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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (felix sanguinis oculorum)

Harpo 2003-2018

One day in early 2004 Robin and I were awoken by the sound of a cat swearing loudly. The noise appeared to be coming from just outside our front door. When I investigated, I found a fluffy black cat with a white waistcoat and white socks. He swore at me and when I tried to pat him, he lashed out at me, inflicting the first of the many wounds that he would give me over the next fourteen years.

"The poor thing looks miserable," said Robin. "Perhaps we should feed him?"

"Certainly not," I said. "He’s wearing a collar so he’s clearly somebody’s pet. If we ignore him he’ll soon go home."

So we ignored him. But after three days of listening to him swear and curse, I finally gave in and fed him. Naturally, he took that as an invitation, and he moved in. I asked all around the neighbourhood but nobody recognised him so clearly he wasn’t a local cat. We never solved the puzzle of his collar. Eventually we decided that he’d probably been driven miles away from home and then just dumped. Possibly the people he lived with had got fed up of his teeth and claws and their sticking plaster bill had gone through the roof…

He was a very vocal cat, and he knew a lot of swear words. So we called him Harpo, after the Marx brother who never spoke. We felt that perhaps the name would quieten him down – a vain hope. All his life long he mumbled, moaned, cursed and ordered us about.

It soon became clear that Harpo was just a solid lump of personality with long black fur. He was a forceful creature who dominated any room that he was in. And if the room wasn’t to his liking he would tell you about it. His eyes glowed red when he was angry, which was most of the time, and he was always willing to use his teeth and claws on anybody who got in his way. Which is to say, everybody.

He would sit on your lap if you asked him nicely and he would let you pat him if he was in a good mood. But once he’d had enough patting he’d tear your fingers to shreds and run away. Everyone who knew him was always very wary of him. Nevertheless they continued to come back for more because Harpo was concentrated charisma in a fur coat. Nobody was immune to his charm.

Our house has a walk-in pantry with a large bolt on the door. Visitors sometimes ask me why I feel the need to bolt the pantry door closed every night before I go to bed. "Because Harpo has learned how to open the door," I explain, "and he goes for midnight feasts. In the morning, when we go looking for breakfast, we find that he has eaten all the bread and ripped the cereal boxes apart, spreading breakfast goodies all over the floor."

One of our visitors was sure I was exaggerating. "Cats don’t eat bread," she said. She left an experimental loaf out on the kitchen bench overnight. Sure enough, the next morning, every slice had a delicate nibble taken out of it. "Hmmm," she said thoughtfully. "There’s always an exception to every rule, isn’t there?"

I’m not quite sure how to categorise Steven Brust’s new standalone novel Good Guys. Probably I’ll settle for urban fantasy with a bit of superhero pixie dust thrown in for good measure. But however you choose to categorise it, one thing is abundantly clear, this is an absolutely brilliant page-turner of a book. So I can’t say I really care all that much about forcing it into a category…

Donovan Longfellow and his team work for The Foundation, a secretive society which, centuries ago, split off from another secret society called the Mystici. Nowadays the two societies seem to be rivals. Nevertheless they still have much in common,  and so when a mysterious assassin starts to kill Mystici agents in spectacularly bloody and magical ways, Donovan is called on to investigate.

The scenes involving the assassinations are told in the first person by the assassin himself, so it isn’t long before we learn that he himself is being manipulated by an even more mysterious overseer known only as Charlie. Wheels within wheels. What’s going on? That’s a very good question. And just who are the good guys? That’s an even better question… There are no unambiguous answers. No matter how ethically grey the choices become, everybody has the best of motives, from their own points of view at least.

The narrative style is reminiscent of Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels with a soupçon of Roger Zelazny’s Amber stories for flavour. Donovan is faced with a locked door. All he has to do to open it is to point at it with his knotnot and recite the appropriate magic spell. The spell is "Open, you piece of shit." I can easily imagine Corwin of Amber doing something similar.

