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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (currus viridis)

Vroom! Vroom!

"I think we should buy a new car," I said.

Robin was horrified. "Why?" she asked. "I really like the car we have now."

"So do I," I said, "but it’s been old enough to vote for several years now, and if it lived in America it would have just become old enough to drink in bars."

"But it’s got the best cup holder in the universe," protested Robin. "We’ll never get another cup holder as good as that one. And if you recall, the cup holder is the reason why we bought the car in the first place."

She wasn’t wrong. The cup holder in our car was undeniably elegant. Most of the time it concealed itself inside the dashboard, emerging shyly only when a secret button was pressed, panting with eagerness to hold a cup. The cup holder had just one drawback – it had clearly been designed by an engineer who had never actually seen a cup, and who had only the vaguest notion of what function a cup was meant to perform. In all the years that we had owned the car, we had never once managed to find a cup that would fit properly in the holder. Every time we tried to put one in, the cup would invariably fall out and spill its contents all over our knees. But nevertheless we loved our cup holder. Watching it slide so prettily in and out of the dashboard was always the highlight of our driving day. I knew that we would both be sorry to lose it after so many years of soggy knees...

"Be that as it may," I insisted, "I still think it’s time to buy another car."

"Can we get a hybrid?" asked Robin. "We really ought to be be socially responsible and buy ourselves a car that has a minimal impact on the environment. Being green is all the rage. Kermit the Frog is green and he knows everything."

"An environmentally friendly car sounds like a very good idea, " I said and Robin shot off to do some serious googling. She came back a couple of hours later looking depressed.

"There are only three hybrids for sale in our area," she said. "One is way out of our price range and the other two are both being sold by the same car dealer. One of them is red and one of them is orange. We’re not having an orange car."

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because it’s orange," Robin explained, giving me her best you-are-being-dumb-again look. "It’s the same colour as our cat. There’s only one letter of difference between a cat and a car. We’d constantly be getting each of them confused with the other. And can you imagine just how badly the cat would react if we made the dog lie down on its back seat?" I shuddered at the thought. Robin’s logic was inescapable. No orange cars for us.

"So that means we’re going to buy a red hybrid car?" I asked, trying to clarify the situation.

"That’s right," said Robin. "Let’s go and look it over tomorrow morning." And that is exactly what we did…

* * * *

One day, as I walked past my bookshelves, my eyes fell upon a row of the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian and it occurred to me that it has been several years since last I read one. So I settled down with HMS Surprise. Unfortunately, for me reading an Aubrey/Maturin novel is rather like eating a peanut. One is never enough. Consequently I found that I’d read four of the damn things before I came up for air and started to wonder if perhaps I needed to read something else, if only for the sake of variety. I thought about that for a few seconds and then I decided that no, I didn’t need to read something else, and so I sat down and read four more. Only another twelve to go...

For those few benighted souls who may not know about the Aubrey/Maturin novels, they are a series of twenty novels (and an unfinished twenty-first that O’Brian was working on when he died) that tell of the adventures of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin as they sail the seven seas during the Napoleonic wars. There are, of course, huge numbers of such novels written by a multitude of authors, but it is generally agreed that O’Brian’s novels tower over the competition. Nobody else even comes close. O’Brian’s books are the definitive nineteenth century navy novels.

This raises several interesting questions. Firstly, why are there so many people writing so many novels about sailing ships in the nineteenth century? That one’s easy to answer – they sell like hot carronades, and they have done so ever since Frederick Marryat published Mr. Midshipman Easy in 1836. I could name half a dozen writers of such novels without even thinking about it and I’m sure I could google up a lot more if I had a mind to do so. But what is it that makes Patrick O’Brian’s novels so much better than all that competition? And why, oh why, do these kinds of novels have such a large and enthusiastic readership among SF fans?

