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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (auris ablutio)

‘Ear, ‘Ear, ‘Ear...

I think I was about seven years old when my mother got her first washing machine. Prior to that, she’d always done the washing by hand. Crude and primitive though that original washing machine was by today’s standards, for my mother it was the labour saving device to beat all other labour saving devices and she absolutely loved it to bits.

Nowadays, of course, such machines are ubiquitous and, personally speaking, I never give the washing a second thought. Throw stuff into the machine, toss in a scoop of washing powder, turn the machine on and come back an hour later. Then, depending on the weather, either throw the damp clothes into the tumble dryer or peg them out on the washing line to dry in the sun. Job done.

Of course sometimes things go ever so slightly wrong…

When my mother washed everything by hand she always had to pick up each item one by one and therefore, before she dunked it in the water, she would check to see if my father or I had left anything in the pockets, something that both of us were wont to do. Over the years, she rescued many precious items from a miserable, watery fate.

However because of my rather more cavalier approach to doing the washing, invariably there are times when things that probably shouldn’t come into contact with water go through a complete washing cycle. Usually it’s just a mild annoyance. Keys and gold coins come out bright and shiny and even today’s modern plastic banknotes survive unscathed (I’ve never washed a credit card, so I’m not sure how they would fare). Used tissues come out of the wash quite clean, and on rare occasions you can even use them again (something that appeals to my frugal Yorkshire soul) but more often than not they just disintegrate and attach little bits of themselves to every item of clothing in the load. Picking the bits of tissue off one by one is a salutary lesson in applied patience and I always vow never to wash a tissue again until the next time (a vow I have always managed to keep). But sometimes other things lurk unnoticed in my pockets.

Last week I accidentally washed my earphones…

I am amazed, amused and ever so slightly appalled to discover that Charles Platt’s incredibly revolting pornographic SF novel The Gas is being sold as an ebook by the SF Gateway.

The SF Gateway is a publishing operation run by Gollancz and Orbit with the avowed intention of making an enormous backlist of out of print SF available in electronic form. Initially they simply republished their own backlists, but now they seem to be extending their reach and they have obtained the rights to a huge number of books from other publishers and literary estates. And so now The Gas has its first ever edition from a mainstream publisher.

The gas of the title is an aphrodisiac vapour that is accidentally released from a biological weapons research laboratory. It spreads over most of Southern England and causes all who breathe it in to lose all their inhibitions and engage in alarming sexual orgies. The book is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most revolting and disgusting piece of obscenity that I have ever read. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Naturally, I enjoyed it immensely, and now you can too… Go on, you know you want to!

The Gas was originally commissioned in 1969 by Essex House, but the editor who commissioned it was sacked and the book didn’t see the light of day until a year later when it was published by the Ophelia Press, one of Maurice Girodias’ pornographic publishing operations. That company went out of business in 1973. However in 1980 the UK publisher Savoy Books brought out an edition of The Gas. That publication caused a fair bit of controversy. The police seized the novel and turned it over to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The publishers were found guilty of selling printed material that was likely to deprave and corrupt and one of them (David Britton) was given a short prison sentence. The books were ordered to be destroyed.

In 1994, the American publisher Loompanics brought out another edition of The Gas. Platt took the opportunity to re-write some of it so as to smooth out some stylistic rough edges. He’d also discovered a couple of new perversions that he hadn’t known about when he wrote the original book, so he added them in as well. Platt regards the Loompanics version as the definitive text. I own a copy of the Loompanics edition which Charles Platt has personally autographed for me. I’m very proud to have it on my shelves…

The picture on the cover of the Loompanics edition is itself a masterpiece of disgusting erotica, so much so in fact that the company got a serious attack of cold feet at the last minute, and the book was actually distributed in a plain brown dust jacket so as to conceal the cover art from view, much to Platt’s amusement. It was the only Loompanics book that was ever distributed with a dust cover...

The text of the SF Gateway edition follows that of the Loompanics edition. Charles Platt has written an introduction which discusses the book’s publishing history. The introduction also includes pictures of the covers of those earlier editions so that you too can now revel in the glorious, gushing obscenity that lies behind the plain brown wrapper of the Loompanics edition. Goodness me, how the times have changed…

The SF Gateway has also republished some of Platt’s worthier books.

