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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (praxis adhibitio)

Jane of the Apps

The ever increasing in popularity of smart phones has given rise to the new social phenomenon of phone poking. Everywhere you look, places that once used to hum and buzz with conversation and ring out with laughter are now full of silent, grim-faced people who are all very busy poking their phones.

Once I was on the ferry, travelling between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The lounge was full of eerily silent teenagers. The only sounds I could hear were the faint throb of distant diesel engines, the slap of the waves against the side of the ship and the occasional buzz and click from the phones the teenagers were clutching. Much phone-poking was taking place. There were no verbal conversations happening at all.

And then a catastrophe happened! The ferry cruised out of the cell phone reception area and all the phones went dead. The teenagers sat there, shocked and bewildered.

"OMG – I hve no sgnl," one of them finally said out loud to her friend. "Do u?"

"No," said her friend. "LOL."

"wht cn wee doo?"

"xqqqs me," said her friend, "I hve 2 p."

I don't know who Ben H. Winters is, but I do know that he has written a brilliant SF trilogy. By and large I hate SF trilogies, and I tend to avoid them. There really needs to be something extra special about any given trilogy to persuade me to invest my time in it. I found the blurb on this one sufficiently intriguing to take a punt, and I don't regret it at all! High praise indeed, given my prejudices.

The events of the trilogy take place in early 2012. As the story opens, a large asteroid has been discovered, and it is going to collide with the Earth. There is nothing to be done. The asteroid is far too large to be deflected from its course. The collision, it is predicted, will wipe out all life on Earth. The asteroid will arrive in six months time, on October 3rd. There won't be an October 4th...

The social and economic order begins to collapse under the strain imposed by the knowledge of what is to come. Many people commit suicide, and many others simply walk away from their families and their jobs, going off to cram as many items as they can from their bucket lists into what little time remains in their lives.

And some people just try to hold things together because that's the kind of people they are. Henry Palace is one of these. In the first novel of the trilogy (The Last Policeman) he is the last policeman of the title. There's been yet another suicide in the bathroom at the local MacDonalds. But something about it doesn't seem quite right to Palace. He thinks it may well be a murder that has been disguised as a suicide. And he just won't let go of it. Nobody else really cares – what's one more death in the lead up to extinction? But Henry Palace cares.

In the second novel, Countdown City, the police department has been disbanded. Crimes are no longer being investigated. The police are now just involved in crowd control, trying hard (and largely failing) to keep the peace. Henry is out of a job. The husband of a friend has disappeared. Henry suspects he's become a bucket lister, but nevertheless Henry agrees to try and find out what has happened to the man. The breakdown of society is accelerating. It has been announced that the asteroid will crash into Indonesia, and refugees are fleeing from the Eastern hemisphere seeking for sanctuary in the West. Armed vigilante groups attempt to prevent these refugees from coming ashore in America. The missing husband, it appears, has firm opinions on this phenomenon and now he is on a mission from God.

In the final novel, World Of Trouble, society has almost completely disintegrated, apart from a few intact and completely self-sufficient rural communities. Henry is searching for his sister. Eventually he discovers that she has been killed by a gang of survivalists. There are now only days left before the asteroid will arrive. And on October 3rd, Henry sits down for a meal with his new Amish friends; a meal that he knows he will never finish...

On the surface, these books pretend to be straightforward detective novels, albeit with a somewhat esoteric setting. But honestly, on that level, they are actually rather mediocre. The blurb describes them as "existential detective novels" and that's a much better description, much closer to the truth. The great strength of these books lies in their chilling descriptions of the ways in which society completely comes apart under the stress imposed by the inevitability of the coming catastrophe. The stories provide a very effective dramatisation of Samuel Johnson's famously cynical remark, "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Smart phones have been around for quite some time and the phone-poking phenomenon has now spread far and wide beyond its original teenage protagonists. One day I was sitting in a café with a friend who was poking her phone and ignoring me. "How's your day been?" I asked.

She poked furiously and said nothing.

"Your coffee is getting cold," I pointed out.

Her rate of poking increased and she frowned with concentration. Not a word passed her lips.

"Read any good books lately? What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Would you like to see my etchings? Or maybe my scratchings?"

