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

The Dawning of the Days of Gilbert

Steffi the Vet had a cunning plan. Like all the very best cunning plans it was made up of several cunningly intertwined phases. But none of them would work without a kitten.

Being a vet, Steffi had no difficulty in finding just the right kitten. She attended a cat who was having a rather difficult time giving birth. For a while it was touch and go but finally the cat produced twins. Sadly, one of them did not survive, but the other pulled through, although he was very weak. His mother was far too ill to take care of him – she didn’t produce any milk at all. So Steffi had to foster the kitten, bottle feeding him every two hours and giving him lots of cuddles to reassure him that all was well. The kitten thrived, and Steffi was hopeful that he would be the one who would make her cunning plan succeed…

One day, when the kitten was about three weeks old, Steffi picked him up and turned him upside down to examine his bottom. It was perfectly clean and she rewarded him with a cuddle and a tummy rub. "Who’s an ootchy cootchy kitty woo, den?" she crooned.

The kitten fixed her with a haughty glare. "My name is Gilbert," he said coldly. "Kindly use it in future. And stop making those disgusting cooing noises."

"Sorry, Gilbert," said Steffi contritely. But inside she was glowing happily –  with a fearless attitude like that she knew that Gilbert was just perfect for the scheme she had in mind. So she set the next phase in motion by posting regular progress reports about Gilbert on her Facebook page. She called it The Weekly Gilbert and it quickly became hugely popular. It wasn’t long before she was inundated with requests to adopt the cute ginger kitten who romped in the photos and videos that she posted. But the one request that she was specifically looking for in the messages never appeared. Obviously more direct methods were required. So Steffi the Vet asked the nurses to start dropping heavy hints whenever I took Jake the Dog to visit his favourite aunties.

"Have you seen Gilbert on our Facebook page?" Leanne asked one day.

"I don’t do Facebook," I said.

"It’s a public page," said Leanne. "You don’t need an account to access it. Gilbert is a most wonderful kitten. You and Jake will absolutely love him. Take a look..."

I always do whatever Leanne tells me to do. If I don’t, Jake will never forgive me. She’s the very favourite of his favourite aunties, and as far as he is concerned she can do no wrong. So clearly everything that happened next is all Jake’s fault. I have made this quite clear to him, and he feels very sorry for himself. Serves him right, I say!

Gilbert was certainly cute. I told Robin about him and she was immediately enthusiastic. Somehow, without anything being said, it became understood that when Gilbert was old enough to leave his foster mum he would be coming to live with us. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened. But Steffi the Vet knows – her cunning plan had worked itself out perfectly. I learned a valuable lesson that day, but I learned it far too late. Do not meddle in the affairs of vets for they have a never ending supply of kittens which are damp and hard to light. Or something like that...

Robin and I took Jake to the vets so that he could meet his new best friend. We felt that it was important that they get to know each other on neutral territory, as it were, so that when Gilbert finally came home with us it wouldn’t be too much of a shock to his system. He’s a sensitive soul... Therefore we arranged a series of play dates.

On our first visit, Steffi brought Gilbert in to the room with us and shut the door so that nobody could run away. Gilbert was a small orange bundle of sleepy fur. "He’s so tiny," said Robin and I heard the distinctive sound that Robin makes when she falls in love.

"He weighs 500 grams at the moment," said Steffi. "But he’s getting bigger every day. Jake," she continued, "this is Gilbert. Gilbert, say hello to Jake." She held Gilbert out for Jake to sniff.

Jake was horrified. "What’s that?" he said. "I don’t like it! Take it away! It’s nasty!" His tail drooped.

"Dog!" said Gilbert and he swiped enthusiastically at Jake’s nose with his claws fully extended. Jake retreated to a dark corner where he cowered.

