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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (antejentaculissimus)

Enigmatic Variations

I’ve just spent my hols in Western Australia, which is an enigmatic place.

The plane landed without incident at Perth and we all lined up to leave. As I walked past the stewardess at the gate one of the engineers on the bridge asked her, "Have you got any willies?", thus setting the scene for much puzzlement over the ensuing weeks.

Our plane was nearly an hour early and so we had to wait at the airport for Robin's family who were due to meet us at the scheduled arrival time. Unfortunately her father was in charge of the meeting arrangements and so we knew that the family wouldn't be there until the exact moment of (scheduled) touch down. Had her mother been in charge, the family would have been there at least two hours before the scheduled arrival time, just in case. Robin's mother shares all my neuroses and we get on famously as a result. Unsympathetic souls pull our legs unmercifully, but we don’t care.

While we waited, I basked in the heat. Even though the sun had gone down, the night air was still very hot. Eventually the family arrived. Mother, father, brother, nephew, niece and Herbert, an iBook laptop computer who accompanies Robin's niece Alex wherever she goes. When Herbert is turned on he says, "I am smelly and nobody loves me." in a variety of heart-rending voices.

The next day dawned hot and sunny. The temperature rose to about 29 degrees and I dressed in shorts, a short sleeved shirt and sandals with bare feet. All the natives dressed in woolly sweaters, fur lined overcoats and boots because they were cold. We played tourist and drove hither and yon.

The area depends for its existence upon bore water drawn from deep beneath the ground. The water stains everything red. Concrete pillars, footpaths, even the trees all look rusty. A few years ago a cyclone in the North agitated the sea to such an extent that the swell stirred up the sand and also the red earth beneath it. For several days, the seas around Perth were incarnadined as though blood were leaking from a giant's corpse. Australia is red all the way down inside.

The sun beat down pitilessly from a clear blue sky. A hotel advertised a heated swimming pool as an attraction, but for the life of me I could not see why they bothered. We drove past a CALM (Conservation and Land Management) bush reserve with a barbed wire fence around it, presumably to stop the feral trees from escaping and rampaging around the countryside beating up foreign flowers and demanding pollen with menaces. The foliage was brown and desiccated, though later we learned that there had been unseasonably heavy rains in January and as far as the locals were concerned, everything was green and flourishing. I began to understand why the average Australian, visiting New Zealand for the first time, invariably says, "Gosh! How green everything is!"

During this holiday time I continued to read every Reginald Hill book I could get my hands on. (A list of this month’s reading is shown at the end of the article). I have now read all the Dalziel and Pascoe novels except for the brand new one which is currently only available in hardback. It was a marathon reading effort, but I enjoyed every word of it. They really are magnificent books and Hill has enormous fun playing with the conventions of the genre. We have traditional whodunnits in which the villain’s identity is unmasked only at the very end. We have whydunnits in which the perpetrator is known from the start. We even have a novel in which we are not sure if anything has been done at all until almost the very end.

Hill also mines the classics of literature to decorate his books. He has written a Jane Austen novel and a Dickens novel and a there are a multitude of references to the works of Rider Haggard (a writer with whom both Sergeant Wield and I are utterly obsessed). The pastime of spot the influence is so absorbing that often I almost forgot the story as I played his word games!

But we mustn’t forget the story. Novels such as these succeed or fail on the strength of the story line. More than most, they must be plot driven. At this level, Hill’s stories are all superb. Complex and involved (and involving), they are enormously satisfying to read. The later novels are far more character driven than the earlier ones (though this never detracts from the intricacies of the plot – if anything it adds to it) and the depth of characterisation and observation that the books show completely transcend the conventions. The earlier books are superb genre novels, the later ones are superb literary works that never forget their genre origins and continue to pay homage to it.

For variety, I read Dream of Darkness which isn’t about Dalziel and Pascoe. Indeed the novel was originally published under the pseudonym of Patrick Ruell. Now that Hill has soared to the heights of best seller popularity these pseudonymous works are being republished under his own name.

It is a grim and gritty espionage novel. Nigel Ellis is writing his memoirs about his time as an agent of the British Government in the Uganda of Idi Amin. Revelations about the cynicism of British governmental policy towards the regime (and the behind the scenes manipulation of the factors leading up to Amin’s coup) threaten the reputation of highly placed officials who will stop at nothing to keep him silent. The ruthlessness, savagery and cynicism of the story make this a very bleak novel and a very moving one as well. The plot details are hugely complex (as they must be since they deal with complicated politics and devious motives) and the resolution completely changes the reader’s opinion about many of the characters and events. Some of the red herrings turn out to be far less red than they originally seemed to be.

