wot I red on my hols by alan robson (senilis persequor plaustrum dit)
Dont Dilly Dally On The Way
Im not completely certain wot i red on my hols this month. As any fule kno, when you move house things go in boxes and therefore much of this months reading is packed away.
It all started at the beginning of December in the first year of the new century
diddley, diddley, diddley, diddley, dee
The cats were a little astonished to get an extra specially nice breakfast that morning. Luxury food from a luxury tin. But their motto is: never look a gift meal in the can opener. They hoovered it up and collapsed immediately into contented sleep. Snores reverberated and they didnt even stir when a strange man knocked at the door. This was Graham who runs a cattery and cat transportation service and he was going to look after Milo and Ginger for the next two weeks until we were ready to move them into their new house in Wellington.
Graham brought a travelling cage with him and he put it on the floor. Milo roused himself sufficiently to sniff curiously at it. Ginger slumbered on. Both cats, however, woke with a sudden sharp shock when they were unceremoniously picked up and dropped in the cage and the door was slammed shut on them.
"Whats happening? Waaaahhhhh!!"
With heart-rending wails on their part and ours, the cats were carried off into durance vile. Though Graham insisted that he ran a holiday camp and they would love it, we continued to think of it as a jail sentence.
The following day, the packers arrived from the removal company. When getting quotes from the various removal firms, Id been mindful to point out that there were approximately 6000 books that needed packing carefully into boxes. This (I learned later) caused enormous consternation at the company that I eventually chose for the job. It seems that not long before my request came in, they had moved another person who also had about 6000 books. He was, however, even more anal about his collection than I am and insisted that all the packers wear white gloves, and that every individual book be carefully packaged in bubble wrap. No sooner had they finished catering to this raving loony than my job specification landed on their desk.
"Oh No! Not again!"
The packers were quite relieved to find that all I wanted was to have the books placed neatly in boxes with no other special treatment required. That would be a doddle in comparison to what had gone before.
Three packing ladies, fired with enthusiasm, knocked on the door and introduced themselves.
"Can I do the books?" asked one of them, shyly.
She gave a squeak of delight and vanished into the library, never to be seen again. At regular intervals beautifully packed boxes emerged and were added to the pile. Meanwhile the other two busied themselves with the rest of the rooms.
"Have you got a radio?"
A radio was produced. They tuned it to a rap station, turned the volume up to distortion levels (hard to tell, I agree) and commenced packing. Robin kept up a constant supply of coffee and tea and over the course of the next three days my entire house vanished into 307 boxes. The packers were superbly efficient and didnt miss a thing. I was hugely impressed.
Id been careful in my organisation of the house. I was mindful of apocryphal tales of packers who wrapped the kitchen scraps and packed the milk, sending both off into storage for eighteen progressively smellier months. But I forgot about the pile of books awaiting review. So they were, of course, neatly packed into a box, and are currently sitting somewhere in my basement awaiting discovery once the shelves are built
The plan was that once the house was completely packed (we allowed three days for that), the van would be summoned on Friday to uplift the boxes for delivery to the new house in Wellington the following Monday. Robin and I would drive down to Wellington over the weekend in order to be there to greet the van when it arrived on Monday morning.
Friday was my last day at work. I was taking the following week off in order to do the moving thing. I came home that night expecting to find an empty house. What I found was a house with 307 boxes in it. The van was running late. It would arrive about 6.00pm.
When it turned up at 7.30pm it proved to contain a load belonging to somebody else which was also destined for Wellington. The delay had been caused by the fact that nobody could be found with a key to this persons house. I remain uncertain about how they eventually got in and obtained their load.
I expressed some concern as to whether my 307 boxes would fit into what space remained in the van.
"No worries, mate."
Four hours later they called head office to ask for a second van.
"Im not sure when well be able to deliver these last few boxes to you. Well have to wait until theres another van going down to Wellington. But it shouldnt be much more than a week or so. Well let you know."
The boxes that went into the unplanned for, last-minute van were mostly my computers. Sadly I watched both vans drive away. I was absolutely certain Id never see the part load in the second van again and I shed a silent tear for my toys. Im a natural worrier and a pathological pessimist. That way I never get disappointed and I am constantly surprised and delighted when things work out well.
Of course it didnt help that for about 10 days prior to all this Id had a severe dose of an unbelievably virulent lurgi. That particular Friday I had a temperature four degrees (Centigrade) above normal and a headache so severe it was merging on a migraine. Id eaten nothing at all of any significance for a week. I was living on aspirin and bottled water. My resistance was low.
