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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (angustissimus currus)

Three Feet Six Inches (Slimline)

I have friends who live in Crofton Downs, the first station out of Wellington on the Johnsonville line; a line which is famed in story and song. Railway aficionados come from all over the world to travel upon it, attracted by the narrowness and quaintness of the rolling stock and the superabundance of its geography. These things are not unconnected.

Wellington and Johnsonville are only a short distance apart as the crow flies. You can drive between them in about ten minutes, for the road can go over and around any geography that it doesn’t like (and since New Zealand road engineers are paid by the corner, it does quite a bit of that). The railway doesn’t have that option. Unruly geography has either to be removed or gone straight through.

The area is oversupplied with some quite vicious terrain. Immensely dense mountains cluster close to each other for comfort. The engineers who built the line had to grind seven extremely long tunnels through the more recalcitrant outcrops. Five of these tunnels lie between Wellington and Crofton Downs - and that's only the first stop on the line! It probably has more tunnels per kilometre than any other railway in the world. The difficulty of this huge engineering feat, coupled with the sheer density of the stone meant that the tunnels had to be very thin and consequently the line has acquired what amounts to its own private rolling stock, for no other equipment owned by the railway will fit the tunnels. The people in charge have scoured the world to find replacement rolling stock, but it hasn’t been easy. Everything that runs on the Johnsonville line has been bought second hand from obscure railroad companies in obscure (generally Eastern European) countries and it is all somewhere between thirty five and fifty years old. Heaven knows exactly where and when and by whom the ragbag mixture of stuff was originally manufactured. I’m sure it was designed by people long since dead and built in workshops that long ago vanished from the Earth. So you can’t get spare parts any more. If anything breaks, you make a new one yourself or you do without.

The carriages are rusty; their upholstery is worn and torn. They rattle and they rock and they roll; they squeak and they squirm and sometimes they break. And so does the Johnsonville line itself…

The Reginald Hill novels on this month’s list all feature the exploits of Joe Sixsmith, a black, bald, middle-aged, redundant lathe operator turned private eye who lives in Luton. Joe has a cat called Whitey who bullies him and an Aunt Mirabelle who also bullies him and of whom he is terrified. His local pub is the Glit, a ferociously noisy pub dedicated to the memory of Gary Glitter. Joe drinks Guinness and eats glitterburgers with glitter sauce and listens to the maestro’s music. Whitey drinks lager by the ashtrayfull and feasts upon cheese and onion crisps. Life is fairly idyllic, except that the money is irregular and Aunt Mirabelle is playing matchmaker again.

The books are richly comic (sometimes laugh-out-loud comic) and as always with a Reginald Hill novel, the plots are pleasingly complex and the characters are superbly drawn. The novels are slim in comparison to the Dalziell and Pascoe novels and can easily be read in a single gulp. They are also lighter in tone, though they are not without their dark moments. Overall, though they should be classed as entertainments rather than novels. And it just so happens that I like entertainments a lot.

The books all have roughly the same structure. Joe is hired to investigate something. As he works, he meets people, some of whom hire him to investigate seemingly unrelated cases. The plots thicken; red herrings abound. At some point Joe is either threatened with a beating or is actually beaten. Insights come to him and the cases unravel. Some of the seemingly unconnected ones turn out to be connected after all. Much Guinness is consumed. Joe consults deeply with Whitey. Aunt Mirabelle fails to marry him off.

Singing the Sadness, the latest novel in the series, takes place in Wales. Luton is far away and the Glit has no part in the story. I wonder if Hill is regretting his choice of musical icon following Garry Glitter’s recent conviction for being involved with child pornography. I wonder if the Glit will be demolished in some future novel?

I turned up at Wellington station and purchased a ticket to Crofton Downs. As I walked towards the platform an announcement informed me that the trains were running approximately fifteen minutes late because of engineering difficulties. I leaned against a convenient wall by a convenient light and read my book. Slowly the crowds built up as the Thursday evening commuters arrived, impatient to get home.

Eventually the train pulled wearily into the platform. A huge surge of people congregated around the slowly opening carriage doors. But one carriage remained stubbornly closed. A stentorian voice echoed down the platform:

"Excuse me everybody!" A lady dressed in a TransMetro uniform and wearing a vivid Day-Glo yellow jacket on top of it came striding down the platform. The lights reflecting off her jacket and her immaculately coiffured blonde hair made her look like a miniature mobile sunburst.

"We aren’t using that carriage today," she said. "I’m sorry – but can you all squeeze yourself into the remaining carriages. I know it will be a bit cosy, but I’m sure you’ll manage."

