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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (bibosissimus)

Alan And The Vein Attempt

Many years ago my father had to go into hospital for an operation. During this he had a massive allergic reaction to an anaesthetic called scoline. For a time it was touch and go. Because I was my father’s son, it was decreed that I should be tested to see if I had inherited the allergy. I donated the usual armful of blood and it vanished into the nether regions of the medical laboratory. A week later the verdict was delivered.

"We don’t know."

My test results were inconclusive and the only way of finding out for sure appeared to be to feed me the drug and see if I died. While it would certainly settle the question, it was an experiment I was less than keen to undertake and so nothing more was said or done. For the next ten years I contented myself with informing any doctors with whom I came into contact that I was probably allergic to scoline and could they avoid using it please? It seemed to work.

And then one day, quite out of the blue, my GP said, "They’ve got a new test for scoline allergy. Shall we try it out?"

And thus began an adventure…

Three more Thraxas books; Martin Scott is nothing if not prolific. The first book in the series (Thraxas – why does that not surprise me?) recently won the World Fantasy Award for best novel. This took most people by surprise. Thraxas? – what’s that?? And it probably won more by lack of effective competition than for any other reason. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the books. They are competent genre fiction; no more, no less. They are a wonderful way to waste an hour. But the emphasis is on the word waste. These are not great books. These are simply the popcorn between the movies.

Thraxas himself is a private investigator in the city of Turai. He is much addicted to drinking beer (great point in his favour from my point of view) and his bouts of drunkenness and general boorish behaviour have seen him demoted from the palace elite to a failed has-been living in a pub (the Avenging Axe) in the wrong area of town.

Makri is a barmaid at the pub. She is quarter orc, quarter elf and half-human. Her lineage offends everybody, but she’s got nice tits which she shows off to advantage by wearing chain mail bikinis as she serves the drinks (showing herself off gets her lots of tips). Her ambition is to go to the university and study philosophy. Since the university specifically bars female students it seems like an unfulfillable ambition. But she’s resourceful, an expert with every edged weapon you ever heard of (and a few you have not). And don’t forget, she’s got nice tits. Probably she’ll succeed. But we’ll have to wait and see. The story sequence hasn’t progressed that far yet.

Together Thraxas and Makri solve the crimes that plague Turai. Partly by good luck, partly by good management, partly by flashing tits and partly by flashing sharpened steel and partly by doing magic (Thraxas is a failed sorcerer). The cases always come to some sort of conclusion.

It isn’t quite a rubber stamp series. Martin Scott seems to be at least half awake as he takes his hero through the normal plot complications that these kinds of stories demand. And I really did enjoy the books, make no mistake about that – they pass the time beautifully. But there is no way on this earth that Thraxas deserved the award that it won. These books are pot-boilers, pure and simple. Nothing wrong with that (I like pot-boilers). But don’t read any more into them. The books are wonderful crap fantasy. But they are crap fantasy. (Did I mention Makri’s tits?)

Alan Furst has been quietly building a reputation for himself in recent years. Critics are starting to compare him to the late Patrick O’Brian and I think there is some justification to this position. O’Brian took as his own the Napoleonic era and in a long series of novels he wrote the definitive account of the politics, the people, and the whole society. And at the same time he managed to tell incredibly enthralling stories.

What O’Brian did for the Napoleonic times, Alan Furst has done for the Hitlerian period. He takes as his base canvas the politics of 1930s Europe and on that canvas he paints (both large and small) the grand political schemes and the impact they had on the lives of ordinary people.

You and I are at least a generation removed from that time (sometimes two). It is hard for us to appreciate the things that our parents or grandparents had to contend with on a daily basis. Most of us have never experienced global war or been the victims of paranoid politics, expansionism and empire. My father spent his 21st birthday on duty as an air raid warden in Manchester watching fleets of German bombers dropping their payloads over his home town. His coming of age involved rescuing burned, bleeding and broken people from the rubble of the town; the laying out of corpses and the smell of roasting flesh on the night air. That’s one hell of a coming of age. There is no way that I can even begin to understand what that was about. Neither can I properly appreciate the attitude of mind that allowed it to take place and let it continue. Why did that war happen? I can read the books; I can acknowledge the scholarship and the historical imperatives. The tragedy of the Peace of Versailles that concluded the First World War and the symbolic importance of the railway carriage where it was signed had a huge impact on the German psyche and it laid the foundation stone of the troubles that the next generation of Europeans had to suffer. (The irony of Hitler using that same railway carriage to consummate his conquest of France more than twenty years later is not lost on anyone). These things are well documented and researched to exhaustion. I can appreciate the facts intellectually – I can nod wisely and I can agree with the profound historical analyses. Hindsight makes us all wise and turns us all into amateur psychologists, amateur sociologists and amateur politicians.

