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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (steatopygia kalaharius)

School Days

Most religious instruction lessons at school were quite dull affairs during which we had many opportunities to practice falling asleep with our eyes wide open. Mr Brearley, the teacher, did his best but even though he had an appearance and personality that consisted mainly of idiosyncrasies, he seldom managed to inject much flavour or interest into the subject. I suspect he might have found it as boring as we did.

He had a huge mole on his cheek from which sprouted a couple of long grey hairs. In moments of stress or elation he would clap one hand to his cheek and suck in a hissing breath. He had a broad Yorkshire accent.

One of the boys, Brian Teal by name, was the class clown and he could always be relied upon to add mirth to almost any situation. He was a marvellously eccentric boy. He would run home every lunchtime so that he could go to the toilet (he found the school toilets too disgusting to use). By noon each day he was generally to be found with his legs crossed, bouncing up and down in his seat. Sometimes a teacher would construe this as eagerness to answer a question. But Brian had other things on his mind and seldom obliged with anything coherent. He was a great fan of the Beach Boys and in between classes he was often to be found playing the drums on his desk top and trying very, very hard to sing four simultaneous falsetto harmonies, with mixed success.

On this particular day, in this particular religious instruction class, Mr Brearley was rambling on about Jesus’ ministry and how it might have been perceived by the society of the time. Jesus really was quite radical in his thinking, quite scandalous in his teachings.

The hand slapped the cheek, the breath was sucked in with a mighty squelch and then expelled with a sigh as Mr Brearley said:

"...and Jesus lowered himself to speak to fallen women!"

As he said that phrase, every eye in the classroom moved to Brian Teal, who was sitting at his desk behind a pillar, concealed from Mr Brearley's direct view. Brian pantomimed staring down a sheer cliff and waving hello to the people at the bottom.

The class erupted into hysterics. Mr Brearley looked puzzled for a moment and then slapped his hand back to his cheek again. The Yorkshire accent became particularly prominent as the stress got to him.

"Is it that choomp Teal, be'ind t'pillar?"

I’m not sure whether John Birmingham’s books should be filed under fiction or non-fiction. Ostensibly both are essay collections about sharing houses. They discuss the disgusting habits of Birmingham’s eccentric house mates (and his own disgusting habits as well). So obviously the books must be non-fiction. But the events are so revoltingly over the top that surely he must be making it all up? I remain puzzled. The blurb on the back of the first book sums the books up perfectly:

            A rat died in the living room at King Street and we didn’t know.
            There was at least six inches of compacted rubbish between our
            feet and the floor. Old Ratty must have crawled in there and died of
            pleasure. A visitor uncovered him while groping for a beer.

I think I’ll file them under "biography". When I’ve stopped laughing that is. I’ve been reading them on the bus on the way to work. People have been looking at me strangely as I giggle and snort. You’ll need a strong stomach to read these; mainly because your tummy will be aching with mirth.

He Kills Coppers is Jake Arnott’s second novel. It spans the years from the 1966 World Cup to the 1980s (there is also a brief prologue set in 1956). It captures the period atmosphere perfectly. Arnott wasn’t born until 1961 and so he can have few memories of the period about which he writes. During the 1960s when Britain emerged from a post war black-and-white austerity into a blaze of colour and excitement he would have been only a small child with little appreciation of the background to the times he found himself in. And yet he captures those times perfectly. I was there, I remember, and I am overawed by the skill with which he brings those times back to life. I could smell them, taste them.

Billy Porter is a conscript, fighting for the British army in Malaya against the communist insurgents in 1956. He enjoys the discipline of army life. His patrol comes across a communist patrol in the jungle and wipes them out. Billy gets quite a thrill from the killing.

