Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (thunksero sera)

I Thunk, Therefore I Am Locked

I got out of the car and pressed the button on my gadget. Normally when I do that there is a satisfying "Thunk!", the indicator lights flash, and all the doors lock themselves. But this time nothing at all happened. No noise, no lights, no locks. The car had completely run out of thunk. Damn! I thought. The battery in my gadget must be flat. I locked the car with my ignition key and went about my business. It felt very strange. I hadn’t used the ignition key for anything except starting the engine for so many years that I’d lost count, and I was fumble-fingered and awkward when I tried to insert it in the door.

An hour or so later I returned to the car and experimentally I pressed the button on my gadget again. But it was fruitless. The car remained thunkless. I drove home, pondering the nature of a car without thunk.

"It’s broken," I explained to Robin.

She looked puzzled, as well she might. "What is?" she asked.

I waved my gadget at her. She was not impressed. "Call that a gadget?" she asked scornfully. "That’s not a gadget. This is a gadget!" With an excited flourish she waved her own. But it did no good. The car refused to thunk.

It seemed unlikely to me that two thunk-causing gadgets would stop working simultaneously. Surely their batteries would not go flat within seconds of each other? And anyway, when I looked more closely, each gadget flashed a green light when its buttons were pressed. If the gadget was broken, surely it would flash a red light? Clearly the gadgets were functioning normally. The car itself must have a broken thunker.

"Have you checked the level of the think in the thunk tank?" asked Robin. "It might need topping up." In a previous life, Robin had been a car mechanic. She knows about these things.

"I didn’t know I had a thunk tank," I confessed.

"You don’t," said Robin, "but the car does." She checked, but the thunk tank was almost overflowing with think. Clearly that wasn’t the problem.


I drove the car to an auto-electrician called Chris. "I have no thunk and I must clank," I explained.

"Leave it with me," said Chris, helpfully. "I’ll soon have your car thunking again."

"Thank you," I said. "Sorry to impose such a thunkless task on you." Chris winced and I could see him mentally adding $20 to my bill...

Happy that the car was in good hands, I gave Chris my ignition key and my gadget. Then I went for a long walk with Jake the Dog. Half way through the walk, my phone rang. "Hello?"

"Hi," said a voice. "This is Chris."

"Hello, Chris," I said. "Have you got good news for me?"

"Yes and no," said Chris. "The good news is that I traced the circuit and found a blown fuse. So I put a new fuse in and pressed the button on your gadget..." He paused.

"And the bad news?" I encouraged him.

"And I got a sort of half-hearted thunk," he said. "Then the fuse blew again."

"That doesn’t sound hopeful," I said.

"No," said Chris, "I’m going to have to fit a whole new thunker. The old one is, to use a technical term, munted."

"As in stuffed?" I asked.

He shook his head dolefully. "No," he said, "it’s much worse that that."

"So what exactly does the repair involve?" I asked.

"Eye wateringly large amounts of money," said Chris in deeply satisfied tones. With a heavy heart, I told him to go ahead with it.

The new unit thunks in a most satisfying manner when you press its extraordinarily big gadget. I can also thunk from much further away than I could before. I can do it from all the way across the car park which makes the car look as if it is saying hello to me as soon as it spots me coming. I find this very gratifying.

"There’s an added bonus," said Chris as he handed me the new gadget. "I’ve put a red LED on the dashboard. When you lock the car with your gadget, the thunk starts the LED flashing and everyone will think you have a car alarm. You haven’t got a car alarm, it’s only a flashing light, but nobody except you and I know that."

"Cor!" I said, impressed.

* * * *

It’s been a bit of a biographical month. First up was Eric Idle’s sortabiography Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. The title, of course, comes from the song that Idle and his friends sing at the end of the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian while they hang there crucified on their crosses. The song is hugely popular and is one of the most often requested songs to be sung at funerals. Indeed, it was sung recently at the funeral of a friend of mine, and if she had been there, I’m sure she would have thoroughly approved of it. Idle himself is somewhat resigned to the fact that he will almost certainly be singing it at his own funeral, though not necessarily in the flesh of course.

