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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (morbus maxissimus)


As I write these words, we are coming to the end of our level 4 lockdown. By the time you read them, we will be well into level 3 and, with luck, we’ll be starting to make plans about level 2.

In level 4 we are required to stay at home as much as possible and to maintain a social distance between ourselves and other people should we encounter them when we are outside. We are only allowed to go out for essential purposes such as exercise, grocery shopping and visits to the doctor or the pharmacy.

Amusingly, the practical effects of the level 4 lockdown rules have been minimal as far as I am concerned. It has always been my habit to spend most of my time shut away inside my house. I seldom go out or interact very much with any other people because I’m one of nature’s natural hermits. So I really haven’t found that the lockdown has had much of an impact on my lifestyle at all. The person who has noticed the effect of the level 4 rules the most is my dog Jake who simply cannot understand why he isn’t allowed to talk to his friends any more when we go for walks. He’s a very sociable and gregarious dog who loves being with people, and no matter how many times I explain the rules of social distancing to him, he just doesn’t get it.

I’m also one of the very lucky ones. I have no mortgage to pay and I have no job to lose. My pension payment turns up automatically in my bank account and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. So, unlike a lot of people, I have no financial or employment worries. This too makes the lockdown much easier to bear.

Supermarket shopping has changed quite a lot. Initially there was a lot of bulk buying as people began to hoard what they considered to be the necessities of life. On the first day of the lockdown the supermarkets sold enough food to feed ten million people – that’s more than twice the population of the entire country. It’s a bit like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, only in reverse!

To begin with, the most popular items in people’s shopping trolleys were toilet paper and hand sanitiser so of course it wasn’t very long before you simply couldn’t find either of those items on the supermarket shelves. Fortunately that didn’t last for very long and nowadays those shelves are fully populated again. I’m really not quite sure why people felt the need to stockpile those things. Perhaps they were  intending to spend the lockdown eating deep fried toilet paper garnished with sanitiser sauce. Stranger things have happened…

At the height of the toilet paper binge, when it was almost unobtainable, a local jeweller began to offer toilet paper for sale at $5,000 a roll. Everyone who bought a roll was given a free gold ring...

Shopping habits have changed drastically. No longer can you just dash off to the supermarket whenever you feel like it to quickly pick up whatever small item it is that you need for tonight’s dinner. Instead, you now have to plan your menus far in advance and turn up with a list so that you don’t forget anything. It pays to be thoroughly prepared because you will have to queue to get in and everything will take a lot longer than once it did.

Our local supermarket has helpfully painted a set of red lines on the approach to the entrance. The lines are two metres apart so that all the people in the queue can maintain their social distance while they wait to be let in. People are only allowed in to the store on a "one out, one in" basis. When one person leaves the shop, the person at the head of the queue is allowed to enter. The rule is designed to stop the store from getting too crowded so that people can maintain a social distance even within the supermarket aisles. It seems to work well.

At first I didn’t have to queue for very long when I went shopping. All I had to do was produce my Super Gold Card which proved that I was old and decrepit and a member of an at risk group for covid-19 infection. Immediately I would be ushered straight to the front of the queue. Shopping had never been so quick and easy for me! Long live level 4!

Sadly all that has stopped now. I went to the supermarket yesterday, produced my gold card as usual, and was told, "Sorry, mate. We aren’t allowed to give you priority any more. We’ve had a memo from head office". I was sent to the back of the queue and treated just like everybody else. Clearly head office is now keen to eliminate all its older customers by forcing them to stand outside for hours in all weathers in the hope that they will catch something nasty, get very sick and then die. After all, old people don’t have nearly as much money to spend on toilet paper and hand sanitiser as the younger customers do, so the sooner they drop down dead, the better for all concerned. Their absence will leave more room for the younger, richer customers to come shopping. Supermarket managers are notoriously hard hearted when it comes to maximising their turnover.

* * * *

It is generally agreed that The Number of the Beast is Robert Heinlein’s very worst novel. It is a self indulgent, almost plotless, rambling mess of a book. However a group of fans have now gone through Heinlein’s archives with a fine-tooth comb and they have assembled The Pursuit of the Pankera from notes and drafts that Heinlein left behind. They claim, with some degree of truth, that it is probably the novel that The Number of the Beast would have been if Heinlein hadn’t got distracted along the way.

