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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (annum quinquaginta)

Fifty Years of Alan

Fifty years ago, and twelve and a half thousand miles away from the desk where I sit writing these words, I left school, I left home, and I set out into the wide, wild world in order to see just what it was like...

This July my old school mates are holding our fiftieth annual reunion and the organiser has reached out to everyone who can still be contacted in order to try and make the occasion as special as it can be. I won't be there in the flesh, though I will be there in spirit. But to try and bridge the gap between here and there, I wrote this little piece, and I stuck in a photograph of me so that everyone who attends the reunion can have a good laugh.

The organiser has promised to take lots of photos of the actual event, and he'll send them to me so that I too can play the game of "Who the hell is that?". It will be fun to see who has changed the most, and I suspect it will also prove to be very annoying when I encounter the several swine who clearly have a painting hidden in their attic, and who therefore look as if they left school ten years ago, rather than fifty years ago like the rest of us. I know there will be some people like that because I've had a sneak preview from one or two of them already!

So this is what I've told everybody about how I've spent the fifty years since last I saw them all (though I didn't include any book reviews in the version I sent to them). Maybe you will find it interesting as well...

 


 

Kia ora koutou katoa.

Hello to you all.

 

After I left school, I went to university. Anything to put off the evil day of having to get a job! I studied chemistry for no very good reason except that I'd always been good at it. The subject always came easily to me, though I have no idea why. However I soon discovered that there's nothing like studying something in depth at university to disillusion you with the subject, and it wasn't long before the urge to shake a test tube had completely disappeared from my life. Nevertheless I persevered with my increasingly tedious studies. I survived the usual student rituals of sex, drugs and rock and roll (I remember that The Incredible String Band were almost a fixture on the campus — they seemed to give a concert every couple of weeks or so), and eventually I graduated with a respectable degree. Now I had no choice — I really did have to go looking for employment...

I got a job with the Royal Society of Chemistry. They had a team of people investigating the possibility of using computers to search the world's chemistry research literature — the kind of thing that Google does for us these days, except that the Royal Society's databases were much smaller and more specialised than Google's are. But the principle is exactly the same. As time went on, I got more and more interested in exactly how the computers did their job, and I got less and less interested in the chemical information that they were sifting through. Then, one day, I saw a job advertised in The Times...

The New Zealand Dairy Board were recruiting programmers and they were holding interviews in London. The advert said that anyone they invited to London for an interview would have their travel expenses reimbursed. Neat! A free day in London! There would be a boring half hour in the middle when the interview took place, but I could cope with that. I sent off an application.

I was quite relaxed at the interview. After all, I didn't actually want the job. I just wanted a day in London. "What do you know about indexed sequential files?" asked the interviewer.

"Nothing at all," I said, and he made a note.

Rather to my surprise, I was offered a job. Furthermore, the offer said that the Dairy Board would pay half my travel expenses when I arrived in the country and, if I stayed with them for a year, they would pay the other half of my expenses. So, for the sake of a year, I got a free trip to the far side of the world. Who could resist? Certainly not me. And so, in January 1981, I arrived in New Zealand. I've lived here ever since.

It turned out that the reason the Dairy Board was recruiting staff in England was because they were such a terrible employer that they couldn't find any New Zealanders who wanted to work for them! I think every programmer in the country had passed through their offices at one time or another, and the Dairy Board had simply run out of local talent. So, like everybody else, I stayed with the Dairy Board for the requisite year, collected the rest of my expenses, and then handed in my notice.

I bummed around for several years doing various computer consultancy jobs. Along the way I gained quite an in-depth knowledge about the Unix (and later Linux) operating systems. If you don't know what Unix and Linux are, consider yourself lucky! Then I got a job teaching Unix and Linux system administration ideas and techniques to anyone who chose to come on our (quite expensive) courses. I turned out to be rather good at teaching, and I enjoyed doing it. It was a much better job than being a real system administrator looking after real computers. When you are a teacher, nobody rings you up at 3.00am to complain that the system has crashed and what are you going to do about it! I did that teaching job for the next twenty five years until I reached retirement age, whereupon I retired. As one does.