Steffi put Gilbert down and he bounced around the room, playing with everything he could find. Every so often he reared up on his hindquarters and gave quick left-right boxing punches with his front paws at whatever was dangling in front of him. "Bang, bang!" he said. "Float like a flutterby, sting like a flea. I coulda bin a pretender!" I began to wonder if Malaprop might be a better name than Gilbert. I tried it out on him but he was horrified by the idea. "You dirty prat!" he exclaimed, chastising me for my bad taste.

He dropped back down and returned to his floor based toys. He seemed particularly fond of a small blue thing which skittered excitingly when he bashed it. He skittered it towards Jake who trembled in fear and tried to push himself through the wall. He didn’t quite succeed, though the wall did bulge alarmingly. "Jake, don’t be so silly," said Steffi. "Somebody who weighs 36 kilograms cannot possibly be afraid of a ball of fluff that only weighs 500 grams. It would take seventy two of him to make just one of you!"

"Yes they can be afraid," said Jake firmly. "They can be very afraid." He’s never been any good at arithmetic. He can do one, two, many but after that he gets confused. As far as he is concerned, logic and proportion have long since fallen sloppy dead. He went over to Steffi who sat down on the floor to cuddle and reassure him. He climbed into her lap for protection and knocked her over. She immediately bounced back up like a round-bottomed doll. You can’t keep a good vet down.

"Jake," she remonstrated. "You aren’t a lap dog. You are far too big to fit on anybody’s lap."

"No I’m not," said Jake, snuggling even closer to Steffi. "Save me from it, please. Look! It’s coming to get me!" Steffi gave him a treat, which he chewed with enthusiasm. But it didn’t really help. Whenever Gilbert came anywhere near him he backed away from the terrifying monster. He looked thoroughly miserable.

But slowly, over the days, Jake’s attitude improved and gradually he lost his fear of Gilbert. Now he just looked bemused at the kitten’s antics. He stopped trying to escape from the fearsome kitten monster, though if Gilbert came too close, he still backed away. But this was more for self-protection than for any other reason. Gilbert had developed an unhealthy interest in Jake’s tail and once he tried to climb up Jake’s back leg with all his pitons fully extended. Not unnaturally, Jake was less than impressed with this. Gilbert also liked to run underneath Jake in pursuit of his toy de jour. However he was so fast that Jake seldom even noticed that this was happening, though he did sometimes catch a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. But that didn’t seem worth making a fuss about. Clearly we’d arrived at a state of armed neutrality. Things looked hopeful.

"Well," said Steffi after several play dates between Jake and Gilbert had come and gone, "it looks like they’ve become quite acclimatised to each other now. The moment of truth has finally arrived. Gilbert has reached his magic weight. He weighs one thirty-sixth of a Jake and he’s ready for the next stage of his life. We’ll give him the unkindest cut of all next Wednesday and you can take him home with you the day after." Steffi had a huge smile all over her face. She was quite thrilled to see that her cunning plan had worked perfectly.

Gilbert, overhearing what she said, crossed all his legs and tried to sneak out of the room. Naturally he immediately fell over. "Damn!" he said. Steffi picked him up and cuddled him. He purred loudly and Jake licked his lips thoughtfully…

Into Your Tent is a biography of Eric Frank Russell by John L. Ingham. Russell has long been one of my favourite writers but I knew nothing about him save for some (often quite contradictory) biographical blurb that occasionally appeared on the covers of his books. So I was thrilled when, quite by accident, I stumbled on this biography. Unfortunately, it leaves a lot to be desired. That’s not the biographer’s fault – Russell, it turns out, was a very private and irascible person who never gave interviews, seldom attended conventions, and was generally quite rude and off-putting to anyone who tried to talk to him. Consequently, very little information about Russell exists other than matters of public record such as his birth, marriage and death certificates and his service record during the war. To his credit, John Ingham has (somehow) managed to track down a lot of photographs of Russell from the collections of people who knew him. Most of these people, of course, are themselves long dead but some of them did record their impressions of Russell, not always favourably, and Ingham has tracked some of this documentation down as well. So, in fact, he’s managed to do quite a lot with some very unpromising material.

