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Wot I red on my hols by Alan Robson (tardisimmus)

The Unkindest Cut of All.

I am half the man I used to be, for on Friday July 14th 2000 I had a vasectomy.

Several of my friends have been there before me so I had some idea of what I was letting myself in for. Laurie sings alto in a choir (this is rare – altos are usually female, men generally find it too difficult to hit the high registers). As he was taken in to the theatre for his operation he was amused to hear the concert programme playing soothing music in the background: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. He made himself comfortable on the trolley and the surgeon remarked (in what was probably his standard reassuring joke at this point), "Don’t worry, you won’t be singing soprano after the operation."

Laurie smiled enigmatically. "But I already do," he protested. "Please don’t take that away as well!"

He claims that the surprised look on the surgeon’s face more than made up for the wisps of smoke that rose from his groin as the ends of his severed tubes were cauterised.

Like everybody else in the world, I’m a J. K. Rowling fan and when the new Harry Potter book came out I dashed off immediately to buy it, thereby increasing J. K. Rowling’s personal fortune by a few pennies. Multiply those pennies by the number of her readers and you quickly come to realise why she is now a multi-millionaire and could easily afford to retire and never write another word. However should she choose to do that, I doubt if she would have a long and happy retirement. Mobs of angry readers, impatient for more Harry Potter books, would probably lynch her.

I don’t begrudge her a penny of her fortune. She is hugely talented and tells wonderful stories. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is a great book by any measure.

I think everybody knows the outline of Harry’s history. Each book takes place during the course of a school year and details Harry’s adventures during that year at Hogwarts school for wizards. By now Harry is in his fourth year and the book is considerably darker than the earlier ones for Harry is much older, more mature, more capable of seeing beyond the surface of things and understanding motives (and malice). The evil wizard who can not be named has malice aplenty and Harry is his special enemy. The drama of the confrontation between the two of them has infused every Harry Potter book, and this one is no different. The tension rises to almost unbearable levels as Harry sees triumph turn to disaster when his crowning achievement turns to dust. I’m being deliberately vague here because I don’t want to spoil the story for those few of you who have not read it yet.

One reason for Rowling’s success is that she has a perfect understanding of what children like. The high drama and tension of the main plot are always interrupted by bits of business which add depth and interest and humour but which seldom do much to advance the plot. During one of their classes at Hogwarts, the children are required to process some bubotubers, plants from which one squeeze an enormous supply of hideous yellow pus (such as oozes from boils and buboes, hence the name of the plant). The excruciating descriptions of the pus and the squeezing of it will delight and enthral the average child (and repel the average parent – another strong attraction to the book). Time and again Rowling hits the nail right on the head.

We have now reached the fourth book of a seven book series. I want the rest of them, I want them now and I don’t want to wait. They really are that good. But like everybody else I’m going to have to wait for J. K. Rowling to write the rest of them in her own good time. What a lot of marvellous reading I have to look forward to.

A writer almost as rich as J. K. Rowling and equally as popular, is Terry Pratchett whose discworld novels have lifted him into the lofty realms of multimillionairedom. The collection of essays Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature examines his books and tries to prove the charge laid in the title. There is no question that Pratchett writes popular books. But these essayists seek to prove that his novels are more than just entertainment; that he is indeed guilty as charged. It is a point of view with which I have a lot of sympathy. After all I’ve made the same contention myself on numerous occasions. But the essay collection itself is so dull (and often so pretentious) that it destroys the very point it tries to make. Earnest analyses of humour generally succeed only in destroying the joke. Tie that in with semi-comprehensible appeals to theories of post-modernism and the whole thing collapses under its own weight. I’ve long believed that any essay which mentions Jacques Derrida contains the seeds of its own destruction. Whoops! I just mentioned Jacques Derrida. Now I’m dead in the water, and I’ll have to stop. But I think you get my point…

It’s hard driving a car with your legs crossed, but somehow I managed it and I pulled in to the hospital car park with plenty of time to spare. The receptionist took my details and tied a plastic ribbon round my wrist. It had my name and my surgeon’s name printed on it, just in case either of us forgot who we were. Then I waited, legs crossed of course, for the nurse. Robin held my hand and told me I was very brave, but I didn’t uncross my legs.

