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Since this will be published in the run up to Christmas, I thought I’d tell you all a Christmas story...

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (xmas xmassimus)

Christmas Celebrations

"Many happy returns," said the angel, handing Jesus a birthday card.

Jesus scowled at the card. "Put it on the mantelpiece with all the others," he said.

The angel stared at the mantelpiece that stretched across the room behind Jesus. He was a very new angel and he’d never seen the mantelpiece before. It was made of highly polished oak and it receded so far into the distance in each direction that the angel couldn’t see an end to it. Like all receding parallel lines, it converged to a point in the distance, and vanished from view. The angel had a vague memory of learning about that in a geometry lesson at school back in the days before he made the transition to angelhood. Uncountable numbers of birthday cards sat neatly to attention all along the mantelpiece, as far as the eye could see. He gulped, and tried to squeeze his own modest card into the crowd, being careful not to knock any of them over. He had a horrible feeling that if he did, all the cards would collapse one after the other, racing off into infinity like a never ending fall of dominoes.

"I hate this time of year," grumbled Jesus. "Every time it rolls around there are more and more angels giving me more and more cards and I have to keep extending the mantelpiece to cope with them all. It’s a good job my dad was a carpenter. At least I know how to make a decent mortice and tenon joint."

The angel couldn’t resist the temptation. "Wouldn’t a concealed dovetail joint be easier? It would look so much nicer as well. You’d never be able to see the where one bit ends and the next bit begins."

Jesus scowled. "You might be right," he said, "but I’ll never know. I missed that lesson. I went out into the world to start doing my sermon stuff shortly after dad taught me mortice and tenon joints, and I never went back home again. So they are the only kind of joints I know how to do." He gave a humourless laugh. "Let’s be thankful for small mercies – at least I didn’t use nails. I’ve always hated nails ever since..." He paused. "Well… you know," he finished lamely.

The angel nodded sympathetically.

"I suppose you’ll be at the party tonight?" asked Jesus grumpily.

"Yes," said the angel. "I’m really looking forward to it. They’re putting on a fish nibble gourmet buffet. Gabriel baked five loaves and Peter went fishing and caught two whitebait. He says that should be more than enough for everyone."

"I don’t want to go to the party at all," said Jesus, "but I have to. I really don’t like it when all the assembled heavenly hosts sing Happy Birthday to me. It’s so embarrassing because most of them can’t sing in tune. But the Holy Ghost absolutely loves it. He’s been rehearsing them for ages and if I don’t go He’ll come round every night and haunt me unmercifully. It’s enough to drive a person to drink." Jesus poured water into a glass then he tapped the glass with his forefinger. The liquid turned a deep, dark red. "Falernian," explained Jesus. "I developed a real taste for the Roman vintages, back in the day." He drank deeply and sighed with pleasure. "That’s a nice drop," he said. "It never fails to turn my teeth pink and make me fall over. What more can you ask of a wine?"

"Well, at least that little trick guarantees that you’ll never run out wine to drink at the party," said the angel. "You know what they say – always look on the bright side of life!"

"Never ending wine is the only thing that makes the party bearable," said Jesus, morosely, "particularly when everybody starts to give me presents."

"Don’t you like presents?" asked the angel, who’d spent all his wages on a small parcel of frankincense which he’d been quite looking forward to presenting to Jesus at the party.

"Gold," moaned Jesus. "Piles and piles of bloody gold, box after box of frankincense resin, and more myrrh than you can shake a stick at. It’s all so bloody unimaginative. Why won’t anybody give me a train set?"

The angel felt a little shocked at the sacrilege, but then he began to consider the possibilities. If he could get hold of a train set before the party began, it might help him a lot with the advancement of his career. And maybe he should see about selling his frankincense as well. Once the word began to spread about train sets, the bottom was bound to fall out of the frankincense market.

"I’ve been helping to decorate the tree," the angel said, suddenly feeling quite bold because Jesus was confiding in him. "I put a star on the top."

"Why?" asked Jesus. "What’s a star got to do with anything?"