Brust tells a marvellously involving story, and the moral ambiguity just adds an extra-thick layer of icing on to the cake.

Robin Sloane’s new novel Sourdough is about robotics, computer nerds, and the baking of bread. That sounds like an irresistible mixture, just like the sourdough starter that Lois Clary inherits when her favourite sandwich shop closes down.

The sandwich shop was run by two brothers who are of Mazg descent. Reading between the lines, the Mazg appear to be of vaguely European origin. Many years ago a remote ancestor of the Mazg came across a sourdough bacterium in an isolated cave on an isolated island. And ever since then the Mazg have baked the best sourdough bread ever!

Lois is initially dubious about taking care of the sourdough culture. She’s a computer programmer working for a robotics company and trying to program a robot arm to make it do useful things. What does she know about bread? She can barely make toast, and she has never cooked a meal in her life. But the siren song of the sourdough soon seduces her. The loaves that she bakes with it all have happy, smiling faces on their upper crusts. And the dough likes to have music played to it – different music has different effects on the properties of the bread. Lois learns that once there was a strain of the starter that was nurtured on music by the Grateful Dead. The starter didn’t live for very long, but the bread it baked was out of this world!

It isn’t long before Lois is overwhelmed by the world of bread, and soon she starts to seek out new outlets where she can sell her wares. Farmers markets, all of which are under the control of a mysterious cabal, seem to be an obvious way to go, and once she manages to get the robot arm to tirelessly mix the dough for her, her productivity rises. But all is not as it seems. Dark political plots swirl around her. Who is the mysterious entrepreneur behind the new market at the Marrow Fair?

The novel is populated by delightfully oddball characters many of whom exhibit the worst traits of extreme fashionable and faddist behaviour. The owner of the robot arm company that Lois works for never eats solid food. Instead he has invested in a company that manufactures a nutritive gel known as Slurry which sustains life in all his workers and which, by removing the necessity for prolonged meal breaks, has the side effect of making them more productive. Everybody wins! The jargon-ridden emails sent out to consumers by Slurry’s marketing department (replete with over the top bonhomie and adjectives like "exciting") are a squirmy joy to read, mainly because they so accurately reflect the kind of over the top nonsense that modern day businesses are so wont to indulge themselves in.

Sourdough pinpoints the attitudes of  business innovators and high-tech workers with such satiric accuracy that it is impossibly hard to tell just where the satire leaves off and real life begins. I chuckled out loud so many times as I recognised the kind of people and the kind of attitudes that I came across all too frequently in real life (TM) when I myself worked on the periphery of high-tech business practices.

The book is a joy and a delight and, as a bonus, it’s impossible to read the thing without wanting to eat lots and lots of bread. This is not a book for the gluten intolerant.

In the 1950s, long before Harlan Ellison had made his reputation as a writer of elegant, bleeding edge literature, he scraped a living together by writing crime and sex stories for the mens magazines of the day. The stories were all published under pseudonyms, and for many years, once his reputation was well established and secure, Ellison distanced himself from them by denying that they even existed at all. He always point-blank refused to allow them to be republished. But now the passing of time has softened his attitude and Pulling a Train is a collection of some of those early tales of sex and violence.

It has to be said that these are not particularly wonderful stories. They are crudely written and there is far too much gratuitous, and quite explicit, sex – but that was the point of them of course. Ellison was writing to a formula demanded by the editors of the cheap magazines he was selling to. Even then he was a consummate professional, and he gave the editors exactly what they wanted – blood and titillation (apparently these kinds of stories were known as "stiffeners" in the trade). They read rather tamely by today’s somewhat degenerate standards but in the 1950s I imagine that they would have been quite exciting, definitely stories to be read with only one hand.