But what does it really mean?

The one thing I can never do is understand it emotionally. I can never appreciate it inside; I can never feel it, for I was not there. I will never really know what it was like to live through those times.

However I can read Alan Furst’s books. I don’t know how he has done it (isn’t that the true secret of art?) but he brings those times alive. The misery, the politics, the motives, the love and the laughter – these were people, real people. They hurt the same way that you and I hurt; they felt the same feelings and dreamed the same dreams. They did them in the shadow of a political and social system that today leaves us cold. I find it incomprehensible that such things could have been allowed to happen. I find it impossible to understand why or how it could have taken place at all. But if there is a way to break through that barrier to understanding, Alan Furst’s novels are the key to it. Nobody has ever explained or defined the era better.

Dark Star tells of the life of Andre Szara. He has survived the Polish pogroms, the Stalinist purges and the Russian civil wars. Twisting and turning within the political realities, his only goal is to survive, to make the best of what he finds, to carry on living. He is a tool of Soviet intelligence, pitted against the Gestapo in an intricate duel of espionage. Betrayal is a way of life and a way of death. From the Spanish Civil War through to the European conflict that followed it, this is his story. It is dark, dirty and utterly enthralling.

The World at Night is the story of Jean Casson, a Parisian film producer. When Germany invades France with such comparative ease his whole world is destroyed. It is easy to be blasé before the invaders arrive, much harder afterwards as they arrogantly stride over the things you once held sacred. Such shocks are hard to overcome and Jean joins the resistance (though he isn’t much good at it).

Both books are pragmatic dramatisations of the realities of the times and so they are grey and gloomy (the mood of the film Casablanca captures the atmosphere perfectly and there was a reason for filming it in black and white – it doesn’t work nearly as well in colour, the atmosphere is destroyed. Colourisation? Faugh!). But gloom only goes so far. Even in the mist of world-threatening crises, we still have to live and love, eat and drink. And the French in particular love to do all of those things extremely well and extremely often.

These are novels of character, novels of spirit, novels of politics, novels of war, novels of love. Never has an attitude or a time been brought more alive or made more real. I am awe-struck by the sheer power and emotion of these books. More Alan Furst novels are winging their way towards me even as we speak. I can’t wait…

Since the scoline test is a new one and since it is very rarely asked for anyway, it doesn’t appear on the standard list printed on the medical laboratory form. So my doctor had to write out by hand the details of what she wanted done. It turned out that there were three separate tests required. There’s a medical laboratory collection point just up the road from my office, so I went there the next day and presented the form. The nice nurse frowned at it.

"I wonder what it says?" she mused. She adjusted the angle so that the sunshine coming in through the window illuminated it more clearly, and she squinted hard. But it did no good. My doctor's squiggles remained illegible.

The nurse phoned my doctor’s surgery and explained her predicament. I could feel the blushes travelling down the telephone lines. I’ll swear the handset turned red. The nurse printed the details carefully and legibly on the form and sniffed audibly. She hung up the phone.

"They ought to send all the doctors back to school," she muttered. "Teach them to write properly. My three year old daughter writes more clearly than most doctors, and she uses an unsharpened crayon and hasn’t been taught her alphabet yet."

She looked closely at what she had written on the form. "I wonder what these tests are?" she mused. "I wonder what kind of blood sample I have to take, what tubes to store it in? Hmmm…"

She bustled about with various reference books and master lists of tests correlated with columns of data about exactly what kind of chemical needed to be mixed with the blood in order to present it properly to the master technicians for them to perform their arcane rites and rituals upon it. She found two of the tests documented, but could find no trace of the third anywhere. "One hep, one plain," she muttered. "But what on earth do they need in order to test your dibucaine number?"

"I don’t know," I confessed. "I’ve never heard of a dibucaine number."

She returned to the phone and rang the testing centre itself. She engaged in a muttered dialogue with the person at the other end. There were long silences as various reference works were consulted at both ends. Eventually she rang off.

"They’ve never heard of a dibucaine number test either," she said. "They’re going to ask the chief pathologist when he comes in. Do you want a cup of coffee while we wait?"

I had a cup of coffee, and then another and we chatted about this and that. Every so often she’d break off the conversation to go and take blood from a new customer. These were all straightforward bread and butter stuff – liver enzymes, ESR, cholesterol. She emptied their arms of blood with brisk efficiency and squirted it into the appropriate tubes.