We all squeezed in. I was lucky – I got a seat. Not everyone was that fortunate. The train pulled slowly out of the station and rattled and wheezed its way along the tracks. Another great attraction of the Johnsonville line is the constant vibration that judders up and down your body; a strangely erotic experience that sometimes results in embarrassingly obvious consequences.

A friend bought Best of Crank! at about the same time that I did, but she read it before I got round to reading it and pronounced it to be utter rubbish. This depressed me for I trust her judgement. I felt disinclined to read it, but eventually I did. She was quite right – it’s rubbish.

Crank! is a small SF oriented magazine edited by Bryan Cholfin. In his introduction to the stories that are collected in the book, Cholfin explains that the genre is largely a marketing concept and that commercial pressures to write for the so-called average reader cause a flattening of literary effect, leading to a similarity (almost a uniformity) of product. Crank! seeks to reverse that, to encourage and seek out antigeneric fictions. I fully approve of this manifesto, and so I tried very hard to enjoy the stories that Cholfin claimed matched his ideals. But I simply couldn’t. One and all they were dull or silly. Sometimes they were dull AND silly. There was one which Cholfin claimed had made him laugh out loud so hard that he fell out of his chair. That one was dull and silly and sad. The stories posture and they preen as they strive too hard for effect (look at me, I’m a writer, aren’t I cute and clever?), but they are all style and no substance; they are all too thin.

Starfire is the sequel to Charles Sheffield’s earlier Aftermath, though it is not necessary to have read the first novel in order to understand and enjoy the second, since all the relevant plot details are described in the opening chapters. The year is 2053 and the Earth has largely recovered from the catastrophic effects of 2026 when the Alpha Centauri supernova flooded the Earth with hard radiation. Now the slower, high energy particles ejected by the supernova are arriving and the giant protective shield that Earth has built is proving ineffective because the particle storm is not behaving in the expected manner. Also Sky City, the satellite whose crew are charged with building the shield, has had its work disrupted by a series of brutal and so far seemingly motiveless murders. The two plots (the odd behaviour of the particle storm and the murders) twine around each other both reaching a climax almost simultaneously. Obviously Sheffield has orchestrated this simply for the sake of drama and the artificiality of it is a little irritating, particularly since several of the characters learn the identity of the murderer about half way through the book, and Sheffield refuses to allow them to tell the secret to the reader, damn him. Nonetheless the details of both plot threads are so fascinating that you can easily forgive him. He keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat, and they wrinkle their noses most charmingly. This book has everything – scientific speculation of the highest order, boldly drawn, eccentric and believable characters and almost unbelievable tension as the inexorable deadline approaches. A certain artificiality of structure is a small sin in comparison to those virtues. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

The Compleat McAndrew is a curate’s egg. Sheffield has been writing stories about super-scientist McAndrew for almost the whole of his career. The first story in the collection was only his second published piece of fiction. In those days he was still learning his trade, and it shows. Sheffield is very much a hard SF writer, and the McAndrew stories are the hardest of hard SF; they stand or fall solely on the merit of their scientific notions, and other considerations such as character and structure and style are of secondary importance. The quintessential hard SF tale has often been referred to as a wiring diagram with dialogue, and that is a criticism that can easily be levelled at some of these stories. But as Sheffield matured and learned his craft, so the McAndrew tales became deeper, more sophisticated in their structure. The later stories are excellent, full of humour, smart dialogue and characters who may not be the most believable in the universe, but who certainly aren’t the cardboard authorial mouthpieces of the earlier tales. The collection concludes with a long essay that discusses the science of the stories, pointing out what is fact and what is wild speculation. I was somewhat surprised to see what fell into each of these categories. Some things that I had dismissed as sheer fabrication turned out to be much closer to the truth than I had realised. Sheffield has probed very deeply into the implications of much modern scientific thinking. The stories all wear their erudition lightly, but make no mistake; it is always present. The depth of thought exposed in this essay even goes some way towards rehabilitating the ugly structure of the earlier stories! Definitely a curate’s egg.

"Let me explain what’s happening." The brightly dressed lady was back again. "I’m sorry about the carriage, but every time we open and close the doors, huge great sparks fly out of them as the electric current short circuits through something. So we don’t think they are safe, and we decided not to use them."

There was much nodding in agreement at this. Nobody wanted to be turned into Kentucky Fried Commuter by free flowing electricity.

"But we’ve got another more serious problem," she said. "The points at Wadestown have broken, and so we have to operate them manually, and that’s causing long delays. So we’d like to ask you to be patient with us, and we’ll get you home just as soon as we can."