The first third of The Pursuit of the Pankera is identical the first part of The Number of the Beast, but after that the novels diverge significantly in detail though in outline they remain very similar to each other. In both novels, four people – Zeb, Deety, Jake and Hilda – are attacked for unknown reasons by a group of aliens (called Pankera in this book but identified only as "Black Hats" in The Number of the Beast). They escape from the aliens in a continua craft, a machine invented by Jake which has the ability to travel through multiple universes (6 to the power 6 to the power 6 of them to be exact – hence the reference to the number of the beast. Much is made of that religiously significant figure in both novels). Many of these universes are similar to the universe that we live in. One indeed appears to be absolutely identical to our own except for the inexplicable absence of the letter J from the English alphabet – a delightful conceit! Other universes differ wildly from our own and almost all of them turn out to be based upon ideas imagined by various SFF authors. Eventually, in this novel anyway, Zeb, Deety, Jake and Hilda recruit allies from the worlds they have explored and they take the conflict directly to the Pankera in an ending which is itself very reminiscent of the ending of another Heinlein novel The Puppet Masters. In The Number of the Beast, by contrast, Heinlein appears to forget all about the aliens about half way through the book. They vanish, never to be seen again, and all the plot elements he introduces are just left hanging. In fact The Number of the Beast finishes up with a self indulgent party where characters from many of Heinlein’s own novels get together and tell each other how insightful they are. Nothing at all is resolved, and the novel just stops.

There is no doubt that The Pursuit of the Pankera is a much better novel than The Number of the Beast, if only because it does actually resolve the major plot elements that Heinlein ignores in the original novel. But that does not, in and of itself, make The Pursuit of the Pankera a good book. Like The Number of the Beast, it remains very much a tedious, rambling mess as the four protagonists indulge themselves in seemingly never ending, hair-splitting discussions about unimportant minutiae (a different set of minutiae in each novel, but all of them are excruciatingly dull and largely insignificant!).

Both novels are deliberate attempts to justify Heinlein’s philosophy of the world as myth – the theory that universes are created by the simple act of imagining them, so that even fictional worlds will turn out to be real (whatever that means) somewhere in the multiverses that are accessible to their continua craft. In The Pursuit of the Pankera, Heinlein’s protagonists have long adventures in the Barsoom that Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined, the Oz that was explored in the stories written by L. Frank Baum, and the universe of the Gray (Grey?) Lensmen that derives from the stories written by Heinlein’s close friend Edward E. Smith. Indeed, Smith himself appears as a major character in their adventures in the Lensmen universe and he is a significant influence on the final campaign that is launched against the Pankera. Had the actual Edward E. Smith lived to read this novel, I’m sure that he would have greatly enjoyed the role that Heinlein gives him to play.

I honestly can’t recommend The Pursuit of the Pankera. It’s a self indulgent mess, just like The Number of the Beast. Its only saving grace is that it is slightly more coherent, with the emphasis on the word slightly.

In level 4 we are allowed to leave home for the purpose of exercise, though we are only allowed to walk around our immediate neighbourhood. We aren’t allowed to drive any distance. As a result of this rule, Jake and I have spent a lot of time wandering up and down and round and about. Every day, we see a lot of people. Some of them are out with their families and some of them are walking their dogs. The dogs of New Zealand are all having a wonderful time in level 4 – many of them have never had so many daily walks in their lives before and, one and all, they are absolutely loving it.

If it Bleeds is a new collection of four novellas by Stephen King. King has always been at his strongest when working at the novella length. His novels, with a few honourable exceptions, tend to have rather too many divergent plot strands which he isn’t always fully in control of. But the discipline forced on him by the constraints of the novella formula seem to be good for him. Many of King’s most memorable stories are novellas (and a lot of them have been made into very successful films) – The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, The Mist… the list goes on. And on.