Let’s tackle these questions in reverse order. Many people have noticed the popularity of books like these in the SF community, and more than once, the suggestion has been made that very close analogies can be drawn between voyages of discovery on sailing ships that are heading off into the unknown to visit far away places with strange sounding names where unusual flora and fauna may be found, and spaceships blasting off into the unknown to visit far away planets with strange sounding names where unusual flora and fauna may be found. Stories like these scratch a very deep archetypal itch so it’s hardly surprising that they have such a wide appeal. And because the formula works so well, there are actually many SF novels that cut out the middle man and simply take such stories, file off the serial numbers and then wrap them up in the SF tropes of spaceships and aliens before presenting them to the world. There are fortunes to be made that way…

But when you talk about the simon-pure sailing ship novel, there is no doubt that Patrick O’Brian’s books stand head and shoulders above all the rest. I’ve read and re-read O’Brian’s novels many times over the years but although I’ve read and enjoyed the novels written by a lot of his competitors, I’ve never returned to them. Mainly, I suspect, this is because the authenticity of O'Brian's novels is beyond dispute – unlike the heroes of a lot of other nineteenth century naval fiction, O’Brian’s characters never exhibit thinly disguised twentieth (or twenty-first) century sensibilities in their interactions with the world. Everybody in a Patrick O’Brian novel is perfectly of their time and place in both their attitudes and their actions. Indeed their dialogue, their jargon and their competencies are dealt with so authentically that many passages, particularly descriptions of complex sailing manoeuvres, are sometimes rendered completely incomprehensible to the present day reader. This is part of the charm of these novels, believe it or not. After all, doesn’t every one of us enjoy circumlocutory prolixity when politeness requires it? Jane Austen would thoroughly approve (I have a theory, based upon his prose style, that Patrick O’Brian was actually a reincarnation of Jane Austen. I defy you to prove me wrong).

The novels are also extraordinarily erudite, stuffed full of absolutely fascinating discussions about nineteenth century scientific knowledge, politics, sociology, and diet – boiled baby and figgy-dowdy are favourite dishes. Indeed, the characters seem to spend an inordinate amount of time eating and drinking, and the extraordinary amount of alcohol they imbibe quite beggars belief! Sherry by the pint! Goodness me! When I attended sherry parties with my tutors at university the drink was always served in tiny, tiny glasses. One small sip and the glass was empty. Such contrasts and contradictions between then and now are also a very large part of the charm of these books.

And as an added bonus the stories are very, very funny.

In a discussion about watch keeping on board a naval vessel it is suggested that perhaps the dog watches (the shortest watches taken during the naval day) are so called because they are cur-tailed.

During a dinner in the great cabin, two weevils crawl out of a ship’s biscuit and Jack Aubrey tells Stephen Maturin that he must choose one of them. Stephen refuses, on the grounds that weevils are weevils and there is really nothing to choose between them, but Jack insists. And so eventually Stephen chooses one. At which point Jack informs him that he has chosen the wrong one. When given the choice, he explains, you should always choose the lesser of two weevils. Jack almost laughs himself into apoplexy at the success of his joke.

Silly jokes like these are right up there with Roger Zelazny’s famous line about an epileptic alien, "Then the fit hit the Shan" (from his award winning novel Lord of Light). And O’Brian has put jokes into his novels for the very same literary reasons that Zelazny did. Nothing is so serious that you can’t make a joke about it. I wish more novelists would recognise that and act upon it. Michael Moorcock, for example, is on record as saying that he strongly dislikes his own novel Behold the Man (a novel about the crucifixion of Christ, among other things) because it doesn’t have any jokes in it. I rest my case. Anything that is good enough for Patrick O’Brian, Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock is good enough for me!

Sometimes O’Brian’s humour takes many chapters to build up to a climax. Stephen Maturin, a confirmed naturalist, has brought a sloth on board the ship, intending to study it and make notes about its habits. It hangs slothfully in the rigging, as one does, swinging gently back and forth, appearing to be as happy as a sloth can be. It is very popular among the crew, who consider that it brings the ship good luck, and generally speaking, it returns their affections. But for some reason it does not take to Jack Aubrey and it spurns all his advances. Jack finds this upsetting and he redoubles his efforts to make friends with it, but to no avail. Then one day Jack is idly drinking a glass of grog and eating cake.

"Try a piece of this, old cock," [Jack] said, dipping his cake in the grog and proffering the sop. "It might put a little heart into you." The sloth sighed, closed its eyes, but gently absorbed the piece and sighed again.