In 1966 Britain is hosting the World Cup. London is full of foreign tourists, here for the football, grooving on swinging London. And London is determined to give them a good time. The police have swooped on Soho, trying desperately to clean up the sleaze, keep the con men off the streets, curb the violence. If the tourists want a romantically dirty time, that’s fine, but the hard word is out, the streets are being cleaned up. Dave Thomas is part of the clean up team. Billy Porter is a small time crook with incompetent partners. All of them are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The blag goes wrong and Dave is shot.

Billy Porter is on the run and while he has narrow escapes, he manages to keep ahead of the law for more than twenty years…

One of Arnott’s strengths is the cunning way that he blends fact with fiction. Real people rub shoulders with his fictional characters. Somehow it makes the times more real, they feel more lived in and there is always the frisson of recognition to add a little bit of spice. He Kills Coppers is a brilliantly executed novel. Jake Arnott is a writer to watch; he is going to go far.

Games periods were loathed by the less sportily inclined among us. Many of us had a fundamental lack of eye-hand co-ordination skills and any excuse was taken to avoid the humiliation of being the last one chosen for a team. Peter forged a note from his mother to the games master. It read:

Please excuse Peter from games because I have a cold.

And at the bottom was the scribbled signature:

Peter’s Mum

Others were less inventive. Steven simply never turned up for games. Every games period would find him hiding in the school cellars smoking cigarettes. At the end of the year, most of us got the usual phrases written on our reports by the games master.

Could do better.

Lacks enthusiasm.

On Steven’s report the games master wrote: Who is this boy?

Some excuses were more legitimate. One term Malcolm was properly excused games and he elected to do woodwork instead.

The woodwork class was supervised by Mr Gallagher. He taught us to make mortise and tenon joints, and dovetail joints. He taught us to plane a plank of wood square. He taught us to saw in a straight line (the only one of these skills that I retain to this day). I built a small bookshelf, a stool and a coffee table in his classes. All were sturdy constructions, all were useful and all were used. This pleased Mr Gallagher.

Malcolm elected to build a coffee table. He measured and marked, cut and planed.

Mr Gallagher checked his work every so often.

"The edge is not square. Look – you can see daylight when I hold my set square against it. Plane it some more."

Malcolm planed it more.

"It still isn’t square. It has to be square. You can’t make a table if it isn’t square. Plane it some more."

Malcolm planed it more. Over the course of a ten week term, he planed and planed and planed some more. At the start of the term, the planks he was planing measured eight inches across. By the end of the term, they were two inches across, still not square, and suitable only for building furniture in a doll’s house.

The next term Malcolm voluntarily went back to playing rugby. It didn’t demand a square field or a square ball and he felt much more at home with the irregularity.

Charles Sheffield’s new novel Dark As Day is set in the same universe as Cold as Ice and The Ganymede Club. It shares some characters with the earlier novels but it stands alone and it is not necessary to have read the other books to enjoy this one.

Humankind is limited to the solar system, star travel is as yet beyond our means. Some thirty years before the events of the novel an interplanetary war nearly wiped out what little progress there had been and even now humanity is still struggling to overcome the after effects of that terrible war. There are still horrendous weapons caches hidden throughout the solar system.

The Earth itself is returning to habitability; at least in the Southern hemisphere. The Northern hemisphere, which was a target of dreadful biological weapons, remains uninhabitable. Nevertheless survivors have been rescued from the howling wilderness. And two of these are shaking off their terrible past and intend to emigrate to the colonies on the asteroids.

On one of the moons of Jupiter, Alex Ligon, scion of a trading family, has developed a new statistical model of the solar system. The "Seine", an interlinked network of computers spanning the inhabited planets, moons and asteroids, gives him the computing power he needs to explore the ramifications of his model. To his consternation it seems to predict that within a hundred years humanity will be extinct.