Eventually the chief pathologist rang back and the nurse went into a huddle with the telephone. She came back to me smiling.

"Right," she said. "One hep, two plain."

She sat me down in the chair and tied a pressure strap around my upper arm. "Just clench your fist for me, please," she requested.

I clenched my fist. "Oooh! What lovely veins you’ve got," she said, which has to be one of the oddest compliments I have ever received. She collected the blood and prepared the tubes. One hep, two plain; it sounded like a knitting pattern.

The blood was sent to the appropriate testing centre and a week later they delivered their verdict on my scoline allergy.

"We don’t know."

Jack Dann lives in Australia these days, but he is American through and through and Bad Medicine reflects his heritage. Charlie Sarris is a "fix-it" man who works (intermittently) as a janitor. John Stone is an Indian (a "Native American") who befriends Charlie and persuades him to come to a sweat lodge ceremony. But things go wrong – there are political rivalries in the medicine man game and the plots all come to head in the ceremony. Bad vibes, man. It all falls apart.

Fleeing from the crisis, Charlie and John embark on a mad journey, the ultimate binge. Racing and running, pursued by fear, driven by demons, they set off on a wild ride. Cars are stolen, stores are robbed, whiskey is drunk, dope is smoked, girls are seduced. And the old magic, the wild magic, the uncontrollable magic follows them and takes away the joy and puts fear an paranoia in its place.

On the one hand it is a road novel (pay homage here to Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson – though to be honest they both did it better). On the other hand it is magic realism (a posh name for high falutin’ fantasy – fantasy without elves but with a certain unexplained something; go ask Gabriel Garcia Marquez). Nothing is what it seems, there are sub texts that only make sense on an occult level (and sometimes not even then).

In many ways it is a great book; certainly it is a tour de force and has much to be admired. The comparisons to Kerouac and Thompson are not invidious and they are sincerely meant.

But I hated the book. I loathed it.

Charlie Sarris and John Stone posses not one redeeming feature. They are utterly despicable people possessed only of vices, without a virtue to be seen. They are appalling people, disgusting people, people you wouldn’t want to be seen in company with. I hated to read about them; I wanted the book to be over (preferably with both of them horribly mangled and dead – I wanted them gone).

The book is painful to read. I squirmed with anger. The fact that it moved my emotions so strongly is the only praise I can give it (obviously it involved me closely from page one – high praise for high art; truly the book is superbly written; the story superbly told). But I honestly cannot recall ever hating a book as much as I detested this one. It is magically realistic and truly compelling. It is a work of great genius. And it is thoroughly repugnant.

When Arthur C. Clarke was a young man he lived in a small flat in London with two other SF fans. The address was 88, Gray’s Inn Road and it is generally agreed that the year they spent together in 1938 was the first "slan shack", the first (if you like) of the science fiction lifestyles that so many of us lived later on. (Eccentricity attracts company and when the times are right it all works out beautifully).

Many years later, in the 1950s, one of those SF Fans (William Temple) recalled the times and wrote a small novel about those early days and the flat he shared with Arthur. It never found a publisher and it languished among his papers after he died. But now a small fan press (Sansato Press, named after The Fleshpots of Sansato, one of William Temple’s eminently forgettable trash SF books) has published the manuscript for the first time.

It has to be admitted that as a novel it is the most utter crap imaginable. It is appallingly badly written and clumsily plotted. It is badly paced and (in terms of the things that happen) incredibly dull and (dare I say it) mundane. No wonder it failed to find a publisher in Temple’s lifetime.

But one thing makes it all worth while, one thing makes it worth reading. It gives us a truly remarkable insight into the life and the character of Sir Arthur C. Clarke himself. Throughout the book he is referred to as "Ego" (those of us who know him will understand why) and much of the dialogue and many of the attitudes he espouses are obviously drawn from life (other books by him and about him make that abundantly clear).

As a novel it is junk, as a work of art it is unutterable tosh, but as a social document of the life of SF fans in Britain in the late 1930s it is invaluable and as a small part of the biography of one of the giants of the field of science fiction (the man who gets my vote as the best SF writer ever), it is worth more than its weight in space shuttles. Superb!

Joe Haldeman’s new novel opens with a radio message from space. "We’re coming…"

Who are they? Why are they coming? Where are they coming from?

They will arrive in three months time, January 1st 2055 (surely the date isn’t a coincidence?) and of course on that day all mysteries will be solved. But meanwhile life must go on.

Gainesville, Florida in the mid 21st century is a bustling, hustling city. Street gangs act out their violence in virtual reality. But real gangsters still extort real protection money. Booze, drugs and sex are still the common coin of everyday life. On a larger scale Florida itself is protected by dikes as the rising water levels produced by global warming threaten to engulf the peninsula.

