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wot I read on my hols by alan robson (sfnal sfnull)

Don’t Blame Me – I’m Deaf and I Don’t Speak English

Conn Iggulden’s novels always succeed in bringing ancient history excitingly to life. He’s both a hugely knowledgeable historian and a terrific story teller. That’s an unbeatable combination.

Lion is the first instalment of a dramatised biography of the Greek general and politician Pericles about whom I knew almost nothing until I read this novel. I was vaguely aware that he had been a mover and shaker in ancient Athens but that was about the limit of my knowledge, so this book was quite an eye opener.

The long struggle between Greece and Persia comes to a head in this novel. Persia’s early triumphs are ancient history now and the Persians, under the rule of Xerxes, are a little bit on the back foot. Xerxes has proved himself to be a weak and indecisive king – and his defeat by the Greeks as detailed in this novel was a direct cause of his later assassination by his own people.

As the story opens, the Greeks have largely patched up their internecine squabbles and formed the Delian League to present a pretty much united front with which to combat the Persian threat. Unfortunately Sparta objects to the Athenian leadership of the league and so it proves to be an uneasy alliance at best. But while it lasts, it gives Pericles and his friend Cimon (who is the commander of the Athenian fleet) the opportunity they need to bring the Persians to heel. The Greek army and navy combine their forces at the battle of Eurymedon River. The Greeks completely destroy the Persian fleet and rout their army. It’s all over, bar the shouting.

This is a story about the development of identity and self-knowledge – on the large scale we see the beginnings of a (mostly) united Hellenic identity, as opposed to the fragmented squabbling that preceded it, and on a slightly smaller scale, we are privy to the evolution of Pericles’ own sense of himself and of his purpose in life, a purpose which will ultimately see him transform the Delian League into an Athenian empire – though we’ll have to wait for the next book in the series to see just how that one works out.

The Falcon of Sparta is a dramatisation of the Anabasis, a classic text in which Xenophon, the Greek general, philosopher, and historian, describes his own youthful adventures fighting as a mercenary in the service of Cyrus the Younger, pretender to the throne of Persia. I’m not at all sure why Conn Iggulden felt the need to dramatise Xenophon’s story – the original is quite dramatic enough in its own right. But having made that choice, he does his usual superb job with the material. Some might even say that he improves on the original. If such a thing is possible...

Cyrus raises an army in order to try to wrest the Persian throne from his brother Artaxerxes, but he fails in his attempt. His army is defeated, and Cyrus himself is killed, at the Battle of Cunaxa. After the battle, Xenophon finds himself in charge of a beaten army that is now stranded deep in Persian territory. The only possibility of survival is to beat a fighting retreat across thousands of miles of hostile territory...

Since Xenophon lived to write the Anabasis,  he clearly succeeded in bringing his army home safely. And as a result, he quite literally wrote the book about how to manage such a retreat. The tactics he developed to cope with the problems he faced on this incredible journey are still being taught in military academies today. Perhaps that’s Conn Iggulden’s justification for re-telling Xenophon’s story.

Mick Herron has just published Bad Actors the eighth novel in his Slough House (Slow Horses) series and it’s a definite return to form. I was less than impressed with the last couple of novels in the series – they seemed to be marking time – but this one had me on the edge of my seat all the way through.

The events of the story take place in a just post-Covid London. There are lots of references to covid precautions (or to the lack of them) and both Boris Johnson (the Prime Minister), and Dominic Cummings (the place where Boris stores his brain cell when he isn’t using it) get a particularly unmerciful pummelling in Herron’s delightfully cynical and satirical prose. Those two idiots don’t appear under their own names, of course because Herron can’t afford a libel suit. But it’s quite clear who he is really talking about.