Nevertheless, the story of Russell’s life remains thin and so, because of the paucity of information, Ingham pads out his book by discussing the plots of various of Russell’s stories rather than trying to shed any more light on his personal life – that’s no bad thing in itself, of course. But it is a bit self-defeating because Russell’s stories were often quite shallow (particularly in the early days). Many were rescued only by his humour and wit. Take that away and there’s often nothing left. Sometimes he did try to be serious, of course, but the results were often dire and are, perhaps, best ignored...

Ingham does manage to clear up one little mystery about Russell’s life. For many years the American SF novelist Jack Chalker, a friend of Russell’s family, claimed that the plot of Russell’s novel Wasp (in which an agent of Earth brings an alien race to the brink of destruction by performing acts of social sabotage and guerilla warfare) was based upon ideas that Russell developed when he worked for the intelligence services during the war. However, as it happens, Russell’s war record is very well documented. He had an active war, often serving close to the front lines, and there is no record whatsoever that he ever had any involvement at all with the intelligence services. So unless the documentation that makes up his war record has been fabricated, and there is absolutely no reason to suppose that it has (and many reasons to suppose that it hasn’t), there would seem to be no truth at all to Jack Chalker’s claim.

A lot people have commented that the aliens in Wasp appear to be nothing but thinly disguised  Japanese who are portrayed in a very unfavourable and hostile light. In real life it seems that Russell had a completely irrational hatred of the Japanese. It’s rather hard to understand where that might have come from – in all his life, I don’t think that he ever met anyone from Japan. Certainly he never fought against them during the war. His wartime military service all took place in Europe. But post-war reports of atrocities committed by the Japanese, particularly against British soldiers, just reinforced his prejudices and his xenophobia was quite blatantly present in several of his stories. Ingham records that even as late as the 1970s Russell point blank refused to buy anything labelled as "Made in Japan". However despite his strong hatred of the Japanese he never refused permission for his books to be published in Japan – at least fifteen separate editions of various titles were published there during his lifetime. I would imagine that he must have made a reasonable amount of money from the royalties. This hypocritical double standard does not reflect well on his character...

I don’t think I’d have liked Eric Frank Russell very much, and I’m rather glad that I never met him. Given the limitations of the material that John Ingham had to work with, I think he’s done a good job with his portrait of Russell’s life. It’s just a shame that Russell’s life turned out to be so unapproachable, so unattractive and, in the final analysis, so uninteresting. Perhaps it would be best just to stick to the stories and try to put Eric Frank Russell the man out of your mind.

As part of the University of Illinois series discussing Modern Masters of SF, Paul Kincaid has written a very exhaustive analysis of Iain Banks’ SF novels (which he wrote under the impenetrable pseudonym Iain M. Banks, reserving the name Iain Banks for his mainstream novels). To my way of thinking, Kincaid’s book presents a somewhat lop-sided analysis in that it concentrates on the SF novels and barely mentions the mainstream (and perhaps more "literary") books at all. Given that the Modern Masters series specifically concerns itself with SF, I suppose that is completely understandable, but the two strands of Banks’ writing life were so intertwined that I’m not really sure you can properly concentrate on the one without also analysing the influences of the other. Of course I’m biased. By and large I much prefer Banks’ mainstream novels, and so do many other people. Fay Weldon, for example, called him " the great white hope of contemporary British literature". I have no idea what that means, but it sounds awfully impressive! By contrast, I find a lot of his SF to be whimsical, shallow and often far too wordy. I think I’d have enjoyed his SF novels a lot more if they were a third of the size (though I do have a soft spot for the door-stopper that is Excession).

Banks himself was definitely a huge science fiction fan. I met him several times at British conventions and I always found him to be modest, pleasant, approachable, easy to talk to and often very funny – characteristics that I feel are reflected in all his novels, both SF and mainstream. It is a fact that the first novels that he ever wrote were SF, though he had to wait until he got mainstream acceptance before any of them were published. Amusingly, there are many SF references buried in some of his mainstream novels for those that have eyes to notice them (Kincaid points out several such instances).