For most of the distance between Wellington and Johnsonville there is only one track. Again, this is a constraint forced upon it by the evil geography through which it winds. In one or two of the marginally less severely constricted areas a loop of track provides a passing place, and as long as the points are correctly set, a train can wait there while the train going in the opposite direction goes past, and then, with the points switched again, it can re-join the main line and continue its journey. Thus the line can be served by both an inward and an outward bound train at the same time, to the great convenience of all. Wadestown is one of these passing places.

We arrived at Wadestown and pulled on to the passing loop. Through the window I could see the train waiting to pass us in the other direction. Time passed, but the train didn’t. We waited and waited and waited some more…

Angry White Pyjamas is an autobiographical account of a year in the life of Robert Twigger. At a loose end in Japan, he decided to study a martial art. Eventually he settled on Aikido. But not just Aikido. Oh no. He decided to go the whole way and partake in the year long, extremely gruelling training course undergone by the Tokyo Riot Police. This martial arts training is kill or cure, quite literally. Deaths could and did occur in the dojo.

To begin with, Twigger’s account of his life in Japan and his experiences on the course are very funny. He has a delightful way with words, and even in the darkest, most painful times, he still has a ready quip, a judicious bon mot. But eventually I found that the book began to pall for it became too repetitive. There are only so many ways to describe pain, bruising and bleeding. Perhaps this structure was deliberate. Perhaps the repetitive nature of the anecdotes was designed to throw light on (or to represent) the repetitive nature of the lessons he struggled through with so much agony. The only thing I really learned about the study of Aikido from the book is that you practice, practice and practice some more, going through the same motions again and again and again. Certainly this degree of structural mimicry is something that Twigger would be quite likely to build into the book – his early training was as a poet, and he has an obvious sensitivity to structure. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it; maybe it really is just repetitive. Had the book been shorter, I might have enjoyed it more, for it certainly began brilliantly.

Diana Wynne Jones’ major claim to fame is her Tough Guide to Fantasyland in which she presents the clichés of high fantasy in the guise of a traveller’s handbook. The book is wickedly funny and devastatingly cruel and after reading it you will never read another fantasy novel without spotting (and often revelling in) the attitudes and situation she skewers so unmercifully. The Dark Lord of Derkholm is her fictional take on the same subject, and it is equally delightful.

Mr Chesney from the next door world has secured the services of a demon and bound it in thrall to him. Because of this he has effective control over the world of the novel. By and large it is a delightful world, rich in magic, rich in character. Mr Chesney has set up a thriving business sending tour parties from his own world into the magic land. However all the tour parties are deeply mired in the traditions of fantasy and all expect (and require) that their tour involve all the trappings: a Dark Lord, an Evil Enchantress, Winged Minions etc etc etc. And every year when the tourists descend, the inhabitants of the land must put on a show to give the tourists just what they want.

The roles of the required high fantasy "rubber stamp" caricatures are shared out each year. This time, the eponymous Derk has been appointed Dark Lord and his wife Mara is the Evil Enchantress. The book chronicles their misadventures as the show comes apart at the seams.

An attack by leathery winged avians fails and geese are hurriedly substituted. Everyone keeps their fingers crossed that the tour party won’t notice. Derk’s pigs (the flying ones) are transformed into servants of the Dark Lord, but they are so horrified at their black, bloated bodies that Derk takes pity on them and turns them back into pigs. But he gives them strict orders to stay out of sight of the tourists. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Even some of the things that can’t go wrong somehow manage to go wrong.

The book is enormous fun and the bits of business are delightful. I particularly enjoyed the Friendly Cows and the carnivorous sheep. The griffins too are magnificent characters and I really came to feel that I knew them well. And the dragon Scales is just superb.

Not only does Diana Wynne Jones poke enormous holes in the standard fantasy plot, she also takes great delight in providing material for the reader to play the game of "spot the reference". On page 61, for example, a village is being demolished in order to provide creepy ruins for the tourists. It is decided that Tom Holt’s pigsty can stay as it is; it will blend in nicely…

The front cover of the book has a quote from Locus magazine. It says "I’d vote for Diana Wynne Jones as a British National Treasure". I don’t think I can say any better than that!

The bright lady reappeared in our carriage. "I’m sorry about the delay," she said. "We’ve got some big, strong, competent men on the job now and they are moving the points by hand. They reckon it will take them about fifteen minutes."

She paused reflectively and then murmured, "Of course when I did it on the inbound journey it only took me two minutes. But I’m just a woman."

She got a round of applause and grinned at us. We continued to wait.

My phone rang. Ring, ring (I can’t abide the ones that play tunes).


"Hi, it’s Laurie here. Where are you?"

"I’m stuck in the train at the moment, but I should be arriving shortly. Where are you?"

