they fought over the cities of Tripoli... and Mosul... and Aleppo... Have we (and they) learned nothing in all that time? It would seem that we have not.

These books really should be required reading for today's politicians and strategists. Not only do they tell an exciting story, they are also full of profound insights into the thinking that lies behind Arabian internecine quarrels.

One reason for Saladin's success was his pragmatic nature. He was profoundly and inflexibly religious, but at the same time he recognised that secular compromises had to be made in order for him to achieve his goals. He would willingly make short term deals with anyone (including the Crusaders) in the interests of gaining temporary advantages in other areas, playing one side off against another. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. He was always very well aware that the political situation was fluid and that tomorrow was another day and subject to change. It wasn't cynicism on his part, it was simply the way he viewed the working of the world. He had a very deep understanding of the nature of people, of the power of religion and of the realities of political infighting. Such insight is rare. Far too often ideology becomes a trump card that wins over pragmatism. Saladin never fell into that trap.

Perhaps today's Arab world ought to hope for the rise of another Saladin to solve their bitter quarrels. Maybe on the thousandth anniversary of the triumph of the first one?

I rang Freeman's Painters and Decorators and explained what I needed. "No problem," said the man. "We do that kind of thing all the time. It's a major part of our business. Just get the door dropped off and we'll take care of it." I found his attitude very refreshing.

I told Harry what they’d said. He was dubious. "How will it be paid for?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said. "You'll be delivering it to them. Perhaps they'll invoice you and you can pass the cost on to me. Is that what you normally do?"

"I don't know," said Harry. "I've never done it before."

"I'm sure it will all work itself out," I said.

The next day Harry rang me back. "I've been thinking..." he said.

"Oh yes?" I said.

"We probably ought to hang the door before it gets stained and varnished. I don't really want to hang it afterwards in case anything happens to damage the surface while we're working on it. I'm worried you might blame me for that and start telling people that I didn't do a very good job."

"So what do you suggest that we do?" I asked.

"I'll get someone to hang the door, fit the hinges and drill holes for the bolts," he said. Then he'll take it down again, get it stained and put it back up."

"OK," I said. "Is that the usual procedure?"

"I don't really know," said Harry. "I told you, I don't normally do this sort of thing."

There was a long silence that lasted for about two weeks and then Harry rang me again.

"I've got your door," he said. "Can I send my Carpenter round at 8.30 on Thursday morning to hang it?"

"OK," I said.

At 8.30 on Wednesday morning, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and there was a Carpenter. I could tell he was a Carpenter because he had a Walrus in the passenger seat of his van. "Hello," he said, "Harry's sent me to hang your door for you."

"Oh," I said, somewhat taken aback. "I wasn't expecting you until tomorrow."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I'll go away again if you like."

"Never mind," I said. "You're here now. Let's get it done. Does this sort of thing happen often?"

"All the time," said the Carpenter. "Harry doesn't do appointments."

"What about the Walrus?" I asked.

"He's learning the trade," said the Carpenter. "I let him do the heavy lifting."

Quick as a flash, the Carpenter had the old door off its hinges. Then he unpacked the new door and began wielding a tape measure around the frame. "That's interesting," he said. "The new door is about 5mm wider than the old one. That's going to cause problems with the hinges."

"Harry mentioned that," I said. "He said something about moving the hinges to allow for it."

"Harry doesn't do hinges," said the Carpenter. "He really doesn't understand them at all. If we move the hinges there will be some dirty great holes left in the frame where the screws used to be. A much better plan is to leave the hinges in place and countersink the door around the knuckles. It means chopping a bit of wood off the door, but you'll never notice that once the door is hung."

"OK," I said. "That sounds a much better plan."

The Carpenter produced chisels and a small saw. The Walrus held the door steady for him and within seconds he had made smooth countersinkings for each of the hinges on it. A few minutes later he had the door swinging proudly and freely in the frame. It was a perfect fit.

"Well done," I said. "That looks great."