"It signifies the star that shone over your birth place," said the angel.

"That’s wrong," said Jesus. "Dad always told me that I was born in a five star hotel. He said he could count the stars through the hole in the roof. They never get that bit right in nativity plays."

"There’s going to be a special nativity play at the party tonight," said the angel, "but don’t tell anyone that I told you. I don’t want to get into trouble."

"What’s so special about it?" asked Jesus. "They do one every year and it’s always exactly the same – shepherds wash their socks by night all seated round the tub, a bar of Sunlight soap comes down and they begin to scrub. Dead boring if you ask me, though nobody ever does. You’ve washed one sock, you’ve washed them all in my opinion."

"It’s special because I’m playing the bar of soap," said the angel proudly. "Everybody says I’m really good at coming down. They’ve never seen anyone come down better. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it when you see it."

Jesus brightened. "Break a leg!" he said, encouragingly. "Come down hard. Don’t worry, I’ll heal it for you afterwards. That’s my super power."

"Thanks," said the angel, "I appreciate it. Anyway, it was nice meeting you, but I really should be going now. I’ve got a lot of rehearsing to do. Merry Christmas!"

"Bah, humbug!" said Jesus.

* * * *

I’ve been continuing with the biographical mood that first struck me last month. Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite is the autobiography of Roger Daltrey, the lead singer of The Who. The eponymous Mr Kibblewhite was apparently a school teacher who told Daltrey that he’d never amount to anything!

The book is, of course, just as much the story of The Who as it is the story of Roger Daltrey himself. What else could it be? The two are inextricably entwined. He looks back on his life with wit and humour – there were many passages in the book that had me laughing out loud – but there are the inevitable sadnesses as well when he discusses the deaths of Keith Moon and John Entwistle.

Daltrey has an enviable ability to say a lot in a very few, very well chosen words. His description of Pete Townshend as "Tall and skinny, he looked like a nose on a stick" is just perfect and his insights into the reasons for the social, sexual, artistic and political upheavals that characterised the 1960s are spot on:

What happened in the sixties started in the forties. The generation born during the hostilities, right up to 1950, those were the magical years for musicians, artists, scientists, everything. That’s what happens when you start out with a fallow field. So much had been destroyed, there was only one thing that could happen. To build. We were a generation of builders. There was no choice. We had grown up with very little. . .

Daltrey always thought of himself as an outsider. Born into the working class, he was bright enough to pass his 11-plus exam and go to a grammar school, but he never fitted in there, regarding his classmates as being too posh for him to associate with. He came to feel that education was a punishment for some unknown misdemeanour (though later in life he reversed that opinion and spent a lot of time catching up with the things he had  missed). This feeling of being on the outside looking in meant that sometimes he even had problems fitting in with his bandmates. Once, after an argument which ended up with him punching Keith Moon, they actually fired him! Eventually he was grudgingly reinstated and he records that for the next two or three years he was subjected to a lot of sly comments and windups (Keith used to throw drumsticks at the back of his head as he sang) and he had to work very hard not to respond to the jibes with his fists.

But despite all of that, when he looks back on what The Who achieved he has to admit that: "something that gets missed in all the war stories about The Who …. we respected each other".

Daltrey’s memoir is probably the very best of the recent crop of rock and roll biographies. Daltrey himself comes across as a genuinely nice person, though he is not without his faults, most of which he freely admits to.

The same cannot be said for Eric Clapton, the subject of Philip Norman’s biography Slowhand. Clapton may have been God, as the famous anonymous graffito declared, but he was a god with feet of clay. He found fame and fortune almost despite himself – every time his musical talent took him to the top he deliberately turned his back on it and walked away. He appears to have a personality that consists largely of defects. In Philip Norman’s story of his life he comes across as an extremely selfish man with absolutely no sense of responsibility whatsoever; a man who has little or no regard for the feelings of others. A sociopathically selfish me! me! me! attitude has always been Eric Clapton’s approach to life. Whether he was seducing his best friend’s wife, or whether he was snorting cocaine through rolled up fifty pound notes (which he then threw away – Norman gleefully records that a servant washed and pocketed the notes) or whether he was playing a whole set lying flat on his back on the stage because he was too drunk to stand up, Clapton was always being self-indulgent and he seemed to be quite contemptuous of the people who admired him and bought his records in droves.

