Previous Contents Next

wot I red on my hols by alan robson (salivarius soggimus)

Yours Drooly

Early one morning, Jake the Dog and I set off for our daily constitutional. We watched the sun rise through a sky so fiercely red that it might almost have been on fire. I thought it was quite breathtakingly beautiful and so I stopped to admire it properly. "Isn’t that the reddest sunrise you ever saw?" I asked Jake.

"I don’t know," he said. "Dogs can’t see anything at the red end of the spectrum. It just looks vaguely blackish to me."

"If you can’t see red, how do you know the colour even exists?" I asked.

"I’m studying physics in my spare time," he explained, "and we’ve just done refraction."

"I didn’t know you had any spare time," I said. "I thought you just slept in between walks."

"That’s when I do all my studying," said Jake scornfully. "I close my eyes so that I can avoid distractions and concentrate on the subject in hand. Don’t you know anything?"

"Sorry," I said. "I should have realised. I do know that you can count up to three, and that you understand the relationship between cause and effect. Those are really the only skills you need to be a brilliant physicist. I think you’ve made a good career choice there."

"Cause and effect?" asked Jake. He sounded a little puzzled. "I think I’ve heard of that."

"Yes," I said. "Every time a dog salivates, a behavioural psychologist rings a bell. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a rule."

"Oh, I see," said Jake. "That would explain the constant ringing I get in my ears. I thought it was just ordinary tinnitus."

"Not at all," I said, "it’s all caused by you drooling far too much."

Jake stared up at me hopefully, strings of slobber hanging down from his jaw. "How about giving me a dog treat?" he asked. "It must be about time. We’ve been walking for at least three minutes. I’m very good at counting minutes as long as there aren’t more than three of them in a row..."

I tossed him a treat and he caught it skilfully in his mouth. He chewed it thoughtfully, then he swallowed and shook his head violently from side to side and up and down. The slobber strings flew up into the air and draped themselves over his face leaving long white streaks across his snout and forehead. His large, floppy ears rattled against his skull with the violence of his head shaking. "The bells!" he moaned dramatically. "The bells!"

* * * *

I had several reasons for wanting to read The Hiding Place by C. J. Tudor. The first was the setting – the events of the novel all take place in a mining village in Nottinghamshire. That’s an area of England that I know very well. I lived in one such village for several years so I was curious to see how well the author captured the atmosphere of the place. I’m pleased to report that she got it exactly right – it all felt familiar, it all felt real. That made me very happy.

I also found the book blurb intriguing – that’s exactly what a blurb is supposed to do, of course, so I suppose you could say that someone got that bit exactly right as well. Joe’s sister went missing when they were both children. She was gone for two days and when she returned she was . . . different. The family moved away and Joe tried to put it all behind him. But many years later, quite out of the blue, Joe gets an email: I know what happened to your sister. It’s happening again . . .

So, reluctantly, Joe goes back to Arnhill. He gets a job as a teacher in the village school and he renews his acquaintance with old friends and old enemies and with the abandoned mine where, long ago, his life fell apart.

If you’ve read Stephen King’s novel Pet Semetary you’ll know exactly what is driving this story. The gimmick is the same in both of them. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is the character development, the sense of menace and the claustrophobic atmosphere that surrounds the storyline. Tudor’s novel excels in all of these areas. If I had to compare the two stories (though I don’t really want to) I’d say that The Hiding Place is so far ahead of Pet Semetary that King’s novel isn’t really in sight.

And as an added bonus despite its extremely dark theme, The Hiding Place  is often very funny indeed.

Inspired by my enjoyment of The Hiding Place, I picked up another C. J. Tudor novel. The Other People has an intriguing opening scene which leads on to one of the darkest and most enthralling stories I’ve read in ages. The edge of my seat ended up being highly polished...

Gabe is driving home along the motorway one night. He gets stuck behind a rusty old car. A little girl's face appears in the rear window of the car. She stares at Gabe and mouths one word: 'Daddy.'. Then she disappears from sight. Gabe is convinced that he’s seen his five-year-old daughter Izzy in the car.

He arrives home to find the place crawling with police. His wife and daughter have been found dead, gruesomely murdered. Gabe refuses to accept the fact of his daughter’s death. He knows that he saw her peering through the rear window of that old rustbucket that he followed up the motorway. He has no idea who the dead girl in his house might be, but he is quite sure that she isn’t Izzy.