Loose Canon (no, that isn’t a spelling mistake) is a collection of critical essays about science fiction most of which were originally published in the British SF magazine Interzone. The essays are idiosyncratic and opinionated and surprisingly conservative for a man who, for many years, was very closely associated with the literary anarchy that was Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds stable of writers. But as Platt himself says by the end of the 1970s he was becoming more and more disillusioned with what science fiction had changed into:

I still believed in the promise of technology, but in the world around me, 1960s radicalism had surrendered to 1970s pessimism.

Doomsayers were now blaming science for everything from environmental pollution to the threat of nuclear winter, and techno-optimists ... were becoming as rare as the latest endangered species...

By 1981 … all the trend curves had flattened out. My brain power was unenhanced, my lifespan was unextended, I did not control the energy of an entire star—and I was pissed about it.

A new generation of book editors had become dominant in science fiction, catering to the anti-technology philistinism of the times … the biggest blow against rationality was struck by Hollywood. After facile directors such as Lucas and Spielberg plundered science fiction for ideas that they dumbed down for the masses, a genre that had been a backwater for intelligent speculation became a big stupid business merchandising trashy wish fulfilment for the masses...

Good science fiction encourages young readers to question the unseen walls that limit their lives. Also, by modelling the consequences of innovation, science fiction can help us to make intelligent choices instead of waiting passively for the future to happen…

By the 1980s, most of the models weren’t anchored in reality anymore. Indeed, only a minority of science-fiction writers still saw this as their obligation...

I felt angry and wanted to do something.

So, in an attempt to assuage that anger, he wrote the essays that are collected in Loose Canon to illustrate and reflect this point of view. The essays are well thought out and cogently argued and time and time again I found myself nodding in agreement with the points that Platt was making and I thoroughly approved of his manifesto.

Dream Makers is a sort of companion piece to Loose Canon. In the 1970s and 1980s, Platt interviewed almost all the "big name" science fiction authors. The interviews were published in two volumes called, with a distinct lack of imagination, Dream Makers Volume I and Dream Makers Volume II (in the UK, the first volume was published under Platt’s originally suggested title Who Writes Science Fiction? I don’t think the second volume had a UK publication). The SF Gateway edition of Dream Makers republishes the best interviews from both volumes. In selecting the pieces for the new edition, Platt has chosen to omit interviews with peripheral figures such as Alvin Toffler. He has also omitted interviews which, for one reason or another, either he or the interviewee felt unhappy with.

The people who were interviewed for Dream Makers are a veritable who’s who of the science fiction world in the 1980s. About the only big names who refused take part were Ursula le Guin and Robert Heinlein (Platt records that Heinlein’s wife sent him some rather rude notes scolding him for even thinking about asking Heinlein to participate). The interviews made fascinating reading when they were first published and they remain equally fascinating today.

Platt has taken the opportunity to update many of the interviews with essays that add a modern context to the subject. Sadly, of course, many of the people he interviewed have since died and since the dead cannot sue, some of Platt’s additional essays pull no punches. For example, he is openly honest about Isaac Asimov’s weirdly anti-social behaviour at SF conventions; behaviour that sometimes stepped over the line into sexual assault.

Dream Makers is probably the most important book that Charles Platt has written. Anybody who is at all interested in the personalities that lie behind the names that adorn the covers of countless classic novels should make a point of reading this book.

You could easily be forgiven for thinking that a series of novels with the generic title Aunt Dimity Something Something Something would be a set of children’s stories. But you’d be quite wrong – these are definitely books for grown ups. They deal with themes of loneliness and depression and the difficulties involved in making relationships work (and how rewarding it is when they do work). They talk about the dynamics of families and the usefulness of stuffed toys. The books are often very funny, quite fascinating and utterly delightful urban fantasy whodunnits with a ghost (the eponymous Aunt Dimity herself). Well – they are almost whodunnits. It’s not always clear just what has been done, never mind by whom (though that is invariably cleared up by the end of the story). There are seldom any crimes involved though that too is often not clear at the start of the story. The misdemeanours generally involve misunderstandings, miscommunications and/or social gaffes which in other, bitchier books might be the subject of vicious gossip. But not here. The people involved are all very nice (there aren’t any heroes or villains, just ordinary people muddling through) and you’d be happy to invite them round for tea.