Some minutes later, [Jack] felt a touch on his knee: the sloth had silently climbed down and it was standing there, its beady eyes looking up into his face, bright with expectation. More cake, more grog, growing confidence and esteem.

Jack and the sloth become fast friends. He continues to ply it with grog, much to its satisfaction. He gives the sloth its own bowl from which it drinks its daily libations. And then, one day Stephen walks into the cabin where he finds his sloth curled up asleep on Jack’s knee, breathing heavily. Its bowl and Jack’s glass are empty. Stephen picks the sloth up, sniffs it suspiciously and then utters the single funniest line in the whole canon of literature:

"Jack, you have debauched my sloth!"

I can never read that sentence without guffawing. I even sniggered out loud as I wrote it down.

Eventually the sloth is donated to a group of Franciscan monks in Rio de Janeiro where it spends its days in contemplation and its nights secretly drinking the altar wine.

Bugger! Now I really want to read some more Aubrey/Maturin stories…

* * * *

It was mid-morning when we arrived at the car dealership. The gates were closed. A thick chain was looped across the gates and it was secured with a heavy duty padlock. Dimly in the distance we could see a red car and an orange car lurking behind a rather grimy showroom window. They both looked rather lonely and depressed. I waved at them, and they stared glumly back at me. "I don’t think anyone’s been feeding them regularly," I said. "They look abandoned and half starved."

"I wonder why the place is closed?" mused Robin. "I think I’ll ring them up. See if anyone answers."

The phone rang for quite a long time before someone at the other end picked it up. As I listened to Robin’s side of the conversation it quickly became apparent that her phone call had been transferred to someone in Auckland who apologised profusely for the dealership being closed. The person who looked after the place on a day to day basis was on holiday. The man in Auckland promised to pass on our phone number to him. Perhaps the holiday man could come in tomorrow to open the place up for us.


"While we’re here," said Robin, "let’s look around. There are several car dealerships along this road. Let’s check them all out."

"OK," I agreed and I looked left and right, forwards and backwards. "There’s something over there, just across the road," I said. "It’s called The Car Company. Do you suppose they might have cars for sale?"

"I doubt it," said Robin. "Not with a name like that. They probably sell fish and chips. But let’s go and have a look. You never know..."

We crossed over the road and discovered that The Car Company did indeed sell cars and furthermore they seemed to have quite a lot of them for sale. "I want that one!" said Robin firmly, pointing over to the far corner of the yard where a virulently bright green car sat with its arms folded glaring threateningly at the other cars in the yard. They were all huddled together for mutual protection, being careful to keep a safe distance between themselves and the hideous green monster that was sneering at them so contemptuously.

"Why do you want that one?" I asked.

"Because it’s green," explained Robin. "When we tell people that our car is green they’ll all know that we are being environmentally friendly. We’ll get lots of bonus points."

"It’s not a hybrid car," I pointed out. "It runs on petrol."

"I don’t care," said Robin. "It’s green. Just like Kermit. And Kermit knows everything."

"Wait until tomorrow," I advised. "We still have to check out the red hybrid." The green car stuck its tongue out at us as we left.

"How green can a red car be?" mused Robin as we drove home. She opened our cup holder, sighed deeply and closed it again. "I wonder if you can get custom made cups?" she pondered thoughtfully.

The next day we went to check out the red hybrid again. The gates of the car dealership were still chained shut. Nobody had telephoned us in the interim and there was no sign that the place would ever be open for business again. Behind the grimy showroom glass, the orange car and the red car looked even more emaciated than they had yesterday. "Maybe we should report this place to the SPCC," I said.

"I doubt if that would have much effect," said Robin.

"Perhaps we should go back to The Car Company," I suggested, and Robin agreed.

* * * *

Lisa Lutz is not very prolific. She takes a lot of time preparing her stories and she puts a lot of care into her writing. The results are always very impressive. It has been three years since she last published anything, but it has been time well spent. The Accomplice is a masterpiece.

It’s a sort of a murder mystery in the sense that someone is murdered and we don’t find out who did it or why they did it until the very end of the book. But that’s not the point – indeed, when we finally do get to the actual resolution of the mystery, it all turns out to be a little bit of an anti-climactic damp squib. But it doesn’t matter because that’s not the point of this long and complex novel. What the story is really about is the power of friendship and just how far it is possible to go in order to protect a relationship.