There are a lot more Reginald Hill books to go, and I am sure that I will enjoy each and every one.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We took a train to Fremantle. A sign at the station said:

Crossing the line is prohibited. Please use the maze.

The maze turned out to be a fence with two offset gaps on each side of the rail line thus forcing the pedestrian to zig-zag through them and check for oncoming trains along the way. After such a dramatic sign, I had been expecting something on the order of Hampton Court maze with security guards on hand to rescue the poor unfortunates who were unable to solve it by rigorously following the left hand rule, and I was quite disappointed. However the rail system had not finished with me yet. Just outside Fremantle station I spotted a sign which enigmatically proclaimed:

End of Train Ordering Territory

I have absolutely no idea to what it referred. Even more entertainingly, a small station in the middle of a park a few minutes walking distance from the main station sported a notice which told all who were interested that:

Passenger Trains Do Not Stop At This Station

Since the station was in a park and since it had no facilities whatsoever apart from a platform, I don't imagine freight trains would want to stop there either. Which raises the interesting question as to just what other kinds of train exist and when, and for what purpose, do they stop at this station? I remain unenlightened.

The Western Australian authorities seem fond of odd notices. On one of our trips to the middle of absolutely nowhere, with sand and scrub stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction, we drove past a fenced off area indistinguishable in its aridity from everything else in sight. A large notice proclaimed it to be a Naval Base. From this I deduce that Western Australia has a land based navy that sails sand yachts on regular patrols around the desert to discourage pirate frigates from hijacking tourist buses.

When in Fremantle, one must dine and drink coffee at Ginos and then, suitably refreshed, visit the Fremantle Prison. So that’s what we did.

The prison advertises itself as Western Australia’s Premier Cultural Heritage Site, which must say something about culture in Western Australia, though I am not sure what. Given that Fremantle also boasts an annual Sardine Festival, the mind can do nothing but boggle.

The prison was built in the 1850s by the convicts themselves (a strange irony) and was in continuous use until 1991. The cells were 7 feet long and 4 feet wide; barely wide enough to stretch your arms out and just long enough to sling a hammock. Cat swinging was completely out of the question.

Prisoners were locked up in their cells overnight but spent their days working on the chain gang building the prison itself and later (when that was finished) working on the infrastructure of the city. At the turn of the century, with this labour largely completed, the chain gangs were discontinued and the inmates were locked in their cells for up to 14 hours a day. The authorities decided that incarceration in such a tiny space was far too inhumane. Consequently the connecting wall between pairs of cells was knocked down and one of the doors was welded shut, thus doubling the size of each cell and halving the prison’s capacity at a stroke.

When the prison was refurbished prior to opening it to the public it was discovered that one of the prisoners had spent his evenings drawing beautiful pictures on the walls of his cell. Since this was against the rules, every morning he would gaze his fill and then camouflage his work by smearing his breakfast porridge over the pictures. The next night he would decorate another section of wall. His pictures remained hidden for almost a century, which says much about the quality of the porridge, not to mention the efficiency of the cell inspections. I wonder how many more secrets lie forgotten in the other cells, perhaps concealed behind an old fried egg or hidden in a leathery slice of toast.

When the pictures were finally discovered, the porridge was carefully removed oat by oat and the pictures are now preserved behind perspex. They are truly exquisite.

There is a rather beautiful chapel in the prison and on the wall behind the altar the ten commandments are displayed. The sixth has been subtly altered. It reads: Thou shalt not commit murder. At the time the chapel was built, the gallows was still in regular use and the injunction Thou shalt not kill was considered more than a little hypocritical.

The chapel is the only place in the prison without bars on the windows. These days it is a very popular venue for weddings.

The Nightmare Chronicles is a collection of short stories by up and coming horror writer Douglas Clegg. I must confess that I had never heard of him and I only read this one because a snippet of a review that I read somewhere praised him to the skies (I suppose I should have known better; the reviewer called Clegg the new Stephen King. That sort of comparison is always a kiss of death). Anyway, I was not overly impressed. The stories struck me as banal. Certainly there was no spine tingling frisson such as I associate with writers like King. And the framing device which attempted to link these stories together into a coherent whole was extremely silly, and was a huge distraction. Why not publish the book as a simple story collection instead of bulking it out with umpteen thousand new words that attempt to turn it into something that it patently obviously is not?