Gabe spends the next three years travelling up and down the motorway, searching for the car that took his daughter away from him. He refuses to give up hope. He stops at all the service stations and hands out leaflets to everyone he meets. Have you seen this girl? Please phone this number…

Katie is a waitress in one of the motorway service stations. She often sees Gabe, and she knows his story well. She has a lot of sympathy for him, because Katie understands just what it's like to lose a loved one. Nine years ago, her own father was murdered and now she is estranged from her family because on the day of her father’s funeral she did something quite terrible. She gets herself involved with Gabe’s search when he is attacked one dark and stormy night and she comes to his rescue...

Fran and her daughter Alice, are also travelling on the motorway. They are not searching for anyone, they are running away from the people who want to kill them. Fran knows what really happened to Gabe's daughter and she knows who is responsible. Because of this, Fran and Alice are living on borrowed time.

The breakthrough comes when the car in which Gabe saw his daughter being abducted is found abandoned in a lake. Gabe discovers a body inside it. The body is not his daughter’s. Could it be that of the person who took his daughter away from him? Clues point Gabe towards a group who call themselves The Other People. They specialise in implementing revenge. Revenge is sweet, especially when it is served very, very cold.

These entangled story lines twist together beautifully. I stayed up far too late reading this enthralling thriller and I don’t regret a minute of it. Neither will you.

The Suitcase Clone is a novella by Robin Sloan. It’s a thematic sequel (or possibly prequel) to his novel Sourdough in the sense that it does for wine what Sourdough did for bread. It is even possible, if you squint a bit, to work out that the novella also embraces the world of Sloan’s first novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But you don’t have to read the earlier novels in order to appreciate this one. It stands alone perfectly well.

Jim Bascule is recruited to smuggle cuttings from a European vineyard into a vineyard in California. The European grape is reputed to produce a golden dessert wine, which is generally considered to be far superior to even that of the famous Château d’Yquem. A Californian vintner wants to graft the cuttings onto his own vines in the hope of producing a truly superior wine.

It turns out that the secret of the wine’s success lies not so much in the grape itself as in the symbiotic relationship that has developed between the grape and a unique fungus. Together they give the wine its unique body and flavour. Some parts of the novel are actually narrated by the fungus itself, which appears to be related in some way to the sourdough starter that was so important to Sourdough. Perhaps fungi are the true masters of the Earth...

The story is an unusual blend of fantasy, science fiction, straightforward thriller and very sly satire. It’s utterly fascinating and very tightly written. I don’t think you could trim a single word without destroying the story.

A new novel from Stephen King is always a cause for rejoicing. I thoroughly enjoyed Fairy Tale, though it is not without its problems. It is definitely a novel of two halves and it feels somewhat unbalanced – the first half is far too short (I wanted more!) and the second half is far too long (eventually I got bored because it was taking too many pages for the plot to reach its stated goal). The first half of the story is a completely realistic contemporary novel and the second half is a straightforward and fairly routine fantasy. The book is really telling two very different stories with only the most tenuous of links between them. Perhaps it would be best to read it as a (not very successful) fix up of two novellas… That way each half can be thought of as a story in its own right and can be judged on its own merits, which are considerable.

Charlie Reade, the teenage hero of both stories, is a typical Stephen King character. He’s a regular All-American high school kid, obsessed with baseball and (American) football. But he’s not just a jock, he’s also a pretty decent student who gets high marks in his classes. In other words he’s extremely competent at everything!

Charlie’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten. Her death hit Charlie and his father very hard. Charlie's father tried to cope with his grief by diving into a bottle. This forced Charlie to grow up very quickly. Not only did he have to learn how to look after himself, he had to learn how to look after his father as well. Consequently he exhibits a maturity well beyond his years. That’s just as well. He’s going to need it...

When Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse who strongly discourages visitors. Most of the neighbourhood children are scared stiff of him. He is rumoured to have a fiercely vicious dog that will chase off, and probably eat, any trespassers. Passing by the house one day, Charlie hears the dog whimpering and he thinks he hears Mr Bowditch calling for help. On investigating, he discovers that Mr Bowditch has fallen off a ladder and broken his leg. Radar the dog, far from being the vicious monster of legend, is old and frail and clearly very worried about Mr Bowditch. Charlie calls the emergency services…

Over the weeks and months of Mr Bowditch’s gradual recovery, Charlie starts to build a rapport with him and he grows very close indeed to Radar. There are no real manifestations of the supernatural yet although Charlie does discover a safe which contains a bucket that is filled with strange gold pellets. And there’s a heavily padlocked shed in the back garden from which peculiar noises occasionally emerge. The noises clearly upset Radar and she growls fiercely at them whenever they occur. But apart from these small indications, there is really nothing out of the ordinary in the story. It is just a feel-good tale of a teenager helping a grumpy and very eccentric old man to recover from an injury and, along the way, the teenager makes friends with a very sweet-natured dog. It’s a touching and beautifully written story and I wanted a lot more of it because it felt so real, so full of emotion but without any trace of mawkishness.

But that was not to be. Mr. Bowditch makes a very good recovery from his broken leg. Unfortunately old age (sort of) eventually catches up with him and he dies of a heart attack. In his will he leaves Charlie the house, the massive amount of gold in the safe and a cassette tape on to which Mr Bowditch has dictated a story that Charlie finds almost impossible to believe.

The tape reveals that within the garden shed is a portal to another world – one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may soon destroy not only their own world, but ours as well. In this parallel universe, there are two moons in the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace preside over the wreckage of what was once a great city. Exiled princes and princesses wait in the wings for a champion to come and rescue them and restore their throne. This is the role that Charlie and Radar must fulfil.

You can easily join the dots and fill in the general direction that the story will take from that point onwards. There are no surprises here. It’s a traditional fairy tale (hence the title of the novel) and, of course, King tells it brilliantly. It’s full to the brim with clever bits of business and wonderfully imaginative set pieces. But really, the pacing is far too slow and there are far too many time consuming asides. Time and again I found myself muttering for goodness sake GET ON WITH IT as the story slowly ground along to its inevitable conclusion.

Here’s a small spoiler: the dog doesn’t die and the dog saves the day. And if that doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart, nothing will. Do they all live happily ever after? That depends…

* * * *

The sunrise colours began to fade and so we walked on. Soon we reached a pleasant area of parkland. "Come on," said Jake impatiently. "This is an official off-lead area so you have to let me off the lead. I want to run over there so I can sniff the bits around the perimeter rather than the bits in the middle where you prefer to walk."

Jake has always been an edge dog. He likes borders and boundaries, those out of the way places where small creepy creatures lurk. Bushes and brambles grow there, and children throw away their unwanted lunch items into the undergrowth. Treasures abound.

"OK," I said and I unclipped his lead. He dashed off to investigate a promising bush. I watched him for a while but I soon got bored. He appeared to be sniffing every single leaf on every single branch of it and I could tell that he was going to be there for a very long time. "I’ll go on ahead," I said. "Catch me up when you’ve finished here and I’ll toss you another treat."

"Righto," said Jake. His voice was a bit muffled because he was chewing on something smelly and delicious. I wondered what it could be. I assumed I’d find out soon enough. Over the years he’s developed the habit of devouring his finds in situ and then dashing over to me so that he can vomit them up for me to admire. Once I’ve congratulated him on his cleverness at hunting them down, he eats them again. Waste not, want not.

I walked slowly across the park, giving Jake plenty of time to catch up to me. After a while I started to get a bit worried. Where was Jake? He never usually stayed away from me for this long. What on earth could he be up to? I turned round and looked back to see what was going on and there he was, behaving very oddly indeed…

Jake had abandoned his edgy bush and now he was running in a spiral outwards from a solitary tree. His nose was high in the air, sniffing eagerly. Every so often he’d stop and sniff worriedly at the ground for a time. He seemed very puzzled that he couldn’t find whatever it was that was attracting him. After a lot more sniffing up in the air and down on the ground he resumed his spiral. Eventually, it seemed that the smell of whatever it was he was hunting for must have faded away to nothing because when he reached that point he started spiralling inwards again, repeating his strange sniffing behaviour until he arrived back at the tree and came to a full stop. After a lot of agitated pacing he started spiralling out again. Lather, rinse, repeat…

I called his name several times, but he completely ignored me. Clearly he had more important things to think about. So I walked back to the magic tree that was puzzling him so much. "What’s going on, Jake?" I asked.