I’m sorry for all the subordinate clauses in the last paragraph. Blame it on the cat who just walked over my keyboard.

Clapton’s drug and alcohol intake was legendary – a lot of people have wondered out loud how he managed not to kill himself – but he did eventually wean himself off both habits. Of course, having done so, he immediately, typically and very hypocritically, became a complete puritan on the subject. In 2007 he was invited to New Zealand to play at the annual Mission Estate Winery Concert. As they do every year, the concert organisers had prepared a special edition wine with the photograph and name of the star on the label. When Clapton arrived and saw the special edition bottles for sale, he refused to go on stage. The concert organisers withdrew the wine from sale and then Clapton grudgingly agreed to perform after all. However his performance was very lacklustre.

I love Clapton’s music and I listen to it a lot. But Philip Norman’s book convinced me that, musical genius though Eric Clapton is, he is without doubt a very contemptible human being.

Alex Nevala-Lee’s Astounding is a biography of John W. Campbell, the editor of Astounding (later Analog). Campbell was the most important and influential SF editor during what has been called Science Fiction’s golden age – the decades of the 1940s and 1950s. Almost single-handedly he turned SF (and, to a certain extent, fantasy) from an unsophisticated, badly written and often rather despised literature into a genuinely sophisticated literary form. Because Campbell was largely responsible for this transformation, Nevala-Lee’s biography is also, ipso facto, a history of science fiction itself during those decades. Consequently he has a lot to say about the writers that Campbell nurtured, most notably Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and L. Ron Hubbard all of whom, for various reasons, eventually became world famous in their own right. But without John W. Campbell, it is likely that we’d never have heard of any of them...

Campbell himself began his career as a writer – probably his best known work was the novelette Who Goes There? It tells the story of a group of scientists who discover the remains of an alien spacecraft buried in the ice of Antarctica where it had crash landed twenty million years before. The story was filmed three times, most notably by John Carpenter in 1982 as The Thing. In his research into Campbell’s life and work, Nevala-Lee discovered Campbell’s working notes about the story which, to his surprise, included a novel length treatment of the idea that had never been published. That novel is now scheduled for publication by Wildside Press. Something to look forward to.

Once Campbell became editor of Astounding he gave up writing to concentrate on editing. The story of what Campbell did with his magazine is well known and readers of Nevala-Lee’s book will find it filled with familiar anecdotes. However Nevala-Lee puts a lot of flesh on the bare bones of them, putting them in context and carefully analysing their causes and effects.

Both Asimov and Heinlein outgrew Campbell and went on to other things. However Hubbard and Campbell continued to work very closely together on Dianetics (which eventually became the religion of Scientology). Until I read Nevala-Lee’s book I had not realised just how closely Campbell was involved in the development of Dianetics. Nevala-Lee speculates that Campbell’s close involvement with Hubbard was one of the reasons for the breakup of Campbell’s marriage. His wife Doña strongly disapproved of Hubbard. She had an affair with George O. Smith, one of Campbell’s more popular writers, and after she divorced Campbell she married Smith. To his credit, Campbell didn’t let that influence him and he continued to publish Smith’s stories. Sadly, those stories have not stood the test of time. The Venus Equilateral stories (his most popular tales) read very badly today. Campbell was not infallible.

Campbell died in 1971 at the shockingly young age of 61. By that time his influence on the SF field was negligible. Partly this was because his reactionary politics, his increasingly odd ideas about fringe pseudo-scientific concepts such as ESP, and his deep involvement with Dianetics had alienated all his best writers, and partly it was because other editors at other magazines were now guiding the field in the way that Campbell once had. Those editors may have taken his crown away from him, but he was the man who made it possible for them to do so. Nevala-Lee claims, quite rightly, that Campbell was "one of the key cultural figures of the twentieth century".