Owen and Luna first meet at university. Luna has an epileptic fit in front of him and Owen looks after her and sees her though it. They soon become inseparable. There is never any sexual component to their relationship, they are simply the very closest of friends. They keep each other’s secrets, they are always willing to interfere if someone is bothering the other one. They are willing to lie if it seems necessary to resolve a difficulty. Sometimes they even lie to each other if they think that it will help. Despite that, their relationship is one of complete trust, support and co-dependency.

The mysterious death of one of Owen’s girlfriends puts a little bit of a strain on their relationship but eventually the death is deemed to have been an accident and life continues much as it did before. Luna worries about the effect the death has had on Owen and she also wonders about her own part in protecting Owen from being investigated by the police – she has her own secrets, secrets unknown to Owen, and she too is feeling the pressure. She is not sure if she is repeating past mistakes, and that worries her.

Despite no formal charges being laid, Owen is widely considered to have got away with murder and social pressures force him to leave the university and continue his studies elsewhere. However he and Luna continue to be very close and, years later, Luna is genuinely pleased for him when he marries Irene. Luna and Irene hit it off and often go jogging together. Early one morning, Luna sets out to meet Irene for a jog. She finds Irene’s body lying, ironically, in a cemetery. Irene has been shot…

The story is rather oddly constructed. Chapters alternate between the (present day) investigation of Irene’s murder, and the events that took place at the university when Owen and Luna first met. Occasionally we also get a flashback to events prior to that as Luna’s murky past becomes more relevant to both situations.

By the time we finally discover who killed Irene and why she was killed we have learned everything there is to know about Owen and Luna. Everything, absolutely everything that happens in this novel derives directly from the friendship of Owen and Luna so it is probably best to think of the book as consisting of two deep character studies that are surrounded by two strange mysteries which involve at least four deaths, three of which are definitely murders and one of which might be.

This very accomplished story reminded me a lot of the work of Laura Lippman both in terms of its structure (the gradual backwards and forwards revelation of complex truths is a very Lippman-esque technique) and also in terms of the importance that the nature of friendship plays in the detailed working out of the plot. And I mean that comparison as the highest of praise. Laura Lippman is a first class writer and with The Accomplice, Lisa Lutz has joined her up there right at the very top of the list of people who write literary mysteries.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes is one of the world’s great books. It was originally written as a short story which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959. It won a Hugo award in 1960 and I think I must have read it round about that time in some anthology or other (the story has been widely anthologised). Keyes expanded the story into a novel which was published in 1966 and again it won a prestigious award, a Nebula this time. It has never been out of print since then, which is quite an enviable publication record! I read the novel eagerly when it appeared in England, probably some time towards the end of the 1960s. Just as the short story had done, the novel moved me to tears.

Algernon is a laboratory mouse who has undergone surgery to increase his intelligence. The surgery is so successful that the same technique is used on Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who works as a janitor. Again the surgery is successful.

The story is written as a series of journal entries ("progress reports") kept by Charlie. To begin with, the reports are filled with spelling errors and awkwardly constructed sentences. But as time passes, his reports begin to show show a marked improvement in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and diction reflecting similar changes in Charlie’s mental and emotional growth.

I cannot say any more about the plot of the story without introducing massive spoilers, so I’ll stop there. Those of you who have read it will know what happens next. Those of you who have not read it really should seek it out, but when you do, be prepared for an emotionally wrenching experience. This is not an easy book to read – I am not being facile when I say that the tears in your eyes will blur the words on the page – but it is a book that everybody definitely needs to read.

The story deals deeply with the ways that we treat (or sometimes completely fail to treat) people who are suffering from mental illnesses and who are trying to come to grips every day with the challenges this imposes on them. There are both medical and sociological aspects to the problem, and both are equally important. The novel asks – and sometimes even answers – some awkward questions about the relationship between intellect and emotion, how each of them are perceived by society at large, and how they control our own behaviour. Since the book was first written, we have learned to recognise a wide spectrum of intellectually challenging conditions – autism, ADHD, OCD and the like – all of which are implicit in the theme of the story and all of which make the book even more relevant to today’s world than it was to the world of the 1960s. But I suspect that the difficulties that Charlie faces and the insights he gains (and that, as a whole, our society does not properly recognise even now) may not have changed all that much in the intervening years. And that is to our detriment, of course.