Robin and I staggered off to spend what remained of the night at a friends place. We arose bright and early next day for the trip to Wellington. I was still feverish and headachy and the thought of food was nauseating. I forced down a slice of toast, but it was a struggle. We got in the car and I began to drive south towards the capital city. It was raining.
That Saturday, New Zealand had one of its heaviest rainfalls since records began. Everybody in the entire country (except Robin and me) took one look at the weather and went back to bed. Ive never seen the road between Auckland and Wellington so empty. Of course, the rain was pounding down so hard that I couldnt see very much of the road at all. Nevertheless, the bits that I could see remained, for the most part, vacant.
We stopped for lunch in Taihape. I was too ill to be interested in food but Robin was hungry and demanded to eat. For miles I had been soothing her with the promise of the exotic delights to be had in Taihape. Robin always needs to know where her next meal is coming from. Once the food plan is in place, she is perfectly content. It is not unknown for her to pause in the middle of devouring lunch to ask where and when dinner will be served. Once this has been explained to her satisfaction, she happily resumes eating.
In Taihape one must lunch at Brown Sugar, so we did. It serves the most delicious home-made tomato soup on the planet. Even though I was training seriously for the Anorexia Olympics, I simply couldnt resist it. Every mouthful was orgasmic. You could use it for raising the dead. I asked for the recipe. The chef smiled slyly and tapped the side of his nose. We resumed our soggy journey to Wellington none the wiser.
Despite the rain making the driving conditions very treacherous, the almost complete lack of traffic on the road meant that we reached Wellington in record time. We were planning on staying with friends until we had unpacked sufficient boxes to make the house habitable. I parked the car at their house and went straight to bed. Id driven the last hundred miles with a pounding headache and I was seeing double. I hate to think what my temperature was; I was too scared to measure it.
Somewhat to my surprise, the van arrived on Monday as arranged. The driver was one of the happiest men Ive ever met. On the journey down hed bought a lotto ticket in Taupo and won $700 with it. He seemed to regard Robin and me as his good luck charms.
Robin stood by the van and ticked boxes off the manifest as they were unloaded and I told the men where to put them, based on what was written on the boxes. Mostly, of course, they said "books" and we made a large pile of those in the basement. In retrospect, I think I made a mistake there. As I write these words, we have unpacked everything except the pile of boxes in the basement and we are still missing a few things some recipe books, a few CDs and records, my slippers, that sort of thing. Without a doubt they are in a box somewhere in the basement pile just filling up the odd space in a box of books. Almost certainly this fact is recorded in the legend written on the box itself, but I missed it the first time round (blame the fever) and the boxes got jumbled up with all the rest. I have no inclination to shift the whole pile one by one looking for the special boxes. That task will have to wait until the shelves are built and the boxes are unpacked. Doubtless the missing items will then be found.
Once the van was unpacked, Robin and I began the onerous task of making the house fit to live in. I had to keep going for a lie down (my headache and fever were showing no signs of abating) and that slowed the process quite a lot. However we quickly became experts at opening boxes and distributing their contents. We could live in the house after a couple of days and by the end of a fortnight the job was largely complete (except for the books, of course. But they are a special case). I have some friends who moved into their new house four years ago. They still havent unpacked the majority of their boxes and are continuing to live routine lives using only the emergency things they unpacked from their first box. Many people seem to work this way when the cashier at the local supermarket discovered that wed just moved in, she told us all about the boxes she hadnt unpacked from ten years ago yet. I feel quite proud of the fact that Robin and I had everything except the books unpacked and put away within two weeks.
Of course there is a down side to all this efficiency. We have had to make instant decisions about where things go and since we are not yet used to the new places where things live we are constantly asking each other:
"Where did we put the so-and-so?"
To which the answer is generally, "I dont know.", and so a search party has to be mounted.
I have also found that I have developed a tendency to put things down casually and then forget where I put them, since the casual putting down places in the new house are quite different from the casual putting down places that I was used to in the old house. I have lost my glasses at least half a dozen times. My car keys also have a distressing tendency to vanish.
At one point during the week we contacted the removal company to ask about the second, unplanned part load. The Wellington office claimed never to have heard of us or the load (which was pretty much what I had expected). However, to be fair, the man sounded very embarrassed at being placed in that situation and he promised to ring back as soon as he had tracked the load down. I was sceptical, but he kept his promise.