The first story in this collection is Mr Harrigan’s Phone. It concerns the relationship between Craig, a typical teenager, and Mr Harrigan, a rich, retired businessman and billionaire.  Craig earns pocket money by calling regularly on Mr Harrigan and reading aloud to him from Mr Harrigan’s favourite classic novels. Craig also performs a few odd jobs for Mr Harrigan, dusting his antiques and watering his plants. They develop quite a close relationship. Mr Harrigan always makes a point of sending Craig a scratch lottery ticket for every birthday and one of these tickets wins Craig enough money to pay for his college education with some left over for him to indulge himself a bit. He takes the opportunity to buy Mr Harrigan a present (he’s very fond of the old man and wants to show his appreciation). He buys Mr Harrigan an Iphone and, after some initial confusion, Mr Harrigan becomes quite addicted to his new toy. After Mr Harrington dies, Craig slips the phone into Mr Harrigan’s coffin and it is buried along with his body. For many years afterwards, Craig continues to talk with Mr Harrigan on his phone, and Mr Harrigan pulls a few strings in the afterlife to help Craig out with the problems he faces as he grows up. It’s a poignant and very sweet story. Both Craig and Mr Harrigan are beautifully and convincingly portrayed and I was actually rather sorry that the story finished as quickly as it did. I wanted more of it, a lot more! And if that means that I contradict myself when I say that King’s novels are often far too long, then so be it. What’s a little contradiction between friends?

The Life of Chuck is one of the weirdest stories I’ve ever read and I enjoyed it immensely. It’s a story told backwards – it begins with the apocalyptic end of the world. There are constant earthquakes, the internet is failing. Billboards and TV are full of pictures of a retired accountant called Chuck Krantz. Thank you Chuck for 39 great years is the constant message. Now that his 39 great years are over, Chuck appears to be dying and the world is dying with him. Solipsism in action! Who is Chuck? The rest of the story tries to tell us.

In an Afterword, King explains that this novella is actually made up from three separate short stories which he’s glued together into a single tale that works backwards from the end to the beginning. He confesses that he’s really not sure if the scheme has worked. Perhaps the joins show? But the set certainly worked for me – this is my favourite of the stories in the book.

It is followed by the title story, If it Bleeds which I felt was the weakest story in the collection (it’s also the longest story in the collection – draw your own conclusions, I’m not going to say it again).

If it Bleeds is billed as a stand alone sequel to King’s novel The Outsider. Holly Gibney, a minor character from The Outsider has centre stage in this one. In a very real sense, the story is just a repeat of the earlier novel. Holly identifies another outsider, tracks it down and kills it just as the protagonists in The Outsider did. (Don’t worry if you don’t know what an outsider is, the story makes it perfectly clear). Whatever interest the story has lies not in the plot (which is predictably trivial) but in the bits of business that illustrate Holly’s character. Certainly there’s a degree of fascination here. The story flows smoothly and we learn a lot about what makes Holly tick. But I didn’t find her nearly as fascinating as King seems to. I enjoyed the story (it’s never less than interesting) but it didn’t grab my attention the way the other stories in the book did.

In the final story, Rat, King returns to a theme that he’s investigated time and time again over the years. The protagonist desperately wants to write a novel. He’s tried and failed many times and sometimes his failures have had a terrible effect on his relationship with his family. On one occasion be burned the manuscript of a failed novel and almost managed to burn down his house and incinerate his family. That’s not an easy place to return from…

This time he decides to go and live in his father’s old cabin in splendid isolation in the back of beyond. There, with nothing to distract him, he hopes to complete his magnum opus. What can possibly go wrong? Initially the work flows very well. He claims that the writing of it is almost like taking dictation because he has the whole structure of the story in his mind. But then the rot sets in and in order to complete his novel he is forced into making a Faustian bargain with, of all things, a rat. And so the stage is set for both triumph and tragedy and, as is always the case with these kinds of stories, he ends up asking himself if the price he had to pay was worth it.

Rat is a fairly self-indulgent piece. King seems to be quite fascinated by the process of putting a story together, and why shouldn’t he be? It’s been his life’s work after all. He’s examined the notion in a lot of stories (his novel Misery is probably his lengthiest and most successful exploration of the idea) and Rat is yet another attempt to try and pin the mysterious process down.

If it Bleeds is a brilliant collection. If you like Stephen King (and who doesn’t) you can’t go wrong with it.

