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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (auris adhibeo)

Once Upon A Time...

When I take my dog Jake for a walk he amuses himself by sniffing every blade of grass that we pass. Every so often, when he finds a particularly succulent grassy outcrop, he will eat it with every evidence of enjoyment. Generally speaking, about half an hour later, he will throw it all up again. This seems to be an extraordinarily pleasurable experience if you happen to be a dog...

He spends an inordinate amount of time on our walks just sitting and watching motor cars and vans. He's particularly fond of observing them closely as they go into, and come out of, garages and we can spend anything up to ten minutes simply watching vehicles reverse out into the road, straighten themselves up and then drive off into the distance. We aren't allowed to move a muscle until the car has driven itself out of sight. Then we walk on and thirty seconds later the whole exercise repeats itself. Sometimes drivers who want to be helpful pause and wave us on. They seem very puzzled when Jake and I shake our heads and just sit there staring at them. The more nervous drivers get very flustered under our unbending scrutiny and sometimes they reverse into gateposts. This appears to amuse Jake greatly, and he sniggers under his breath.

Although Jake finds our walks vastly entertaining, full of both intellectual stimulation and tummy rubs, I tend to want additional amusements. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy my tummy rubs at least as much as Jake enjoys them, if not more, but I don't get nearly the same intellectual stimulation from watching cars go in and out of garages that Jake does. Consequently I have loaded up my phone with audio books and I spend our walks with earbuds firmly plugged in, listening to somebody tell me a story...

A Lit Fuse is a biography of Harlan Ellison written by Nat Segaloff. It is based on many, many hours of interviews both with Ellison, and with a lot of other people who have been involved in Ellison's life. Ellison himself had no control over the final product – there was absolutely no question of his overseeing the project or of censoring it in any way.

The book pulls no punches. It presents both the private and the public Ellison, warts and all, and to that extent it is a valuable piece of work. Interestingly though, much of what Segaloff has to say has already been said, more or less, by Ellison himself in various non-fiction pieces that he has published over the years. The dedicated Ellison reader will find few surprises here, though some things that Ellison only mentions in passing (such as the reasons for the disintegration of his early marriages) are elaborated on. But, perhaps because Ellison has had so much to say about himself over the years, Segaloff does gloss over some of the important incidents in Ellison's life. For example, he says almost nothing about the time when Ellison joined a juvenile gang – a formative experience that inspired some of his most powerful early work, notably the novel Web of the City, the story collections Gentleman Junkie and Children of the Streets, and the autobiographical Memos from Purgatory. Interestingly Segaloff claims that Memos from Purgatory is a novel, even though Ellison's introduction to that work makes it very clear that it is non-fiction.

Much of Ellison's career was spent as a TV and Movie script writer and Segaloff spends a lot of time discussing this. (As a small aside, Ellison once worked with the British actress Diana Dors who had a very brief Hollywood career. Ellison was not at all impressed with her – perhaps that is why Segaloff consistently miss-spells her name as Diana Dorrs...)

Segaloff is not afraid to discuss the controversies that have dogged Ellison's career. Did he mail a dead gopher to a publisher that he disliked? Yes he did, and by the time it arrived it was very smelly. Did he throw an abusive fan down an elevator shaft? No he didn't. Did he grope Connie Willis' breast at a Hugo awards ceremony? Probably not, though the details remain unclear and Willis herself refused to be interviewed about the incident. Will The Last Dangerous Visions ever be published? Almost certainly not.

After reading this book, my overall impression of Harlan Ellison is of a hugely talented writer whose early career exploded in all directions, winning him many awards, much kudos and a lot of money. But then it all fizzled out. Ellison has published nothing new for quarter of a century or so. Partly this is because his antics have made him persona non grata with so many publishers (the publisher who received the dead gopher is unlikely to look at another Ellison manuscript ever again, and he is by no means alone in that attitude), but mainly it is because Ellison seems to have become utterly unable to finish any of his many projects. There is an appendix in Segaloff's book that lists the things that Ellison has started, but never completed – and these are only the big projects. Indeed, the biography itself only exists because in 2008 Ellison announced that he had signed with a major publisher to to write an autobiography to be called Working Without a Net. As far as anyone can tell, that book was never even started, let alone brought to any sort of conclusion! Many smaller things also remain unfinished. The text mentions a short story called "Bring on the Dancing Frogs" which Ellison says wistfully that he'd like to get back to one day. About thirty years ago I heard Ellison read the two or three manuscript pages of that story that actually existed to an admiring audience, and I've been eagerly looking forward to reading the rest of it ever since! But I don't suppose I ever will – if he hasn't finished it after thirty years, it seems unlikely that he will ever return to it. And even if he does, it certainly won't be the same story that it would have been thirty years ago when the idea was still hot. These days, Ellison has so many unfinished projects that probably even he himself has no idea how to begin to start sorting them out!  

