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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (musica caligulae)

The Internet Is Much Smaller Than You Think It Is.

Towards the end of 2016 I wrote a story for my writers group which had some utterly unexpected side effects. The homework assignment we were given was to write about donating to, or supporting, a cause. I wrote a piece about Rag Week at my university – rag week is what British universities call that mad time when students perform outrageous stunts and pranks in order to collect money which is then donated to charity.

My story was about a trad. jazz band called The Campus City Jazzmen. A friend of mine played double bass in that band. A double bass is a clumsy instrument that takes up rather a lot of space. Consequently the bass player's tiny bedroom always felt more than a little overcrowded and he took every opportunity that he could to relieve the pressure. So I often used to find his gigantic instrument sleeping on my bed when I came home from a weekend away. So to speak...

I originally wrote the piece in the third person from the point of view of a spectator watching the band perform, but the story came out flat and lifeless. It just sat there on the page doing nothing. So I re-wrote it in the first person from the point of view of the double bass player, and suddenly it sparkled.

Here's the story. All the events in it did actually take place, but of course, they didn't happen to me. Despite the first person narrative, this is not an autobiographical piece. And the names have been changed to protect me from libel suits.

So read and, hopefully, enjoy. And when you've finished reading it I'll tell you what happened next. I'm sure your flabber will be quite ghasted. Mine certainly was...

* * * *

Rag Week

Have you ever noticed that after three pints of Guinness everything sounds like a good idea?

We were sitting in the pub trying to decide what we could do for rag week. Rag week, of course, is just an excuse for university students to dress up and do silly things in order to persuade people to donate money to charity. What could be more fun than that?

The third pint of Guinness inspired me to say, "Why don't we pretend to be a Dixieland jazz band? I've got a double bass, Nick plays clarinet, and Paul almost plays the trumpet. I'm sure we can get a few other people as well."

After dropping a few gentle hints to our friends, we soon attracted a drummer, a trombonist and a piano player. And that's how The Campus City Jazzmen were born.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, which was fortunate because we'd decided to do some outdoor busking. At 9.00am, we took our instruments down to the Old Market Square, the huge open space in the centre of Nottingham which the locals always referred to as Slab Square. We set ourselves up well away from the tinkling fountains. We were planning on being there for quite some time and we didn't want to get wet if the wind changed direction...

"Ladies and Gentlemen," I announced to the largely indifferent crowds who were passing through the square on their way to work, "we are The Campus City Jazzmen and we will be playing non-stop music for you for the next twenty four hours." I turned to the band. "Are you ready, lads?" They nodded, and we surged into our opening number:

Ain't she sweet
See her walking down the street...

We finished the piece at almost the same time as each other. There was a small smattering of applause and one or two people put coins in our collecting tins. After a brief pause we played our next tune:

Ain't she sweet
See her walking down the street...

This time we were a little tighter, though only the trained ear of an expert would have realised it. We were definitely on a roll, and so we went straight into our third number without any pauses at all:

Ain't she sweet
See her walking down the street...

A man who had been standing there listening to us right from our very first note yelled out, "Is that the only tune you know?" Clearly he was our biggest fan.

"Yes, it is," I told him. "We only put the band together last night and so we've only rehearsed one tune, and that's the one we're going to play for the next..." I looked at my watch. "...twenty three and a half hours."

"Cool," said our fan, and he put fifty pence in the tin. "Can I make a request?"

"Of course you can," I said.

"OK," he said. "Will you play Ain't She Sweet for me?"

"Certainly," I said, and that's exactly what we did.

You can't really play music non-stop for twenty four hours. You can't even play whatever it was we were playing non-stop for twenty four hours without taking a break. So at staggered intervals throughout the day, one of us would sneak off for refreshment and a pee. When it was my turn, I went over to The Bell, a pub just off the square. Because it was a lovely warm day, I took my pint outside and stood on the pavement sipping my beer and enjoying listening to the rest of the band playing  Ain't She Sweet. A few other people followed my example and soon a small crowd of us were standing there nodding our heads to the by now over-familiar rhythm.