Like him or loath him (and he was certainly a very loathsome man) we all owe a lot to John W. Campbell. Nevala-Lee’s book is fascinating, thoughtful and insightful. If you have the slightest interest in science fiction you should buy it and read it immediately. It deserves a place of honour on your bookshelves.

Unless there is something else in the pipeline that I’m not aware of, The Book of Magic will be the last anthology edited by the late Gardner Dozois. The title tells you what it is all about. Dozois was always good at self-explanatory titles. The highlight of the collection is undoubtedly Matthew Hughes story The Friends of Masquelayne the Incomparable, a very Jack Vance-like tale of a selfish wizard who lusts after a magical effect produced by another wizard who is so obscure and insignificant that his name lacks a sobriquet.  Masquelayne the Incomparable sets out to discover what he can about Poddlebrim. But Poddlebrim is not quite what he seems to be and perhaps Masquelayne is less Incomparable than he thought… As always with these kind of things the plot is rather thin and predictable, but that doesn’t matter at all because the baroque language wrapped around the delightful conceits is what really matters about this story. Fans of Jack Vance and fans of Matthew Hughes (there’s a 99.9% overlap between those two groups) will love it.

I was somewhat surprised to find a story by Scott Lynch in the collection. Lynch made his name as the author of the superb Gentleman Bastards series of novels but although he is always full of promises about what he intends to write next he almost never manages to produce anything at all. The gaps between his publications are embarrassingly large. He is so unreliable and so flaky about deadlines that I’m rather surprised that any editor would ever willingly commission a story from him. Perhaps it wasn’t commissioned, perhaps it just arrived out of the blue and Gardner Dozois recognised it for the brilliant story that it is and snapped it up...

In the eight hundred and ninetieth year of his life, the wizard Malkuril trips over an untied shoelace, falls down the stairs and breaks his neck. There he lies for 115,303 days while the entities that live in his house wonder what to do next. The actions that they take have far reaching consequences. So much so that I can’t help wondering if this story is actually science fiction rather than magic fiction. Not that it matters. When I reached the last page and read the very satisfying ending I felt like cheering!

There are low points in the collection as well as high points. Tim Powers has an utterly incomprehensible story with an uncountable number of characters in it, none of whom make any sense whatsoever when they open their mouths to speak. John Crowley gets far too Irish for comfort and Ysabeau S. Wilce (whoever she may be – I’ve never heard of her before, but I love her name) is far too fond of Significant Words that all begin with Capital Letters. After a few Paragraphs of that Nonsense I felt my Eyes begin to Cross.

But over all, the standard is high enough that the editor will certainly not be spinning with embarrassment in his grave as the reviews pour in. Make no mistake about it, Gardner Dozois was a first class editor and anthologist. You cannot really go wrong with any of his anthologies. The field is all the poorer without him.

Shell Game is Sara Paretsky’s nineteenth novel about private eye VI Warshawski. It’s quite a long novel with a complex plot and it isn’t until close to the end of the book that we really find out just what has been going on. To be fair, Warshawski is just as puzzled by the events as the reader is. What possible explanation could reconcile the complexities of the plot? Who knows? Certainly not VI Warshawski...

Warshawski is investigating two seemingly disconnected cases. In one, the body of a murdered man has been discovered stuffed into a hollow tree. In his pocket is a piece of paper. Written on the paper, in a very distinctive calligraphy, is the phone number of Felix Herschel, the grandson of a close friend of Warshawski’s. On the basis of this slender thread of evidence, the police accuse Felix of the man’s murder even though Felix claims never to have seen the man in the tree before.

The second case involves two sisters, children of the sister of Warshawski’s ex-husband. Although they are not her blood relatives, as far as Warshawski is concerned they are her nieces and she feels a degree of responsibility for them. One of the sisters, Reno, has been working for a payday loan company – loan sharks who lend money to poor people to tide them over between pay packets and who charge extortionate rates of interest (400% and more) for their services. Warshawski strongly disapproves of the company’s unethical business practices, but her niece’s well-being is very important to her. So when Reno’s sister Harmony reports that Reno has disappeared after returning from a company shindig on a Caribbean island, Warshawski feels compelled to investigate the disappearance.