Meanwhile, researcher Millie Wu has found a signal emanating from interstellar space. It looks as though, at long last, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has finally found someone or something out there. The race is on to decode the message and one of the groups working on the problem is the Puzzle Network, an informal group of people loosely linked via the seine, who spend a lot of their time simply setting (and attempting to solve) complex puzzles for the sheer intellectual joy of it. Rustum Battachariya, known as the Bat, is one of the leaders of the puzzle network. As a hobby he collects weapons from the great war. And there are rumours of an ultimate weapon, one that will destroy the solar system by making everything "as dark as day".

All of these disparate threads are, of course, closely connected. They form a puzzle worthy of the Puzzle Network itself (and indeed the network does eventually solve the conundrum). Sheffield has written a good old fashioned science fiction novel. This is the kind of story that brought me to SF in the first place. Exciting, filled with exotic incident in far away places with strange sounding names (and even stranger descriptions), stuffed full of exciting ideas and speculations about the nature of existence, about scientific method, about life the universe and everything. I read it in open mouthed wonderment. This is the real stuff, the authentic spine-tingling wonderful stuff that is the essence of science fiction. You don’t get it very often these days, but when you do find it , it reminds you all over again just why you continue to read the genre. Dark as Day is magnificent and I recommend it unreservedly.

On the other hand, the same cannot be said of Vernor Vinge’s new collection of short stories which is imaginatively titled The Collected Short Stories of Vernor Vinge. I’ve never understood why his works are so popular and why so many of his stories are nominated for awards. I’ve always found his stuff dull and full of dubious inspiration and half-thought-out ideas that are very badly explained. This collection just served to reinforce my opinion.

In his introductions to the stories, Vinge tells us that sometime in the near future humanity is heading for a "singularity". After that it will be impossible to write stories any more because humanity will have changed beyond all recognition and we will be unable to comprehend the people and the society from beyond the "singularity". He seems to mean this quite sincerely – though he never adequately explains what he means by the term singularity, nor what his evidence is. He has published a paper about it which is available at his web site. I read it, but it left me none the wiser. His words seem to be surrounded by cotton wool.

For many years, by his own admission, Vinge was completely unable to write novels and so was forced to work at shorter lengths. After reading these stories I have come to suspect that his inability to produce longer, more carefully crafted works was caused by the fact that his ideas were inadequately explained in the text – certainly for his audience and possibly even for himself as well – thus causing him to run out of steam prematurely.

These self-imposed limitations probably also account for why he has written so few stories over the years. So I find it astonishing that he is constantly being nominated for Hugo awards. Fast Times at Fairmont High, a new story, published for the first time in this collection, has been nominated for a Hugo this year and I have no idea why. It is a rather dull American school story full of the usual incomprehensible (to non-Americans) social and cultural icons. There is a lot of childish slang and infodumps about computer hardware (he seems to have a thing about wearable computers).

I simply cannot understand his popularity. I found the whole collection tedious.

On the gripping hand, Lion’s Blood bids fair to be Steven Barnes’ magnum opus. It is an alternate history novel. Its pivotal event was the survival of Socrates. Rather than drink the hemlock, he fled to Egypt setting in motion events that later led to the destruction of Rome by Carthage. The leaders of the world were black.

The story proper opens in the year 1279 of the Muslim calendar (1863 in our reckoning; but who’s counting? We don’t exist) and it concerns young Aidan O’Dere, a child in the primitive island of Eire on the borders of the world. The village is raided and Aiden is captured and taken into slavery, eventually being sold in the New World of Bilalistan. This nation lives uneasily, bordered as it is by the fierce Azteca to the south, the red nations to the west and a Viking empire in the north.

In some ways Aiden is lucky for the Wakil Abu Ali to whom he is sold has a reputation for leniency in the handling of his white slaves. Aiden becomes a personal servant to the Wakil’s son Kai and soon a friendship blossoms between them. But the seeming tranquillity of this world is only a thin layer over the brutal realities of slavery. The whippings, the rapes, the slaughtering of escapees. A slave’s life is hard, and Aiden can’t forget that (nor his desire for revenge against his captors).