A governmental agency, whose remit is to report on (that’s a civil service euphemism for curb) the independence of the intelligence service, has lost one of its key members.  Claude Whelan, the retired head of the intelligence service is asked to help track her down. But there are wheels within wheels. Diana Taverner, Whelan’s replacement as head of the service (whose own convoluted machinations were responsible for forcing Whelan into retirement in the first place), seems somehow to be involved in the disappearance and Jackson Lamb, the obnoxious man in charge of Slough House, also has his grubby fingers polluting the pie. Things get more complicated when Diana’s counterpart in the Russian intelligence service arrives in London. What is she up to? Whelan is starting to feel a little out of his depth. Are Diana and Jackson Lamb working together? Is there a vast conspiracy going on?

Meanwhile, over at Slough House, Shirley Dander is in rehab, but that doesn’t slow her down much. She is even more of a loose cannon than ever. Oblivious Roddy Ho is still being oblivious, and new recruit Ashley Khan is trying to stop Jackson Lamb from stealing her food by poisoning it with progressively hotter chillies.

As always, Herron’s brilliant writing manages to say more in one short, pithy phrase than other authors can manage in whole paragraphs. The Dominic Cummings look-alike is described as "nasty, British and short" – a phrase whose astonishingly clever wit actually made me snort the coffee I was drinking at the time out of my nose! Diana Taverner’s ruthless cunning is beautifully characterised in two sentences as: "Even Nash, technically one of Regent’s Park’s string-pullers, knew to tread carefully around Diana. String-pullers carry weight, but Diana carried scissors."

Nobody has written such complex, witty and cynical intelligence service stories since Len Deighton’s "Harry Palmer" novels took the 1960s by storm. And that’s the highest praise I know how to give.

Say the name Nevil Shute to a science fiction fan and they will probably start talking about On the Beach, Shute’s depressingly gloomy novel about the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. It’s certainly a very good book – all Nevil Shute’s novels are well worth a read – but I don’t think it’s his best. In my opinion he wrote three masterpieces that stand head and shoulders above all his other books. They are A Town Like Alice, Requiem for a Wren (which was published as The Breaking Wave in America – I prefer the British title; I like the clever alliteration) and Trustee from the Toolroom. I first discovered these novels lurking on my parents’ bookshelves in my teens and I devoured them eagerly. I’ve just re-read them and I find that my opinion of them has not changed a bit. All three are love stories (though Trustee from the Toolroom is more about parental love than it is about romantic love) and you simply cannot help but be moved by them. Shute brings the characters and the places so amazingly alive in in his prose that you really come to know these people intimately and you you can taste and smell the places they visit. The books are truly superb.

The story of A Town Like Alice is told in several distinct parts. It begins in the late 1940s when Jean Paget inherits a considerable sum of money from her late uncle. Her solicitor is the trustee of the bequest – she will not inherit absolutely for several years until she reaches the age of thirty five (her uncle had somewhat old-fashioned ideas about a woman’s ability to manage money). However the solicitor can release funds from the trust if he feels the cause is a worthy one. He is somewhat taken aback when Jean tells him that she wishes to build a well in a village in Malaya.

In order to explain Jean’s rather odd request, the second part of the story tells of Jean’s wartime experiences in Japanese controlled Malaya. As part of a motley group of women and children, she is taken prisoner by the Japanese. However the Japanese authorities refuse all responsibility for the group and simply march them, under guard, from one village to another. Many of them, not used to such extreme physical hardship, die on the journey. Eventually, after their last remaining Japanese guard dies, the few survivors are taken in by a small village where they spend the rest of the war. It is here that Jean wants to build the well that she knows the village so badly needs as a way of saying thank you to the villagers for looking after her so selflessly.

At one point in her travels she meets an Australian prisoner of war called Joe Harmon who takes a bit of a shine to her. He steals food and medicine from the Japanese for her. When the Japanese find out what he has done they crucify him and beat him to death.