Not surprisingly, despite the fact that it is a recognised classic which is taught in classrooms all over the world, the novel appears at number 43 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. Probably the reason is because there are sections in the novel where Charlie struggles to understand and express his sexual desires. The novel has been banned several times, generally in Pennsylvania and Texas. Why am I not surprised?

It has been a very long time since last I read Flowers for Algernon and so when I came across the audiobook I fell upon it with glad cries of glee. It was definitely time for me to read the book again and I looked forward with great anticipation to the experience of listening to it. Unfortunately I was sadly disappointed. Because of the way that it is structured, the story simply doesn’t work as an audiobook, and I strongly suspect that it never will, no matter how cleverly future presenters may approach the task of reading it out loud. It turns out that Charlie’s infelicities of spelling, grammar and sentence construction in his progress reports are absolutely vital to the task of involving the reader in the story’s emotional impact. These infelicities all largely disappear when you hear the words in your head instead of seeing them in front of you on the printed page, and without them the emotion that drives the story flattens out and simply fails to engage the listener. I don’t think this is the fault of the person performing the audiobook – it is intrinsic to the nature of the story itself. I have done more than my fair share of reading things out loud to audiences (I have even won prizes for it) and I am completely at a loss to know how I would approach such a daunting task. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I don’t think that I will be.

* * * *

A man called Reuben met us as we went in to The Car Company. "I see that you are interested in the green car," he said.

"Potentially," I said. "Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about it."

"It’s had one previous owner," said Reuben. "She was a little old lady who only drove it once a week on Sunday when she went to church."

"You’re kidding, aren’t you?" said Robin.

"Yes," admitted Reuben. "She went shopping on Sunday, she didn’t go to church."

"That makes a lot more sense," said Robin. "Can we take it for a test drive?"

"Of course," said Reuben. "But let me explain the controls and features to you first. The most important feature is the cup holder. It’s just here." He gestured towards a sticky out bit with a hole in it. "It’s a universal cup holder, one size fits all. You put your cup in this hole, thereby completely obscuring the air conditioning duct that is just behind it in the dashboard. This means that the air conditioning system will warm up your cold drinks in the winter and cool down your hot drinks in the summer. A very useful feature, I’m sure you’ll agree."

"Indeed it is," said Robin. "Now that we know where everything important is can we take the car for a test drive?"

"Yes, of course you can," said Reuben and so we did. Each of us took it in turn to drive around the block. The car seemed remarkably well behaved, considering its threatening attitude in the car yard. Perhaps it was enjoying being out on the open road again. I could hear it humming quietly to itself, and I thought I recognised Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries...

One thing soon became clear to both of us – a seat belt strap was hanging down over the back seat, slightly blocking what we could see in the rear view mirror. We stopped to investigate. The strap came down from a container in the roof and clipped on to its other half low down on the back seat, thus forming a firmly fitting seat belt for the middle passenger in the back. Clearly if there was no middle passenger then the belt was not needed and it could be withdrawn into its cubby hole in the roof, thereby allowing a clear view in the mirror. All we had to do was work out how to unclip it from its anchor point on the seat. We poked and we prodded and we twisted. We said, "Open Sesame!" and we sacrificed a goat which happened to wander past at a critical moment, but no matter what we did, the belt remained firmly clipped.

Between us, Robin and I have the equivalent of five university degrees in scientific, engineering and mathematical subjects, but none of them did us any good whatsoever. Robin took out her phone. "When in doubt, ask google," she said. "Google knows everything!"

"I thought that was Kermit," I said.

"It is," said Robin. "But he’s a frog. When did you last see a frog wearing a seat belt? I think google will do a better job in this specific instance. Unlike us, google has a degree in everything."

After much poking of buttons and frowning at the screen of her phone, Robin relaxed, sniggered and climbed into the back seat. She pulled another seat belt towards her and pushed its tongue into a small slot on the side of the clip. The ceiling strap immediately came free and withdrew itself into its cubby hole. Just like that.