"Thank you," he said. The Walrus smiled. "Now all I have to do is take the lock and the deadbolt off the old door and fit them on the new one," said the Carpenter. "But there's a small problem with that..."


"There are holes in the aluminium frame that the bolts feed into. If I use the existing holes, the locks won't be centred on the door panel. But if I centre them on the door panel, I'll have to make new holes in the frame."

"I'd really prefer you to use the original holes in the frame," I said.

"It might look a little odd, not having the locks centred on the panel," warned the Carpenter.

"I'll tell you what," I said, "if anyone ever refuses to visit us because we don't have our locks centred on the door panel, I'll ring you up and complain."

"Fair enough," said the Carpenter. "It's your door."

The Walrus used its tusks to drill large holes for the lock and the deadbolt. Then the Carpenter fitted them in place. The bolts slid smoothly backwards and forwards into the frame. "All done," said the Carpenter. "What's happening about staining it?"

"Harry's going to get Freeman's to do that," I said. "Didn't he tell you? He said that once you'd got the door hung, you'd put our old door back and deliver this one to Freeman's for staining and varnishing. Then you'd come back and re-hang it when they've finished with it."

"He never said anything to me about that," said the Carpenter. "Harry doesn't do explanations." The Walrus shook its head dolefully. "So do I take it straight to Freeman's or what?" asked the Carpenter.

"No idea," I said. "Let's ask Harry."

Mur Lafferty is a new writer to me. However on the strength of her novel The Shambling Guide to New York City, I'm definitely going to be seeking out more of her work. She has a delightful sense of humour and an eye for the absurd.

Zoe is an experienced editor of travel guides. She is currently unemployed because she made the mistake of having an affair with her last boss and when his wife found out, she wasn't pleased...

While exploring the shelves of a rather unusual bookshop, Zoe comes across an advert for a job that seems tailor made for her. A new publishing company is looking for an editor for a travel guide they are working on. But when she expresses interest in the position, everybody tries very hard to dissuade her from it. However she perseveres and eventually she gets the job. Along the way, however, she comes to realise that the publisher is actually a vampire and that the audience for the travel guide will be the zombies, golems, and other miscellaneous monsters who want to visit New York City. The theme of the guide (which is called, not unnaturally, The Shambling Guide to New York City) will be to highlight those places of special interest to the Coterie (as the monsters refer to themselves) – which restaurants can provide vintage blood for vampires and which ones are willing to serve live hedgehogs to their clientèle.

This is urban fantasy at its best. And as an added bonus, there are excerpts from the actual Shambling Guide scattered throughout the novel. What more could anyone want?

Lawrence Block's very first crime novel was published more than fifty years ago under a pseudonym by a fly-by-night publisher. The publishing deal was so ephemeral that even Block himself completely lost track of the story. And sadly he did not have copy of the manuscript hiding in his filing cabinet. For all practical purposes, the novel was lost without trace. And then, by one of those strange coincidences that you simply wouldn't believe if it ever happened in a story, he did eventually manage to find a copy. Now it's been republished in all its glory as Sinner Man (Block's original title) and it appears for the very first time with his own name on the cover.

Insurance agent Don Barshter kills his wife as they have a domestic squabble. It could be argued that the crime is just manslaughter. He really didn't mean to kill her. He just slapped her, and she fell and hit her head. If he stays and faces the consequences, he might even get away with it! But he chooses instead to run, to hide and to take on a new identity. By running, he's burned his boats. Running from the scene of the crime turns it into first degree murder. He's going to need to hide very well indeed if he is to avoid the consequences now.

He becomes Nathaniel Crowley, the new tough guy in town. Crowley has quite a different personality from the Don Barshter of old. In a bar, he strikes up a friendship with Tony Quince, who gets him an introduction to Lou Baron, the man who runs the organised crime in this town. Baron has a job for Crowley. And so, by degrees, Crowley gradually worms his way into the inner circles of the crime hierarchy. Soon, however, he will be forced to take sides as crime rivals, friends and enemies jockey for power...