Moved by her story, the solicitor releases the funds and Jean returns to the village to build her well. She discovers that Joe did not die as she had believed. On impulse, she decides to follow him back to Australia, to his home town of Alice Springs. Although it exists in isolation in the middle of a desert, she finds the town to be a most impressive place. But she quickly discovers that Joe doesn’t live there any more. These days he manages a cattle station out in the middle of nowhere near a place called Willstown. Jean decides to use the rest of her money to transform that rather rough and ready place into a town like Alice…

The novel is a paean to the beauty of Australia and to the resilience and ingenuity of the Australian character. Despite the brutality of the wartime scenes in Malaya, it remains a very moving story. Much of it is based in truth. The group of women and children who were passed from pillar to post by the Japanese in Malaya really did exist, though they were Dutch rather than English as the novel portrays them. Joe Harmon’s real name was Herbert James Edwards. He was an Australian prisoner of war who survived his crucifixion and returned home to Australia after the war. He died of natural causes in June 2000 at the ripe old age of 86.

Like A Town Like Alice before it, Requiem for a Wren is set during and just after the second world war and it too tells of a rather bitter sweet love between an English woman and an Australian man. But there the similarity ends. Requiem for a Wren is probably Shute’s most complex novel. It is full of profound psychological insights.

After the war, Alan Duncan returns home from England to his family’s remote sheep station in Australia. Alan has been severely injured during his war service, but at least he is still alive, unlike his brother Bill who died on a perilous mission that was part of the preparations for the D-Day landings in France.

When Alan arrives back home he discovers that his mother’s parlourmaid, an English girl called Jessie Proctor, had committed suicide shortly before his arrival. His parents were fond of Jessie, so naturally they are very upset, and somewhat puzzled as to her motive.

Alan guesses that she might have left her personal papers hidden somewhere in the house. If her suicide attempt had not succeeded she would have at least needed her passport, if nothing else, in order to carry on with her life. After an exhaustive search, he finds a small suitcase which contains letters, her diary and, of course, her passport. He is appalled to find that he had known her during the war. Her name was not really Jessie Proctor. She was actually called Janet Prentice (why is Shute so fond of women who have the initials JP? Remember Jean Paget from A Town Like Alice?). Janet had been engaged to Alan’s brother Bill. Why on earth, Alan wonders, had she sought out Bill’s family after the war and why had she killed herself shortly before Alan himself arrived home? He is struck by a horrible thought. Could his own imminent arrival have precipitated her suicide? And if so, why?

The rest of the novel is told in flashback, in scenes that are constructed from Alan’s own wartime experiences, from discussions that he had with his brother Bill and finally from the pages of Janet’s diary.

Initially Janet had quite a good war. She had volunteered to serve in the WRNS, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, popularly referred to as the Wrens. She was appointed to be an ordinance officer. Her job was to service and repair anti-aircraft guns, to deliver ammunition when the ships returned to port for resupply, and to train the gun crews to take care of their guns properly. She herself developed into a very skilful gunner. Once she even managed to shoot down a German plane!

But then tragedy struck. In quick succession she lost her fiancée Bill, then her father, and then her dog. She also came to believe that she herself was directly responsible for the deaths of the seven men who made up the crew of the plane that she shot down. Consumed with guilt, she feels that somehow she needs to make reparation for what she has done. She has to atone. Today she’d be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD and she’d receive treatment for it. But things were very different back then...

As Alan pieces together these tragic events and as he comes to understand the terrible burden of guilt that Janet was struggling with, he begins to realize just how much he had in common with her. He never really knew her as a person – he only met her once, very briefly, quite early in her relationship with his brother. But one thing is very clear. Both he and Janet know very well that a war can go on killing people long after it's all over.

Trustee From the Toolroom was Nevil Shute’s last novel. He finished it shortly before he died and it was published posthumously in 1960.

Keith Stewart is an ordinary working class man. He’s an engineer and a technical journalist. He writes articles about how to build miniature machines. The articles are published in a magazine called The Miniature Mechanic which has a world wide readership. It is very highly regarded in the modelling and engineering communities, as is Keith himself, though he does not know this. He is a very modest man, quite unaware of his reputation.