I enjoyed Kincaid’s analysis. It’s very insightful and it made me look at some of Banks’ novels in a whole new light (particularly Feersum Endjin, though I doubt I will ever re-read that rather odd novel. The chapters written phonetically by the character Bascule are just too painful to puzzle out).

This has been a very biographical and analytical month. I suppose that there must be something in the water. Star Begotten is the autobiography of James E. Gunn and it is subtitled A Life Lived In Science Fiction. Gunn is 94 years old and he has been writing science fiction since the 1940s. He’s been described as the last of the Golden Age authors and I suspect that is exactly what he is (though Robert Silverberg might give him a little bit of a run for his money). He knew and worked with most of the big names in science fiction and once Star Begotten gets to the point of actually discussing Gunn’s SF career it gets fascinating and just a little bit gossipy. But I must confess that I found the early chapters a little dull. In them Gunn describes his childhood and adolescence which turn out to have been as interesting as your childhood and adolescence and mine as well. In other words not very! There are one or two high spots in the early chapters though – Gunn discovered the stories of H. G. Wells very early in his life, and I found myself nodding in remembered appreciation as Gunn describes the effect this had on him for I too have admired H. G. Wells almost since I first learned to read. Gunn also recalls attending a meeting at which he actually heard Wells give a talk. I found myself feeling quite jealous when I read about this…

As well as having had a successful career as a novelist, Gunn has also worked in academia and he has used the opportunity to spread the SF word by pioneering the introduction of courses in science fiction. He has even written non-fiction books about the field, notably a literary biography of Isaac Asimov (which won a Hugo award) and an early attempt at a science fiction encyclopedia. He’s had his fingers in many pies, all of them tasty!

His love of SF shines through this book, and because he has been so closely involved with the field for such a long time I think that this is an important book. It is a slice of history defining a place, a time and a literary fashion.

Earlier this month I was saddened to learn of the death by suicide of Anthony Bourdain. So, as I always do when one of my literary heroes dies, I decided to go and re-read one of his books. For no very good reason except that it was the first one my fingers fell upon, I chose Medium Raw.

I remembered very little about this book and I had a lot of fun rediscovering it all over again. It turned out to consist of a series of essays, many of them autobiographical, in which Bourdain muses upon marriage and food and chefs (celebrity and otherwise) and absolutely anything else that happens to pops into his mind. That makes it a little bit of rambling kind of a book – there’s no real unifying theme. Not that this really matters. It’s a beautifully written book which is often very funny, as well as being both thoughtful and profound. But I must admit that I was quite taken aback, and more than a little upset, to find a whole chapter in which he recalls a time in his life when he seriously flirted with the idea of suicide. Clearly the depression into which he must have sunk this time is not a new phenomenon. It puts his death much more into perspective, though it doesn’t make that death any less sad.

An unending diet of biography, literary analysis and introspection gets a bit hard to stomach after a while. Therefore I have been reading some fiction as well, so as to flavour the stew. As far as I remember Afterwar is the first thing I’ve ever read by Lilith Saintcrow. I enjoyed it a lot, though it did exhibit a few literary tics that I found annoying. The novel opens in the last few days of the second American civil war. The federal troops have triumphed over the "America First" forces of President McCoombs. They’ve liberated the death camps and are now engaged in hunting down the people who committed the genocidal atrocities.

McCoombs himself is a very thinly disguised Trump (though perhaps not quite as orange as the real thing). The fact of his dictatorship and the implementation of his policies are indeed a logical outcome of the approach that got Trump elected in the first place. In that respect this is a rather terrifying novel predicting, as it does, an American government with a permanent president whose dictatorship and policies eventually cause a civil war. In reality, I suspect that the checks and balances built into the American political system make it just a little too robust to allow for the kind of abuses that have given the fictional McCoombs his iron grip on power. There were speculations that George W. Shrubbery contemplated just such a course, but it came to nothing in the end, and the Orange Monster himself is probably far too inept to even set the wheels in motion. On the other hand, my crystal ball is just as cloudy as everybody else’s and I may well be wrong. If I am, then God Help America.