Segaloff's biography is a valuable insight into Harlan Ellison the man and the writer, but it left me feeling rather sad. Ellison himself comes across as a person with an ebullient public persona, full of plans and much given to the announcement of elaborate projects, but behind the scenes he appears to have lost whatever it was that once motivated him to write all those brilliant stories that I remember so well. He seems to have spent the last twenty five years just coasting on the strength of his reputation and living on royalties and residuals. I think that's a pity – so much talent gone to waste.

Michael Marshall Smith writes agreeably quirky novels. In many ways, he's a sort of junior Neil Gaiman with perhaps a touch of Terry Pratchett mixed in. So I was quite looking forward to his new novel  Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence. Let me say say straight away that while I mostly enjoyed it, I did feel that it dragged a bit – in my opinion it's really a novella. Turning it into a three hundred page novel just means that it gets a lot of unnecessary padding...

The eponymous Hannah Green is eleven years old and lives in Santa Cruz. Her parents are going through a bit of a sticky patch and have decided to separate. Hannah is not sure quite what to make of this, but at least she gets to stay with her granddad who she adores. So there are compensations.

Meanwhile, the Devil wakes up in a Florida hotel after a very long sleep indeed. Somewhat to his disgust he discovers that while he was napping somebody else seems to have moved in on his territory. The sacrifices and evil deeds whose energy he depends on are now being channelled elsewhere. Disgruntled, he sets off to reunite himself with the Engineer, the man who built the complex clockwork device that is supposed to pass these energies on to him, but whose purpose now seems to have been subverted.

Not surprisingly, the Engineer turns out to be Hannah's granddad and he's more than 250 years old. The Devil has kept him around all this time so that he can service the machine. And now begins the quest to find out just what is going on.

The book has some marvellously inventive comic moments. The rather dim-witted Accident Imp called Vaneclaw (who looks like a rather tall mushroom) steals every scene that he appears in. But eventually the story becomes repetitive – Hannah, her mum, her dad, her grandfather, the Devil and Vaneclaw (in various combinations) tackle the bad guys, have a narrow escape and then do it all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat until the page count gets high enough and then go for the big finish. You could take at least 150 pages out of this book without making very much difference to the story. Of course the difficulty lies in deciding which 150 pages need to go...

There are many thousands of classic stories in the public domain, and there are organisations dedicated to providing public domain audio versions of these books. I have downloaded a couple of hundred of these audio books and I am now greatly enjoying re-visiting novels that have been life-long favourites. I find that hearing them read out loud adds a whole new dimension to these old, familiar tales and even though, in many cases, I am very well aware of the direction that the story will take, I still find myself thrilling to the twists and turns of the plot, and I am absolutely revelling in the rapturous prose.

This last is a very important point. Many books from the nineteenth and early twentieth century are greatly over-stuffed with introspective and often somewhat prolix sentences that the eye tends to skip over when reading the printed words on the page. But of course you can't skip anything when you are listening to an audio book. Whether you like it or not, you really do have to listen closely to every single word. Strangely, in these circumstances I find that the somewhat awkward printed sentences will often turn out to be much less awkward when presented as spoken sentences! Indeed, they can positively shine with a drama and a meaning that is utterly lost on the printed page. Consequently, I am finding that listening to these audio books adds greatly to the story telling experience. So much so, in fact, that I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that many of the books were actually designed to be read out loud, and that reading them silently to oneself (and skipping the "boring" bits) does them a great disservice. It's not hard to see why, of course. These books pre-date radio and television and movies and mp3 players. When these books had their heyday it was not uncommon for members of a family to spend a cosy evening huddled together around the fireplace, drinking tea and listening to stories being read out loud by the head of the house. And, it seems to me, the stories still work best that way. Therefore, in my case at least, many old favourites are now taking on a whole new lease of life.