"I was just about to try that," I said. "It was next on my list."

"Of course it was, dear," said Robin.

* * * *

How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer has been continuously in print for thirty years or more and it shows no signs of disappearing from the world. The purpose of the book is exactly what it says on the cover – it will teach you how to shit (and, by implication at least, piss) in the woods without harming the ecology. Meyer originally wrote the book because she was fed up and thoroughly annoyed with the way that she kept coming across environmentally despoiled places when she hiked around the country. She made the assumption that this was caused by ignorance rather than by malice and so she decided that the best way to address the problem was to write a book that would teach people about the proper way to, let’s not beat about the bush, shit in the woods (and the bushes...). The book was wildly successful and Meyer records with some pride that copies of it have been found all over the world, all the way from Alaska to Antarctica. Hopefully the lessons that it teaches have been well learned.

As you might expect, the book is unfailingly scatological and despite the fact that it has a very serious purpose, it is also extremely funny (what did I say earlier on about nothing being too serious to joke about?). Even though Kathleen Meyer is American, the tone and the humour of the book are decidedly British. After all, it was the British who invented toilet humour in the first place – to this day they find the whole process of pissing and shitting unendingly fascinating and incredibly hilarious. Clearly Kathleen Meyer has inherited an over abundance of the toilet humour gene from her forbears.

I’m fairly certain that a large part of the book’s success derives directly from its unflinching vocabulary as well as from the jokey reference to bears and popes in the title. In the preface to the latest edition, Meyer talks at length about what was in her mind when she originally sat down to write the book. She decided very early on to reject the usual twee American euphemisms on the simple grounds that they were twee euphemisms and therefore they would tend to obscure what she was trying to say. You simply can’t go to the bathroom in the middle of a howling wilderness, for quite obvious reasons. The medium, she felt, would get in the way of the message (pace McLuhan) if she used such circumlocutions. So she looked to her father for inspiration. Despite being American, he had always talked quite bluntly about going for a piss, justifying himself on the grounds that if Shakespeare could say it, so could he. Kathleen Mayer decided to use her father’s justification in the writing of her book, though later she researched the topic a bit and decided that her father was probably wrong. It was Jonathan Swift who talked about pissing, not Shakespeare – though, to be fair, Shakespeare does mention disliking the smell of horse piss (The Tempest) and in Henry IV (Part I) a character takes a "leake". So I think Kathleen Meyer’s father wasn’t too far wrong.…

I don’t think Shakespeare ever explicitly said shit anywhere in his published works, probably because he had such a wide vocabulary that he really didn’t need to use the word. But his contemporaries were not so fastidious. Ben Jonson’s plays are littered with shit – "turd i’ your teeth", "shit o’your head" – but really both Shakespeare and Jonson are johnnies come lately. The grandfather of shit is, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer. Scatology is central to the Canterbury Tales, shitting and farting abound.

With antecedents like that, surely nobody can begrudge Kathleen Meyer her deliciously apt title...

Rufus Lodge’s book F**k is subtitled A History Of The F-Word and that tells you everything you need to know about the subject of the book. It delves deeply into the history and the etymology of the word fuck. Although the publisher has chickened out and put F**K on the cover, the word is spelled out in full throughout the text. That’s probably just as well. If if wasn’t, the world would now be facing a severe asterisk crisis as the printer scrambled to find enough of them to fill the pages.

The book is erudite and scholarly, packed with surprising information and enlivened by a wicked wit. If it doesn’t make you laugh, you really do need a funny bone transplant.

The book opens with a fascinating linguistic analysis of the history of the word in English, with some asides as to how it might have emerged through French, Dutch, German and Scandinavian influences. We learn that fuck is (probably) the only word in the English language that can be used as every part of speech. It can be a verb, a noun, an adjective, a participle and it can be tucked away in the middle of other words (abso-fucking-lutely). It even has a surprisingly geographical aspect as well – apparently there’s a small village in Austria which rejoices in the name "Fucking" and the people who live there are sick to death of selfie-snapping tourists (mostly Brits, but there’s a fair sprinkling of Aussies and Kiwis as well) who keep stealing the signposts no matter how tightly they are concreted into the ground.