The satire in Afterwar is often more than a little heavy handed. I quickly got very tired of Saintcrow’s habit of replacing the letter "C" with the letter "K" in just about every aspect of McCoombs’ presidency. Amerika, Koncentration Kamps etc. I suspect that this is probably a deliberate attempt to cast the shadow of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK if I really need to belabour the point) over McCoombs’ policies – certainly I feel that the Klan would find itself quite at home in McCoombs’ America (sorry, I mean Amerika) but it’s a very annoying affectation which almost made me put the book down half-read. However I’m glad I persisted. Afterwar is a scary, prophetic, powerful and probably very important novel.

The Blood Road is Stuart MacBride’s eleventh novel about Inspector Logan Mcrae, though it stands alone quite nicely.

The corpse discovered in a crashed car turns out to be the body of Detective Inspector Duncan Bell, a policeman who everybody thought had died several years ago. Mcrae himself had actually been at Inspector Bell’s funeral. So now that Bell has turned up stabbed to death in a car, everybody wants to know just who is buried in Bell’s grave and where has Bell himself been living for the last few years?

At the beginning, the book is very funny in that curiously sardonic, cynical and slyly observed way that only the Scottish can be funny. But the story is also very dark and the answers to the questions raised by Duncan Bell’s real death turn out to be extremely unsavoury indeed. The  last few chapters make for very grim reading and all trace of humour completely vanishes. You’ll need a very strong stomach to read all the way to the end of this one.

Stephen King’s new novel The Outsider is a curious combination of detective novel and supernatural thriller. An eleven year old boy is found murdered. DNA and fingerprint evidence as well as the statements of eye witnesses conclusively incriminate Terry Maitland, a baseball coach. Maitland, however, has a cast iron alibi. He wasn’t in town on the day of the murder. He was attending a convention in another city and there is video, documentary and eye witness evidence that he was physically present at the convention while the murder was taking place.

That particular Gordian knot can only be cut in one way. Sherlock Holmes said it first and he said it best:  "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth." It’s a very small step from there to an acceptance of a supernatural explanation of the facts.

The exact nature of the supernatural element finally becomes clear about three quarters of the way through the novel and the story goes downhill from there. Once all the mysteries are cleared up the only thing left is the thrill of the chase as the bad guy is tracked down, and of course that’s just writing by numbers as far as King is concerned. The last few chapters of the book sag tediously and predictably and by then I really just wanted it to be over.

On the plus side, the novel exhibits all King’s normal brilliance at characterisation, dialogue and even occasional comedy. The story held me thoroughly gripped and on the edge of my seat until it all turned routine. Maybe I’ve read too much Stephen King and so I knew what to expect. Shrug.

On the minus side, the suspected murderer is a baseball coach which allows King to take his own enthusiasm for baseball to quite ridiculous lengths and the book is packed with (to me) utterly incomprehensible jargon. What does it mean to be at the bottom of the ninth? What are loaded bases? How do you do pinch-hitting and what is it anyway? Why should I care?

The Outsider is a curate’s egg of a book. Not one of Stephen King’s better efforts.

And then it was Thursday. We took Jake and a cat carrying case to the vets. Jake watched, intrigued as Steffi put Gilbert into the case along with a favourite toy, a stuffed multi-coloured fish that crackled when chewed or clawed. Gilbert looked bewildered. He’d never been in a carrying case before. But it was a new experience, and he likes new experiences. So he settled back to enjoy it, kneading his fish every so often when he felt the urge. "I shall cry," announced Steffi firmly. And then she turned pink and started to leak.