The plot is complicated by the addition of some stolen artefacts from war torn Syria which may have been smuggled into the country by the dead man in the tree who, it turns out, was an archaeologist with delusions of grandeur who had spent much of his career excavating sites in Syria. He identified closely with the Syrian rebels. But on his return to America he had fallen on hard times and before his death he had been working as a janitor for an office cleaning company that mostly employed migrant labour, many of them Syrian refugees. (The general feeling is that the archaeologist was trying to make a political point. And also that he wanted to practice speaking Arabic!).

Of course the two cases turn out to be quite closely connected, though the connections are complex. I can’t drop any more hints without massive spoilers, but trust me, VI Warshawski untangles the mess in the end, though she has to work very, very hard to do it…

It’s always extremely amusing to read the one and two star reviews of Sara Paretsky’s books on Amazon. The reviewers (who are invariably American) always criticise her for making what they regard as rabidly left wing political comments in her novels. In some of the reviews of her other novels I’ve seen her accused of being UnAmerican (whatever that means) and I’ve even seen her accused of being a traitor. One reviewer of Shell Game complained that the book contained "Too much liberal political agenda and Trump administration bashing". Another felt that the book was  "...very political and totally ruined the murder mystery, with all the political crap thrown in. I support the President, so I have the freedom to put this author on the way back burner".

I find these comments quite hilarious because outside of America her political stance is viewed as mildly centrist and is completely uncontroversial.

The hostile reviews arise from the fact that in most of her later novels Sara Paretsky pulls no punches when it comes to describing the severely broken implementation of what she perceives to be idiotic governmental policies. Often that implementation manifests itself as hostility, arrogance and ineptitude by so many employees of so many American government departments that it quite beggars belief. At one point in Shell Game she muses, "When did we become a nation of bullies?"

When you wear a uniform or carry a badge it seems that, in Paretsky’s America at least, you have the god-given right to shout a lot, threaten helpless people and, if you have had a bad day, beat them up or shoot them to relieve your feelings. It may be an exaggeration for dramatic effect, but quite honestly I don’t think it is very much of one. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of this kind of treatment from American officials, at least to a small extent, and I find it very easy to believe in the picture that Sara Paretsky paints. The rudest, least helpful, most threatening, most intimidating and downright scariest customs and immigration people that I’ve ever encountered were American. The politest, friendliest and most helpful ones that I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with were the communist Chinese – make of that what you will.

The targets of her ire in this novel are DHS – The Department of Homeland Security (who are a sitting duck, of course, because they are already the laughing stock of the world) and ICE – the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. Given the recent world wide furore engendered by ICE’s high handed arrogance in dealing with immigrant families crossing the Mexican border into America, I think we can safely say that Sara Paretsky knows exactly what she is talking about. That ICE controversy was so widely reported and so widely condemned that even the Orange Android in the White House was forced to take note of it and had to order ICE to behave more humanely (though it is not clear that they took any notice of the order...)

But of course, none of that means a thing if you don’t wrap a good story around it and if you do then the story trumps (no pun intended) everything else. I enjoy Sara Paretsky’s novels and the fact that her political views are close to my own is really just icing on the cake. So, to balance the scales, it’s probably worth pointing out that I’ve also read and greatly enjoyed many of Tom Clancy’s thrillers, and the rabidly right-wing political agenda that he inserts into those books couldn’t be more different from everything I believe in. But a good story is a good story, regardless of the political message lurking in the subtext. And Shell Game is a very good story indeed.

I’ve never heard of Anna Snoekstra, but the synopsis of her novel The Spite Game made the book sound irresistible. It’s the story of a girl who was badly bullied at school. Later in life she comes across her bullies again and, revenge being a dish best served cold, she finally manages to get her own back.

