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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (saepimentum lotium)

A Fence For All Seasons

One day, as Jake the Dog and I set off for our usual morning walk, something strange and upsetting happened. Just outside the front door, Jake stopped to pee on the fence that separates his house from the next door neighbour's. As his stream of urine hit the fence, it trembled under the fierce liquid pressure and a plank fell out. "Funny," said Jake, quite taken by surprise, "it's never done that before!"

"The wood in this fence is quite rotten," I said. "It's been like that ever since we moved in. I'm not at all surprised at what happened. I've been expecting something like that for quite some time now, though I'm not at all pleased that it has finally come to pass. I suspect that we will need a brand new fence and I'm sure it will cost an arm and several legs. You don't happen to have a spare leg, do you Jake?"

"I've always known that the fence was rotten," said Jake, ignoring my request for a leg. "I've been nibbling at it for ages. Rotten wood is very yummy and it keeps the bowels balanced, don't you know?"

"I really am starting to think that it's time to replace the fence," I said, "before it completely collapses under the stress of your atomic powered pee and your incessant chewing."

"OK," said Jake equably. "You're the leader of the pack. But I'm going to miss it."

Jake and I discussed the problem with Robin and she went looking on the internet for fence people. Eventually she decided on Russell the Builder, and she rang him up. "I need to mend a fence with my neighbour," she said.

"I can recommend a lawyer," said Russell. "They are good at sorting out disputes."

"It's not a dispute," said Robin. "It's a proper fence. It's broken and it needs fixing. Well actually, it probably needs to be torn down and rebuilt from scratch."

"I can do that," said Russell proudly. "New fences are what I do best."

"Russell is a terrible name," said Jake as he listened to the conversation. "I shall call the man Bob. That's a much better name for a builder, don't you think?"

Bob the Builder, aka Russell, came round to look at our fence and give us a cost estimate. Jake took to him straight away and so did we. He was a thoroughly charming man. Jake watched with a critical eye as Russell poked the fence here and there but he could find no fault with Russell's technique. "I supervised him with an intense soup," Jake reported to me later. "There's really no point in asking anyone else to replace the fence for us. Bob is clearly the man for the job. Let's face it, nobody else would rhyme nearly as well in a sentence, unless you can find someone called Spencer the Fencer."

"The internet has never heard of Spencer the Fencer," said Robin firmly, even though she hadn't bothered to google the name because the thought was simply too terrible to contemplate. "So I think it really will be a job for Bob. Err.. for Russell," she said, skilfully avoiding the nasty rhyme at the last minute.

"Well," said Russell cautiously, having finished his examination of the fence, "it's not all bad news. We can re-use some of the palings and some of the posts seem not to be rotten at all. We can re-use those as well."

"Hear him, hear him!" cheered Jake, wagging his tail at the news.

"What's it going to cost?" I asked. "That's the important point."

Russell thought for a bit, counted on his fingers and toes, and then came up with an eye-watering number of dollars. Even Jake's tail drooped a bit at the magnitude of it. He cocked his leg and had a thoughtful pee. Another plank fell out.

"OK," Robin said. "That was a sign from God. When can you start?"

"Ah," said Russell. "Now about that..."

Susan Hill is a mainstream novelist with literary pretensions (she has been a judge for the Man Booker awards). She also sometimes writes genre fiction and she has several somewhat insipid detective novels to her credit. Her two non-fiction books Howard's End Is On The Landing and Jacob's Room Is Full Of Books are a record of her reading and her thoughts on the many books that have passed over her eyeballs. Despite the fact that she and I have almost nothing at all in common as regards our literary tastes, I still found these books fascinating.

Quite early on, she confesses that she hates science fiction and fantasy novels which, as far as I am concerned, puts her beyond the pale straight away. She claims to have tried to read several fantasies but has never been able to finish any of them. And then she goes on to discuss favourably both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Dracula, stories which she has read and enjoyed and recommends to others. Clearly her definition of fantasy is much different from mine. Perhaps the fact that these are very old stories which have stood the test of time gives them a legitimacy that more modern fantasies, such as Terry Pratchett's novels, lack. (She is quite scathing about Terry Pratchett).