The years passed. I got married, divorced and married again. My wife Robin is Australian. We've been together for nearly twenty years now, but she still remains proudly Australian. I, on the other hand, have been a New Zealand citizen for more than thirty years. I'm still eligible to have a British passport, but my last one expired in 1993 and I never bothered renewing it.

Alan Today

This is me today. The books behind me are all autographed by the authors.
Many of the books are first editions and/or numbered limited editions.
I'm very proud of the collection, though I must admit that over the last fifty years,
I've spent far too much money on it!

Robin Today

This is Robin, standing in front of one of the many quilts that she has made.
She really is a very accomplished quilter. This one is her particular favourite,
and naturally she's extremely proud of it.

The Long Sunset is the eighth novel in Jack McDevitt’s Academy series, but don’t let that trouble you; it works perfectly well as a stand-alone story. All the necessary background material is so skilfully woven into the fabric of the tale that you don’t feel a thing as the story unfolds and surrounds you.

Space exploration has gone out of fashion. Partly that’s due to the expense involved, but mainly it’s because the movers and shakers of the world are quite paranoid, scared that one day an interstellar mission will come across aliens with superior technology who will follow the ship back to Earth, invade and take over. It’s a silly idea, but it has taken hold and there seems to be very little that can be done to refute it. And so political moves are afoot to shut down the exploration of interstellar space completely.

But before that can take place, a message is received from the stars. It’s an image of a waterfall, with a musical soundtrack. It’s clearly nowhere on Earth. Naturally, in spite of the fears of the politicians, there are people who want to follow that signal back to where it originated; people who really want to find the world the waterfall is on.

Before the ban on interstellar travel is made final, Priscilla 'Hutch' Hutchins and her crew are able to set off on what might well prove to be the last ever expedition to the stars...

The image of the waterfall was originally broadcast several thousand years ago, so what Hutch and her crew find when they arrive at their destination should not be too much of a surprise, though it may be a disappointment. But they do find planets with traces of what appear to be dwellings (certainly they are structures of some kind), yet these are  now abandoned.  Some more exploration soon solves the mystery of what tragedy caused the abandonment. However it seems that tragedy will strike again soon – the explorers come across an alien race who live on a world that is mostly water, though there are some islands with magnificent beaches that the inhabitants rather enjoy relaxing on. But in about sixty years time, tragedy will strike here and this gentle alien race will be completely exterminated.

Priscilla and her friends find this idea to be quite horrifying and it presents them with a terrible dilemma. Is there any way that the resources of Earth can be used to rescue these people? Is there any way to overcome the xenophobia that, if left unchecked, will certainly mean that those involved in the decision making will simply turn their backs on the problem and leave the aliens to their fate? Priscilla is determined that this will not happen, though she knows that it will not be an easy task to turn the tide of opinion.

It’s always the little touches mingling in with the larger themes that make a novel more intriguing. Those bits of business that carry the story along on their shoulders between crises are the jewels that make the story glitter. There’s a lovely scene in The Long Sunset where Beth, one of Priscilla’s colleagues, is discussing the nature of humour with the aliens. As an example, she uses her favourite comic novel, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. I gave a silent cheer when this scene appeared because Lucky Jim is my favourite comic novel as well!

The book operates on several levels. There are obvious parallels with current American policies – the lack of funding for scientific investigation in general and for space exploration in particular, the paranoia and xenophobia, the general ignorance, short-sightedness and cynicism of those in charge; these are all phenomena that can be found all over the place in the here and now. It is quite clear that McDevitt thoroughly disapproves of them all, and he says so quite explicitly with cleverly reasoned (and very reasonable) arguments. This is coupled with discourses on the nature of humanity and how that relates to the nature of alien species. Do they have things in common despite having an "uncommon" ancestry? Is it moral to interfere? There’s a lot of depth beneath the tense and gripping story that McDevitt tells.