I think most people can relate to that story. Every school in the world has a problem with bullies and no school in the world will ever admit that they do. Headmasters will tell you with a perfectly straight face that they have zero tolerance for bullying, but one and all they are lying through their teeth. Some of them are lying because they simply make excuses for the bullies ("...childish high spirits..."), others are lying because they are so completely out of touch with what goes on their own school that they honestly believe that they have the situation under control. But whatever the reason, one and all, they are lying. One boy at my school was bullied so badly that he had a nervous breakdown and spent years in therapy. His parents removed him from the school and he never returned. But the headmaster assured everyone who asked that there was no bullying at his school.

I was never particularly bullied or picked on, though on one occasion a psychopathic thug did deliberately twist my thumb around in a slow circle until it popped out of its socket. And then he twisted it again… There were never any repercussions from that. Clearly it was just a tragic accident. After all, there was no bullying at the school. The headmaster said so. Fortunately it only happened to me once. By and large, I was left alone. Many of my friends were not so lucky.

So the theme of Anna Snoekstra’s novel definitely resonated with me. It’s a riveting read, though it did make me a little uneasy. Was the protagonist really justified in taking her revenge? There are questions of scale here – were her actions perhaps just a little too over the top for comfort; an over reaction to something that happened a long time ago? After all, there’s a big difference between the (usually brief) humiliations of childhood and the longer lasting way that adult lives and careers can so easily be made to tumble irretrievably down into ruins. Or worse. There are times when the protagonist asks herself those questions and, to her credit, she remains a little uncomfortable with the answers she comes up with. Not that it stops her carrying out her plans, of course.

The Spite Game is a beautifully written and very absorbing book. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open for more books by Anna Snoekstra.

Stephen Fry has written two enormous tomes in which he re-tells the stories of the ancient Greeks. In Mythos he tells us how the gods came to be, and in Heroes he tells us of the adventures and quests of the Greek heroes and heroines. This is rather an artificial distinction to make since the gods interfered quite a lot in the adventures of the Greek heroes, but it’s a handy way of keeping the two books down to a reasonable size.

Fry tells his stories with wit and erudition. The books are crammed full of philological goodies – many things that we take for granted are named after the gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines of the Greek tales and he takes great delight in pointing these out. Also, he is not above indulging himself in the occasional dirty joke. You can almost see the raised eyebrow when he tells us of Zeus manifesting himself to Danaë as a golden shower.

The dialogue is colloquial and everyone, even the gods and goddesses, sounds like a person you’d meet every day in the pub. There’s none of the distancing effect, greek chorus (sic), reported speech and passive voice that you get in so many other translations of these stories and myths. This technique works brilliantly in bringing the stories vividly to life and it makes them young and fresh again.

One possible difficulty with the stories is trying to keep track of the complex relationships – who is related to whom, and how? Who is bonking whom, and why? In the Foreword to the audiobook of Heroes Fry admits to having difficulty with this himself. He tells us that as part of his preparation for telling the stories, he constructed elaborate family trees to which he could refer when the going got tough. Nevertheless he still found himself getting lost in the tangled skein of relationships and ending up quite baffled. He advises the listener not to worry about it, to just sit back and enjoy the stories. The important names, the names of the main characters will, he assures us, stick in the mind, and that’s all that matters. Interestingly, this aside is omitted in the printed version of the book…

Stephen Fry has done a marvellous job of bringing these old familiar tales to life. The stories are funny, dramatic, tense and sometimes sad. These are stunningly good books.


Roger Daltrey Thanks A Lot Mr Kibblewhite Henry Holt
Philip Norman Slowhand – The Life and Music of Eric Clapton Weidenfeld ! Nicolson
Alec Nevala-Lee Astounding HarperCollins
Gardner Dozois The Book of Magic Bantam
Sara Paretsky Shell Game HarperCollins
Anna Snoekstra The Spite Game MIRA
Stephen Fry Mythos – A Retelling of the Myths of Ancient Greece Michael Joseph
Stephen Fry Heroes – Mortals and Monsters, Quests and Adventures Michael Joseph
     
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