Although Susan Hill's reading is heavily skewed towards the nineteenth century, she is not unfamiliar with twentieth (and even twenty-first) century authors. She has, after all, been a Man Booker judge which requires her to read a lot of modern novels. Her opinions on these only serve to emphasise just how differently we both feel about the books on our shelves. For example, she lavishes huge praise on New Zealander Eleanor Catton's novel The Luminaries, a book which I found to be tedious, pretentious, over-written, and naïve. Not to say tendentious – astrology is not a useful tool for explaining character development and plot.

Since Susan Hill and I have almost no overlap at all in our reading tastes you may wonder why I enjoyed her two extended essays so much. I think the reason is that both she and I agree that books are important to us – books have always been a huge part of our lives, albeit different books (and different lives). She writes about the books that she admires with an almost elegiac passion. And when you get right down to the nitty gritty, that really does give us quite a lot in common.

Browsing around the internet one day I came across an interview with Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef, gourmet world traveller and sometime novelist. In the interview he was talking about the books that he enjoys reading. Like Susan Hill before him, he dislikes SF and fantasy, but unlike Susan Hill, his other literary tastes are very similar to mine. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on novels of espionage. He proclaims himself to be an enormous fan of the rather intellectual stories written by authors like John le Carré and Charles McCarry, novelists whose books exhibit a preponderance of political reality and character analysis over spectacle. The stories deliberately de-emphasise (if that's a word, my speel chucker insists that it isn't) thrills in favour of cerebration. They generally contain very little melodrama – the action, when it happens, usually takes place off screen. I found myself nodding in agreement as Bourdain made these points. I feel exactly the same way. Consequently when Bourdain mentioned David Ignatius, a writer of whom I had never heard, I sat up and took notice. Bourdain compared Ignatius favourably with le Carré, claiming that the emphasis and structure of Ignatius' books is very le Carré-like. Clearly I had a lot of new reading to do...

I have now read five David Ignatius novels and I have to say that I thoroughly agree with Anthony Bourdain's opinion. I have become a rabid Ignatius fan.

John  le Carré wrote the definitive novels about the era of the cold war. Berlin was his city, Europe was his stamping ground and Soviet Russia was the puppet master pulling his characters strings. David Ignatius' stamping ground is the Middle East and his timeline runs from the early 1970s through to the present day. So he paints on a much larger canvas than le Carré does (though sometimes the timelines overlap even though the geography doesn't). But nevertheless the brush strokes are very similar.

Ignatius is an American and so his protagonists are generally CIA agents (many of whom are breathtakingly incompetent). However agents from other security organisations often have significant roles to play in his stories. He is particularly good at writing convincing British characters (I can say that because I am British) and so I assume from this that his Jordanian, Iranian, Iraqi, Saudi, various ...istani and (of course) Israeli agents are similarly well drawn. Certainly they convinced me and, since I am the reader, that's all that matters.

Some characters appear again and again in his books and so to that extent I suppose that you could call them a continuing series (various members of the Hoffman family are particularly prominent) but actually the books are all stand alone and can be read in any order. I strongly urge you to go and read them.

I got an email from a friend whose literary taste I trust. In it she said:

Got a book yesterday. Short story collection - had to stop reading it for now, the first story was:
A Better Sense of Direction by Mjke Wood (yes that spelling).

It was hilarious, best story in it I think.

Stuck in my head now so had to postpone reading the rest of them, as it totally ruined the rest for me.

I googled the oddly named Mjke Wood and quickly discovered that the story had been published in Mjke's short story collection Power for Two Minutes and Other Unrealities and that by subscribing to Mjke's intermittent newsletter I could download a free copy the book. What could possibly go wrong?

The first thing I did was read the story that so appealed to my friend. It certainly was amusing, (though I wouldn't go so far as to say that I found it hilarious). However I will freely admit that until I read the story I'd never really noticed the profound connection that exists between a tin of spaghetti in tomato sauce and the shape of the universe. But now that I've had it pointed out to me, it all seems quite obvious really...

