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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (socrus proscripta)

Mother Out Law's Tongue

Robin and I had it all planned. My mother-out-law was arriving for a holiday shortly after midnight on Friday 22nd November (actually, to be precise, that's really the small minutes of Saturday 23rd of November). I was teaching in Auckland that week but I was booked to fly back to Wellington on the 8.30pm flight which meant I should get home about 10.00pm. Just enough time to give the house a spit and a polish, sufficient to remove the more festering growths, and then off to the airport to pick up Phyllis.

I got to Auckland airport for my flight home just after 7.00pm. My 8.30 flight was on the board, but the ominous word DELAYED was displayed against it. I went to check in.

"I'm on the 8.30 to Wellington," I said. "Any chance of an earlier flight?"

"It depends what kind of ticket you have," said the man, and he banged a few keys on the keyboard and frowned at the screen. Then he shook his head sadly. "Sorry squire," he said in tones of deepest indifference, "you've got a T-class ticket. No transfers allowed. If you want an earlier flight you'll have to buy a whole new ticket."

"Damn! Oh well, I'd better go on the flight I'm booked on. How long is it delayed for?"

He tapped a few more keys. "Three hours," he said lugubriously.

"Oh come on!" I said. "That's ridiculous - do I really have to hang about for the next four hours waiting for the stupid thing? Isn't there anything you can do?"

"I'll talk to my supervisor," he said reluctantly and disappeared round the back.

A few moments later he returned. "I'll put you on standby for the 7.00pm flight," he said. "That's only delayed by one and a half hours."

"Yes - that's much better," I said. He didn't react and I began to feel that perhaps irony was over-rated as a communication method.

He tied a yellow standby ticket on my bag and put it on the conveyor to the nether regions. The yellow sticker looked quite pretty next to the red priority sticker. I waved my bag a fond farewell and proceeded through security to the Koru Club lounge where I waited with keen anticipation for the flight to be called. Would I make it on board?

Then, wonder of wonders, I was paged to the desk.

"We've got you on the flight, Mr Robson," said the nice lady and she gave me a boarding pass for seat 14B which proved to be the middle seat of a row of three. An extremely large gentleman had the window seat and he overflowed generously into my space from the left. An even larger gentleman had the aisle seat and he overflowed into my space from the right. I crunched up small and read my book, dreaming about deep vein thrombosis caused by my utter inability to move for the duration of the flight.

I've been reading a lot of James Lee Burke novels this month. In the early books, Dave Robichaux, the New Orleans detective-hero, is a tortured soul disintegrating under the twin demons of alcoholism and a propensity for committing extreme violence with little provocation. He has nightmares about his time as a soldier in Vietnam. His wife is cruelly murdered by mobsters and Robichaux reaches rock bottom.

However instead of dwelling on this disintegration, Burke allows Robichaux to redeem himself to an extent. He joins Alcoholics Anonymous, he marries again and he even gains a daughter called Alafair; an orphan who he rescues from a plane crash. His personality problems don't disappear and he is always on a short fuse, liable to explode into violence with little provocation. It never solves the immediate problem and generally makes the situation worse, but Robichaux is driven by demons. They won't go away.

There is a constant theme of redemption running through the books. Robichaux has his debts to pay, obviously, but so do many of the other characters. Some succeed, some fail. Burke finds the process endlessly fascinating.

The books remain dark and dour. Burke has chosen to chronicle the bleak and hopeless side of life and his novels are filled with life's losers, petty criminals, murderers and gangsters. Even the police are corrupt and Robichaux himself is not entirely innocent of corruption. The novels reek of racial prejudice, violence, drug taking and sleaze, and they are unrelievedly grim.

Despite all this, Burke maintains his sympathies for life's losers; particularly those who are disadvantaged through no fault of their own. They are the good people, the real people, alienated by reasons of race or poverty but they nevertheless continue to shine.

My favourite of the books, though perhaps it is slightly untypical, is In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead. A movie crew is shooting a civil war epic. Robichaux becomes involved with them when his investigation of the murder of some young prostitutes leads him to believe that some members of the crew may be implicated. In addition, there are connections with organised crime - one of the local mobsters is financing the movie, perhaps as a mechanism for money laundering. There are also strange links to the past; to a murder that Robichaux himself witnessed almost forty years before when, as a young teenager, he saw two white men shoot a negro who was running away from them. It seemed to be a lynching - a normal occurrence in those days, and nothing ever came of it. But now a skeleton has been discovered in the swamp by one of the film crew and all the evidence suggests that the body is that of the murdered negro. Still nobody seems to care, except Robichaux.