Keith’s sister married above herself (the British class system is very much alive and well in this novel). Her husband is a wealthy naval officer who has recently retired from the service. They plan a voyage across the world in his yacht, hoping eventually to settle permanently in Canada. They leave their ten year old daughter Janice in the care of Keith and his wife. Janice is far too young to come on the voyage but they plan to send for her once they arrive in Canada. Before they leave, Keith, at their request, uses his engineering skills to conceal a jewellery box in the boat’s concrete ballast.

Unfortunately the yacht is caught in a storm in the Pacific. It is wrecked on an uninhabited island and Keith’s sister and brother-in-law both drown. Their estate is inherited by their daughter and, by default, Keith becomes her trustee until she comes of age. Unfortunately no money can be found in the estate. Evidence suggests that in an effort to evade the strict currency restrictions in force in the UK at that time, Keith's brother-in-law had converted all his wealth into diamonds and Keith quickly realises that the metal box that he had hidden in the yacht’s ballast must have contained those diamonds. Only he in all the world knows that the box even exists. If he can retrieve it, he will bet set up for life with quite a nice little nest egg… Somehow he needs to find a way to get himself all the way from England to a remote, uninhabited little dot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on the other side of the world.

It’s important to understand his motives. He isn’t being greedy and acquisitive. On the contrary, he wants to do it for completely altruistic reasons – he feels strongly that he owes it to Janice to make the effort to retrieve the diamonds, and he regards the money as really belonging to her. He intends to use it to give her the upbringing that he feels her parents would have wanted her to have. It will also give her something to live on when she grows up. But, of course, it’s all a pipe-dream. He simply doesn’t have the funds to pay up front for such a lengthy and arduous journey. So how would he ever be able to manage it?

It turns out that there exists an informal world-wide network of engineering enthusiasts who hero worship Keith Stewart. They read his articles avidly and they build his models for themselves. When they get stuck they write to him and they are always thrilled when he replies to their letters and clears up their difficulties. Together this network of 1950s nerds start to pull strings on Keith’s behalf so that they can get him to his destination.

If that sounds unlikely to you, just consider that if Shute was writing this novel today, Keith Stewart would be cast as an Instagram Influencer and he’d be getting help from all his followers. Truly there are no new social phenomena under the sun…

And so, after many small, exquisitely described adventures, Keith eventually reaches the atoll, reclaims his diamonds and (by implication) lives happily ever after.

Yes, it’s a fairy tale.

There is no real drama in this story. We know what the outcome will be from the very start. The joy and delight in the story comes from seeing just how it is made to happen. In the modern jargon, it’s a book about logistics (though I doubt if Shute would recognize that term) and about processes. Something needs to be accomplished and the fairly massive page count shows us the details of just how some very ingenious people manage to find creative solutions to Keith’s problems. These are lovely, helpful people who anyone would be proud to have as friends. Or followers.

This is a warm, wonderful, feel good story that will clutch at your heart strings and make you weep. The people who live in its pages come from all walks of life and from all social classes and they are all quite fascinating in their very different ways. The places that Keith visits are exotic and fascinating. Even the details about Keith’s engineering accomplishments are fascinating, and they are so brilliantly described that every time I read this story I (briefly!) want to become an engineer despite the fact that I have proved time and time again that I have absolutely no talent whatsoever in that area. The book is a perfect showcase for Shute’s amazing ability to invoke the sights, sounds and smells of far away places and to sketch in the very believable people who live there. I absolutely love this book – it’s my very favourite Nevil Shute novel.

The secret of David Sedaris’ success is his ability to be funny about serious things and serious about funny things. It all kind of evens out… In his new collection of essays Happy Go Lucky, he is particularly hilarious about the death of his father (a man he obviously loathed) and also about the diagnosis of his own urinary tract infection, a painful and humiliating experience.

Much of the book covers his time during the lockdown in New York at the height of the covid pandemic. Sedaris found the lockdown frustrating because of course he was unable to travel and unable to perform on stage, the two things that taken together define his way of life. In reflecting on the pandemic he remarks in passing that "The terrible shame about the pandemic in the United States is that more than 800,000 people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them." That’s a typical Sedaris attitude, expressing a typical Sedaris sentiment. Some people find him offensive, and I can easily understand why. He treads on taboos and his light-heartedness only thinly conceals a dark and sometimes selfish cynicism. But I find him both hilarious and thoughtful. Your mileage may vary.