"Well deliver it tomorrow afternoon," he said when he rang back.
Sure enough, the load arrived as promised. This time Robin and I swapped roles I checked the boxes off the truck and Robin told the men where to put them. So now we had all 307 boxes and the house was complete. It was time to introduce the cats to their new home.
I rang Graham the cattery man.
"Gosh," he said, "what enormous fangs Milo has. Lots of sabre-tooth tiger in his ancestry I think."
"Thats why he dribbles," I explained. "He cant close his mouth properly because of the fangs."
"Lovely cats," said Graham. "Ive really enjoyed having them here. Theyve been no trouble at all."
He told me the arrangements. The cats would be flown down (he gave me the flight details) and I had to pick them up at the freight depot at the airport.
I drove out to the airport at the appointed time. My first major difficulty was finding the freight depot. After asking various people and stopping at several places that werent the freight depot I eventually found it shivering in the wop-wops miles away from any other airport building. I explained that I was waiting for my cats. The man glanced casually at a monitor.
"Oh yes, the flights just landed. They should be here in about twenty minutes or so."
The arrangement was that I would transfer the cats from their travelling cage (which belonged to Graham) to their own cage and the travelling cage would be sent back on the next flight. I was not expecting any difficulties with this. When animals travel, they are generally tranquillised and are quite dopey when they arrive. However much to my surprise, Milo and Ginger were bright and active. They hadnt been tranquillised at all! (I have a friend who insists that tranquillising animals for the journey is more for the sake of the nerves of the owner than for the benefit of the animal).
Anyway, I put them in their cage and drove them to their new home. I was expecting them to cry and moan as we drove (this is their normal habit). But they were now obviously seasoned travellers, having been in an aeroplane, and a mere car journey was nothing at all. Indeed they seemed quite impatient.
"Cant you go any faster?"
I got them home and decanted them into their new house. This frightened them a lot for it was all new. There were familiar things around the place (wed made certain to have the furniture and their toys quite prominently displayed), but it didnt seem to help. Their eyes went round as saucers as they explored.
Their exploration techniques were quite different. Ginger applied the left hand maze rule very strictly and she circled the house (in and out of every cupboard) hugging the wall as closely as she could and taking every left turn that she found until she ran out of them.
Milo started with the food bowl and took a revivifying snack and then set off in a straight line. Once hed explored as far as he could in that direction (no turns allowed) he came back to the food bowl for another mouthful and then set off again in a new direction.
Both techniques seemed very effective and they soon had the place sussed out. There is an old wives tale that says you must butter their paws to get them completely settled in. Ive done it before with other cats with a fair degree of success and I had purchased some butter for exactly that purpose for use on these two.
As soon as Milo felt the butter on his paws he shook himself violently, and great clumps of butter shot out and stuck to the TV set and the stereo. Ginger ignored the butter completely and simply put greasy paw prints all over the furniture. So much for that idea.
After a couple of days the cats showed signs of wanting to go out. Milo had settled in very quickly and was quite happy by now so I had no qualms about letting him out for an explore. Ginger was still very skittish and scared so I was dubious. Milo had a quick look round the garden and came back. Ginger vanished.
Hours passed. I remembered folk tales of cats thumbing lifts on motorways and stowing away on Korean fishing boats in a desperate attempt to get back to the house theyd been forcibly removed from. I kept picturing her alone and frightened and lost. I kept picturing her dead.
Nine hours later, when Robin and I were both nervous wrecks, she wandered casually back.
"Wheres my tea, then?"
Having punished us sufficiently, she was now prepared to forgive us. I have no idea where she had been for nine hours, but when she came back she was much calmer, much less skittish than she had been before. From that point on she seemed completely settled in.
We got a cat door installed so that they could come and go as they pleased. Ginger got the idea immediately but Milo (as always) was much slower on the uptake. We tried pushing him through it. He hated it given half a chance he would brace himself firmly with one foot on each side of the cat door thereby turning himself into a completely immovable furry object with the cat door being the utterly irresistible force that was (of course) keeping him inside against his will. After six days of this we were exhausted. But we had made some progress, albeit not very much. Milo began to use the cat door to come into the house from the outside. However absolutely nothing would persuade him to use it to leave the house. He insisted on going out through a people door.