Before I read this book, I knew little about Eric Idle’s background and most of my assumptions turned out to be completely wrong. All I really knew was that he had been one of the Cambridge University Footlights people, and it was there that he made the many friends who would one day coalesce into Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Because of this, I had always assumed that Eric Idle must have come from a privileged, middle class or possibly upper class background and that he had drifted through school and gone on to university because, cliché though it is, that description summarises the vast majority of the Cambridge graduates in the world. So I was rather surprised when I discovered that in fact he came from a working class family and that his early life had been rather hard and distinctly lacking in privilege. His father had been in the RAF during the war. Sadly, shortly after the war ended, he died in a traffic accident. Eric’s mother had to work full time just to keep food on the table and she found herself quite unable to cope with the problems of both working and bringing up a child by herself. Consequently she enrolled Eric in a boarding school - the Royal Wolverhampton School which was a charitable foundation dedicated to the education and maintenance of children who had lost one or both parents. Of his time at the school, Eric Idle says:

It was a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in. I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart and funny and subversive at the expense of authority. Perfect training for Python…

His quick and clever mind proved to be his passport out of the working class. He interviewed for Cambridge University and he was offered a place to read English provided that he could pass O-Level Latin after a year of studying it. This, he claims, was "a doddle". I myself struggled with Latin for four years. I failed every Latin exam I ever took, and I never even got close to O-level standard, so I have to confess that I greatly admire his accomplishment! And so it was that he found himself continuing his education at one of the most prestigious universities in the world...

Eric grew up in in Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula, near Liverpool. There, one day, he met a boy called George, playing on the sand dunes at New Brighton. He and George played happily together all day long. Many, many years later, Eric became close friends with the Beatle George Harrison and he says that when he first met Harrison he couldn’t help feeling that there was something familiar about the man. Could Harrison have been the George that he played with that day on the sands all those years ago? He never asked, and now that George Harrison has died, he never will ask, of course. It remains an intriguing puzzle.

Eric’s sortabiography is a fascinating read with lots of inside gossip about what made Eric, in particular, and the pythons, in general, tick. As you might expect from the python who was always best known for his wordplay, wit and verbal humour, it’s a beautifully written and presented book.

The Scottish comedian Billy Connolly has been one of my heroes for ever. Like Eric Idle, he too is well known for his verbal dexterity (as well as for his hilarious obscenity). Made In Scotland is his autobiography and it is at one and the same time a fascinating and often rather upsetting book to read. Connolly was born and raised in a tenement slum in Glasgow. His mother left the family when he was four years old and Billy was brought up by his father and two aunts all of whom abused him both physically and, in the case of his father, sexually. In addition he had a very sadistic school teacher who beat him unmercifully almost every day for the slightest of reasons and sometimes for no reason at all. That he survived all this abuse is a tribute to his strength of character. That it turned him into the well-loved personality that he is today is nothing short of miraculous!

After he left school, Billy took a job as an apprentice welder in the Clyde shipyards. One of the ships that was being built at the time was the QE II and one day Billy actually fastened a washer to the ship. Many years later, when he was rich and famous, he was staying in a hotel in Sydney when the QE II came into dock near the Opera House. He went down to watch the passengers disembarking and he wondered to himself how his washer was holding up. He came to the conclusion that it seemed to be doing OK.

Billy is married to Pamela Stephenson who has a degree in psychology and who practices as a psychotherapist. She has written two biographies of her husband. One is called Billy and the other is called Bravemouth. Not surprisingly, they cover much the same ground as Billy’s own autobiography and many of the same incidents are described in all three books. But in Pamela’s biographies we see these anecdotes filtered through the psychological insights that are the outcome of her profession. Whether or not this adds anything to the interpretation of the meaning of life is an open question (Billy himself is rather dismissive of the "psychobabble") but I found that reading all three books one after the other was very illuminating. If you are a Billy Connolly fan (and who isn’t a Billy Connolly fan?) you really should read these books. They are both fascinating and insightful.

Everyone of my generation grew up with the constant presence of David Attenborough. All my life long he’s been there on the TV and the radio with his distinctive voice describing some fascinating aspect of the natural world. New Life Stories is a series of essays (taken, I gather, from a BBC Radio 4 series) each of which has something to say about animal behaviour. And one of those animals, often just mentioned in passing in an illuminating anecdote, is David Attenborough himself.

There’s no real unifying theme to these essays, unless you consider the entirety of the natural realm to be a theme in its own right. They bounce around from pillar to post, one minute reflecting on the difficulty of climbing trees in order to take pictures of birds and the next minute pulling the leg of an inattentive hostess at a party about the spectacle of pterosaurs gliding over the cliffs of Dover. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the essays really are addictive reading.