"You can still change your mind, you know," she said.

"No I can’t," I replied. "It’s far too late for that – I’ve booked a sick day from the office. If I cancel it now, I shudder to think what the paperwork will be like…"

Eventually the nurse came and took me away into a changing room.

"Take your clothes off and hang them in this locker," she said. "You can keep your underwear on. Put on this sexy nightdress and this dressing gown and pin the key of your locker to the dressing gown. Here are some high fashion paper shoes for your feet and here is a slinky shower cap for your head. When you’re ready go to the waiting room across the corridor and I’ll meet you there. You’ll find it easier to take your trousers off if you uncross your legs."

She bustled off and left me to it. I followed her instructions (it IS easier to take your trousers off with your legs uncrossed; I wonder how she knew?). I put on my paper slippers and hobbled to the waiting room.

The nurse met me there and took off me to her consulting chamber where she sat me on a chair. She checked all my particulars again and strapped a red plastic bracelet to my wrist. This one listed my drug allergies.

She picked up a gadget that positively bristled with dials and gauges and flashing lights. "I need to take your temperature," she said.

Obligingly I opened my mouth, but it did me no good for she thrust the gadget into my ear. After a few seconds it beeped and she took it out again, squinted at one of its myriad displays and wrote down a figure. "Now I need to take your pulse."

I held out my hand, expecting an intimate though gentle caress as she fingered my wrist and consulted her watch. However all that happened was that she clipped a high-tech clothes peg to my finger. After about ten seconds a series of LEDs lit up and she unclipped it and again wrote down a figure. "Now I need to take your blood pressure."

By now I was wise, and I just sat there wondering what kind of space age device would appear. But she fooled me by trundling up a perfectly ordinary (and very well used) sphygmomanometer. She wrapped the cuff around my upper arm and pumped madly away. The cuff squeezed tight and then relaxed as she released the pressure. Again she wrote down a figure. "Well that’s all nice and normal," she said. "Just go and sit in the waiting room again and I’ll tell the surgeon you are ready."

I went and sat down and crossed my legs again. The moment, it seemed, had now arrived…

Stars and Stripes in Peril is the second volume of Harry Harrison’s alternate history trilogy. The American Civil War has turned into a larger conflict and England is poised to invade America on two fronts.

Any story of this kind, whether it likes it or not, will have to be compared to the stories that Harry Turtledove has written in the same vein. Turtledove has cornered the market in alternate history novels – particularly alternate history novels that posit different outcomes to the American Civil War (he’s written that one several times!). Unfortunately Harrison’s novel doesn’t bear comparison to Turtledove’s works. It is thin, stilted and dull.

I bought Kim Newman’s Where the Bodies are Buried sight unseen on the basis of a description in a catalogue and also because it is a limited edition and because I like Kim Newman’s work. However when it arrived I was a little disappointed. I had been led to believe that it was a novel, but the book was so thin, that I would have called it a novella or novelette instead. Then I started to read it and discovered it was a "fix up" from a series of short stories many of which were already available in other Kim Newman collections. All in all, it was a bit of a swiz. It is a beautifully made book, and it is nice to have an autographed limited edition on my shelves, but it cost far too much money and I was disappointed in it.

But the story is good (well, it IS by Kim Newman). The first story in the series concerns a local city councillor called Robert Hackwill who is somewhat perturbed to discover that a popular hack and slash horror film called Where the Bodies are Buried has a lead character also called Robert Hackwill who turns out to be the murderer! Vague thoughts of suing the distributor occur. These come to naught when he discovers that the scriptwriter was at school with him, and Hackwill (the school bully) used to torment him unmercifully. Now it seems the worm has turned. The bullied boy has got a beautiful revenge on the man who tormented him.