My phone buzzed, indicating that I had a text message. I opened up the relevant app and read the message. It said, "Stop talking to me. I am poking my phone and your being very distracting."

"That should be Y-O-U Apostrophe R-E," I pointed out to her. "A contraction of you are. Y-O-U-R is the possessive. As in your phone. Which I notice you are still poking..."

My phone buzzed again. Another text message. "Shut UP!!", she explained.

"Where's the smiley face?" I asked. "I'd even settle for a frowny one..."

Jack Sheffield has written a series of (so far) ten semi-autobiographical novels which talk about the perils, pitfalls, triumphs and tragedies of being the headmaster of a primary school in a small village in North Yorkshire in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was initially attracted to the books because, as a child, I attended a primary school in a small Yorkshire village – though my school was in West Yorkshire rather than North Yorkshire, and it was the 1950s rather than the 1970s. But Yorkshire is Yorkshire, right? Nothing changes...

I've read the first six of the novels and I thoroughly enjoyed them. Each book deals with the ups and downs of one academic year at the school. I was amazed at how much I recognised from my own school experiences. Perhaps I was right after all, and nothing much does change with the years.

The books are funny, sad and sometimes quite moving and I recommend them very highly.

Adrian McKinty has written six detective novels starring Sean Duffy. Duffy is not a very good policeman, to be honest. He's investigated several murders and has never arrested anyone for them. That doesn't mean he doesn't know who committed the crimes, it's just that in Belfast, in the 1980s, the religious and political squabbles between the IRA and the various Protestant groups opposing them add an extra dimension to any investigation...

Duffy appears to be a man who likes complication and confusion in his life. He's a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Unionist (i.e. Protestant) police force. Some days that makes him everybody's target. Some days it doesn't. Nevertheless he always checks underneath his car for bombs before he gets in to it and drives off.

Almost by definition, these novels are dark and grim. There never was anything at all funny about the IRA's vicious brand of terrorism, both at home in Belfast and also on the mainland of England. Despite this, the books are shot through with humour, though much of it is inevitably very dark indeed.

McKinty weaves many real events into the tapestry of his novels and sometimes it's hard to know where the fiction ends and reality begins. Real people come and go in his books. McKinty does not appear to be at all afraid to name names and to associate them with dubious circumstances. I'm very surprised that he hasn't been sued by, for example, Gerry Adams the president of Sinn Fein and a man rumoured to be highly influential in the councils of the IRA (something he has always denied). McKinty pulls no punches, and he insists that Adams has blood on his hands.

In other cases, McKinty is rather more circumspect in his fictionalising of history (if that's what it is), though sometimes it's rather hard to work out quite why he bothered to put the very thin fictional disguises in place. Its not that much of a leap from McKinty's character Freddie Scavanni to the real life Freddie Scappattici. Scappattici was the IRA's enforcer, a psychopathic killer responsible for searching out and dealing with informers in various nastily vicious ways pour encourager les autres. Eventually, in a terrible irony, Scappattici himself was exposed as the biggest informer of them all – he was actually a British agent reporting on the deliberations of the IRA council to his shadowy masters! That didn't stop him from continuing to litter the streets with bleeding Fenians of course, and he certainly wasn't doing that as just a pragmatic attempt to divert suspicion from himself. He seemed actually to thoroughly enjoy dealing out torture and agonising death to anyone who deserved it and many who didn't. Ultimately his depraved appetites may well have become both a political and legal embarrassment to the British security services and a decision was taken to do something about him. An ingenious explanation of  Scavanni/ Scappattici's eventual fate forms the climax of the first Duffy novel, The Cold Cold Ground.

I'd left England and moved to New Zealand when most of the events described in these novels took place. But I was there in the preceding decade when IRA bombs were an everyday fact of life. Once I was in a pub in Birmingham. A few days later, the IRA bombed it. There were many deaths and serious injuries. That was my narrowest escape.

I had an Irish friend who was a university psychology lecturer. He specialised in negotiation techniques. He had written several books on the subject and he had been involved in several real negotiation sessions with both the IRA and the UDA. Consequently he had friends and enemies on both sides of the religious/political divide. One day he received a parcel that he was not expecting, so naturally he called the police. The bomb squad cordoned off the street. The parcel turned out to be a book that he'd been sent as a surprise gift. The bomb squad told him that calling them out was exactly the right thing to do and he should not to hesitate to do it again if the circumstance arose.