The novel is episodic, leaping from viewpoint to viewpoint, ducking down to enlarge on this problem, that problem, the other problem; this person, that person, the other person. There is a vast cast of characters, each separately motivated, some good, some bad some indifferent. They live out the three months until the coming much as they have always done, and we watch them all doing it.

It isn’t an SF novel. Oh, it pays lip service to the SF genre (how else would it get published and sold to the fans), but it isn’t really SF at all. It is a sociological novel, a political novel a novel about real people living real lives. They have mundane concerns (Where is my next meal coming from? Why do I always fight with my wife?). On this level it is completely bewitching and beautifully (almost lyrically) written. It is tremendously difficult to make a novel with multiple viewpoints work at all and the fact that Joe makes it work so brilliantly is a tribute to his considerable skill as a writer.

And right up until the very end it is utterly fascinating, totally engrossing, beautifully written, profound, vulgar and funny.

And then he blows it completely. Far too many times in his later works Joe Haldeman has depended upon a manufactured deus ex machina to tie his dangling plot threads together and bring the book to an often all too hurried conclusion. And this one is much the same as all those others. There are some foreshadowings, some hints are dropped (but they have the flavour of a retrospective fix-up put there after the fact in order not to make the whole thing seem too blatant).

I won’t give the ending away (it’s a shaggy dog). But the novel would be a whole lot stronger if the last two pages were torn out and tossed in the bin.

My doctor was hopping mad.

"What do they mean they don’t know?" she raved. "They only did two of the tests anyway. They completely omitted the dibucaine number. And that’s the most important one."

She rang the laboratory and tore them off a strip. Paint flaked from the walls. "Why didn’t you do the dibucaine number test?"

She listened closely to the reply. "You didn’t notice it on the form," she said flatly. She looked at me. "They didn’t notice it written down on the form," she explained to me. She raised her eyes eloquently to heaven as she hung up the phone.

"Reading lessons," she said. "They all need reading lessons. My three year old daughter reads better than they do at that place. And she can only read her own secret squiggles that she draws with an unsharpened crayon because she hasn’t been taught her alphabet yet."

She fixed me with a gimlet glare. "I’m sorry Alan," she said, "but you are going to have to have the test done again."

She filled out the medical laboratory form for me. She wrote the tests down very carefully and slowly and legibly. Then she numbered them; one, two, three. On the last line of the form she printed THREE TESTS IN TOTAL. She looked closely at it for a moment then she inserted a couple of exclamation marks and underlined it for good measure. "Now let’s see them ignore the dibucaine number test," she muttered triumphantly.

I took the form and went to give blood again. It was a different nurse this time. "Gosh," she said, somewhat predictably, "I’ve never taken samples for these tests before. I wonder what tubes they need?"

"One hep, two plain," I told her. "Purl one". She was not convinced and bustled off to her reference books. This was followed by the usual phone call to the chief pathologist and the usual long wait. She offered me coffee and conversation.

"Have you got a three year old daughter?" I enquired.

"As a matter of fact, I have," she said. "A most unusually talented child…"

Eventually it was decided that the tests did indeed require one hep and two plain and she took the blood from my arm. It disappeared off to the medical laboratory and a week later they delivered their final, definitive verdict on my scoline allergy.

"We don’t know."

Engelbrecht was a dwarf and a surrealist boxer. His fight with the grandfather clock for the time championship was an epic battle. But Engelbrecht was more than just a competitor in the ring. No matter the pursuit, he pursued it. Be it witch hunting at midnight (it requires a keen eye and a proud shotgun; be careful to lead them as they fly) or be it the Angling Championship in the canal behind the gasworks, he always competed brilliantly. (You have to watch out in the angling championships – it’s held close to the place where the town drain comes in and there is many a deathly struggle as the anglers try to put back Things that would have been far better never hooked).

Engelbrecht’s exploits were first chronicled in Lilliput magazine which was born as the world was building up to the Second World War. It lived its finest hours in the years of paper shortages and austerity. Everybody who was anybody wrote for Lilliput. Bernard Shaw, Mervyn Peake, Gerard Hoffnung, Patrick Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke (yes – him again). But looming over them all, bringing them all to shame was Engelbrecht the dwarf surrealist boxer. (Can a dwarf loom?).