An eerie and unusual feature of the book is that Robichaux is occasionally visited by ghosts. A general in the army of the Confederacy (who, during the civil war, may have fought over the land where Robichaux's investigations take him) seems to have an interest in Robichaux's current problems. Robichaux has a lot of conversations with him, and obtains useful information about the case. We are never quite sure how real these conversations are (Robichaux received telephone calls from the dead when in the grip of delirium tremens - could this be more of the same?) and there are hints at one point that someone might have given him a dose of LSD (for reasons that remain obscure). However Burke flirts with this kind of thing in several books. In another Robichaux novel (Burning Angel) the spirit of a murdered mobster seems to save Robichaux's life on several occasions. And in his other major series (about the Texas lawyer Billie Bob Holland), the hero is constantly talking to the ghost of his dead partner. It is all a little unsettling and it certainly keeps the reader guessing.

There is magical realism and hard reality all mixed together and the stew is potent and highly spiced. James Lee Burke is a superb writer by any standards you want to bring to bear.

Now that Air New Zealand has become an economy airline it no longer serves a meal on the flight between Auckland and Wellington. However in order to give the cabin crew something to do after they have gabbled their indifferent way through the safety demonstration, coffee and tea are served. First a trolley is trundled down the aisle and cups and saucers are handed out. This is followed, after a decent interval, by a man wielding jugs.

Everyone let down the tray table conveniently located in the back of the seat in front of them, and placed their cup and saucer on it. At that point we all made the very interesting discovery that the tray tables sloped downwards at slight angle below the horizontal, and no matter how carefully you placed the cup and saucer on the tray, they always slid down towards you and fell off into your lap.

All around me worried commuters pushed their cup and saucer up to the top of the tray table. Then they watched it slide down again, and just before disaster intervened, they pushed it back up. We all diverted ourselves with this game for several minutes while we waited for the cabin staff to come round and fill the cups.

The cups were pushed up, the cups slid down. In the early seventeenth century Galileo Galilei spent a lot of time sliding things up and down inclined planes that looked suspiciously like the tray table in front of me. From these experiments he deduced the basic laws of motion that were later embodied in Isaac Newton's first two laws. One of his deductions was that objects fell with a constant acceleration in a gravitational field. It didn't matter how light or heavy they were, they all fell at the same rate. I seem to recall an astronaut on one of the moon walks demonstrating this interesting fact by dropping a feather and a hammer. In the vacuum of the moon, with no air to support the feather, both hit the ground at exactly the same time.

The steward filled my cup with liquid mud coffee substitute, thereby making it substantially heavier than it had previously been. Immediately it slid down the tray table much faster than it had before! Somehow Air New Zealand had managed to repeal the laws of physics. All around me I could hear the screams of scalded commuters as the cups raced speedily down the tray tables.

Once we were all suitably refreshed, the cabin staff came round and collected our dirty cups from our soggy laps. We all stowed our tray tables away, glad that our ordeal was over. Soon my ears began to pop - we were starting our descent into Wellington.

We landed with the normal wobble and thud that accompanies most flights into Wellington and taxied to the terminal. The gentleman on my right struggled into the aisle and I managed to breathe properly for the first time in an hour. My deep vein thrombosis miraculously vanished. I trotted off to claim my luggage.

You will recall that my luggage, festooned with yellow standby labels and red priority labels, was last seen disappearing into a black hole on the conveyor in Auckland. The priority label is supposed to ensure that it is among the first bags off the plane. Because I was a standby passenger, my bag must have been one of the very last on board. For both of these reasons, I was sure that it would be among the first into view.

Air New Zealand baggage handlers are the slowest in the known universe. Once, on a flight to a provincial city, I waited for my bags to appear for longer than the actual flight itself had taken. In the main centres it normally takes about twenty minutes before the first bags trundle into view. Today was no exception. But yet again, Air New Zealand proved their mastery over the laws of the universe. Despite the fact that my bag was the last one on the plane, it was also one of the last ones off the plane as well. I had almost given up hope and was about to report it missing when it finally appeared, looking rather embarrassed at the delay it had caused. So much for the priority sticker for which I pay $350 a year to have attached to my bags. Everyone always ignores it. I can't think why I bother.

There is a very good reason why Air New Zealand is losing money hand over fist. And it isn't the high quality of their service.

Tim Dorsey writes manic, brain-damaged Carl Hiassen-like novels (and Carl Hiassen himself appears in a cameo role, autographing books with a green cover. Lucky Him). The hero, for want of a better word, of Florida Roadkill and Hammerhead Ranch Motel is Serge A. Storms, the man whose idea of a drug induced high is to stop taking his psychiatric medicine. There’s a suitcase; it’s got five million dollars in it, put there by George Veale, a dentist with a habit and no fingers who later conveniently dies. So much for logic; now we throw it away.