The blurb on the front cover says that Jack McDevitt is "The logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke." and I think that’s a very true statement though in my opinion McDevitt has more in common with Arthur C. Clarke than he does with Isaac Asimov. Like both Asimov and Clarke he has a rational understanding of physical phenomena and he has a beautifully clear way of expressing that understanding. In addition, he shares with Clarke a sense of awe and wonder at the size, beauty and relentless nature of the universe. His descriptions of physical phenomena often verge on the elegiac, and there is sometimes a hint of mysticism in his prose, a definite sense that there may well be more going on here than we are quite aware of. McDevitt shares a common intellectuality (if that’s a word) with both Asimov and Clarke, but Asimov was far too rational and far too prosaic to follow him into the deeper, more slippery areas that McDevitt and Clarke both explore so movingly.

I always enjoy Jack McDevitt’s novels, and The Long Sunset is one of his best.

I know nothing about Adele Abbott other than that she is the author of a series of very funny books that all have the generic title Witch is Blah de Blah de Blah de Blah (to give you a specific example, the very first book in the series is Witch is When it all Began and that is probably the shortest of the titles. They get much longer as the series progresses). The books are a curious combination of detective story and thaumaturgy – Jill Gooder is a private investigator who lives in the English village of Washbridge. She’s always known that she was adopted as a baby, but nevertheless she thinks of her adopted parents as being her real mum and dad. She did once seek out her birth mother, however when Jill finally met her the woman was very unpleasant and she made it quite clear that she wanted nothing to do with Jill. Nevertheless, when Jill learns that her mother is on her deathbed and is asking for her, she reluctantly goes for one last visit. It isn’t a pleasant visit. With her dying breath, the woman says clearly to Jill, "You’re a witch!".

And indeed she is.

Although the witches often visit Washbridge, very few of them live there. They live in Candlefield, a village very close to Washbridge, although strangely Jill has never heard of it. Together with her step-sister, she sets off to drive to Candlefield. However she completely fails to find it. Later she learns that only witches can reach Candlefield. Because the person in the car with Jill was not a witch, the roads to Candlefield would never arrive at the village…

Personally I don’t think this has anything at all to do with witchcraft. Anyone who has ever driven along the twisty country roads of Great Britain will tell you that the place is full of villages that nobody can ever get to. I once set out to drive to Mousehole, a small village in Cornwall. Clearly I was on the right track, for I saw a signpost that said Mousehole 3 miles. I turned in the direction the sign was pointing and drove for a mile whereupon I saw a sign that said Mousehole 2 miles. Jolly good – clearly I was on the right track. I turned where the signpost was directing me, and a mile later I saw a sign that said Mousehole 1 mile. I was getting close! Then, one mile later I saw a sign that said Mousehole 3 miles. It was pointing back in the direction I had just come from...

I played with those signposts for hours and I followed them for miles and miles and miles. Sometimes the distance to Mousehole increased and sometimes it decreased, but it never reached zero and I never actually arrived in Mousehole. So I have a certain sympathy with Jill. I know exactly how she must have felt when Candlefield refused to come into view.

The books, of course, are all about Jill coming to grips with her powers as a witch, and learning to live with a whole new family that she never knew she had. And (again, of course) her witchery powers prove to be very useful indeed when it comes to solving the mysteries that she is hired to investigate. So far so much like far too many other second rate "cozy" mysteries. But Adele Abbott’s books have an extra dimension, a "charm" if you like, that lifts them out of the ordinary.

The secret of the charm (and the humour) of these books lies in the vast array of insanely eccentric characters that people the pages, not all of whom are human. For example, Winky the randy cat is trying to make the acquaintance of the lady cat who lives across the street so that he can indulge his evil intentions with her. Since he’s not allowed outside, he communicates with her by semaphore. But she’s fickle and is soon exchanging semaphores with another cat… Believe it or not, a semaphoring cat is one of the less bizarre scenarios in the story!

The books are very very funny, in a very very understated British way. However beware. They really must be read in order because Adele Abbott is actually telling one continuous and very very long story (25 books in the series so far with a 26th book due any day now). If you read them out of order, not only will you have difficulty following the plot, you will also get a lot of spoilers for the earlier volumes. It’s well worth making the effort though. These are utterly delightful books.