"I have no idea," he said. He sounded quite frustrated. "There’s something really scrumptious somewhere around here, but I don’t know where it is. I can smell it in the air,  but the scent gets fainter the closer my nose gets to the ground and it disappears completely when I get far enough away from the tree. That doesn’t make any sense at all. How can a smell stay in the air for so long without the thing that causes it ever falling down to the ground? Everything falls to the ground. It’s a rule. That’s what physics is for!"

I took a closer look at the tree that Jake was spiralling around, and everything suddenly became clear to me. There were half a dozen small, but very widely-meshed, nets hanging from the tree’s upper branches. Each net was stuffed full with what looked like pork fat. Clearly somebody had set out a feast for the local birds. I explained all this to Jake.

"That’s dumb," he said. "Why would anybody want to feed the stupid birds when there’s a perfectly good dog here who is more than willing to dispose of their pork fat for them?" He reared up, stretching his front paws as far up the trunk of the tree as he could get them. Unfortunately it wasn’t anywhere near far enough and the pork fat remained tantalisingly out of reach. He flopped down to the ground again. "It’s not fair," he grumbled. "Why can’t dogs climb trees?"

This was clearly a rhetorical question, but I decided to answer it anyway. "Dogs can’t climb trees because cats can climb trees," I said.

Jake looked puzzled. "Wha’?"

"You know what happens when you chase a cat," I said.

"Of course I do," said Jake. "It happens to me all the time. The cat runs away and dashes up a tree or else it shimmies up the walls of a house and stands on the roof. Then it swears at me. Loudly!"

"Suppose you could climb as well as a cat," I continued. "Suppose you could actually chase it up the tree or on to the roof. You’d easily catch it. And then what would happen?"

Jake started to bark the Hokey Cokey song, not very tunefully, but very loudly.

"I’d put the right cat in,

"I’d put the right cat out,

"In out, in out.

"And shake it all about." he sang. "I’ve always wanted to do that," he continued wistfully. "It’s number one on my bucket list."

"But think what would happen if you, and all the other dogs in the world, did that to every cat that all of you ever saw," I said. "Before very long there wouldn’t be any cats left to chase."

"So what you are saying," said Jake thoughtfully, "is that if dogs could climb trees there wouldn’t be any cats out in the world. Cats only exist because dogs can’t climb trees. It’s one of those cause and effect things again, isn’t it?"

"That’s right," I said. "But this time it has the unintended side effect that you can’t eat the pork fat that’s hanging in this tree."

"Bloody physics," said Jake, gloomily. "Or is it biology this time?"

"When in doubt, just call it engineering," I said. "That covers all the undefined edge cases."

"Perhaps it’s all for the best," said Jake. He sounded resigned to the situation. "After all, cats do have their place in the world. Somebody has to eat the cockroaches." Then he perked up a little as a sudden thought occurred to him. "But since cats can climb trees maybe one will climb up here and ambush the birds when they come for their pork fat feast. That would be a lot of fun. Can we wait and watch in case it happens?"

"No," I said. "We’ve got to go home and get Robin out of bed. I need coffee and you need milk and neither of those things can happen without Robin."

Jake nodded, mollified by the thought of milk. I clipped his lead back on and we walked away from the tree. A bird began to yell, "Hey everyone, pork fat for breakfast!" Jake and I both pretended not to have heard, but I couldn’t help noticing that Jake was drooling heavily again. He made a soft Meow sound under his breath and I knew exactly what he was thinking...

* * * *

Bye, Bye Baby is another Nathan Heller novel by Max Allan Collins. Heller is a private eye who somehow manages to get himself involved in every prominent mystery and scandal of the twentieth century. In this novel, Heller finds himself investigating the mysterious death of Marilyn Monroe. It’s a fascinating and scurrilous tale that discusses Marilyn’s close involvement with the Kennedy brothers (just JFK and Robert, Teddy is mentioned only in passing), with Frank Sinatra and his rat pack, and through them with the world of organised crime. It’s a sleazy story, full of sex and drugs (rock and roll was still being invented) and its a good job that all the major characters are now dead and therefore they are in no position to sue the author for libel! Every dirty secret, both true and false, is exposed to the light of day. There’s a definite frisson of delight to be gained by reading about so many disgustingly immoral acts being performed by so many famous people for quite sordid motives. One and all, the protagonists turn out to be ratbags. Talk about feet of clay!