It doesn’t stop there. The film exerts a hideous influence on Hackwill and subsequent stories explore this influence and the more general point of the societal effects of the film and its sequels over a period of decades. Newman makes some telling points about the power of films over their audiences. How much truth is there in the contention that watching video nasties makes some people go out and commit copycat crimes? Probably not a lot, but the point gets some serious debate in the story sequence.

I was disappointed in the book, but I wasn’t disappointed in the stories.

The surgeon and I walked down to the operating theatre together. It wasn’t far. The room was brilliantly lit and much larger than I expected. The trolley in the centre looked quite forlorn. Over in the far corner sat a nurse, so hugely enveloped in surgical gown, cap and mask that she resembled nothing so much as a pile of green linen with eyes. "Hello, Alan," she said cheerfully, and waved a fabric arm at me.

"Just climb up on the trolley," said the surgeon. "You’ll find it easier to climb up if you uncross your legs." Astonishingly, he was correct!

The nurse tucked my right arm under a sheet so it wouldn’t get cold and clipped another high-tech clothes peg to my finger. My left arm lay out across a board attached to the trolley. The surgeon asked me to make a fist a few times so that he could find a vein and then he stuck a needle into me. The other end of the needle was attached to a drip that fed a sedative into my arm. After a few seconds, I completely lost touch with the world; a most eerie sensation.

I never lost consciousness. I was perfectly well aware that things were happening. They just didn’t seem very important. They were a long way away and no concern of mine. I knew that a local anaesthetic was being injected into my scrotal regions and that sharp scalpels were slicing vitally important bits of me away. But I simply didn’t care; I was far too relaxed and happy.

At some stage in the proceedings it occurred to me that I had spent the whole of my life up to this point as an eight bit binary byte. But now that my most significant bit had been flipped to zero, I was doomed to spend the rest of my life as plain ascii text.

I was rather proud of this insight. It proved beyond any shadow of a doubt that I was an irremediable geek. But it also proved that even though the world had gone away I was still capable of coherent thought. Always assuming that the thought I’d just had was coherent of course; a debateable point at best.

These musings were interrupted by a loud ripping noise as the surgeon pulled off his rubber gloves. "That’s it," he said, "all done."

"Gosh, that was fast," I burbled.

"Yes. Once I get going I don’t hang about." He seemed quite proud of himself. "You can cross your legs again, if you want to."

They wheeled me out of the theatre into a recovery area where they attached me to a machine that went ping! Annoyingly it was behind me so I couldn’t examine it. Every so often it got curious about my blood pressure and a cuff around my right arm would inflate without warning. It took me by surprise every time.

A nurse came and squinted at something on the machine. "Your lungs aren’t working properly yet after the anaesthetic," she said. "Take lots of deep breaths."

I tried, but I kept forgetting (I felt fine – as far as I was concerned everything was working normally). The nurse came back and told me off a few times. "Deep breaths," she said fiercely. "You’ll breathe a lot better if you uncross your legs!"

She was wrong!

Eventually they judged that I was sufficiently compos mentis to have company and Robin was brought in to supervise me drinking a cup of tea. The nurse unclipped my locker key from my dressing gown and bustled off, returning a short time later with my clothes. She pondered the machine that went ping! for a moment and then disconnected me. "You can get dressed now."

Robin and I walked out of the recovery area and back to reception where I was given a prescription for a pain killer and an enormous bill. Robin drove me home, stopping at a chemist along the way to fill the prescription.

Mary Gentle is a scholar specialising in the history of fifteenth century Europe. Her new novel Ash is a medieval fantasy set in fifteenth century Europe and as you might imagine, it positively reeks of scholarship. It is extensively footnoted, excruciatingly detailed and the pace of the story is glacially slow as a result. It is a huge book (more than 1100 pages) and the major reason for its size is that it is over-researched, over-written and overdrawn at the credibility bank in consequence. In a word, it is tedious.