War engulfs the continent. And in the terrible darkness, amid the carnage, there are always opportunities to be taken.

In some ways this is just a simple allegory. Black is transposed into white and the tale becomes merely a re-telling of the kind of plantation bodice-ripper that made Kyle Onstott a fortune forty years ago. It even has echoes of Alex Hayley’s Roots. But there’s more to it than simple role-reversal. It really is an examination of the state of slavery and the influence of religion (in this case Islam) on the nature of society. There’s a depth that makes it more than just a novel of casual brutality and it is thought provoking and moving. And a rattling good yarn to boot!

The school had its own swimming pool which was quite a novelty for those times. Most schools in the district hired out the pool in town and ferried their pupils to and from the swimming lessons in coaches. A curious construction of concrete slabs rose from the side of the pool at the deep end. From these you could dive or belly flop into the water, depending upon your skill level. Set up in one corner was a small trampoline (we called it a trampet) upon which the braver people would bounce up and down, going higher and higher with each bounce. Once the height and momentum was deemed sufficient the bouncer would alter the angle and project his body out into space, entering the water with a huge splash and a shriek of enormous triumph or, depending upon the angle of projection, enormous pain.

The boys changing rooms were on one side of the pool and the girls changing rooms were on the other side. A narrow corridor went from each changing room via a disinfectant foot bath to the pool. The sexes were strictly segregated and any lessons that involved use of the swimming pool were carefully timed so as to be exclusively mono-gendered. Mostly it worked.

After a games period, many of the boys had developed the custom of showering and then having a swim. This was particularly their practice if the games period was the last in the day for then they could take their time over their swim and just mess around in the pool for ages. Nobody ever bothered wearing swimming costumes for these impromptu events. We’d seen each other naked so often in the changing rooms over the years that nobody really cared very much at all. There was nothing worth looking at.

One Wednesday, after a particularly strenuous rugby game, the pool area was full of shrieking, naked young men racing around the pool, throwing each other in, diving from the steps, generally having a fine old time. One boy, Andrew, was bouncing up and down on the trampet, taking no part in any of the things going on around him. Bounce, bounce, bounce, lost in a trance, deep in a world of his own. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to us, the girls were just coming back from a particularly strenuous game of lacrosse.

"How about a swim?" someone suggested.

"Oooh, yes!"

They all changed into their togs (‘cos that’s what girls do) and padded off to the pool where they stood open mouthed with astonishment at the sight that greeted them.

Almost without exception, the boys stared for one horrified moment at the girls who were staring at them and then, one and all, covered their groins with their hands and jumped into the concealing safety of the pool.

Only Andrew, utterly lost in his trance, failed to notice the girls arrival as he went bounce, bounce, bounce on the trampet and with each and every bounce his little willy waved hello.

Bones of the Earth is Michael Swanwick’s dinosaur novel. Palaeontologist Richard Leyster works at the Smithsonian museum. One day a stranger named Griffin enters his office with a job offer and a chilly bin. In the chilly bin is the head of a freshly killed stegosaurus. The job offer is to go back into the past and investigate the dinosaurs first hand.

That’s the frame and while much of the story does indeed concern the dinosaurs and their habits, there is also an intensively recomplicated and ultimately solipsistic plot wrapped around it. There are wheels within manipulative wheels and Griffin himself is a walking paradox whose future self gives orders to his past self in a desperate attempt to manipulate time that may or may not succeed. I must confess I remain uncertain for I am not at all sure that Swanwick remained in control of his material. Towards the end confusion reigns.

The dinosaur scenes are wonderful – perhaps the best ever written. But the framing storyline is far too chaotic for comfort.

Christopher Moore’s new novel Lamb is subtitled The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and that is exactly what it is. Two thousand years after the birth of Jesus, He sends the angel Raziel to Earth to resurrect His old childhood friend Levi who is called Biff. Biff is told to write a new gospel, one that finally tells the whole truth. And so the Raziel takes Biff to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in St. Louis, and while the angel watches soap operas on the TV and orders pizza, Biff writes down the story of his life.