Today, nearly two weeks after the cat door was first installed, he finally used it to go outside for the very first time. I remain dubious as to whether the lesson will stick. Even in the old house, he regarded the cat door as an enormous intellectual challenge (he would stare at it for hours before finally figuring out what he had to do this time). Here in the new house with lots of other novel things to learn about as well, I suspect it might all be too much for his poor little unicellular brain. He has exactly enough brain power to cope with being a cat (eating, sleeping, purring when stroked) and he hasnt any brain cells left over for storing information about new-fangled things like cat doors.
On balance, its great to be living in Wellington again. Ive missed the place.
diddley, diddley, diddley, diddley, dee
I did buy some books to carry with me in order to pass the time in between unpacking boxes, so I can tell you a little bit about this months reading. For the journey down from Auckland, I was reading the new John Le Carré novel The Constant Gardner. Id tell you the publisher, but after I finished the book, I put it down somewhere and I havent been able to find it again. So youll just have to ignore the question marks in the list at the end of the article.
In some ways it is a completely generic Le Carré novel. His archetypal plot involves a character who is dead or missing, and the viewpoint character attempts to reconstruct that persons life and motivation from scraps of letters, diary entries, bureaucratic files and interviews with friends. Often enormous intuitive leaps are made from the most innocent of phrases, hugely complex conspiracies are deduced from laundry lists. Stated so baldly it all sounds very silly, but Le Carré has done it time after time in book after book and he always makes it work brilliantly.
This time the dead person is Tessa, the wife of a minor British diplomat in Nigeria. She has been found murdered in the back of beyond. Her companion, a Belgian aid worker, is missing. Justin, her husband, sets out on the usual Le Carré reconstruction in an attempt to explain her life and her death to himself.
Its all the fault of the pharmaceutical industry. They have developed a drug that will quickly and easily cure TB which is rampant in Africa. They will make a lot of money from the distribution of the drug. But they have to keep its unfortunate side effects suppressed. Tessa is threatening to make their dirty work public, and so she has to be killed.
There are no spoilers in that paragraph. The motivation isnt the point of the book. It isnt a whodunit. Its much more of a whydunit, an examination of the corrupting nature of power and money and the immorality of a lot of the aid effort that is poured into third world countries. In some ways it is a very cynical and despairing book. Its the best thing Le Carré has done in years and I can't recommend it highly enough.
I also picked up A Good Hanging, a book of short stories by Ian Rankin. Rankin writes detective novels and his hero is Inspector John Rebus. The stories in the collection were also Rebus stories and I wasnt expecting very much from them. However I was pleasantly surprised at the depth and subtlety they exhibited and I began to wonder if I was misjudging Rankin by simply considering him to be yet another crime writer. So I bought a couple of his novels (The Falls, and Black and Blue). That turned out to be a huge mistake because they were so magnificently written, such page-turning tales that I got completely hooked. I have now developed a new obsession (damnit!) and as soon as the shops re-opened after Christmas, I went out and spent $138 on all the rest of Ian Rankins Rebus novels and I am now slowly working my way through them, savouring every word.
Rebus lives and works in Edinburgh. He is the usual loner, the unconventional detective who bends and breaks the rules to solve his case. No surprises there. However, unlike the normal cardboard cut-out unconventional policeman, he suffers for his attitude. Partly it is internal Rebus feels too much, gets too personally involved in the cases and the weight of the misery is slowly destroying him (in the later novels he hovers on the edge of complete disintegration) and partly it is his career. His superiors are not blind to his faults and Rebus is not popular with the brass. Punishments and unpleasant duties are sometimes his lot. And Rebus is human, very human indeed and he is not incorruptible, not necessarily completely honest in all his dealings.
So Rebus carries the stories and the crimes and complexities are themselves brilliantly executed; Rankin spins a mean plot, tells a gripping yarn. But theres much more to the books than that. The real hero of all the novels is not Rebus but Scotland itself (and particularly Edinburgh of course). Rankin has Things To Say, and the sociology and the politics are inextricably tied into the stories. What Rankin is doing over the course of twelve volumes (so far) is writing the definitive Scottish novel, and thats what makes the books so good. Rankin is doing for modern day Scotland what Patrick OBrian did for eighteenth century England, and he is doing it in exactly the same solid way.
I also read the latest Thraxas novel. Pulp fantasy noir; instantly forgettable trash. But great fun, nonetheless.
|John Le Carré||The Constant Gardener||???|
|Ian Rankin||A Good Hanging||Orion|
|Ian Rankin||The Falls||Orion|
|Ian Rankin||Black and Blue||Orion|
|Martin Scott||Thraxas and The Sorcerers||Orbit|