"Oh, I’m still in town. I heard there was trouble on the line and so I thought I’d take a taxi. I was just ringing to see if you wanted to share it – but since you are already on the train I don’t suppose that’s really possible…"

"No, not really. Not unless you’ve got a winch to haul me up the embankment."

"Oh well – I’ll see you when you arrive. I’ll probably get there before you."

He chuckled a dirty chuckle and rang off.

The 1999 World SF Convention was held in Melbourne. The organisers wanted Dave Langford to come from England and in order to raise some money to bring him over, they assembled a short booklet of some of his essays and reviews from the pages of SFX magazine and called it Pieces of Langford. The proceeds from the sale of the book went to The Auld Lang Fund, and Langford duly attended the con and had a wonderful time by all accounts.

Langford has a wicked wit and I’d be willing to bet that even the writers whose books he metaphorically rips apart laugh out loud at the same time as they cry. Read this little booklet to find out why William Gibson doesn’t understand electricity, how Charles Harness destroyed the universe with a prism and a single photon, why you should never eat anything that giggles and the Greek word for cat food.

Along the way Langford provides ten rules for reviewing books (I particularly enjoyed rule number 5: Review the Author’s Previous Book), and thirteen incomprehensible catchphrases used by fannish insiders – they run the whole gamut from ansible to zymurgy.

Read it, laugh, and next time you meet Dave Langford buy him a pint of beer.

We continued to wait for the big, strong competent men to shift the points. Eventually they must have managed it for with a hiss and a gurgle the other train moved off into the night. We waited a little longer while the points were adjusted again and then we lurched away. A few minutes later we pulled into Crofton Downs station and I disembarked. Ahead of me a dark, vaguely familiar shape walked purposefully up the street. I followed discreetly, wondering if I should dash up and tap it on the shoulder. I decided against it, being fearful of engendering righteous wrath should I be mistaken in the identity.

The figure turned into the driveway of the house I was heading for. Now I was sure. "Annette." I yelled. She turned around.

"Oh, hello. Where did you come from?"

"I was on the train. You must have been in a carriage ahead of me. Fun journey, wasn’t it?"

"Yes, great."

I explained about Laurie.

"Oh, let’s go and see if he’s in yet."

We went inside. No Laurie, and we began to glow with pleasure at having beaten him home. He’d been so sure that he’d get there before us. Just as we finished congratulating ourselves, he arrived.

"Hello," he said. "Been here long?"

We explained.

"I’d have been here sooner", he said, competitive to the last, "but it took the taxi driver quite a while to find his change. I’m sure I’d have beaten you otherwise."

Reginald Hill Blood Sympathy Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Born Guilty Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Killing the Lawyers Harper Collins
Reginald Hill Singing the Sadness Harper Collins
Bryan Cholfin (Editor) The Best of Crank Tor
Charles Sheffield Starfire Bantam Spectra
Charles Sheffield The Compleat McAndrew Baen
Robert Twigger Angry White Pyjamas Phoenix
Diana Wynne Jones The Dark Lord of Derkholm Millennium
Dave Langford Pieces of Langford John & Eve Harvey

After this column was published, the following letter was received from Don Stokes in Wellington:

While I enjoyed [the article], I must say your research department has let you down rather badly.

The Johnsonville line was originally part of the Wellington & Manawatu Railway Company's line, opened in 1886, and bought out by the Government in 1908. It remained the Wellington approach of the Main Trunk until the Tawa deviation opened in 1937, and was a major bottleneck due to the distinct lack of flat straight run to get a steam engine's cylinders warmed up and the train moving before the grade and corners start to kick in. The line from Johnsonville to Tawa was pulled up, but the line from Wellington to J'ville remains.

The units are English. They're the same units as the ugly red caterpillars you used to see arriving in the opening titles of  "Gliding On", subsequently painted the bilious yellow of most of the Wellington suburban rolling stock. Certainly not eastern European. Quite the opposite; the new units that run on the less vicious Hutt Valley and Plimmerton / Paraparaumu routes, introduced in 1982, are built by Ganz-Mavag of Hungary. The Hungarian units are much longer than than the older English units, and therefore have problems with overhang on corners, especially when the corners happen to co-incide with tunnels which they frequently do.

Trans Metro did take one up the line a year or two ago just to see if it would fit, and it did, albeit at low speed to reduce swaying... After all, the line happily accommodated the largest steam locomotives and the standard passenger carriages, many of which are still running on express trains today. Trans Metro have quite a good supply of the English units, being the only stock that ran the suburban services prior to 1982. I'm not sure if they maintain them by making new parts or just cannibalising the spare units, but in the past the NZR workshops could and did build anything they needed, up to and including sixty K class steam locomotives. A few spare parts for electric units shouldn't be too much of a problem, even for the vastly slimmed down workshops that exist now...

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