In a foreword to the story, Mjke Wood says:

[The story] won the very first Jim Baen Memorial award, in 2007. It was my breakthrough moment. I am immensely proud of the achievement and the trophy sits in a prominent position on my bookshelves... Part of the prize was online publication in Baen’s Universe, but then some months later the story also appeared in print in The Best of Jim Baen’s Universe II, edited by Eric Flint and Mike Resnick.

(This last was the collection where my friend first found the story).

All the stories in Power for Two Minutes are amusing and most of them have something serious to say underneath the jokes. To a certain extent they reminded me of the early stories of Robert Sheckley. I know no higher praise. The collection was worth every cent I didn't pay for it (joke!). In the small print at the back of the book I discovered that Mjke Wood has also written a couple of novels about an accountant in sp-a-a-a-a-c-e. I find that thought to be quite irresistibly amusing and so I've bought the novels and added them to my to-be-read list.

Mjke's books are self published, as is the modern trend, and clearly the "free gift" of his short story collection is just a marketing ploy to tempt you to buy his other books. Well there's nothing wrong with that and in my case it certainly worked. The bait hooked me fairly and squarely and I was very happy to spend up large (well actually quite small – the books are very reasonably priced). I hope Mjke has a drink of champagne at Christmas with my money. I think he deserves it.

Subterranean Press have recently published a signed, limited edition of a collection of essays by John Scalzi (my copy is number 189 of an edition of 1000). I gather there will be a cheaper, mass market edition published some time early in the new year.

The essays were all originally published on Scalzi's blog. They are about the the art, craft, perils and pitfalls of writing and publishing. He talks about how to manage your writing time so that you are not overwhelmed with side issues, how to cope with the business and financial side of things, and how to handle relationships with other writers. He also has quite a lot to say about various controversies that have popped up in the SF genre over the years (he is particularly good at describing and dealing with the sad/rabid puppy mess). And he talks about that perennial favourite, the common (and sometimes ill-informed or naive) questions that people always seem to have for writers

The essays are often amusing, always clever and invariably stuffed full of common sense.

There must be something in the water, because Ursula K. Le Guin has also published a collection of essays that first appeared on her blog. The book is called No Time To Spare and it is subtitled Thinking About What Matters. A lot of things matter to her – some trivial and some profound, but whether she is being facile or facetious or serious (or all three at once – yes, that really is possible if your name is Ursula Le Guin) she is always worth listening to.

I've always enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's non-fiction. (Dare I say I prefer it to her fiction?) She has a delightfully acerbic, drily witty, and often laugh out loud funny writing style in her non-fiction that is completely absent from her fiction. Reading these essays, I constantly found myself chuckling and staring at the page with a wide, ear-to-ear grin.

Here she is talking about the aftermath of a visit to the hairdresser:

Now I know how the world looks to those little dogs with the bangs all over their eyes.
It looks hairy.

Why is that funny? I don't know, but I chuckled all over again as I copied those two sentences into this essay. However just because she's funny doesn't mean she can't be serious. These essays cover a wide range of topics from the pains and perils of growing old (oh how I recognise the things she talks about and I'm not looking forward to what is to come), to the ins and outs of what she refers to as "the lit biz". She runs the gamut from the best way to boil an egg, to the best way to be chosen by a cat (and she's written a lovely bit of doggerel verse for her cat (ha, ha), who is called Pard). She ranges from discussing the difference between story and plot, to exploring the relationship between spirituality and science. Ursula Le Guin thinks about a lot of things, and all of them matter and always she talks about them entertainingly and thoughtfully.

Three and a half months later Russell and his sidekick Lea turned up to start work. "The first step," said Russell, "is to get rid of the old fence." That proved to be a simple task. Russell and Lea huffed and puffed and they blew the fence down. It quickly collapsed into a rotten heap and they carried it away in a trailer. Once the rubbish had been removed eight problems immediately became clear.

"We can't re-use the eight fence posts like we intended to," explained Russell gloomily. "They've not been set in concrete. They are just sitting in holes in the dirt. Years of moisture have rotted the bottoms away and now they are useless. So you're going to need new ones after all." He held a fence post up for me to look at. "This post is toast," he said.

"Would your middle name happen to be Spencer the Fencer?" I asked

"No," said Russell. "He's my brother. But I've been taking lessons from him."