Only Marilyn comes out of the story looking good. Collins does not portray her as the empty-headed bimbo of popular legend. He shows her to be a clever (and sometimes deliberately manipulative) person, well aware of her sexuality and not afraid to make use of it to further her career and to realise her ambitions (at one point she declares that she sees herself moving in to the White House as the First Lady of the USA). But eventually she bites off more than she can chew. Powerful forces are arrayed against her. An uneasy alliance of government departments and influential kingmakers are determined to maintain the status quo. Marilyn has far too much inside information about far too many people. She knows enough to be very, very dangerous indeed. This is a war that she cannot win, and when she finally loses it, she loses all the way.

Once again, Collins historical research is impeccable. It’s impossible to say how much of this story is fact and how much is fiction. It all reads very convincingly. This is the first of the Nathan Heller novels to talk about events of which I myself have very clear memories. I found it very believable indeed.

Robert Harris’s new novel Act of Oblivion concerns itself with the execution of King Charles I, the  years of Parliamentarian government under Oliver Cromwell that followed on from the King’s death, the eventual restoration of the monarchy under Charles II and the subsequent relentless pursuit of the regicides who had signed the death warrant of Charles I. I started reading the book on the very day that King Charles III ascended to the English throne. That gave me an extraordinarily odd feeling indeed…

The eponymous act itself was a very successful attempt by Charles II to heal the rifts that the civil war had caused. Everyone who had fought for Cromwell against the king was forgiven their acts of treason. The slate was wiped clean. It was a fresh start, a new beginning for almost everyone. This is probably the first historical instance of what these days we might refer to as an act of truth and reconciliation. Only the regicides themselves were exempted from the act. Their treason was deemed too dark and deep to be forgiven. Those few who remained alive were ruthlessly hunted down and executed. Cromwell himself was exhumed from his grave and beheaded at Tyburn. His head was displayed on the roof of Westminster Hall, impaled upon a spike.

Two of the regicide fugitives were William Goffe and Edward Whalley. In 1660, they both fled to America, where many of the colonists were Puritans who had no love at all for the king and who could therefore be relied upon to look after the fugitives. Whalley was Oliver Cromwell’s cousin and had been a trusted member of the Lord Protector’s inner circle. Goffe was Whalley’s son-in-law.

This is where the known historical facts come to an end and Robert Harris’s fictional storyline begins. We know almost nothing about the fugitives lives in America. We do know that they largely lived in hiding – Royalist agents from England were actively searching for them and they were in constant danger of arrest despite the aid afforded them by their puritan protectors. But the historical record is mostly silent about what they did and how they did it. Enter the novelist, stage left...

Although Harris is writing fiction he never loses sight of the few available facts and he treats the more plausible theories that surround them with respect, as he skilfully extrapolates his scenarios. He’s clearly done a huge amount of research (the novel has an appendix identifying all the sources that Harris consulted as he prepared to write the book – it’s a very long appendix…).

Almost the only thing that Harris makes up from whole cloth is the character of Richard Nayler, the completely fictional secretary to the regicide committee of the privy council, who has a powerful personal reason to want the regicides dead. Nayler gives the novel a structure that would otherwise be lacking – the actual pursuit of the regicides was rather more of a hit and miss affair than the novel implies. There was no one figure in charge of it. But it is the job of the novelist to clarify such things and Nayler is the device that Harris uses to tighten the plot threads and bring it all together.

As we all know, the past is another country. They do things differently there. Whalley and Goffe (and even Nayler) would be anathema to a modern sensibility. The regicides were hardcore Puritans who honestly believed that only the elect would go to heaven. They aggressively pursued what they felt were righteous ends and they used their faith to justify the often ruthless means that they employed to bring those ends about. They felt no guilt for killing the king. It was part of God’s plan. Harris’s greatest achievement in this novel is that he makes us understand their attitudes, and perhaps he even makes us sympathise with them a little bit in spite of their unprepossessing nature.