Expatriate American Jack Dann (he lives in Australia these days) has written a semi-historical biographical novel about Leonardo Da Vinci. The Memory Cathedral is biographical in the sense that many of the recorded details of Da Vinci’s life and times are used almost unchanged in the novel. It is semi-historical in the sense that there are large gaps in the real historical record and Dann has (quite legitimately) filled these gaps with sheer speculation. The basic premise is that during one of these undocumented periods of his life, Leonardo was hired by the Syrians as a military engineer to aid them in their war against the Turks. During this time he is assumed to have implemented many of the inventions that we know of today only through his writings and sketches. He developed flying machines for the Syrians, he dropped incendiary bombs. And so on.

This is a perfectly legitimate (not to say brilliant) way to write a historical novel, and Dann cannot be faulted at all for wishing to explore Leonardo’s life in this manner (more power to his pen, say I). However it requires an enormous amount of research to get the historical details correct (miss out on something here and the anally retentive will descend upon you with howls of glee and rend you in twain). Dann has not skimped on his research at all – he has done a superb job. And therein lies the novel’s main fault. He has done his research far too well and he cannot resist telling us about it. There is simply too much detail presented to us and the story moves glacially slowly as a result.

The book is beautifully written. The prose is a marvel and a wonder. It is possible to read it simply in order to take pleasure in the impeccable use of the language. The structure is immaculate. Dann shows not tells, as indeed he should, and there are no large passages of exposition. The politics and sociology of the times are properly presented as incident and dialogue. But far too often the incident and dialogue seems to have no purpose other than to shed light on those politics and that sociology. And therefore the story plods.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We went to Joondalup via Wanneroo (which has a notice warning you that a Round-A-Bout is imminent). On the way, we passed two shopping centres, one called Joondalup Gate and one called Gateway to Joondalup. Neither of these is in Joondalup. Joondalup has its own shopping centre called Lakeside in the heart of the town.

There is a park on Joondalup Lake where the cockatoos will perch on your arms and allow you to feed them. In the evening after the sun goes down, kangaroos come out of the bush to crop the grass and mosquitoes come out of the lake to crop the tourists.

The kangaroos all knew we were there, but they paid us little attention. If we got too close they would slowly bound away. Two adolescents held a boxing match. I have never been so close to wild animals before. It was a magical moment that I treasure.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We went to Innaloo where we did all the appropriately punny things. I went to the loo Innaloo. I went to a shop Innaloo and I ate Innaloo. The "oo" suffix means "by water" in one of the aboriginal languages. Another aboriginal language uses the "up" suffix in a similar context, hence the preponderance of names such as Joondalup, Karrinyup, Wanneroo and Innaloo.

Stephen Dedman is a new writer to me and The Lady of Situations is the only thing of his that I have ever read. But I am sure that situation will change rapidly for this collection of short stories knocked my socks off – boy can this man write!

The book has a foreword by Van Ikin which contains a brief (and very interesting) analysis of Dedman’s writing. It also has an introduction by Sean Williams and Mark Radium and an afterword by Robin Pen, both of which are nothing but pretentious claptrap.

Between these bits of business are thirteen absolutely brilliant stories. There isn’t a single dud one. There are fantasy stories (vampires, sort of), parallel world and self-referential SF stories (Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Manson meet Robert Heinlein, and no it doesn’t work out the way you might think it does). There’s a sex story with a very odd premise and there is a beautiful new twist on a hackneyed time travel theme (Dedman is a most ingenious thinker).

In case I haven’t made myself clear enough, The Lady of Situations deserves a place of honour on your bookshelves. Buy it now.

You can buy this book (and many other worthy volumes) directly from Ticonderoga Publications at PO Box 407, Nedlands, Western Australia 6909. You can also order it on the web at

The next day we checked the weather forecast. Warm and sunny. We went into Perth itself to visit the Mint. In there you can put your hand through a hole of carefully judged dimensions in a perspex cabinet and try to pick up a gold bar about the size and shape of a brick. The weight is tremendous and I half expected my wrist to shatter and my hand to drop off beneath the strain. It is at times like this that you realise just how ridiculous are the movies that show bank robbers casually carrying bars of gold around.