* * * *

Because so many young children are now exploring their neighbourhood, a lot of people have been putting teddy bears in their windows for the children to hunt down. Collecting teddy bear sightings has quickly become more popular than collecting pokemon. In many houses, whole families of furries smile benignly through the glass at the passing children and one particularly ingenious household has arranged a teddy bears picnic in their front garden with different attendees every day and different food on the picnic table. Another house that Jake and I walk past most days has the largest teddy bear that I’ve ever seen strapped securely to a drainpipe. She rotaties gently in whatever breeze happens to waft her way. She is wearing a pretty orange dress and, because she is outside where people might come close to her, she has a surgical mask over her nose and mouth so as to prevent her from infecting anyone should she chance to sneeze on passers by.

I imagine that most parents are at their wits end trying to keep their young children occupied during the lockdown. I’ve noticed that many pavements are now covered with chalk drawings, and a lot of hopscotch court layouts have started to appear, some of them quite elaborate. The old pastimes are still the best ones. Gardens are beginning to fill up with brightly painted stones. In one garden,  a small teddy bear has been equipped with a paintbrush and he is busily painting as many stones as he can, though only when nobody is looking of course.

Robin has been occupying her time by excavating a new garden in the back yard. She has dug up vast swathes of lawn and bordered it with brick and concrete. She is turning the earth over and over seeking out stones and carefully saving them. She intends to build a rockery with them at some point. Jake the Dog and Gilbert the Cat think this is the most marvellous thing that they have ever seen and they are eager to help her as much as they can. As a result of their help, our carpets are covered with muddy paw prints, so we’ve been doing a lot of vacuuming as well.

When Robin first started her project, the back yard quickly took on the appearance of a World War I battlefield. Shell craters, rubble, uprooted plants and shattered trees were everywhere. Now, the place looks more like a graveyard with heaped piles of freshly tilled earth arranged in regular rows. I haven’t seen any of our neighbours for several days, but I keep telling myself that’s just a coincidence.

* * * *

Binge reading a batch of tartan noir novels was the last thing on my mind when I picked up James Oswald’s Natural Causes. But reading these things is a bit like eating chocolate biscuits, you can’t stop at just one. So before I knew it, I’d read four of James Oswald’s books and two more by J. D. Kirk. Then I came up for air…

Wikipedia has a terribly pretentious definition of tartan noir, full of erudite references to Robert Louis Stevenson and to Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I have a much simpler definition – the genre is made up of detective novels set in Scotland and which are written by Scottish authors. Almost invariably the books deal with extraordinarily gruesome cases (they are definitely not for the weak of stomach) and yet at the same time the stories are often laugh out loud funny in that cynically surreal way that is so genuinely Scottish. It is the curiously effective juxtaposition of raw humour and raw emotion which makes the stories so effective. You never get quite the same mixture in non-Scottish novels.

I read four of James Oswald’s novels none stop, one after another. I read them that way partly because there was an overriding story arc that linked all the books together and I desperately wanted to find out what happened next (though, to be fair, each was a perfectly good stand alone story with a nicely satisfying ending) and partly I did it because I fell in love with the characters – Grumpy Bob was a particular favourite. Also, unusually for this genre, there was an underlying theme of supernatural horror woven around the plot which appealed to my SFF nature. Don’t get me wrong, the books can be read as perfectly straightforward (albeit a little bizarre) detective novels. But the subtext of woo woo horror is definitely there and it adds an extra dimension that I greatly enjoyed.

J. D. Kirk’s novels are more firmly anchored in the real world than are those of James Oswald. Nevertheless, they clearly belong to the same tradition. The murders are particularly gruesome (the murderee in Thicker Than Water has her eyes scooped out and holes drilled into her skull) but despite this the humour, which surprisingly, is seldom very dark at all, makes the stories stand out.

If tartan noir really is a thing, and all the evidence suggests that it is, then these two authors (along perhaps with Stuart MacBride) would seem to epitomise it.

Harlan Coben writes strangely subtle mysteries. The Boy From The Woods is his latest. About thirty years before the events that take place in this novel, the eponymous boy had been found living alone in the woods. The mystery of where he came from has never been solved (and we learn very little about his background in this novel so he remains a bit of a mystery). He has no recollection of his parents. The only things he remembers about himself are just vague dreams. He is called Wilde (in memory of his wild origin) and he grows up in a loving foster home. By the time the story proper begins, he is in this thirties and is a former army intelligence officer. The skills he learned in this career will stand him in very good stead as he investigates the mystery that this novel presents him with.