The eponymous Ash is a female mercenary who leads a troop of about 800 men. She and her raggle taggle army are up for sale to the highest bidder and in a continent riven by warfare, she does not lack for business.

It quickly becomes apparent that the Europe in which Ash fights is not the Europe familiar to us, not the Europe of our own history. A Visigothic invasion from North Africa (Carthaginian in all but name, though the name is used) subdues most of Europe and strangely the sun no longer shines in their domains. Only Burgundy remains free, and only there does the sun shine. The Visigothic army is accompanied by Stone Golems, robot like machines, and their General is in constant communication with a Golem back in Carthage which provides useful strategic and tactical advice, accounting for much of the success of the invasion. Ash herself is also capable of communicating with this golem and that partly accounts for the success of her mercenary band.

Running in parallel with this story is a tale set in modern times. We see letters and emails between a scholar who specialises in Ash’s era and a publisher who wants to publish the book he has written about Ash (which is, of course, the book that we are actually reading. Talk about self-referential novels! Douglas Hofstadter would love it). It soon becomes apparent that these modern times are not out own times either. The scholar, on an archaeological dig, uncovers remnants of the Stone Golems which he claims vindicates the folk tales about Ash that he is translating from ancient manuscripts for the publisher. It promises to be a controversial book…

The premise is fascinating and buried somewhere inside the overwhelming detail is a superb story struggling to get out. But it never succeeds. It drowns in detail, it is smothered by scholarship. It is a very dull book indeed.

I wasn’t at all sure why I needed a prescription for painkillers. I was feeling no pain at all. But as the local anaesthetic wore off I began to realise what the pills were for. Interestingly the pain was not in the region of the operation. I had two small cuts on my scrotum where the surgeon had gone in to tie off the tubes. These were now stitched up and although they were bleeding slightly, they didn’t hurt at all. The pain was deep inside at the pit of my stomach, and it was a steady, sickening ache.

The bleeding stopped after a day or so and the pain gradually went away. By the end of the following week I was pretty much back to normal, though occasionally a sudden movement would put some stress on the stitches and there would be a short, sharp, jabbing needle of pain that invariably made me jump. But even that eventually stopped and I haven’t crossed my legs for at least two days.

However that in itself has proved to be dangerous. Milo, my ten and a half kilogram cat, likes nothing better than jumping up on to my lap to get stroked. In the days that my lap has been newly exposed he has several times launched himself with the unerring aim of a stealth missile straight on to my stitches. As I scream, he purrs loudly, kneading my wounds ecstatically with both front paws and dribbling with delight…

Now all I have to do is wait for the final all clear. Apparently the body builds up a reservoir of live sperm and it takes time for these to dissipate. I have to go for tests in October to see if I’m firing blanks yet. If not, the tests have to continue until I get two negative results in a row. One particularly potent friend of mine kept producing positive results for so long that the doctors were seriously considering opening him up again to see if the tubes had grown back together (this can happen, though it is extremely rare). Apparently the second operation, should it become necessary, is free. Quite an inducement, I’d have thought! Fortunately he finally managed to empty his tank and the second operation never took place.

Rumour has it that it takes 16 ejaculations to drain the tank completely. In order not to lose count, a friend put a bowl containing 32 mints by the side of the bed. After each ejaculation, he and his partner would both eat a mint. When the bowl was empty he trotted off for his confirmatory test. It worked for him, perhaps it will work for me.

Meanwhile, if you see me looking tired and drawn, please be sympathetic and understanding. I’ve been bonking my brains out. Doctor’s orders, you know…

J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Bloomsbury
Andrew M. Butler et al Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature SF Foundation
Harry Harrison Stars and Stripes in Peril Hodder and Stoughton
Kim Newman Where the Bodies are Buried Alchemy Press
Mary Gentle Ash Gollancz

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