The scene and the mood are set in the first volume, Aunt Dimity’s Death. The narrator, Lori Shepherd, is a recent divorcee trying to make ends meet in Boston. When she was a child, her mother would tell her stories about Aunt Dimity, stories which she found fascinating and soothing, stories that would invariably lift her out of the blackest of moods. Lori had always assumed that her mother had made up the stories about Aunt Dimity, and so it comes as a little bit of a shock to her when she receives a letter from a lawyer informing her that Aunt Dimity has recently died and that Lori is a beneficiary in her will.

Dimity Westwood was an English lady who had met Lori’s mother during the second world war. Lori’s mother was a clerk on General Eisenhower’s staff and was stationed in London. The two of them became firm friends and even after the war was over and Lori’s mother had returned to America, they kept up a lively correspondence. But then Lori’s mother died and now, it seems, her best friend Dimity Westwood has also died. Dimity’s will leaves Lori a substantial sum of money and a cottage in a village called Finch in the Cotswolds. Lori, of course, immediately leaves for England so as to explore her inheritance. She soon settles in and makes new friends, but she is left with a little bit of a mystery. Why did Dimity never marry? It seems clear that there was some sort of tragedy in her life, but Dimity always refused to talk about it. Lori finds this intriguing…

Dimity is dead, but she is not gone. She still lives in her cottage and she "talks" to Lori by writing messages in a journal bound in blue leather. Can Lori solve the mystery of Dimity’s past? Can Lori keep her investigations secret from Dimity?

I found the second book in the series, Aunt Dimity And The Duke, a little bit of a shock. Unlike the first book, it is told in the third person and it soon becomes clear that it is actually a prequel to the first. Dimity is still alive, and two characters who are firmly married to each other in the first book meet for the first time early in this one. There are also continuity problems – there are no computers or cell phones in the first book (Lori actually uses (gasp!) a typewriter) and yet they are ubiquitous in this second novel. Despite these problems, the characters are so compelling, the story is so charming and the dialogue is so funny that I soon put these misgivings aside and just enjoyed this story of an impoverished duke who has somehow got his hands on pots of money. Could he have been up to something nefarious? Surely his Aunt Dimity wouldn’t have allowed that, would she?

Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed, the third book in the series, returns the telling of the tale to Lori. Her father in law disappears in Chapter One. Lori sets out to find him and soon discovers that he and Dimity (who is still safely dead) are in hot pursuit of a family scandal that dates all the way back to the beginning of the eighteenth century.

The stories are all very slight but nevertheless they are quite compelling. Partly it is the manner of the telling of the tales, but mainly it is because the characters (even the spear carriers) are so well drawn and so convincing that you just have to keep reading because you really care about what happens to them. And as an added bonus, every book comes with a recipe that you can cook at home. Who could ask for anything more? Tasty! As you can probably tell, I’m now an Aunt Dimity fanboy.

Nancy Atherton, the author of the Aunt Dimity books, is American. Nevertheless she has chosen to set her stories firmly in the English countryside. She has done a truly magnificent job – she has a superb grasp of British idioms ("sticking plaster", "knackered"...) and she doesn’t put a foot wrong. Her characters are thoroughly English all the way down. That’s an amazing feat, particularly if you compare her to Connie Willis, another American writer who seems to be besotted with the English but who has a complete tin ear when it comes to dialogue.

As I write, there are twenty three Aunt Dimity books. The fifteenth is called Aunt Dimity Down Under and apparently Lori and Dimity come to visit New Zealand. I’m quite looking forward to reading that one.

Becky Chambers’ novel  The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet reminds me a little bit of the Aunt Dimity books. Just like them, it’s mainly about a group of people muddling through from day to day and trying to get along with each other. But in this case, not all the people are human and rather than being set in a small English village, the story takes place on a spaceship. The novel is not without incident – there are space pirates and the eponymous angry planet itself – but by and large it is the interactions between the characters that make this story work as well as it does. Becky Chambers has a positive genius for creating truly alien characters who nonetheless have recognisable aspirations. There is a considerable overlap between the needs and deeds of all the characters in the story but, like all good Venn diagrams, it’s the areas outside the overlaps that provide the most interest. This is a clever, subtle and quite fascinating novel.