The plot twists and turns. Complications and double-crosses abound until finally the story comes round full circle and Don Barshter is called to account. It's pulp fiction at its finest and it's an astonishingly skilful piece of story telling by a man who was still very much a novice at his trade while he was writing it. I'm quite sure that many a modern writer as well as many of Block's contemporaries, would have been more than happy to have written such a complex and satisfying story the first time they sat down in front of their typewriter. It may be fifty years old and an apprentice piece, but nevertheless it still reads very well and it still packs a punch.

The Carpenter rang Harry and they had an increasingly acrimonious discussion full of words like "why didn't you tell me about it" and "what do you mean you don't do that". Eventually the Carpenter rang off and came back to me. Wisps of steam drifted out of his ears.

"OK," he said. "Here's the plan. I'll take the new door back to the shop for Harry to look after. He'll take it to Freeman's. Hopefully he'll be in touch with you soon." He re-hung our old door and packed the new door carefully into his van. He drove off into the middle distance.

I decided to take Jake the Dog for a walk. He'd had a very frustrating day. He desperately wanted to make friends with the Walrus, and he really needed to help the Carpenter hang the door. He hadn't been allowed to do either of these things and now he badly needed a distraction. As we walked, I examined all the front doors that we passed. At least half of them had locks that weren't centred on the door panels. I began to feel a lot better about the aesthetics of lock placement that I'd insisted on. Clearly I wasn't alone in this. Jake said he felt the same way, which reinforced my decision.

Later that afternoon, Harry rang me. "I've delivered your door to Freeman's," he said, "and I've given them all your details. They'll invoice you separately for the job. Once it's ready I'll arrange for it to be picked up and delivered to you. You'll need to ring them to discuss what colour you want it to be. I can't do that. I don't do colours."

I rang Freeman's and spoke to the same obliging chap I'd spoken to before. "I'd like a rimu coloured stain," I said. "And it may need several coats of varnish to protect it from the sun."

"Oh," said the man. He sounded surprised. "I didn't realise it was going to be an outside door."

"Yes," I explained. "It's a replacement front door because the sun has ruined the old one."

"Ah, I see," he said. "Harry didn't tell me that. I don't think he does sunshine. No problem. We'll take care of it for you."

"Thank you," I said.

There was another fortnight of silence. I rang Harry.

"Any news on the door?" I asked. "Surely Freeman's have finished staining it now."

"No idea," said Harry. "Nobody's said anything to me. Why don't you ring them and chase them up? I don't do chasing up."

So I rang Freeman's and spoke to the obliging chap again.

"Ah," he said. "I'm glad you rang. The door's just about done. It will be ready to pick up tomorrow. However there's a little administrative problem. We tried to send you an invoice, but the email address that Harry gave us for you doesn't work. I don't think Harry does email. Can you tell me where I need to send the invoice?"

I confirmed my email address with him. "Why didn't you ring me about the problem with the email?" I asked.

"The phone number that Harry gave us for you just gave a number unobtainable sound," he said. "Harry doesn't do phones either."

So I gave him my phone number as well. "Just in case you need it," I explained.

I rang Harry. "The door will be ready for you to pick up on Friday," I said. "So I expect you'll probably want to hang it some time next week?"

Harry thought about it for a moment. "How about Tuesday at 8.00am?" he asked.

"OK," I said. "But what happened to Monday?"

"I don't do Mondays," said Harry.

I knew of Andrew J. Offutt (or, as he preferred his name to be recorded, andrew j offutt) as a rather minor though generally quite entertaining science fiction writer. He served as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) from 1976 to 1978 and was apparently extremely effective in the role. He died in 2013.

His son, Chris Offutt (who is also a novelist) has written a rather bitter biography/memoire of andrew j offutt called My Father the Pornographer in which, among other truths, he reveals that andrew offutt made a quite a substantial living writing fairly hard-core pornography under a variety of pseudonyms. Despite his success in the SF world, it seems that pornography was always his first true love and he was much more prolific as a pornographer than he ever was as an SF writer, though it seems he did manage to combine both interests in a series of nineteen Spaceways novels as by "John Cleve". Typical Spaceways titles are Of Alien Bondage, Escape from Macho, Satana Enslaved... I think you get the general idea!