I’m a huge fan of Mary Robinette Kowal but even I have to admit that Ghost Talkers is a rather bad book. It starts out well. The novel is set in the early years of the twentieth century during the first world war. The basic premise is that spiritualism has been put on to a firm scientific footing and the spirits of dead soldiers have been indoctrinated to report everything that they see and hear at the moment of their death to the mediums who control them. This scientifically obtained, up to the minute intelligence has proven itself to be invaluable in the making of tactical decisions on the battlefield…

So far so good – this is a perfectly reasonable basis for a science fiction novel and I had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, although Mary Robinette Kowal paints a brilliant picture of the scientific uses of spiritualism, she completely fails to convince me that her story is set in WWI. Almost without exception, her early twentieth century protagonists display twenty-first century attitudes and the whole novel collapses in on itself as a result.

Every novel I have read by Mary Robinette Kowal has had a sub-text that concerned itself with some aspect of racism and prejudice, and Ghost Talkers is no exception. However she gets the contemporary attitudes to these things so completely and utterly wrong that the spell of the story is irretrievably broken. Nobody in 1916, absolutely nobody at all would ever think of negros as "people of colour". Furthermore, all of her characters save one are British, but nevertheless she gives them all very American opinions about race. I’m not claiming that the British were not racially prejudiced; of course they were. But British prejudices generally manifested themselves in a much more subtle manner than in the blatantly overt American attitudes that she has her characters display here. The overall effect is just so wrong, so often, that for me the novel was a big failure.

Squirm is a rather preachy middle grade novel by Carl Hiaasen. Billy Dickens is a nature lover with a penchant for snakes (I love the opening sequence where he uses a snake to tame a school bully). His mother is obsessed with bald eagles and every so often she uproots the family to go in search of a new nest. Billy’s father left home many years ago and now the household consists only of Billy, his mother and his sister. Billy remains curious about his father and eventually they make contact again. Together they try and foil the aspirations of the villainous Lincoln Chumley Baxter IV who gets his kicks from killing members of endangered animal species.

Carl Hiaasen has always been a button pusher and his novels have always had a blatantly up front message about the necessity to protect and care for the natural world. By and large, his adult novels manage to carry the message very well because he wraps it around brilliantly amusing absurd humour and deeply eccentric characters. His YA novels are much less effective mainly, I suspect, because deep down  they are far too serious and also because the jokes are less subtle and much more sparsely distributed. Consequently the stories tend to collapse under the weight of significance that Hiaasen tries to make them carry. Squirm does have its moments of brilliance, but they are few and far between.

In a House of Lies is Ian Rankin’s 22nd novel about Inspector John Rebus. The body of a man is discovered in the boot of a car. There are handcuffs (probably police issue handcuffs) around his ankles and he has clearly been dead for many years. He is eventually identified as Stuart Bloom, a gay private investigator who disappeared without trace more than a decade ago. The car and the body have been found in an area that was searched minutely during the original investigation into his disappearance so clearly they cannot have been there for very long unless the original investigation into Bloom’s disappearance was completely incompetant. Obviously the original investigation will need re-examining with a fine-tooth comb and that is one of the tasks that Rebus’ old partner Siobhan Clarke is handed. Rebus himself had been part of that original team so naturally she turns to him for advice about the team members. Some were incompetant, some were stupid and some were corrupt. Most, though not all, are now retired or dead.

By now you’d expect that Rankin would be able to turn his mind off and write a Rebus novel by the numbers. Rebus is now so firmly entrenched in the annals of police procedural novels that any story involving him will sell like hot cakes. But Rankin refuses to do that. He never chooses to take the easy way out. Somehow he weaves the strands of all the old, familiar elements into a complex tale of flexible loyalties and political pragmatism. This is a subtle and satisfying novel, one of Rankin’s best.

Hail! Hail! is a novella by Harry Turtledove. It is a stand alone story, not connected with any of his ongoing series. The tale begins in 1933. The Marx brothers have just finished filming Duck Soup, a movie in which Groucho is appointed leader of the bankrupt country of Fredonia. The neighbouring country of Sylvania is attempting to annex Fredonia and Chico and Harpo are infiltrated into Fredonia so as to try and dig up some dirt on Groucho. Many Marxian high jinks ensue. In Turtledove’s story, the Marx brothers are transported back to Texas in the year 1826 where they find themselves part of an actual Fredonian rebellion – apparently this really was an early attempt by Texas to secede from Mexican control. And again, of course, many Marxian high jinks ensue.