"Don’t worry," I said to her. "I promise we’ll take good care of him."

Steffi gave us a bag of kitty litter and a bag of special kitten food. "Just make sure there’s food in his bowl all the time," she said. "He likes to graze all day. He’ll eat when he’s hungry and he’ll stop eating when he’s full. Don’t worry, he won’t overeat."

"I’m not worried about that," I said. "I’m more worried about Jake coming along when Gilbert’s not looking and polishing off whatever Gilbert hasn’t eaten yet."

"I’m confident that you’ll think of something," said Steffi. "Now be sure to ring me tomorrow to tell me how he’s settled in. I want a full report."

"I promise," I said. We took Jake out to the car and he jumped into his usual seat. We put Gilbert’s carrying case on the seat next to Jake. Jake turned his head away and deliberately didn’t look at Gilbert as we drove home. "This is fun," said Gilbert and he started to purr so loudly that he completely drowned out the sound of the engine.

We introduced Gilbert to his new home. "This is your food bowl," I said, putting it on a nice high shelf that I hoped Jake wouldn’t be able to reach. Unfortunately it soon became clear that Gilbert couldn’t reach it either because he wasn’t very good at climbing yet. Oh well, at least he had an incentive to learn and meanwhile we could lift him up there every few minutes in case he was feeling peckish. "And this is a comfy blanket for you to sleep on," I continued. "And this is your dirt tray."

Gilbert was impressed with the arrangements. He stood on his blanket and looked at his dirt tray across the room. "I do approve of an en suite," he said. Then he climbed into his dirt tray and christened it copiously.

Jake watched all this with a hangdog air and sighed deeply. The sound attracted Gilbert’s attention and he began to stalk Jake who stood there wagging his tail until Gilbert made himself look terrifying by fluffing up his fur and arching his back whereupon Jake, Robin and I backed away and pretended we were doing something else.

Gilbert spent a couple of hours making sure that he and his fish knew where everything was. He came to us for reassuring cuddles when it all got a bit too much. Windows were a special source of delight. I don’t think he’d ever seen out into the world before and he stared in wide-eyed and wild-eyed wonder, as he watched the birds zoom past. He chittered at them to come closer so he could kill them. I knew with complete certainty just what his hobby was going to be when he finally managed to get outside...

Once Gilbert had the geography of the house figured out, he flipped a switch on his control panel and began shooting between rooms at the speed of light. For the rest of the day he only had two speeds – on and off.

"Well Jake," I said, "what do you think of it so far?"

"Rubbish!" said Jake and he stomped off into the corridor with Gilbert’s fish in his mouth. Soon we heard ripping noises as he relieved his feelings by tearing the fish to shreds. Gilbert didn’t seem to mind. There were far too many other wonderful things going on to worry about a crinkly, crackly fish.

The next day, Gilbert greeted me with yawns, stretches and purrs. "Did you sleep well?" I asked.

"Delightfully, thank you," said Gilbert. "What’s the plan for today?"

"I thought maybe you might like to chase a piece of paper," I said.

"That sounds like a good idea," agreed Gilbert.

I rang Steffi. "Hi Steffi," I said, "it’s Alan here."

"What’s wrong?" asked Steffi, panic in her voice. "What’s happened?"

"Nothing," I said. "Everything’s fine. I just wanted to let you know that Gilbert has settled in very well."

"Oh good," said Steffi. "How’s Jake handling it?"

"He’s doing very well," I said. "Gilbert has got him well under control."

"I thought he would," said Steffi. "That’s the kind of cat that Gilbert is."

John L. Ingham Into Your Tent Plantech (UK)
Paul Kincaid Modern Masters of SF: Iain M. Banks University of Illinois Press
James E. Gunn Star Begotten McFarland
Anthony Bourdain Medium Raw Ecco Press
Lilith Saintcrow Afterwar Tor
Stuart MacBride The Blood Road HarperCollins
Stephen King The Outsider Hodder and Stoughton
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