The landlady of The Bell came bustling out to us. "What do you think you are doing?" she asked angrily. "I haven't got a licence for outside drinking. Get back inside, the lot of you. Now!"

Meekly, we all took ourselves and our drinks back inside the pub. I've been thrown out of a lot of pubs over the years, but that remains the one and only time that I've been thrown into a pub...

About three o'clock in the afternoon, the university mountaineering club turned up to break the monotony. The members all roped themselves together and solemnly mountaineered horizontally from one side of Slab Square to the other. One of their Sherpas came over to us. "Can you stop playing while they climb across the square?" he asked. "It's very distracting and they might fall off and injure themselves."

We ignored the request and deliberately played them a medley of our melody instead. Every one of them reached the other side safely and nobody was injured, so clearly we weren't dangerously distracting.

Time crawled slowly as we played our tune again and again. Our audience waxed and waned. By four o'clock in the morning my fingers were bleeding from the pressure of the strings on my double bass. All of us were exhausted. Even our fan had deserted us, and Slab Square was completely empty. Nevertheless we carried on playing because we were far too close to the end to stop now. Early morning commuters started to appear about 6.00am. Most of them took pity on us and put money in our collecting tins before running away with their fingers in their ears.

At 9.00am we finally stopped playing. We packed our instruments away with a great sense of relief that our twenty-four hour marathon session of one-tune jazz had finally come to an end. We'd played Ain't She Sweet 683 times, and we'd raised almost £300 for charity, which made us feel very good. As a bonus, we'd enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided to make The Campus City Jazzmen a permanent fixture in our lives. Over the next few years, we played a lot of gigs and a lot of different tunes. We even made an album called Jazz on a Bootlace. But not once in all the time we played together did we ever play Ain't She Sweet again. Somehow the tune had quite lost its charm for us. Funny that...

* * * *

Obsidian Tiger Press have recently republished Jane Lindskold's 1997 novel When the Gods are Silent as an ebook. Naturally I had to buy it and re-read it.

Magic has vanished from the world. There was a time within living memory when magic was very real, but now it has gone and there are those who think the world is much the poorer for it. Hulhc is a farmer. His father was a wizard and Hulhc still possesses his father's journals of magic. He is not convinced that the magic has all completely gone away. Perhaps it still exists somewhere in the remote corners of the world.

Rabble is a warrior who was discovered unconscious by the side of the road by the members of the Travelling Spectacular. Grateful for her rescue, she travels with the carnival, using her skills to protect everyone as they wend their way through remote and sometimes dangerous places.

Hulhc journeys along with the Travelling Spectacular – there is safety in numbers and  Hulhc's quest appeals to the entertainers. And so does the money with which he pays for their company. Together they travel across the world, encountering a number of cleverly constructed societies and page-turning perils. The story is an exciting swords and sorcery romp in the grand tradition.

In an afterword to this new edition, Jane Lindskold expresses some surprise that the original cover blurb suggested that Hulhc was the major protagonist. She had always thought of it as Rabble's story. I must confess that when I first read the book, back in 1997, I too thought of Hulhc as the mover and shaker because it is his quest that motivates the whole picaresque tale. But when I bought the new ebook edition, I cheated and I read the afterword first. And then, armed with the new insight I had gained from the afterword, I settled down to actually read the book. Guess what? I discovered that Jane Lindskold was right – when you read the book as Rabble's story the whole structure makes a lot more sense and is much more satisfying. I enjoyed it a lot.

By a strange coincidence, Neal Stephenson, in collaboration with Nicole Galland, has just published a novel in which magic has vanished from the world and the protagonists are trying to find it and bring it back again. Perhaps there's something in the air...