Say the word "Colditz" to Britons of a certain age and they will babble to you about the books written by P. R. Reid in the 1950s and about the 1970s television series starring David McCallum. There was also a rather forgettable feature film made in 1955 which starred John Mills, but I’ve forgotten about it…

Thanks to Reid’s autobiographical books and the brilliantly scripted TV series, the escapades of the prisoners of war held in Colditz Castle by the Nazis during the second world war have entered the folklore. Everybody knows about the prisoners gallant escape attempts, their hilarious bamboozling of the German prison guards, their high morale and their stiff upper lips in the face of adversity.

Reid himself is largely responsible for this. He makes Colditz sound a bit like a holiday camp and the prisoners themselves are portrayed as flawless Boys Own Paper heroes. The truth was actually a lot more grim. Prisoners of the Castle by Ben MacIntyre sets the record straight and tells the story of Colditz in a very different way.

The British prisoners in Colditz were all officers. Many of them had been to public schools – Eton, Harrow, Rugby and the like. At that time most of the British officer class (and make no mistake, it was very much an identifiable social class) was recruited almost exclusively from these kinds of people. This background meant that they were perfectly familiar with the kind of regimented life that Colditz imposed on them – to a lot of them it was just like being back at school all over again. That attitude certainly stood them in very good stead for surviving the psychological pressures of imprisonment. But that same cloistered upbringing meant that they themselves were not well equipped to understand or to cope with the ways of the world. As a group they were generally unsophisticated, ignorant, prejudiced, narrow minded, bigoted, racist and often anti-Semitic. The few Jewish prisoners who found themselves incarcerated in Colditz were persecuted as much by the prisoners as they were by the Germans, and when the Indian Doctor Birendranath Mazumdar, an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps, arrived at the castle, the full fury of the prisoners ingrained racism was unleashed on him. They called him "Jumbo" and they despised him, going out of their way to bully and humiliate him. It’s a shameful story.

But never forget, Colditz really was a prison, and life in prison is never easy. Despite the story told by Reid’s upbeat books, not everybody coped well with their incarceration. For example, MacIntyre has much to say about the gradual disintegration of Michael Sinclair, the younger son of Colonel Thomas Charles Sinclair. Michael Sinclair had been educated at Winchester College. He played cricket for his school (at Lord's, no less!!) and he studied history and modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge. He would seem to have been perfectly qualified for life as a Colditz prisoner. But he wasn’t. Over the years his mental health slowly fell apart. He made many escape attempts, none of which succeeded. These failures preyed on his mind and he descended into a deep well of despair. On 25 September 1944 it all came to a head when Sinclair abandoned subtlety, cleverness and preparation in favour of simple action. He rushed up to the boundary wire, climbed over it and started to run away, in full view of the guards. Not surprisingly, he was shot and killed. MacIntyre suggests quite strongly that his "escape" was almost certainly a deliberate suicide.

The book is not all doom and gloom – MacIntyre is very even handed in his treatment and he records the triumphs as well as the tragedies. There is a lot of truth to the Colditz folklore and MacIntyre is full of praise for the very real achievements made by the prisoners.

His book shows us Colditz as it really was, warts and all. It dispenses with the rose-coloured glasses that were forced on to the faces of earlier generations by Reid’s gung-ho accounts. It’s an important historical document in its own right and, as an aside, it is a quite thrilling and ultimately very moving account of some terrible experiences that took place in a terrible time.

* * * *

I’ve learned lots of interesting things about Middle-Earth from watching the new Amazon Prime series Rings of Power. Let me share my observations with you.

1. Elves cannot sit down. No matter where they are or what they are doing, they always do it standing up. Whether they are being ferried across the harbour on a small unstable rowing boat or whether they are on the deck of a mighty ship tossing helplessly in heavy seas far out of  the sight of land, the elves always stand silently in serried rows, tall and straight and unmoving. Clearly elves and greyhounds (another species that is physically unable to sit down) have evolved from a common ancestor. You will note that both are similarly slim and graceful. I kept expecting Galadriel to start barking before dashing off to chase a rabbit.

