Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (occurant pubes fictae)

Alan and Robin Take a Trip

Another day, another course to teach. But this time it was in Vanuatu and Robin was coming with me so that she could have a holiday while I worked.

When we got off the plane at Port Vila, the hot, steamy atmosphere made us both start sweating immediately. We lined up in the immigration queue to have our passports stamped. While we waited, we were serenaded by a small band of musicians playing a complex island rhythm on what appeared to be home made instruments. At the front of the band, a man jiggled and hopped, playing a home made bass that could have come straight from a 1950s skiffle group, and probably did.

They came to the end of the tune, and the queue of tourists applauded sweatily. The band smiled and bowed and launched into another melody which was exactly the same as the previous one. I was reminded irresistibly of Lonnie Donnegan's skiffle group singing "My Old Man's A Dustman".

"Second verse," Donnegan would yell, half way through the song, "same as the first!"

And then he'd sing it again.

Eventually we got our passports stamped, reclaimed our luggage and passed on to the arrival hall where Mark was waiting to take us to our hotel.

Le Meridien is quite a posh hotel about five minutes drive from Port Vila. It is situated on a lazy lagoon in which there is a small island. A rope bridge connects the mainland to the island. The pillars supporting the bridge are carved with the faces of Gods, and they gaze protectively at the tourists as they cross. The bridge is of the kind which inevitably collapses beneath the Hollywood hero as he races across it, pursued by ravening tribal hordes. He survives of course, and climbs up the slats to safety. The ravening tribal hordes are all precipitated into the gorge where they die a lingering death.

Robin and I checked carefully. There were no obvious hordes of tribesmen pursuing us, and therefore the bridge was probably safe. We walked across, and while it certainly swayed alarmingly in the middle, the carved Gods in the pillars smiled on us and we survived the crossing unscathed.

The island proved to contain two holes of the interminable golf course that wound its sinuous way throughout the entire grounds of the hotel, and also a collection of bungalows that were the hotel's most luxurious and expensive accommodation. A tiny beach on the far side of the island completed the list of attractions. We inspected the beach carefully (it was sandy) and then returned across the rope bridge to the main block of the hotel. Again the Gods smiled on us and we survived.

The day after we arrived, the hotel had a Melanesian Feast in the evening. Robin and I went along and munched on island goodies - taro, mysterious meat wrapped in banana leaves, and freshwater prawns as large as a lobster with claws that overlapped the plate and extended half way across the table and which held the sweetest flesh when carefully cracked. Dance troupes from many of the islands that make up the Vanuatu group performed for us and I was struck by the huge variation in costume, dance and rhythm. All were undeniably from the Pacific cultures, and obviously related to each other, but nevertheless each was unique and identifiable.

The final performance was announced as being from a small island on the periphery of the group, close to the Polynesian border. The dance and song, we were informed by the master of ceremonies, had many Polynesian influences that were never seen in the other islands. The display began, and I was somewhat bemused to be treated to a superb performance of the Maori haka "Kamate!".

Since it was Melanesian Feast night and we were therefore surrounded by tribal hordes, we kept well clear of the rope bridge across the lagoon.

Each day the hotel staff slipped a newsletter under our door. It was called Tok Tok and it detailed all the things that would be happening at the hotel that day. Every day Tok Tok told us that the weather would be fine, with a high temperature of 31 degrees and a low of 21 degrees. (Once, for variety, the low temperature was forecast to be 20 degrees, but I feel that it might have been a typing error).

Every day, Tok Tok claimed that the sports hut had " active day planned for all..." and Robin could sail a catamaran, paddle a canoe, and play tennis or golf while I worked. Some of these she eventually did, but mainly she sat in the sun, and swam in the pool, and watched energetic islanders climb coconut trees and knock down coconuts for her, which she would then drink and eat with enormous gusto and much slurping.

We met a couple of young New Zealand girls who were staying at the hotel. They were having a wonderful time as they exposed every inch of skin that they could find to the pounding sun.

"You can't get skin cancer in Vanuatu," they assured us solemnly. "It's a different sun here, with a different kind of ultra-violet."

Robin basked by the pool, swim-suited, lotioned and slippery. When she got too hot she would go for a swim. She found the 30 degree heat quite pleasant. A lady from French Caledonia walked past wearing a heavy woollen sweater.

"I don't know why I came," she muttered (in French, of course). "It's far too cold."

I finished off the remaining books in John Harvey’s series about Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick in Vanuatu (there’s quite a long discussion of the series in my last article). There is something very surreal about sitting in the tropical sun and reading stories set in the cold English midlands. Nottingham seemed oddly distant and quite grim. In many ways I’m sorry that Harvey has brought the series to an end for I enjoyed them immensely. He has left himself room for more stories featuring the jazz-loving, cat-loving Inspector Charlie Resnick, but Last Rites had such a satisfactory ending that I don’t suppose he will.