That was my daily life in England. How much worse must it have been in Belfast? I don't know, and I find it hard to imagine. But Adrian McKinty knows and he describes it brilliantly in all it's terrifying and brutal detail. These are very, very good books indeed.

As an aside, Adrian McKinty appears to be an SF fan of sorts. In one of the novels a minor character is reading the magazine Interzone and she glumly informs Sean Duffy that Philip K. Dick has died. Duffy is puzzled. Who? In a later novel, Duffy has an affair with someone who is writing a master's thesis on Philip K. Dick and at one point he finds her reading a novel with the odd title Ubik... Great fun, and an additional reason, if reason were needed, to read these marvellous novels.

So what are all these phone-pokers doing with their fingers? Many of them are playing games involving a world-wide network of friends with whom they collaborate to go on quests, raise peculiar crops on their virtual farms and crush candy. A few, who have not yet realised that the fashion has passed them by, are wandering the streets in a daze hunting for pokewhatsits and getting run over by buses.

I myself have been known to play games on my phone. But the games I play are solitary ones that do not require any interaction with other people. I play solitaire and scrabble. My mother-in-law, a lady of impeccable taste, plays freecell. I am lost in admiration – which is better than being lost in freecell, an all too frequent phenomenon whenever I play it...

My games, and also the games played by my mother in law, certainly do require a lot of poking However their big advantage is that they can be interrupted at any time and returned to at our later leisure. Connectivity to the cellular network is not a requirement – indeed, such connectivity is often a positive disadvantage because when you are connected, the screen fills up with adverts and you have to squint around them in order to play the game properly.

But the games that most other people play seem to have quite different requirements from mine. Connectivity appears to be mandatory.

Puzzled by the poking being indulged in by my friend, I sent her a text message. These days, it seems, she only communicates with the world via text messaging. Her vocal chords have atrophied because they are so underused. All she can manage is the occasional grunt. Consequently she never actually uses her phone as a phone.

"Are you playing a game?" I asked

"Yes," she texted tersely.

"What is it?"

"Do you remember that old children's party game Pin the Tail on the Donkey?" she texted.


"Well I'm playing a variation on that. It's a game that's taking the world by storm. It's called Pin the Dick on Donald!"

Intrigued, I texted her again. "How does it work?"

"When you pin the dick in the most inappropriate place, your phone sings Nelly the Elephant at full volume. Listen..." She poked her phone and, accompanied by bells and whistles, the chorus of Nelly the Elephant blared out. " she went with a Trumpety Trump. Trump. Trump. Trump."

"I see," I texted. "Does the game do anything else?"

"Yes," she texted back. "It has an add on module that lets you design your own dicks. That's a lot of fun. I've been working hard at it and I've got some really elaborately ugly ones. I'm going to collect all my best dick pics together and post them on the TwitFace page at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

"Aren't you worried about being stalked by a drone fully equipped with a Hellfire Missile that has your name on it?" I asked.

"Don't be silly," she texted. "I've set my name up as Anonymous Coward. They'll never find me hiding behind that pseudonym." She appended sneery smiley face to the message.

"Orange is the new black," I texted to her and she LOL'ed.

Ben H. Winters The Last Policeman Quirk
Ben H. Winters Countdown City Quirk
Ben H. Winters World Of Trouble Quirk
Jack Sheffield Teacher, Teacher Bantam
Jack Sheffield Dear Teacher Bantam
Jack Sheffield Mister Teacher Bantam
Jack Sheffield Village Teacher Bantam
Jack Sheffield Please Sir Bantam
Jack Sheffield Educating Jack Bantam
Adrian McKinty The Cold Cold Ground Serpent's Tail
Adrian McKinty I Hear The Sirens In The Street Serpent's Tail
Adrian McKinty In The Morning I Will Be Gone Serpent's Tail
Adrian McKinty Gun Street Gir Serpent's Tail
Adrian McKinty Rain Dogs Serpent's Tail
Adrian McKinty Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly Serpent's Tail
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