I'm not sure why Chris Offutt felt the need to write this book, unless it was for the sake of catharsis. Clearly he didn't like his father and regarded him as a bad tempered, arbitrary, egotistical and contradictory bully who refused to countenance any opinion but his own on any subject whatsoever. Having had such a father myself, I can sympathise with Chris' position to a certain extent. But I think perhaps he takes things too far in this book. He paints his father with far too black a brush, and as a result andrew comes across as a person with no redeeming qualities at all. He sounds like a Jekyll and Hyde man – the polite, pleasant and eager to please Dr. Jekyll is presented to the world at large, and the grotesque, impatient, sadistic Mr. Hyde lives behind the scenes with his family. It's a caricature and it failed to convince me.

Margaret Thatcher's favourite television programme was Yes Minister (and, later, Yes Prime Minister). The cynically clever scripts portrayed the civil service as the real power that ruled the country. The programme argued that ministry officials actually regarded their political masters as clumsy obstacles who needed to be controlled and kept firmly in their place lest they run the ship of state onto the rocks. To this end, the civil servants used much labyrinthine bureaucratic doublespeak in their advice to the Minister – seeming to say one thing but meaning completely the opposite. These days we call it spin... Mrs Thatcher felt that this portrayal was so close to the things she experienced in real life that the programme could almost be regarded as reportage rather than as fiction. And who is to say that she was wrong?

In A Courageous Decision – The Inside Story of Yes Minister, Graham McCann examines the incidents that led Anthony Jay and Jonathan Lynn to put the show together in the first place. A major inspiration was the publication in the mid 1970s of The Crossman Diaries. Richard Crossman was a minister in the Labour government of Harold Wilson during the 1960s. He kept very detailed diaries of his daily battles with the civil service, concentrating on what he perceived as their frequent deliberate attempts to undermine him. The diaries were published posthumously to riotous acclaim. Crossman recorded in intimate detail his annoyance, his despair and sometimes his feelings of helplessness and hopelessness in the face of the machinations of the civil servants who, he felt, actually considered themselves to be his civil masters. Jay and Lyn immediately recognised the comic possibilities of this view of the political establishment and, emboldened by unofficial tales told under the table by close friends who were themselves governmental insiders, they began to sketch out their scenarios and script their stories. The rest is history.

Reading this book really made me want to binge watch the whole series all over again. Now that's an inspirational book!

The Walrus and the Carpenter turned up at 8.00am the following Tuesday with the shiny new rimu coloured door packed carefully in the back of their van. In no time at all they removed the old door, hung the new door on the hinges and then installed the lock and deadbolt. "There you are," said the Carpenter. "It's all finished. What do you think of it?"

"It's magnificent," I said. "Well done."

"Thank you," said the Carpenter. He checked his watch and then looked expectantly up and down the road. He seemed mildly surprised that there was no traffic.

"Are you waiting for something?" I asked.

"I was just wondering if Harry was going to turn up to check on me," he said vaguely. "Harry doesn't do delegation."

"Remember to keep your new door clean and polished," said the Walrus as he climbed into the van. "I imagine that seven maids with seven mops would easily be able to handle the job for you."

"I doubt it," said the Carpenter sadly, and he shed a bitter tear before packing up his tools and driving off to his next job.

While I'd been talking to them, my phone had gone ping to indicate that an email had arrived. As they drove away, I glanced at the phone to check what the email was. That was when I finally discovered something that Harry did. He was very efficient at sending out an invoice the instant the job was complete.

Perhaps he should rename his company InvoicesRUs...

Jack Hight Eagle John Murray
Jack Hight Kingdom John Murray
Jack Hight Holy War John Murray
Mur Lafferty The Shambling Guide to New York City Orbit
Lawrence Block Sinner Man Hard Case Crime
Chris Offutt My Father the Pornographer Atria
Graham McCann A Very Courageous Decision:
      -- The Inside Story of Yes Minister Aurum Press
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