Serge wants the suitcase, Coleman wants the suitcase, Sharon wants the suitcase but only because all those bills would allow her to snort humungous amounts of cocaine through them (What? Pay for the drugs? Don’t be silly!). Sean and David don’t even know the suitcase exists despite the fact that it is in the boot of their car. They are far too busy not catching fish, as they have been doing together all their lives. Meanwhile there’s a hurricane to add to the complications, a convention of Ernest Hemingway impersonators and a lot of undercover cops who are running sting operations on other undercover cops. And don’t forget Santa, the black parachute, and the bridge.

Sense? We don’t need no stinking sense. We’re laughing too much.

Orange Crush also stars Serge A. Storms, but he’s forgotten who he is and is now calling himself Jack Pimento. He has a job as a spin doctor for Marlon Conrad, a political candidate who hasn’t got two brain cells to rub together. This book is about realpolitiks – specifically the politics of Florida and while it is as insanely plotted and sickeningly funny as Dorsey’s other novels it left me a little cold for it was obviously extracting an enormous amount of urine out of the current Floridian political scene; which is, unfortunately, a subject about which I know nothing and care even less. I recognised the odd reference (there is a viciously funny portrait of Charlton Heston in his role as President of the NRA; read it and you’ll never pick up a rifle again), but by and large I had the impression that there was a lot going on that I simply didn’t have the background to appreciate.

This is a time-bound book – it is far too contemporary in its references. In ten years time nobody will understand it, not even the Floridians to whom it is addressed. That’s an irreparable weakness.

Terry Pratchett goes from strength to strength. Night Watch is a stunning book, no matter what level you approach it from. It isn’t funny (his best books aren’t) but it is gloriously witty, very deep and dangerously dark.

Sam Vimes is in pursuit of a murderer. There are corpses in Ankh-Morepork and they aren’t coming back to life. Death (and DEATH) is for ever. Then lightning strikes and Vimes and the man he is pursuing are cast back in time to the Ankh-Morepork of Vimes’ own youth. They were grim times. There was unrest in the streets, revolution in the air. And a young Sam Vimes has just joined the city watch. He’s still wet behind the ears. The older Sam can only marvel about the naivety of his younger self. He vows to take himself in hand and teach himself how to survive. And at the same time he must catch his murderer, quell the unrest (without causing a time paradox) and somehow get home in time for the birth of his child. That’s asking a lot of the monks who control the passing of time. But doubtless he (and they) will manage.

There are some lovely set pieces here – bits of business for those of us steeped in Discworld lore. We see Dibbler sell his very first pie. We learn how Nobby came to join the watch (and why Vimes always seems to have a soft spot for him). Vetinarii is still a student in the Assassins Guild and is in danger of failing the course. His instructor in the techniques of disguise and invisibility claims never to have seen him in class and wants to fail him. Vetinarii claims a perfect attendance record and a mastery of the subject.

But the thread that binds them all is the time of trouble. Real violence, real death, real hardship. Ankh-Morepork was never pretty, but in Vimes’ youth it was downright ugly.

Truth! Justice! Freedom! And a Hard-Boiled Egg.

And lavender.

Read it and laugh. Grimly.

Because I had travelled on the plane that was only running an hour and a half late, as opposed to the one that was running three hours late, I was home by the original expected time. The mother-out-law plans were still on schedule.

It was growing dark and the manky bits in the house were becoming hard to identify. I half-heartedly wielded a vacuum cleaner hither and yon, but I can't honestly say that anything much changed. Robin put clean sheets on the guest bed, and we were ready to go. I drove out to the airport. It looked strangely familiar, almost as if I had been there before. We arrived shortly after midnight. The Air New Zealand flight had just landed - I knew it would be hours before we saw Phyllis. After all, the luggage alone could take days to work its way through the system. And then she would have to come through customs.

Uncounted aeons later she finally appeared through the immigration barriers. "The luggage took forever to appear," she said. I nodded knowledgeably. "Of course," she added thoughtfully, "my suitcase went round three times before I recognised it. I had a ribbon tied on it so I could spot it easily but the ribbon had fallen off in transit and I didn't notice."

"Welcome to New Zealand, Phyl," I said.

"Thank you."

James Lee Burke The Neon Rain Orion
James Lee Burke Heaven’s Prisoners Orion
James Lee Burke Black Cherry Blues Orion
James Lee Burke A Morning For Flamingos Orion
James Lee Burke A Stained White Radiance Orion
James Lee Burke In The Electric Mist With Confederate Dead Orion
James Lee Burke Dixie City Jam Orion
James Lee Burke Burning Angel Orion
Tim Dorsey Florida Roadkill Harper Torch
Tim Dorsey Hammerhead Ranch Motel Harper Torch
Tim Dorsey Orange Crush Harper Torch
Terry Pratchett Night Watch Doubleday

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