In The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., Melisande Stokes, an academic linguist and expert in ancient languages, is recruited by Tristan Lyons to play a role in a major, super secret project. Tristan works for a shadowy organisation that appears to have unlimited funds and enormously autonomous power and influence – in other words, Tristan can do as he damn well pleases and can call upon whatever money and equipment he needs at the drop of a hat. Right now, he needs Melisande to translate some very old documents that he has come across. She does so, to the best of her ability. The documents suggest that magic was actually once a very real thing which used to have quite a profound influence on world affairs. But the coming of the scientific revolution and the discoveries made in the Age of Enlightenment weakened its powers and it slowly faded away. Magic finally vanished completely in 1851, during the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace, that huge celebration of the rise of industrial technology, design and commerce.

Tristan is determined to develop a device that will let him send operatives back into the past. He wants them to tweak the historical timeline in order to prevent the magic from ever going away in the first place. And so our story begins...

As always with a Neal Stephenson novel, there are far too many damn words in it. I quickly got bored with page after tedious page of engineering exposition – blueprints with dialogue – and again and again I found myself skipping over them in an attempt to find something that would start the story moving again. The historical sections are, by and large, much more interesting than the modern day sections. Probably this is the influence of Nicole Galland who is an accomplished historical novelist in her own right. The novel is a curate's egg – it is full of interesting speculation and set piece adventures, but these are embedded in vast swathes of turgid prose that slow things down far too much and which take up so much room that the story is left incomplete at the end. Yes, yet again this novel is the beginning of an interminable series. Bugger!

Leslie Thomas, who died in 2014, was one of Britain's great comic novelists. He first made his reputation in 1966 with The Virgin Soldiers. It was a huge best seller that told the story of a group of conscripted British soldiers who were posted to Malaya in the 1950s to fight the insurgents. Thomas' genius lay in his ability to portray the farcical and often pointless nature of British army life, particularly as it applied to those reluctant soldiers who had been ripped out of civilian life and placed in situations for which they were really most unsuited. Many spent their entire military service as civilians in uniform, never really coming to grips with the niceties of military life at all.

If that was all there was to Thomas' oeuvre, you might well say, so what? Many other great novels have been written about life in the conscripted British military of the 1950s (David Lodge's Ginger, You're Barmy springs immediately to mind). But Thomas demonstrated something that none of the other novelists who wrote about those times managed to achieve. He had a unique ability to move from farce to tragedy within a single sentence, and the contrast between the two is always quite shocking. Those poor virgin soldiers bumbling about in the military machine might be drinking tea one minute and screaming in their death agonies the next. Thomas makes it very clear that war, particularly the guerilla war that was fought in Malaya, was nasty and brutal, with violence coming suddenly and unexpectedly out of absolutely nowhere at all, leaving chaos and horror behind.

And then there was the sex. 1950s Malaya was full of exotic prostitutes, all of whom were cheap, cheerful and splendidly uninhibited. Thomas pulls no punches here and he recognises no taboos. He really was extraordinarily good at writing some of the most explicit sex scenes that it's ever been my pleasure to read. The young teenager that I was back in 1966 found them rather mysteriously exciting and sometimes more than a little disturbing...

The soldiers may have been virgins when they were first conscripted, but for many of them that condition didn't last very long (though Private Sinclair, a trainspotter, does turn down sexual favours in order to go and view a rare steam engine. He remains a virgin right up until his rather nasty death). I imagine that the staid, British wives those soldiers eventually married when they returned home must have been quite surprised by their new husbands' erotic expectations and experience.

A few years later, Thomas wrote a sequel to this best selling novel. Onward Virgin Soldiers was set in Hong Kong in the early 1970s. Brigg, one of the reluctant conscripts from the first novel, is now a sergeant and no longer a conscript. He has signed up voluntarily. His regiment is stationed in Hong Kong to guard it in case of an invasion from mainland China. Brigg and his colleagues think that the whole business is all rather silly. Everybody knows that if the Chinese army decides to take Hong Kong then the Chinese army will take Hong Kong, and nobody will be able to do a damn thing about it because there are far too many of them and far too few of us. So the British soldiers stop worrying about the possibility, and they just do what British soldiers have always done best – they drink and they screw. They play soccer and they complain about the American soldiers on leave from the fighting in Vietnam who are spreading some particularly virulent venereal diseases among the local whores, thus ruining things for everyone. Grumble, grumble groan.