There are some potential drawbacks of course. One of the providers of these public domain audio books is Librivox ( All the books are read by volunteers – Librivox itself appears just to act as a coordinator, farming out the reading tasks among its volunteers. Oddly, they seem to have decided that it is not always necessary to have the entire book read by one single person (though some of them really are solo efforts). Presumably Librivox feel that they can reduce the workload by sharing the individual chapters out between half a dozen or more volunteers, and so, in many cases, that is exactly what they have done. Until you get used to it, it can be something of a shock to hear a different voice reading each chapter, and even more of a shock when the voices alternate between male and female! However I found that I soon got used to it and indeed, if we go back to the idea of books being read aloud of an evening for the purpose of family entertainment after dinner, I can easily imagine that the various family members would each take it in turn to read a chapter or so. So looked at in that light, Librivox's policy of having multiple narrators for some of their books does perhaps start to make a little bit more sense – it's just that convivial family gathering writ large.

Of course, the production of these audio books is very much an ongoing project and I have discovered that it is important to visit the site at frequent intervals so as to keep up to date with their lists. At the moment, I am impatiently waiting for The World's Desire a collaborative novel by Sir Henry Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang (he of the multi-coloured fairy books). It is currently marked as "in progress". I hope they hurry up with it...

Although the books are all read by amateur volunteers, the standard of reading is very high. However, unavoidably, each reader has their own distinctive style and their own pronunciation foibles. This can lead to little hiccups, particularly for less familiar words. For example, I've recently been listening to a Librivox recording of She by Sir Henry Rider Haggard. An important character in the novel is the Greek adventurer Kallikrates (he's actually been dead for two thousand years when the story begins ? nevertheless he's a very important character indeed). Some of the readers pronounce his name phonetically (Kally Crates – I am reminded irresistibly of the move Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure in which the eponymous heroes meet the Greek philosopher So-Crates...) and some pronounce the name in a  more Grecian style (Kallic-rut-eeze). To begin with I found these variations in pronunciation to be quite jarring – but once the story really took hold of me it became much less irritating, and very soon it ceased to grate on my nerves at all. Indeed, I began to quite enjoy these variations in reading styles as each individual narrator endeared themselves to me, and I soon found myself anticipating their idiosyncrasies when I recognised an old friend as the narrator of the next chapter.

The Blessing Way is the first novel in Tony Hillerman's long running detective story series set in and around the Navajo country in the south west of the USA. Most of the novels in the series revolve around two Navajo detectives called Joe Leaphorn and (in the later novels) Jimmy Chee. However in this first book of the series Hillerman was still finding his way into the stories that he wanted to tell and Joe Leaphorn has only a very minor (though still important) role to play. Instead, the story circles around Bergen McKee, a university professor with an interest in Navajo culture and ritual. Leaphorn and McKee were at college together and when McKee's interests turn to the influence of witchcraft on the Navajo way of life he contacts Leaphorn for information. His timing is good – Leaphorn is hunting for a fugitive called Luis Horseman who is hiding in a desolate area where a wolf-witch is rumoured to be active. When Horseman's mutilated corpse is found, the aspects of witchcraft and the Navajo response to it become vital to the story.

One of the great strengths of this novel is its dependence on the Navajo view of the way that the world works. The story is steeped in Navajo ritual and custom which gives it an exotic appeal that definitely piqued my interest. But, paradoxically, this is also one of the book's greatest weaknesses. I came to the novel knowing nothing whatsoever about the Navajo and I sometimes found it very difficult to understand the complexities of the plot since they depend so much on cultural references that meant nothing to me. So I'm quite certain that many subtleties passed me by. The mystery is finally solved and the solution turns out to be more mundane than the early hints implied (a lovely bit of red herring sowing there, if I may mix my metaphors). But much remained unexplained, at least to me, and I finished the book feeling very frustrated at my ignorance and lack of understanding.