Vectors is a new novel by Michael Kube-McDowell which tackles the largest theme of all. Dr Jonathan Briggs is a neuroscientist. As the book opens he is about to take up a research post at the University of Michigan which is one of the few places in the world that has sufficient computer power available to allow him to continue his research into the problem of consciousness. Is it a metaphor or an illusion? Is it a process that can be measured? He wants to find out how the brain experiences itself. He wants to find the neural signature of human individuality. To do this he needs very, very detailed scans of the brain (maps of the mind, if you like). He needs enormous computing power to define the Anderson vector matrices that are the tool with which he hopes to unlock the secrets of the soul.

Disturbingly, as the research progresses, curious anomalies in the mind maps start to suggest conclusions with which Briggs is very uncomfortable. The evidence implies that reincarnation can take place, that there is such a thing as a soul and that it can be reborn. At first Briggs refuses to accept this – it seems too close to mysticism, too far removed from science, and scientists have their prejudices just like everybody else. But the evidence is there, it won’t go away, and a personal tragedy in his own life gives Briggs a motive for wanting to believe. He is ridiculed by his colleagues and eventually gets himself into severe difficulties with the police as well. His personal and scientific lives intertwine to such an extent that even he can’t separate them any more. There is only one way out, only one more experiment, only one way to resolve all these threads and answer the questions that the proof of reincarnation raises. The ending of the book is inevitably foreshadowed by its themes.

It’s a gripping read. After all, the question of what really happens after death is of vital interest to every one of us. Connie Willis investigated the same theme in her recent novel Passages. Perhaps it is a theme whose time has come.

Kube-Mcdowell presents a wonderful picture of a scientist doing science – this really is how the scientific method works. If I have a criticism at all it is that some of the situations in which Briggs finds himself are a little contrived and some of the characters are a little shallow and unbelievable. But the good points far outweigh the bad; this is an excellent book.

Stephen Baxter also tackles one of the great themes in his new novel Evolution. He sets himself the task of telling the tale of the evolution of mammalian life from the impact of the great comet that destroyed the dinosaurs, through pre-historical and historical times and on into the far future. That’s a huge story and of course there is only one way to tell it, as a series of vignettes scattered across the time stream.

To begin with, it’s a little like the BBC series Walking With Beasts only in words instead of pictures. Things change a bit with the rise of intelligence, when Baxter can tell tales with dialogue in them. And things change again as he moves forward into the future of our species.

The fact that Baxter has the hubris to actually attempt to tell this grand tale is a magnificent conceit. That he succeeds as well as he does is little short of incredible.

I was teaching a Linux course at the Port Vila campus of the University of the South Pacific (USP) and on the Friday Robin and I were invited to the campus Nakamal for kava. I've had kava before in Fiji so I thought I knew what to expect. But I was wrong.

In Fiji, the kava is quite dilute and people sit around the kava bowl for hours at a time (sometimes all day) drinking the occasional bowl and talking while they drink. There is quite a strict ceremony associated with the drinking of kava. After downing a bowl, you must clap three times to show appreciation. As the hours pass and more and more kava is ingested, the pleasant, numbing effect of it gradually creeps over the whole body.

However in Vanuatu things are quite different. The Nakamal is a social place where kava is drunk. But the actual drinking itself is a private thing, a holy thing, a communion between you and the kava. You go off to the edge of the Nakamal to be alone, to contemplate the infinite, to clap one hand and listen to the sound of it (you get very Zen after too many bowls of kava). After drinking the kava in one huge gulp, you spit copiously to get the revolting taste out of your mouth (in Vanuatu the hills are alive with the sound of hoicking). Then you return to your group of friends and indulge in social chit-chat until it is time for more kava.

A visit to a Nakamal doesn't last for very long. The Vanuatu kava is enormously strong, not diluted at all. One drink, possibly two, and you are completely wrecked (in the nicest sense). I felt an enormous relaxation spread throughout my body. I felt calm and happy, completely unstressed and I became quite talkative (most unusual for me; I tend to be a listener rather than a talker in most social gatherings). I could feel the effect quite clearly and I absolutely knew that if I drank one more bowl I would be so relaxed that I'd have to be carried home.

At the Nakamal I got nibbled extensively by insects. Nobody else was bothered by them, probably because they were concentrating exclusively on me. I appear to be incredibly sexy as far as the average bug is concerned and they come from miles around to feast on my flesh. Liberal daubings of insect repellant have little or no effect. My pheromones always get through and the little buggers bite me in spite of the clouds of diethyltoluamide by which I am always surrounded. I swear, I could lie submerged in a bath full of insect repellant and the bugs would equip themselves with scuba gear and swim down into the depths to bite me.

Although I was working, I did get a weekend to do the tourist things. Robin and I went on a cruise. Our first port of call was a turtle sanctuary where a large conservation effort is underway. Turtle eggs are gathered and hatched, and the hatchlings are raised in tanks until they are about a year old and then they are returned to the sea. The casualty rate among newly hatched turtles is astounding. Probably 99% of them fail to survive to adulthood, for they have many predators when young. Mature turtles are hunted for their shells which are in high demand as ornaments in the world outside Vanuatu. The combination of these things is starting to threaten the survival of the species. Hopefully the conservation effort will help to offset this and succeed in preserving them.

From the turtle sanctuary we walked to an isolated resort called Tranquility, where tourists are encouraged to come and stay for a while to get away from the hustle and bustle of the rat race in huge metropoli such as Port Vila.