One story (Both Ends of the Candle) concerns a college football player called Asimov who hooks up with two lusty women (mother and daughter) neither of whom knows about Asimov’s affair with the other. The consequences of this are… interesting. Harlan’s friend and fellow writer Isaac Asimov was not a football player, but he was a notorious rake, and I can’t help wondering just how much of the real Asimov’s lifestyle Ellison borrowed for this story.

Pulling a Train is minor Ellison at best, but nevertheless I enjoyed it a lot.

Harpo was an outside cat for most of his life. We generally only saw him in the house at breakfast time and dinner time. In between meals he was always away having adventures. One day, when we were talking to our next door neighbour, we learned a bit more about how he occupied his time. "Your cat squashes down my plants to make himself a nest in my garden," she said, chuckling at the thought. "And then he lies in his nest all day long watching the birds."

"Everybody has to have a hobby," I said. "And Harpo’s hobby is birdwatching. He’s quite an authority on their habits, you know. Other cats come to him for advice." She looked a little puzzled when I said this. "In a way," I continued, "it’s quite a compliment that he trusts you enough to grace  your garden with his presence."

"Oh, indeed it is," she said. "and I actually rather enjoy having him there. But..." Her voice trailed away into embarassed silence. Then, a little plaintively, she asked, "Does he really need to have five nests?"

"Of course he does," I said firmly. "He’s Harpo."

Whenever we went away anywhere, Harpo stayed in the local cattery, which was run by a lady called Diane. Harpo quickly became her favourite cat and she always looked forward to having him come to stay with her. "Isn’t it time you went away again?" she would hint heavily. She couldn’t say Harpo’s name without giggling.

The rule at the cattery was that during the day the cats had the run of the place, but at night they were each locked in an individual cage which was well equipped with food, water and a dirt tray. "Harpo won’t go in his overnight cage," Diane told me. "If I insist and lock him in there anyway, he punishes me by scattering his food, water and kitty litter all over the cage. So I’ve given up. Harpo has the run of the cattery all day and all night as well. It’s the only way to make him liveable with."

"Where does he sleep?" I asked.

"Anywhere he wants to," said Diane, and she giggled.

During his stay with her, Diane would have long, involved conversations with Harpo. He would tell her all about what he’d been up to since the last time he was there. And every day when she came in to the cattery to let the cats out of their cages and give them their breakfast, Harpo would tell her the gossip about what they had all been up to during the night. In return, Diane would tell Harpo how she had spent her evening, what she had eaten for dinner and what she watched on the television. Harpo would criticise her choice of TV programmes, and she usually agreed that he had a point…

Once I went to pick Harpo up from the cattery after we’d been away somewhere. "How has Harpo been?" I asked. "Has he behaved himself?"

Diane giggled. "Remember the shade cloth we used to have attached to the ceiling?" she asked. Indeed I did – the shade cloth had stretched right across the room. Some cats liked to sleep in the centre of it, high up and safe from scrutiny. Others liked to hang over the edge and swipe their claws at anyone who walked past. Harpo, of course, was one of the swipers.

I looked up at the ceiling. There was no trace of shade cloth to be seen. "What happened to it?" I asked.

"Harpo decided it needed shredding," said Diane. "He must have spent all night at it. When I came in the next morning, it was just a pile of torn up fragments on the ground and Harpo was sitting in the middle of the pile grinning an evil grin at me." She giggled again. "He’s a dag!" she said admiringly.

Charlotte Bingham is an upper class British romantic novelist with a delightful sense of humour. I can’t say that I care very much for her novels (I’m sure they are perfectly good books, they just aren’t my cup of tea) but I greatly enjoyed her autobiographical MI5 and Me.