2. When exploring the dark places of Middle-Earth, everyone carries torches. These are simply long sticks with a naked flame on the end. It is not clear what is burning or how the flames are fuelled, but it is perfectly clear that the torches have an infinite supply of (for want of a better word) magic to keep them alight. The flames burn forever and the sticks never get any shorter. The illuminating power of a single torch is of a searchlight-like intensity that completely banishes the darkness and, no matter how strongly the wind blows, the flame never goes out. It just flickers a little bit. Isn’t medieval technology wonderful? Truly we have a lot to learn from it.

3. There is no small talk in Middle-Earth. There is only middle talk and, on occasion, high talk. Nobody ever discusses food or drink or sex or football. Everybody just talks about politics and shifting alliances with all the wit, insight and verbal dexterity of a tedious parliamentary debate – in other words, none at all. The dialogue is all conducted in the Middle-Earth equivalent of business speak and it is delivered in flat, heavily portentous tones with a very slow and very precise enunciation. In moments of high drama the speech becomes quite soporific and everyone gives the impression that they are sleep walking through their day.

4. There are no jokes in Middle-Earth, unless you happen to be a Harfoot of course. Only Harfoots (Harfeet?) display any trace whatsoever of a sense of humour. Can it be a coincidence that the Harfoot story line is also the only one of any interest? Perish the thought!

5. Not only aren’t there any jokes in Middle-Earth, there isn’t any trace of originality either. Every episode of the show is long and dull. The plotline is excruciatingly plodding and predictable. It contains no surprises and very little sense or logic. Clearly all the vast amounts of money lavished on the show was used to pay for the spectacular special effects, leaving absolutely nothing left over for spending on scriptwriting. So the producers didn’t bother hiring any scriptwriters, they just bought a cheap rubber stamp from Clichés-R-Us.

What a complete waste of time and money.

* * * *

When we got home Jake raced into the bedroom, eager to tell Robin all about his morning adventures. He poked her with a stuffed llama, as one does. "Get up," he said. "Get up and play tug-o-llama with me. You pull one way, I’ll pull the other and we’ll let physics take care of the rest."

"Engineering," mumbled Robin, who was still half asleep. Robin’s degrees are all in the applied sciences. She has no time for airy-fairy abstract subjects like physics. Even in her semi-conscious state she wasn’t going to let Jake get away with such an inaccurate statement. "Strength of Materials, to be precise," she continued. "Llamas are almost indestructible. So what we have here reduces itself to the problem of an irresistible force meeting an immoveable object."

Jake thought carefully about that. Finally he said, "Woof!"

Neither Robin nor I could refute such a well thought out argument so I left them alone to get on with whatever came next. This part of the morning has its own rituals that I’m not allowed to share. Because she’s Australian, Robin refers to it as Secret Women’s Business. I’m not too clear about exactly how it works, but I do know that it involves cereal and milk for Robin, milk for Jake and (eventually) coffee for me. Outside of that, I know nothing. So I was a little taken aback when, in the middle of the mystical ceremony, I suddenly heard Robin yell, "Jake! No! You horrible animal!"

Feeling that I might be committing sacrilege for interrupting something sacred, I hurried to investigate. Robin and Jake were standing looking at Robin’s bowl of breakfast cereal and Jake was drooling like Niagara Falls. "Has he been eating your breakfast?" I asked.

"Certainly not," said Jake, affronted. "I’m only allowed to eat things that are in my bowl. This isn’t in my bowl, therefore I’m not allowed to eat it. That’s logic. It’s called a syllogism." He sounded very proud of himself when he said that, as well he should be. Very few dogs know what a syllogism is, and fewer still know how to rigorously apply one. "But," continued Jake, "there’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t look. And this looks really, really, really yummy."

Great gobs of saliva dripped from his jaws and splashed into Robin’s breakfast bowl. "There’s more dog drool in there than there is milk," said Robin angrily. "What am I going to do now?"

"You could always try ringing a bell," I said. "Maybe somebody will give you a degree in behavioural psychology."

C. J. Tudor The Hiding Place Doubleday
C. J. Tudor The Other People Doubleday
Robin Sloan Suitcase Clone Kindle
Stephen King Fairy Tale Scribner
Max Allan Collins Bye Bye Baby Forge
Robert Harris Act of Oblivion Hutchinson Heinemann
Ben MacIntyre Prisoners of the Castle Penguin Random House
Amazon Rings of Power Amazon
Previous Contents Next