I can’t count the number of books that have been written about the code breakers at Bletchley Park during the second world war. But one fundamental question has never been answered in any of them – it’s all very well to spend time and ingenuity decrypting the enemy signals, but how did Bletchley Park get hold of those signals in the first place? The books always gloss over that, to my mind, very vital point. But now we finally have an answer to the question.  The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay tells the story of the world wide network of listening stations that was set up to monitor the German signals and send them off to Bletchley Park to be decrypted.

It was known as the Y service (Y for Wireless, obviously. Duh!). Members of the service worked all over Europe, Africa, the Pacific and the Far East. Sometimes the living conditions were primitive. One operative was pretty much a Robinson Crusoe castaway. He spent years living alone on a tiny atoll in the Cocos Islands. Every month or so a supply ship would come calling. But apart from that he was all alone except for the sharks, the poisonous centipedes and the occasional Japanese bomber. On the other hand, some members of the service found themselves posted to Lisbon in neutral Portugal. There they lived a life of decadent luxury replete with plentiful food and drink, partying among a glittering, sophisticated social set. It’s hard to picture two more contrasting lifestyles!

Life in the Y service was often transformative. Many of its members were very young, and had led very sheltered lives prior to the war. They were recruited to the service on the basis of their language skills or because they were amateur radio hams, obsessed with the technology. One such operative was a teenage boy, too young to leave home, who had built himself an elaborate receiving station in his bedroom. The Official  Secrets Act meant that he wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, not even his parents, anything at all about what he did. They had strict instructions to leave him alone in his room to do his own thing. That’s every teenage boy’s wet dream – probably literally more often than not!!

It’s nice to have the final dots of the Bletchley Park story joined together at last.

For many years the UK magazine New Scientist published a column called The Last Word in which readers submitted questions about things that puzzled them and other readers provided (hopefully helpful and accurate) answers. The very best of the submissions to The Last Word have been published in a couple of books: Does Anything Eat Wasps? (The answer is yes, lots of things eat wasps and they have come up with a great many ingenious and grisly ways to do it safely) and Why Don’t Penguins Feet Freeze? (That gets complicated – I suggest you read the book).

The questions and answers are often informative, always interesting, sometimes very funny and occasionally inconclusive. In the days when I used to read New Scientist regularly I remember a seemingly never ending discussion that attempted week after week after tedious week to explain just why a mirror swapped left and right but didn’t swap up and down. No convincing explanation was ever proposed…

My very favourite question asked if it was true that midwives tied a knot in the umbilical cord when a baby was born. A long discussion about the anatomy of the umbilical chord concluded that it was not physically possible to tie a knot in it, but that it was very easy to tie string (or grass) around the cord in order to seal it off. These days a clamp is usually used to take care of the task. This conclusion prompted a hilarious response from one reader:

When our daughter was born nearly nine years ago, her umbilical cord was sealed  off with a small plastic clamp. After a few days the cord shrivelled up and dropped off of its own accord. We then found that the clamp was ideal for holding our  muesli bag closed. It lasted for another few years until it eventually broke and we were forced to have another child. His clamp is still going strong.

And on that note, I’ll leave you to your breakfast.

Conn Iggulden Lion Michael Joseph
Conn Iggulden Falcon of Sparta Penguin
Mick Herron Bad Actors Soho Crime
Nevil Shute A Town Like Alice Vintage
Nevil Shute Requiem for a Wren Vintage
Nevil Shute Trustee From The Toolroom Vintage
David Sedaris Happy go Lucky Little, Brown
Sinclair McKay The Secret Listeners Aurum Press
New Scientist Does Anything Eat Wasps? New Scientist
New Scientist Why Don't Penguins Feet freeze? New Scientist
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