Inspired by my enjoyment of the books, I tried to find out more about Adele Abbott and I ran head first into a brick wall. There is no biographical information whatsoever about her on them there interwebs. The googles, they do nothing. She has her own web site, but it talks only about her books – it says nothing about herself. Nobody has written anything about her on Wikipedia. There is some biographical speculation on reddit, but nothing concrete. I have no idea why she hides her light behind such an opaque bushel, but doubtless she has her reasons. I assume she is British, given the tone and setting of her books, but beyond that there is nothing to say.

Adele Abbott, woman of mystery, writes mysteries. With witchcraft.

Steven Saylor is probably best known for his Roma Sub Rosa series of novels about Gordianus, a kind of detective in ancient Rome during the times of Sulla, Cicero and Julius Caesar. They are really rather good stories and I recommend them. However his magnum opus is made up of the two novels Roma and Empire. They are truly superb.

With these two books Saylor ventures into deepest James Michener territory. Using a series of stories that follow the fortunes of one family over several hundred years and many generations, Saylor tells us the whole history of Rome from before the place even existed until it ruled over most of the known world. It’s a gripping tale, magnificently told and full of erudition and insight. I knew a lot of the story in outline of course, partly from Latin lessons at school and partly from reading Robert Graves, Colleen McCullough, Alfred Duggan and (don’t laugh) Conn Iggulden, but my knowledge was sketchy and patchy. Saylor’s books filled in a lot of the gaps in my knowledge and gave me a much clearer idea of just how and why it was that Rome got rid of its kings and became a republic that turned into an empire.

Many of the stories that Saylor tells are quite well known of course. For example, I was very well aware of how the geese saved Rome during the Gaulish invasion of 390BC (we dealt with it extensively in Latin class) but nevertheless Saylor brought that hoary old tale alive for me with a clever and moving sub-plot involving a vestal virgin and a soldier. Again and again, these human touches add verisimilitude and interest to the broad brush strokes of what might otherwise have been a rather dull history. As always, the devil is in the detail.

Saylor is very good at telling a moving and fascinating story without ever losing sight of the bigger picture and, cleverly, he never makes the mistake of letting the bigger picture overwhelm the drama of his story.

Roma starts just before the founding of the city and ends with the death of Julius Caesar. Empire starts with the consequences of Caesar’s assassination and concludes with the death of Hadrian. Clearly there is room for at least one and possibly two more volumes in the series and I really wish that Saylor would write them. Unfortunately he seems to have shelved the project and is now concentrating on his Ancient World series about the life and times of the young Gordianus. Oh well, never mind.

I won’t say that Saylor gives Gibbon a run for his money even though both authors are telling us the same history. They have different audiences in mind. However, as always, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and consequently Saylor’s books are much easier to read than is Gibbon’s rather turgid prose. That has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

This seems to be the decade of the rock biography. I’m losing track of the number of the heroes of my youth who have sat down to write about their lives. Testimony is Robbie Robertson’s account of his life with The Band, culminating of course in The Band’s farewell concert The Last Waltz, which was filmed so magnificently by Martin Scorsese.

It’s probably no coincidence that Robertson waited until most of the members of The Band were dead before he published this book – only Garth Hudson and Robertson himself are still alive and Garth is not very well connected to reality these days – Simon Morris, a well respected New Zealand rock journalist, interviewed him last year and then had to spend days (quite literally) trying to edit Garth’s slurred and incoherent ramblings into something that almost made sense. He claims that it was the hardest interview he’s ever conducted, and he’s done hundreds!

Robertson is rather catty about his fellow band members, declaring himself to be the originator of The Band’s best ideas (he even claims to have influenced Bob Dylan’s choices of musical direction and if you believe that you’ll believe anything). Also he blames the decline and downfall of The Band on its deceased members and throughout the book he portrays himself as a paragon of virtue and a misunderstood musical genius. Modesty is not his strong suit. Smug self-appreciation is.