Maurice Richardson, the chronicler of Engelbrecht’s triumphs, was a Fleet Street journalist, a Soho face. He was pickled in alcohol and preserved in the knowledge that he was a character well known in a myriad pubs. He was a boxer, a manic-depressive who could radiate hostility to a thousand paces; a journalist and a writer who even in his cups could do nothing but compose elegant sentences. Engelbrecht was his masterpiece.

The collected stories have been published a couple of times in small editions that sold out immediately. They seem to appear once in a generation. There was an edition in 1950 and another in 1977. Now there is a third. Somehow, despite the rarity of the stories their reputation survives. Respected writers claim Engelbrecht as an influence (Moorcock is a rabid enthusiast, Ballard a great fan).

But what of Engelbrecht himself? They are the strangest stories I think I have ever read. And they are so rich, so heavy with meaning and incident that I found I couldn’t read them lightly. One story, perhaps two and then I had to put the book down for a week, read something else, return to it later. They are deep, dense and screamingly funny stories. And since Engelbrecht is a surrealist boxer they are, of course, surreal. Let’s all fill the bathtub with brightly coloured machine tools.

I don’t think you can put Magritte into words. It isn’t possible to explain the deranged logic of Salvador Dali. Unless, of course, your name is Maurice Richardson and you are writing about Engelbrecht. That’s how good the stories are. (Dead donkeys!)

All his life Kingsley Amis was in love with words. How can you not love words when you are a writer? And he used them so well. Unlike his son Martin, Kingsley was always an approachable novelist with an unselfconscious style that nevertheless professed profound truths. (Martin Amis has always struck me as a pretentious writer crying "Look at Me. I’m Clever" in almost every sentence. Kingsley was much cleverer; he never proclaimed it, he simply demonstrated it in book after book after book after book. The father was an artist, the son tries to be but fails badly. He suffers from pretensions to grandeur).

The King’s English was the last book that Amis père wrote before he died and it is a close examination of the language that he used so well. It consists of a series of small articles, mini-essays, arranged alphabetically and concerning anything and everything that takes his fancy about the language and the use of it. He proves to be surprisingly tolerant, particularly in his views about the pollution that Americanisation has introduced. I would have expected a more fuddy-duddy approach, an apoplectic ‘Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells’ feeling about the feeping creaturism that is America’s major contribution to the degeneration of the language. But I’d have been wrong. Amis admires the American robustness and is not at all blind to its virtues. Perhaps I’m the fuddy-duddy.

The definitive work on this topic is, of course, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a book that Amis claims proudly to have had open beside him all the time that he was writing. He cribs shamelessly (and always admits when he has done so). Without Fowler, this book (had it existed at all) would have been much weaker. With Fowler it is a tour de force.

Despite its age, Fowler’s work still remains definitive. Never assume, says Amis, that Fowler doesn’t know about and doesn’t have opinions on, any linguistic point you care to mention. You’ll be constantly surprised about the breadth of his knowledge and the exuberance of his joy in minutiae. Amis is just the same (had they been contemporaries, Fowler and Amis would probably have spent all their time together, drinking in the pub. The world would have been a lot poorer if they had. Too many books would never have been written).

The thing I always admired about Kingsley Amis’ writing was his humour and his wit (Martin shows no trace whatsoever of a sense of humour, I doubt he has ever heard the word ‘joke’). These small essays are absolute gems of precise wit. The book is funny, acerbic, and above all, insightful. Fowler gives a more thorough treatment, but Amis gives a more entertaining one.

Anybody who has the least feeling for words should read this. Read it to confirm your prejudices; read it to develop new ones. Read it to feel superior (so that’s why the subjunctive should be avoided), read it to feel proud about the depth, the subtlety, the wit and the wisdom of The King’s English.

My doctor glared fiercely at the dibucaine number result. "It doesn’t prove anything one way or the other," she admitted. "You’re right on the borderline."

Since three separate tests have now come back with inconclusive results we decided that enough was enough and we will err on the side of caution. The next time you see me I will be wearing a nifty piece of jewellery on my wrist. The Medic-Alert bracelet will be engraved with the words scoline allergy and on my file it says not to be given scoline as an anaesthetic.

My next door neighbour’s three year old daughter thinks it’s neat.

Martin Scott Thraxas and the Warrior Monks Orbit
Martin Scott Thraxas at the Races Orbit
Martin Scott Thraxas and the Elvish Isles Orbit
Alan Furst Dark Star Harper Collins
Alan Furst The World at Night Harper Collins
Jack Dann Bad Medicine Flamingo
William F. Temple 88 Gray’s Inn Road Sansato Press
Joe Haldeman The Coming Ace
Maurice Richardson The Exploits of Engelbrecht Savoy
Kingsley Amis The King’s English Harper Collins

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