On the face of it, the story seems to be quite straightforward. Teenager Naomi Pine has disappeared without trace. She has been mercilessly bullied at school and her disappearance is at first assumed to be a reaction against that bullying. The school has been quite ineffective at dealing with the bullying, preferring instead to sweep it under the carpet and refusing to acknowledge that it is even happening at all; not an uncommon reaction to school bullying. But then Naomi’s chief tormentor also vanishes and the plot starts to get very thick indeed.

The second disappearance is that of Crash Maynard, the son of Dash and Delia Maynard who are rich and politically influential. It soon becomes clear that Crash has been kidnapped by political activists who want to bring pressure to bear on Dash and Delia to release tapes that will incriminate Rusty Eggers, a divisive politician who is actively campaigning to become president. Wilde, who is already looking for Naomi, is hired to find Crash and to find out who is behind the kidnapping of their son. Are the two disappearances connected? Well, as it turns out, yes. But also no...

Now the story turns into a powerful political novel that reflects many strands of contemporary American politics. Eggers, very much a Trump look-alike, will say and do anything to keep his secrets safe. The novel focuses on the deplorably cynical tactics employed by the rich and the powerful to obscure important issues and to turn debate away from the truth, so as to prevent it from having any significant impact.

This is a fine page-turning, and ultimately very complex, novel which deals with important issues but which never loses sight of the fact that real people can be (and often are) hurt and destroyed by the cynical manipulations of ambitious politicians. My only real criticism is that Coben doesn’t do very much with Wilde’s background so his mysterious past feels as if it has just been shoehorned into the plot for no very good reason. Because of this, I strongly suspect that we might meet Wilde again in future novels where we will learn a lot more about him. Perhaps this book has just been sowing seeds that will grow into something more elaborate in later stories (Coben has done that sort of thing before). Meanwhile you could do a lot worse than read this novel.

* * * *

There have been two public holidays during the lockdown period. Easter passed largely unremarked and unremarkable, though for the first time ever the holiday road toll was zero because nobody was allowed to drive anywhere. Clouds and silver linings spring to mind...

Gaily coloured easter eggs were chalked on driveways and garage doors. Many of them looked to be so professionally drawn and were so intricately detailed that they must have taken many, many hours of effort to produce. I can only assume that the teddy bears were giving their people a helping hand.

ANZAC day was rather difficult. ANZAC day commemorations typically involve a lot of people getting together at dawn to hold a service in remembrance of the dead from far too many wars. But such large gatherings are strictly forbidden under the level 4 lockdown rules. Instead, people were encouraged to stand at the end of their driveways as the sun rose, and to listen to a service that was broadcast on the radio. I’m sure that a lot of people did exactly that, though I was not one of them.

A host of white crosses decorated with poppies appeared overnight in the grounds of a local school. Every cross was inscribed in black ink with the name of a soldier who had died in the fighting at Gallipoli.

One house that Jake and I walked past that morning had obviously put in a lot of effort for ANZAC day. The trees in the garden and on the verge of the pavement were festooned with carefully crafted home made poppies, all coloured a deep fiery red. Photographs of four soldiers were pinned to the fence together with a brief outline of their service record. And written in chalk on the pavement, in a beautifully clear and impeccable calligraphy, were Laurence Binyon’s unforgettable words:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Every line was written in a different colour.

Normally I don’t pay very much attention to the ANZAC day celebrations, but I found this display to be tremendously moving and as Jake and I walked past it, being careful not to step on any of the words, I had a definite lump in my throat.

Some good things have come out of the level 4 lockdown.

Robert A. Heinlein The Pursuit of the Pankera CAEZIK SF ! Fantasy
Stephen King If it Bleeds Hodder & Stoughton
James Oswald Natural Causes Penguin
James Oswald The Book of Souls Penguin
James Oswald The Hangman’s Song Penguin
James Oswald Dead Men’s Bones Penguin
J. D. Kirk A Litter of Bones Zertex
J. D. Kirk Thicker Than Water Zertex
Harlan Coben The Boy From the Woods Grand Central
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