It’s an entertaining tale in its own right, but if you aren’t a Marx Brothers fan, and if you aren’t well versed in the minutiae of their lives and films, much of this novella will probably whoosh past your eyes and ears in an uncomprehending blur of sight and sound. At the very least, you probably ought to watch Duck Soup again before you start to read the book.

The blurb on Townies makes its author Eric Pruitt sound like a reincarnation of Joe Lansdale. Certainly both authors write in a similar style about similar subjects and similar situations, but I don’t think Joe Lansdale has any need to worry about the competition. Townies is a collection of short stories mostly set in and around East Texas. The writing is fine and the characters and situations are well drawn, but the stories lack cohesion and logic. For example, one story is set in 1963 and the people who live in a small town somewhere in the back of beyond in East Texas have just learned of the assassination of John Kennedy. Naturally they are shocked and horrified, but their immediate reaction to Kennedy’s death is to form a posse and head off to the railway station where they lynch a hobo who is riding the rails. Perhaps this makes sense in East Texas, but I doubt if it makes sense anywhere else in the world. I had the same sense of disconnectedness from most of the stories in the collection. It was a very frustrating book to read.

Talking of Joe Lansdale, Subterranean Press has just published a limited edition collection of his stories. It’s called Driving to Geronimo’s Grave and my copy is number 293 of an edition of 1500. The title story is a little disappointing in that it reads like the synopsis of a much longer piece. One of the characters spends a lot of time telling the others about things he did "off stage". I’d have preferred to see a longer work where we actually see these events take place rather than have them reported to us by a Greek chorus. But maybe that’s just me. And maybe the plot is too slight to carry that burden anyway. The plot, such as it is, is fairly straightforward. A family learns that their uncle has died and the body is waiting to be picked up from a chicken coop where it has been left for safe keeping (though when they arrive to pick the body up they find that coyotes have chewed off one of its feet and a toe from the remaining foot). They put the body in the back seat of their car and set off for home, but Uncle is a bit too ripe for comfort so eventually they have to dump him in a safe place. Along the way they come across their Uncle’s partner in crime and get side tracked into a hunt for the money that Uncle and his companion had stolen, and which is buried behind Geronimo’s grave. Maybe…

Like the Uncle’s corpse, the story probably needs to ripen a bit more before it reaches perfection.

In the Mad Mountains, the second story in the collection is a tedious Lovecraft pastiche which I couldn’t even bring myself to finish. I confess by this point I was starting to regret the huge amount of money I’d spent buying this book. But the next story I read was Wrestling Jesus which is probably one of the best stories Lansdale has ever written. I think it justifies the existence of the book all by itself…

Marvin is a schoolboy who is being ruthlessly bullied. One day he is rescued from a severe beating by a strange old man who takes Marvin under his wing and tries (with a modicum of success) to teach Marvin how to defend himself. Marvin learns that the old man used to be a wrestler in a carnival, though he is now long retired. But every year he fights one fight with a Mexican wrestler called Jesus who stole the woman that he loved. Every year he fights for his love, hoping to win her back. Marvin witnesses one of these bouts and both he and the old man learn valuable lessons about what is worth fighting for, and what isn’t.

The other stories are enjoyable – vintage Lansdale, all of them and I’m very glad to have the collection on my shelves. But Wrestling Jesus is the jewel in the crown (if you want to seek that story out and if you don’t want to pay a fortune for a limited edition collection, you’ll also find it in the anthology Dangerous Women edited by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin).

Eric Idle Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life Crown Archetype
Billy Connolly Made in Scotland BBC Digital
Pamela Stephenson Billy Harper
Pamela Stephenson Bravemouth Headline
David Attenborough New Life Stories BBC Digital
Mary Robinette Kowal Ghost Talkers Tor
Carl Hiaasen Squirm Knopf
Ian Rankin In A House of Lies Orion
Harry Turtledove Hail! Hail! Swallow’s End
Eryk Pruitt Townies Polis Books
Joe R. Lansdale Dancing To Geronimo’s Grave Subterranean Press
Previous Contents Next