A special display of gold pouring is put on each day for the tourists. The gold is melted in a crucible in a furnace. After about 15 minutes of fierce heat, the demonstrator dons a protective apron and goggles and then removes the crucible from the furnace with a pair of large tongs. The crucible glows so brightly that you can read by its light. He pours the molten metal into a mould and it flows like liquid fire. The mould is doused in water and within a very few seconds the gold has cooled and can be picked up by hand. The demonstrator picked it up and rubbed it lasciviously against his cheek, but he didn’t offer to pass it around the crowd, much to our disappointment, and the relief of the security guard who was standing behind us monitoring the proceedings very carefully indeed.

The gold pouring demonstration takes place several times a day. They always use the same gold ingot. That particular lump of gold has been melted and moulded in excess of 10,000 times.

Every time the gold is melted, a minuscule amount is lost due to evaporation. The demonstration area was the site of the original furnaces. This area was decommissioned when the old furnaces were replaced with more modern equipment in a new area of the building. One of the original furnaces remained for the edification of the tourists and the area around the old furnaces was cleaned and the sweepings and demolition material were re-smelted. Umpteen hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold was recovered; the detritus of many, many years. The area around the tourist furnace was not processed and nobody knows how much gold remains there.

I have never seen a city where the streets are paved with gold, but I have seen a room where the walls are impregnated with it…

There is a strict dress code for the furnace workers in the mint. Jeans are de rigueur. Trousers with turn ups are not allowed in any of the working areas. Gold particles could accumulate in the cuffs and over time a reasonable fortune could be collected inadvertently (or sometimes perhaps, advertently). It took the authorities quite a while to wake up to this one and the dress code in the early years had no such specification. Nobody knows how much gold was lost this way.

Directly across the road from the Perth Mint is a pawnbroker’s shop run by Mr B. P. Atwill (Licensed Second Hand Dealer). I can’t help wondering who his main customers are…

The Fortune Teller is Donald James’ sequel to Monstrum. Although both books involve the same characters and have the same background premise, neither depends upon the other and both can be read as stand alone works without any fuss or bother. I wish more authors would stick to this method of series construction.

The novel is set in 2017 in Murmansk. It is the centenary of the Russian revolution, but the communists are long gone and the brief post-communist Yeltsin period is only a memory for the country has been torn apart by a vicious civil war and is only now starting to pull back from that chaos. Murder and corruption are the order of the day and the law of the jungle is one of the primary laws of survival. Constantin Vadim is an Inspector of police and a (relatively) honest man attempting as best he is able to keep the chaos at bay.

Two women vanish mysteriously, one of them is his wife, another is an American aid worker. Is there a connection between these women? Have they been abducted or are they dead? As the investigation proceeds, Vadim learns things about his wife that he never knew before. He sees her in a totally new light (and not necessarily a better one). But the abductor’s motives remain murky and the plot thickens as a simple abduction turns out to have profound political ramifications.

The magic of the book comes partly from the complexity of the plot, partly from the vivid evocation of the disintegration of post-communist, post-Yeltsin Russia, and partly from the gripping analysis of a psychopathic personality expressed in murder, sexual deviation and intrigue. If you thought Hannibal Lector was a horrible object lesson in psycopathy, just wait until you encounter the full evil of the villain in The Fortune Teller. Then you’ll know that Hannibal Lector was really just a pussycat.

Enjoy your nightmares.

The next day we checked the weather forecast. But it wasn’t going to be warm and sunny. On April 27th we had winter. It rained stair rods and the sky was solid cloud. The dry ground soaked up the water greedily and the sea tossed and turned with an enormous swell. A few hardy surfers braved the weather and were rewarded with some quite exciting waves for their pains.

April 28th was winter again and now, between rainstorms, the bush looked quite green. I can’t tell you what happened after that, for we flew home on that day. The in flight movie had subtitles in Japanese, though I did not spot a single oriental face among the passengers.

Reginald Hill A Clubbable Woman Harper Collins
Reginald Hill A Killing Kindness Harper Collins
Reginald Hill A Pinch of Snuff Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Deadheads Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Exit Lines Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Underworld Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Child’s Play Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Asking for the Moon Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Bones and Silence Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Recalled to Life Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Pictures of Perfection Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Dream of Darkness Harper Collins
Douglas Clegg The Nightmare Chronicles Leisure
Jack Dann The Memory Cathedral Flamingo
Stephen Dedman The Lady of Situations Ticonderoga Press
Donald James The Fortune Teller Arrow


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