This is a much less successful novel than the first one, mainly because almost nothing happens in military terms. There is no conflict, other than the conflict of a soap opera. The set piece comedy is just as funny as it always was, but the violence that gave the first novel such an effective contrast to the mundane incidents of everyday life is completely absent because nothing of any military significance ever occurred in 1970s Hong Kong. In its place, all we get is a tragic suicide which is the culmination of a rather sweet story of requited love in conflict with parental disapproval. The novel certainly has its moments, but without the dramatic contrasts of the first book it feels more than a little anaemic in comparison to its predecessor..

I think Thomas must have realised this, because the third novel in the trilogy, Stand Up Virgin Soldiers, returns again to the Malaya of the 1950s and we get much the same mixture as before. This one is, if anything, even better than than the first book. Thomas had quite a lot of novels under his belt when he came to write this one and the experience shows. It's a much more tightly constructed story. The comedy is often amazingly gross (Thomas really had far more than his fair share of extremely good bad taste) and so is the sex and the violence. These three pillars support the structure of the story brilliantly.

Thomas diverted into various other genres as his career progressed. His Dangerous Davies novels are marvellous detective stories; as always they are often laugh out loud funny, but nevertheless they stick closely to the traditions of the genre. And again and again and again Thomas continued to write vastly amusing novels of explicitly deviant sex (Tropic of Ruislip, The Loves and Journeys of Revolving Jones, Arthur McCann and all his Women...). But Thomas' greatest strength always lay in the formula that he first explored in The Virgin Soldiers, that curious no man's land that occupies the territory between comedy and tragedy as exemplified in the ultra violence and the ultra emotions of war. He explored this lonely area in a whole series of novels set in WWII – they are all thematically linked, but each is a stand alone story; the books have no characters in common. All of them magnificently invoke the mood of the times and you are never sure whether you should laugh or cry at the characters triumphs and tragedies. Together with the Virgin Soldiers books, these WWII novels form his magnum opus. I've read them all several times and I've bought each of them at least twice in both traditional dead tree format and as ebooks. I am firmly convinced that The Magic Army, The Dearest and the Best, Waiting for the Day, Soldiers and Lovers, Other Times and Dover Beach belong on everybody's bookshelf right alongside the Virgin Soldiers trilogy for they are all classics; they are all important books.

I'm sure that history will remember Leslie Thomas as a bawdy writer, for that is exactly what he was. But he was also very much more than that. Most real artists are.

* * * *

I presented the piece to my writers group and it was well received. I published it on my web site and then promptly forgot all about it until nine months later when an email slithered into my inbox:

Hi Alan,

Remember me? I'm the real double bass player from The Campus City Jazzmen. I've been searching out the other members of the group and while I was hunting them down I stumbled across your little story. We're actually getting back together again to play a reunion gig in a few weeks time...

He went on to tell me what he'd been doing with himself in the forty or more years since last I saw him. We chatted back and forth and it wasn't long before other old friends joined in the conversation. So as a direct result of me posting that little semi-autobiographical squib I'm now back in touch with some ancient friends from my youth. Who would have thought something like that would happen? I certainly wouldn't have believed such an outrageous thing if I'd read it in a book. Nevertheless it did happen. For once, and most unusually, I've not exaggerated anything about it for dramatic effect (except in the actual story itself, of course. But even in that, there is much less exaggeration than you might think).

I rather regret that I won't be there for the reunion gig. They are planning on recording it, but the sound quality of a band playing live in a noisy pub will not be the highest of hi-fidelity. Never mind. I can always listen to Jazz on a Bootlace. Forty years on, and it still sounds good. They were, and presumably they still are, a talented bunch of musicians.

Jane Lindskold When the Gods are Silent Obsidian Tiger Press
Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O William Morrow
Leslie Thomas The Virgin Soldiers Arrow
Leslie Thomas Onward Virgin Soldiers Arrow
Leslie Thomas Stand Up Virgin Soldiers Arrow
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