Annoyingly, the book ends with The Last Waltz and so we learn nothing about what Robbie Robertson has been doing in the four decades since The Band fell apart. I for one would like to know, but I don’t suppose that I ever will.

Winston Churchill once said that "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it" and he was able to do that because he managed to survive most of his contemporaries so he was able tell the tale unopposed (there’s also an old folk saying, often wrongly attributed to Churchill, that history is written by the victors which expresses much the same idea). In the sense of both these sayings, Testimony is a very Churchillian book. But Robbie Robertson himself is no Winston Churchill and by his own testimony he comes across as mean, spiteful and big-headed. It’s not a nice look and it’s not a nice book.

Robin and I have both been owned by a large number of cats over the years, though at the moment our house has no cats in it. Our last cat, Harpo, died just a couple of months ago. However, cats happen — so I won't be at all surprised if more of them turn up soon. Meanwhile, the house is owned by my dog Jake. He's a huntaway, a New Zealand breed. They are farm dogs, bred to herd sheep and cows. Jake was actually  born on a farm but he turned out to be not very good at his job (rumour has it that he's scared of sheep) so the farmer put him up for adoption. Now he's opted for a more laid back and intellectual life style with me and Robin.

Jake Reads a book

Jake shows off his erudition.

Having a dog imposes quite a ritual on a retiree. I get up about 5.30am every day. Then, after I've fortified myself with a cup of tea, Jake and I go for our morning walk. We usually take an hour or so to walk about 5km. Jake says hello to all his friends, both human and animal, and he leaves a lot of messages for the friends who don't happen to be around today. He has a lot of friends. He's world famous in our village. Total strangers come up to me in the supermarket and enquire after Jake's health. He knows far more people than I do!

By the time we get home from our morning walk, Robin has generally surfaced, and is making a pot of coffee. Jake doesn't like coffee, so he goes into the garden and drinks the water that has soaked through the earth in the flowerpots, down into the trays that the pots stand in. It's the same colour as coffee, and he prefers the taste.

At lunchtime, Jake and I go to the park where he can run off the lead. I walk about 4km round the park and Jake runs about three times that distance as he plays chase with all his friends. He drinks deeply from the river, and often he has a swim in it as well. Sometimes there's a dead sheep floating in the river. That's always a red letter day!

At about 4.00pm Jake and I go for our evening walk. Depending on exactly which route we decide to take, we probably walk somewhere between 3 and 4km. Then, when we get home, I feed Jake his evening meal and start to cook dinner for Robin and myself. All in all, we lead a leisurely and very pleasant life.

When I was working, I lived in the main cities — Wellington and Auckland and then Wellington again. But I travelled around a lot, running courses in most of the larger cities and towns. I also ran a lot of courses in Australia and the Pacific Islands. If you ever get a chance to travel to the Pacific Islands, do so. Trust me, a visit to the islands should be on everybody's bucket list.

Once I retired, Robin and I decided to move away from the hustle and bustle of city life. These days we live in a small village called Havelock North on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It's quite a rural area, though Havelock North itself is really rather posh. It is full of both very expensive shops and bejewelled ladies who lunch. When Robin and I were house hunting, we decided that we had to live in Havelock North so that we could lower the tone of the place. I don't know if we've succeeded in our ambition, but we are trying hard. Everybody has to have a hobby.

 

Heoi anō tāku mō nāianei.

That's all for now.

 

Haere rā.

Goodbye.

 

Ka kite anō.

See you again.

 


Jack McDevitt The Long Sunset Saga
Adele Abbott Witch Is When It All Began Implode
Adele Abbott Witch Is When Life Got Complicated Implode
Adele Abbott Witch Is When Everything Went Crazy Implode
Adele Abbott Witch Is When Things Fell Apart Implode
Adele Abbott Witch Is When The Bubble Burst Implode
Steven Saylor Roma St. Martin’s Press
Steven Saylor Empire St. Martin’s Press
Robbie Robertson Testimony Knopf
     
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