Charlotte’s father had been a big wheel in MI5 during the second world war. When she turned eighteen, in the late 1950s, he took her into his study, told her who his real employer was, and informed her that he’d got her a job in the typing pool at MI5. The book, of course, is about her time working as a typist for the security services. In many respects, it was just another boring office job, guaranteed to drive you to tears. She took dictation from her boss, and then transcribed her shorthand into typed memos which her boss forced her to re-type again and again until every comma was perfect and every nuance was properly stated. To that extent, it really was an extremely boring life. But the book is rescued, partly by Charlotte’s quite delightful sense of humour about the whole business, and partly by the light her book sheds on the paranoia of the times when anything with even the slightest suggestion of communism about it was ruthlessly pursued.

Charlotte’s friend and fellow MI5 employee Arabella explains to Charlotte that the service exists " make socialists’ lives unmitigated hell. But in a very nice way, of course, because that is what we British do." Well, maybe that is the British way of doing things, but nevertheless it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, particularly given that the immediate post-war British government was one of the most socialist governments that Britain has ever had! Of course, by the time Charlotte started working for MI5, the government was safely conservative again (but Harold Wilson’s Labour government was just around the corner and I’m sure that the movers and shakers could see it coming...)

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that after the war MI5 found itself at a bit of a loose end and it was flailing around madly trying to justify its own existence. In an attempt to come up with a justification, it found itself doing progressively sillier things as its often morally reprehensible behaviour veered between sheer panic and insane paranoia, all in the sacred name of security.

Possibly things settled down towards the end of the 1960s when the IRA started its bombing campaign on the British mainland and MI5 finally had a real enemy to point itself at again. But Charlotte had left by then…

Eddie Izzard’s mother died on the day that I celebrated my eighteenth birthday. Eddie himself was six years old. His mother’s death had a profound effect on him and even today he has never quite got over the trauma of it.

"I know why I’m doing all this," he said on the soundtrack of a biographical movie that was made by director Sue Townsend. "Everything I do in life is trying to get her back. I think if I do enough things... that maybe she’ll come back."

He’d never admitted that to himself before, and he found the the revelation shocking. It got him thinking more about his life and the result is his autobiography Believe Me which is subtitled a memoir of love, death and jazz chickens.

Eddie Izzard is arguably one of the best stand up comedians working in Britain today. He’s also a transvestite/transgender person (he uses both those terms to describe himself). He has a fierce intelligence and his comedy routines, for all their silliness, have a profound intellectual underpinning. His autobiography investigates all these aspects of his life.

Don’t approach this book expecting a transcription of one of his comedy acts. Certainly it rambles through tangents and across footnotes in much the same way that his monologues ramble hither and yon (and we never really find out about the jazz chickens either). This definitely isn’t a light-hearted or funny book – it’s a deeply serious book despite the fact that it has the occasional laugh out loud moment in it. It’s also a very courageous book – he confesses just how difficult it was for him to come out as transvestite/transgender. He considers that single act to be the hardest and the bravest thing he ever did.  In other words, the book is a meditation on just what it is that makes Eddie Izzard tick. It’s utterly fascinating from start to finish.

I’ve always liked his comedy routines. They make me laugh uncontrollably. Now I can honestly say that I also like and greatly respect the person who is up there on the stage all by himself, making me laugh so long and so loud.

Believe Me by Eddie Izzard is a profoundly moving book.

Even Steffi, the vet who treated Harpo during his last illness, fell a little bit in love with him. He was well past his prime by then, but his forceful personality was still very much in evidence and he quickly wormed his way into her affections. "Whenever I see his name on my appointment list for the day," she told us, "I hear his signature tune playing in my head. None of my other patients has a signature tune. Only Harpo." She sang his signature tune for us – the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Dramatic, slightly ominous, and very, very Harpo.

As Steffi injected Harpo with the drugs that would send him on his way, Robin and I were in tears. And so was Steffi.

Because that’s the kind of cat that Harpo was.

Steven Brust Good Guys Tor
Robin Sloane Sourdough Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Harlan Ellison Pulling a Train Kicks Books
Charlotte Bingham MI5 and Me Bloomsbury
Eddie Izzard Believe Me Penguin
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