I could see dollar signs spinning round in Russell's eyes as the need for new posts sent the original cost estimate soared into the stratosphere. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll set the new posts properly in concrete. They'll last forever."

I found that thought strangely comforting, though I knew that concrete would be an extra charge.

Once the fence was down, Jake was confined to quarters. "I want to go out," he said miserably. "I want to make sure that they are doing a good job."

"Trust me," I said, "they are doing a superb job. You can't go out because there is no fence to stop you wandering all over the village by yourself if the mood should take you, or if an absent minded cat should happen to run across the road and distract you."

"Why would I want to wander round the village?" Jake was puzzled. "I just want to watch the new fence being built." I really should have had more faith in him. One day he did indeed manage to sneak outside when we weren't looking, but all he did was sit by the fence and make critical remarks as Russell and Lea did arcane construction things.

"Can you take him back inside, please?" asked Russell at last. "He's putting us off our stroke."

I took Jake into the house.

Once the new post holes had been prepared, a truck full of concrete arrived. Lea and Russell shovelled concrete into a wheelbarrow and pushed the wheelbarrow up to the post holes where they shovelled the concrete out again, down into the ground. Then they seated the new posts carefully.

"We're taking a break now," said Russell. "It's a bit early, but there isn't any more we can do until the concrete sets. We'll be back tomorrow to carry on."

Jake watched them drive off and then he turned a pleading, piteous gaze on me. "Please can I go out now?" he asked. "You can take me on a lead if you want to, but I really, really, really want to walk in the wet concrete and leave my footprints for future archaeologists to wonder at."

"No!" I said firmly. "And where on earth did you learn a big word like archaeologist?"

"My mum had an affair with a rottweiler who lived with a writer," said Jake. "I studied the writer's dictionary while my mum and the rotty played hide the sausage. But the affair didn't last very long. They kept eating the sausage. So I never got past the letter A. I know archaeologist, but I don't know zygodactylous."

"Zygodactylous?" I asked.

"I told you," said Jake. "I don't know zygodactylous. Can I go and walk in the concrete now?"

The next day Russell and Lea nailed horizontal timbers to the posts, and the day after that they nailed the paling planks to the horizontal timbers. The fence was looking more and more like a fence every minute. Lea's nail gun went bang, bang, bang, bang.

"That's a lot faster than hitting the nails with a hammer," I said admiringly.

Lea wielded his nail gun. "It's my favourite tool," he said. "There's something very satisfying about driving a nail deep into something."

"Like a person?" I asked.

"Like a person," agreed Lea and he put his nail gun down and took out his phone. He scrolled through the photographs and then held the phone out to me. "That's my hand," he said as I gazed at a picture of a palm with an enormous nail driven right through it. "The gun slipped a bit one day..."

"That should prove useful when Easter arrives," I said admiringly. "Did it hurt much?"

"Not really," said Lea thoughtfully. "But there was rather a lot of blood. Poor old Russell got quite faint. He's a bit of a wuss, you know." Lea put his phone away and picked his nail gun up again. "Do you want to see what it feels like?" he offered.

"No thank you," I said politely and Lea went back to nailing a paling. Ooops! There goes Spencer the Fencer again, I thought. He's got one more score. Oh damn! Now he's got another one.

Eventually the fence was finished. It looked just like a proper one. Robin, Jake and I were very impressed. Jake peed on it, and so did I, but Robin decided not to. Absolutely nothing happened. "That's definitely a really strong fence," said Jake. "I wonder what it tastes like..."

Susan Hill Howard's End Is On The Landing Profile Books
Susan Hill Jacob's Room Is Full Of Books Profile Books
David Ignatius A Firing Offence W. W. Norton
David Ignatius Agents Of Innocence W. W. Norton
David Ignatius Bloodmoney W. W. Norton
David Ignatius Body Of Lies W. W. Norton
David Ignatius Siro W. W. Norton
Mjke Wood Power for Two Minutes and Other Unrealities Lector's Books
John Scalzi Don't Live For Your Obituary Subterranean Press
Ursula K. Le Guin No Time To Spare Houghton Mifflin
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