When Jake the Dog and I go for our walks, I usually listen to an audiobook. I generally have several of them stored in my mobile phone and I listen to the story through a set of fairly expensive earphones which live in my shirt pocket when they aren’t being used. When Jake and I walk out of the door, it is a matter of but a moment to retrieve the earphones from my pocket, and plug one end into my phone and the other end into my ears. Then I press a magic button that lives in a tiny box attached to the right hand ear bud, and voices fill my head. I’ve got so good at doing this that I can even manage it while Jake and I continue to walk – there was a time when, because I am quite unable to multitask, Jake and I had to stop while I wired myself up. Jake always found this very puzzling and he used to complain about it a lot. Now that I have mastered the art of earphone insertion, he’s a lot happier with me.

I have very strangely shaped ears and most earphones/earbuds, call them what you will, fall out of my ears within seconds of being inserted. This is frustrating because Sod’s Law requires that it always happens when the sentence that explains the whole complex plot of the story is about to be uttered and consequently I completely lose track of what is going on! I generally say a rude word when this happens and Jake and I have to stop while I re-insert the earphones. Then I poke desperately at the screen of my phone to try and rewind the story to the vital bit that I missed. Jake hates it when that happens and I’m not too fond of it either.

However I have finally found an earphone design that will stay put until either I remove them gently myself or until Jake drags me into a bush that grabs hold of the dangling cables and wrenches the gadgets painfully out of my ears. Despite that, I think that these are the best earphones ever and I am very fond of them. But remember, they live in my shirt pocket…

I’ve had several narrow escapes over the months that I’ve been using these earphones and on more than one occasion I’ve had to go diving deeply into the dirty clothes basket in order to rescue them from yesterday’s shirt so that I can transfer them into today’s. (Usually I take them out of my shirt pocket of an evening when I get undressed for bed, but sometimes I forget. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I am not perfect). I suppose it was only a matter of time before they went into the washing machine, and last week that’s just what they did.

The machine was about half-way through its cycle when I went hunting for my earphones so that Jake and I could go for a walk. Odd! They weren’t in my shirt pocket. I wonder where… The penny dropped. It was far too late to try rescuing them from their watery fate, so I dug out an old and much less satisfactory pair from the back of a drawer. Then Jake and I went walking and left the original earphones to it.

When we got back home the washing machine had finished processing its load. I opened the lid and I found that my earphones had tangled themselves around the arms of two shirts, giving the distinct impression that the shirts had been handcuffed together and were now under arrest. I gently untangled everything and examined my earphones carefully. They were certainly very clean – over the months they had turned from shiny white to dull grey as nameless substances accreted themselves onto the cables, but now they were as bright and shining white as they had been on the day that I first plugged them in. So that was nice.

They looked extraordinarily good on the outside, but who knew what state they might be in inside their external shiny whiteness? I wondered if perhaps I should just throw them away, but then I had second thoughts. The electronics hiding inside a set of earphones are very rudimentary and are presumably therefore correspondingly robust. In fact, most of the magic gubbins, such as they are, are sealed away behind thick layers of waterproof plastic. The only holes in the structure lead to the speakers in the earbuds and to the microphone that lurks in the same little box that contains the on/off switch for the phone’s media player. I decided to let the earphones dry out in the airing cupboard for a week or so before I tried using them again on the grounds that once all the water had evaporated, there was probably a very good chance that the earphones might still work.

And so it proved. A week later I plugged them in to my ears on one end and in to my phone on the other end in the usual way, and I pressed the magic button. The narrator of my current story began burbling cheerily at me. My earphones, it seemed, were none the worse for their ordeal.

I cannot honestly recommend using the washing machine to clean your grubby earphones. But if you do accidentally subject them to a wash and spin cycle you may be surprised at just how well they stand up to it.

Charles Platt The Gas SF Gateway
Charles Platt Loose Canon SF Gateway
Charles Platt Dream Makers SF Gateway
Nancy Atherton Aunt Dimity’s Death Penguin
Nancy Atherton Aunt Dimity And The Duke Penguin
Nancy Atherton Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed Penguin
Becky Chambers The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet Hodder & Stoughton
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