Lodge goes on to give many entertaining examples of the use of the word over the centuries and, of course, such usage isn’t finished with yet. In my own lifetime I’ve participated, albeit indirectly, in a couple of such dramas. As a child, I remember reading the newspaper avidly every day so as to keep myself up to date with the details of the Crown’s prosecution of the publishers of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover for obscenity. The trial ground inexorably and inevitably to its triumphant conclusion and along with almost everybody else in the country, I immediately dashed out and bought the (cunningly overpriced) book now that I was allowed to. I was very disappointed to find that although its pages were liberally sprinkled with fucks, the book itself was stultifyingly dull. So it goes…

I was actually watching the late night discussion show on the BBC in 1965 when the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan casually dropped an f-bomb into the conversation, the first time it had ever been said on television. It says much for the temperament of the times that although I heard the word quite plainly, I refused to believe that he’d said it. I was convinced that I’d been daydreaming and that I must have misheard him. It was only the next day when the newspapers had collective hysterics about it, and the country as a whole went into terminal shock (even though most of the upset people had been fast asleep in bed at the time and hadn’t heard the offensive single syllable) that I realised I really had heard him correctly. Yes, Virginia, once there actually was a time when newspapers were both informative and influential. How things have changed. Now they are neither.

By the 1970s, British writers had been effing and blinding on every page for a good ten years or so and nobody cared any more. But American publishers remained somewhat prim and proper and it was at least another decade before they came to the party. J. G. Ballard’s story Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan raised not a single eyebrow in the UK, but it was banned in America for donkey’s years. To be fair, it was never very clear whether the ban was because of the word fuck or whether the story was banned because it was deemed to have committed lèse-majesté. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know the truth of it.

Other contemporary anecdotes that Lodge reports were new to me. I was quite unaware that both the Beatles and the Strolling Bones (I beg your pardon, that should be the Rolling Stones) had produced records with fuck embedded in their grooves. Interestingly both groups had different motives for what they did. At the time, the Beatles were in the habit of mixing casual conversation and whatever else the studio microphones happened to pick up into the fading tail end of their tracks. On one such track, a particularly sensitive microphone had picked up an almost inaudible "fuck", though nobody was quite sure who had said it. As a bit of a joke, the Beatles decided to leave it there to see if anybody noticed. For many years, nobody did. The group had long since broken up and gone their separate ways before some eagle-eared fan finally spotted it.

The Stones, on the other hand, were rather more blatant about what they did, as the Stones tended to be in those days. They were many things to many people, but they were never, ever subtle. Their record company had insisted on a "contractual completion" single, so the Stones gave them Starfucker. The record company sighed, agreed the Stones had met their legal obligations and put the record on the shelf. It eventually appeared as a track on their album Goat’s Head Soup.

As part of his linguistic analysis of the f-word, Lodge segues into a discussion of the Irish word feck which, in Britain at least, is commonly assumed to be a synonym for fuck, probably because the words sound very similar to each other when said out loud. I was amazed to learn that feck actually means to throw or to steal, and that its euphonious connection to fuck is a relatively recent and purely coincidental construct. Consequently even today feck does not really have the sexual overtones of its similar sounding cousin. I find this rather annoying because the knowledge completely ruins the joking observation that a feckless person is an Irish virgin. So I’m going to pretend that I’ve never come across that particular fact…

Feck aside, FUCK (let’s give it its proper title) is an unalloyed joy and delight from beginning to end. I fucking loved it.

* * * *

We drove the car back to The Car Company and said to Reuben, "We’ll buy it."

So we bought the car.

And we drove it home.

Patrick O’Brian HMS Surprise HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian The Mauritius Command HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian Desolation Island HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian The Fortune Of War HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian The Surgeons Mate HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian The Ionian Mission HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian Treasons Harbour HarperCollins
Patrick O’Brian The Far Side Of The World HarperCollins
Lisa Lutz The Accomplice Ballantine
Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon Audible
Kathleen Meyer How to Shit in the Woods Ten Speed Press
Rufus Lodge F**k - A History Of The F Word The Friday Project
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