However one thing that was very clear was that the Navajo themselves are conscious of the fact that their traditions are starting to disappear, and that they regret that disappearance. The healer Sandoval is approached to perform a ceremony that will turn the witchcraft spells back on the witch who cast them. As he performs the ritual he observes that "...he had to tell Tsosie how to sit on the feet of Big Fly, and even had to remind him to face the east. When Sandoval was a boy learning the ways from his father, his father had not had to tell people how to sit. They knew." The parallels with the way that many Maori people in New Zealand have lost sight of their own cultural heritage were obvious and poignant and, to that extent at least, I found the novel quite moving.

In the 1970s anyone who wanted to keep up to date with the very best of contemporary music made sure to turn on their television set once a week to watch The Old Grey Whistle Test, hosted by "Whispering" Bob Harris. He was an idiosyncratic DJ with a very soft voice (hence the nickname "Whispering") and he had the odd habit of sucking in his breath noisily at the end of every sentence, which left him open to much good-natured parody – not that he seemed to mind that very much...

Certainly music was central to his life. He was very knowledgeable about it and he always seemed to have his finger on the musical pulse of the day. His studio guests were many and varied and invariably well worth watching and listening to – in a way, he was the televisual equivalent of John Peel (hardly surprising since they were close friends, though later they had a falling out when Peel expressed his disapproved of Harris' adultery).

Still Whispering After All These Years is Harris' autobiography. Sad to say, it is not a very revealing book. Harris, it turns out, is an inveterate name dropper and a little bit of a snob. There are whole pages of the book which consist of nothing but lists of musicians who have appeared on his shows and with whom he has shared food and wine and music.

Although music is a vital part of his life and work, he demonstrates little depth of understanding of it. Music's appeal to him seems more emotional than intellectual and, as the book makes clear, he appears to be a bit of a musical gadfly, flitting from fad to fad, quickly losing interest and then moving on to the next big thing when something shiny hoves into view. At the time he wrote the book the book he was heavily involved in Country music, but doubtless that has changed by now.

Although this is an autobiography, it's a curiously shallow book, lacking in detail and with very little in the way of introspection – for example, he makes it clear that both John Peel and Marc Bolan were very close friends of his, but he never mentions their deaths and he never looks inside himself to see how those tragedies might have affected him.

While the music is clearly the force that motivates him, the bulk of his book ignores that and spends much of its time chronicling his financial problems, personal feuds and illnesses. All of these are less than fascinating topics and therefore the book is often more than a little boring. There are whole chapters that can safely be skipped.

Nevertheless, Bob Harris belongs to the generation of DJs who firmly believe that they play second fiddle to the music itself, and I will forgive him anything for the never ending joy and delight that was The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Oddly, not all the narrators of these audio books are native English speakers. I am currently listening to She and Allan, (also by Sir Henry Rider Haggard). I am about half way through it as I write these words. The narrator (so far there has been only one narrator) is Dutch. He speaks (mostly) impeccable English, as so many Dutch people do. But he does have a fairly heavy Dutch accent, which seems oddly appropriate as the story takes place in South Africa... Amusingly though, he does stumble over some words -- "peruse" and "ensue" always come out as "pursue" and "ensure". Unfortunately for this narrator, Haggard seems to be inordinately fond of those two words, so the voice does a fair amount of stumbling. Nevertheless, once I got used to his accent these, and one or two other, mispronunciations ceased to bother me, and I'm really enjoying listening to the story. Next on the list is Haggard's Viking adventure Eric Brighteyes. I'm greatly looking forward to that. I may have to extend Jake's walks...

Mind you, Jake's walks already seem to go on for longer and longer every day as he meets and greets more and more people and dogs. Because of all his social activity, Jake is now world famous in our village. I can't count the number of times that complete strangers have come up to me in the supermarket and asked, "How's your dog doing?"

"Very well," I usually say. "He's pushing a trolley down the dog food aisle at the moment. If you hurry, you might catch him up."

Of course, because Jake is a dog, saying hello to everyone we meet involves much sniffing of importantly aromatic bits and pieces. Once a lady observed, "They always feel so good after they've sniffed a bottom or two."

"Don't we all?" I replied and she gave me a funny look, made her excuses, and left.

Nat Segaloff A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison NESFA Press
Michael Marshall Smith Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence HarperVoyager
Tony Hillerman The Blessing Way HarperCollins
Bob Harris Still Whispering After All These Years Michael O'Mara
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