Biff and Jesus were firm friends from the day they first met each other. They were both six years old and Biff came across Jesus killing lizards in the village square and then resurrecting them again. The next thirty years or so are filled with miracles, remarkable journeys, magic, kung fu and lots of sex. Well Biff gets lots of sex. Jesus (or Josh, as Biff calls him) is a walking chick magnet but he isn’t allowed to indulge so he passes them all on to Biff to sample the wares. There’s only one condition – Biff has to tell him all about it for he remains intensely curious about the whole business.

Much of the new gospel concerns the missing years of Jesus’ ministry. It turns out that he spent those years re-visiting the three wise men who had attended his birth. From them he learns the precepts of Confucianism, Taoism, Bhuddism and an ancient Chinese magic that allows him to feed multitudes. It’s all misdirection really.

"Look! Isn’t that a seagull?"

When you turn back, the food is laid out for you. Simple, really.

Lamb is guaranteed to offend the humourless, stick-in-the-mud Christian mentality. The people who tried to ban Life of Brian will be equally upset by Lamb for the silliness and humour is on the same level and so is the seriousness. I’ve never understood why reverence has to be humourless. Lamb is a riot of laughs from beginning to end but it is also deeply respectful of its subject.

Raziel suggests that since the fifth gospel is a late addition to the canon, it should perhaps be regarded as a sequel and should be called "Revelations 2 – just when you thought it was safe to sin".

Amelia Peabody is back in Elizabeth Peters’ new novel The Golden One. It is 1917 and the war seems never ending. Peabody and Emerson have returned to Egypt. There are rumours that a particularly rich tomb has been discovered by the tomb robbers. Many artefacts are turning up in the markets. The family investigate and while they quickly find the robbers, they have only a single enigmatic clue as to the tomb’s whereabouts.

The investigation is interrupted when Ramses is recalled by British Intelligence to undertake a hazardous mission in Gaza where a newly emerged powerful figure called Ismail Pasha may (or may not) prove to be the family’s old nemesis Sethos, the master criminal. Amelia, Emerson, Ramses’ wife Nefret and their faithful servant Selim follow him in disguise (their new cat The Great Cat of Re is left behind).

Ramses is captured by the Turks but manages to escape and, with the aid of his formidable family, completes his mission to the satisfaction of all concerned.

And then it is back to archaeology and the mystery of the tomb which is soon brought to a satisfactory conclusion, though not without a lot of shouting by Emerson and much parasol wielding by Amelia.

The book is as long winded, pompous and preposterous as ever. I loved every sand-blasted, sun-soaked, furious page of it. Marvellous stuff!

Thirty five years ago I left school to go to university. I moved away from my home town and hardly ever went back again save for flying visits. I lost touch with almost everybody and school days were relegated to the dusty recesses of my memory. I had left it all behind. I moved to the other side of the world and eventually even the few friends that I had managed to keep in touch with drifted away and we stopped writing. Distance lends disenchantment.

And then the internet changed the world and somebody started a web site:

There you can register yourself under your old school. You can see lists of other people who have registered themselves. You can get in touch again.

I am currently exchanging emails with eight people that I was at school with, catching up on the gossip of decades; finding out who’s married, who’s divorced, who’s dead (sadly there are several). The memories come rushing back.

Why don’t you try it yourself?

John Birmingham He Died With A Felafel In His Hand Duff & Snelgrove
John Birmingham The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco Duff & Snelgrove
Jake Arnott He Kills Coppers Sceptre
Charles Sheffield Dark as Day Tor
Vernor Vinge The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge Tor
Stephen Barnes Lions Blood Warner
Michael Swanwick Bones of the Earth Eos
Christopher Moore Lamb Morrow
Elizabeth Peters The Golden One Morrow

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