" Tranquility Base here," I murmured to Robin. "The Turtle has landed!"

The man in charge of Tranquility gave us the hard sell on how restful and beautiful the place was.

"We're so isolated," he said, "that we don't even get the bugs that the other islands have. You won't get bitten here."

I slapped at the insect that was chewing hard on my left elbow even as he spoke. I didn't believe a word he said; but everybody else in the tour group nodded thoughtfully. Nothing was biting them; and they all remained completely unnibbled throughout the rest of the tour.

From Tranquility we sailed around to the other side of the island where we were ferried ashore onto a deserted beach and left to our own devices. The sea was crystal clear. Brightly coloured fish swam teasingly among the rocks. There was no sound save the lapping of the waves upon the shore. The sun beat down fiercely from a deep blue, cloudless sky and the coconut palms cast long, thin shadows on the sand. Hermit crabs in borrowed shells scuttled brightly here and there.

"Shark!" yelled the tour guide, and then she giggled.

There were no sharks. That day they were eating other tour groups and we were left alone. By sharks at least.

I waded into the sea, my own private cloud of insects buzzing merrily around my head and sipping occasionally from the nectar I was sweating. I donned snorkel and goggles and dived deep into the water where I admired the fish for a time. I made a point of swimming underwater until I was well away from where I had left my insect cloud. But when I surfaced, they were waiting for me, having followed me over the water as I swam beneath it. As soon as my head popped above the wavelets, they resumed their interrupted feast.

I returned to the shore and sheltered from the tropical sun in the shade of a tree. I read my book, accompanied only by the soporific splashing of the gentle sea and the lazy buzzing of the flies as they flew into my ears, crawled up my nostrils and tickled my toes.

Eventually it was time to return to the hotel. I arrived blotchy, pink, itching and desperately in need of beer and soothing skin creams.

Barbara Nadel has chosen an exotic location for her two murder mysteries. Both Belshazzar’s Daughter and A Chemical Prison are set in Istanbul and the police team that has to solve the murders is led by Inspector Cetin Ikmen.

In Belshazzar’s Daughter, an elderly man is murdered in Istanbul’s decrepit Jewish quarter. The motive appears to be racial; there is a swastika daubed on the wall above the mutilated corpse. However as more facts emerge about the dead man (and as the incredibly horrible details of his death are revealed in the autopsy), Inspector Ikmen begins to doubt that the motive is as straightforward as once it seemed.

There are two major suspects. Robert Cornelius is an English-language teacher at a school near where the crime was committed. Reinhold Smits is a half-German business man. He is known to have Nazi sympathies and the murdered man once worked in one of his factories. During the second world war, Smits sacked him because he was a Jew.

The dead man was a Russian émigré who fled to Turkey from the Bolsheviks during the revolution. He had fought in the revolution and there were deaths on his conscience. In the heart of Istanbul a ninety year old woman, who fled from Russia in the company of the dead man all those many years ago, rules her family with an iron fist. She has a secret worth an old man’s life and she doesn’t want it to be known to the world.

Ikmen gradually comes to realise that all these tangled threads are connected and the dénouement, when it comes, is a shocker.

The plot is actually fairly straightforward and I’d guessed the old man’s secret long before the book revealed it (though I hadn’t guessed the sting in the tale that the ending reveals). The murder mystery is mildly intriguing, but what makes the novel such an outstanding work is the large cast of highly eccentric and quite fascinating characters and, of course, the exotic setting. I knew nothing of Istanbul prior to reading the book and the minutiae of Turkish life were a mystery to me. Both are brought wonderfully to life in this very tactile book – I’ll swear I could smell the city and taste the city. It’s an extraordinarily evocative novel.

A Chemical Prison also presents Inspector Ikmen with an intriguing puzzle. The body of a young man has been found in a house close to the Topkapi museum. The man was obviously a drug addict – the marks of the injections are very clear. But the drug in his body turns out to be pethedine, a morphine derivative which is never sold on the streets and appears not to be available outside of hospitals where it is often used as a pain reliever. Furthermore the young man’s limbs are strangely atrophied, as if they had never been used to any great extent. And the windows of his room are nailed shut and there was a padlock on the door. The only possible conclusion is that the man has been kept prisoner in the room for many years. Perhaps the drug addiction was the only way he could relieve the strain of his isolation. But who was supplying the drug and where did they get it from in the first place?

The answers, when they come, are quite incredible. Ikmen follows the trail through the squalid world of drugged rent boys for sale to all comers, up to the very heights of Turkish society. The only clue they have to the fate of the boy is that it seems he was guarded by an Armenian. But most Turks ignore Armenians – they are the non-people, the people who are generally overlooked by Turkish society as if they do not exist. During the first world war, it was rumoured that the Turks massacred millions of Armenians in the twentieth century’s first attempt at genocide. One of Ikmen’s closest friends is an Armenian, but it isn’t until he investigates this case that he comes truly to realise what it is to be an Armenian, a pariah, an outcast.

The book is tightly plotted and very dark, quite Byzantine (appropriately enough). For most of its length, neither the reader nor Ikmen have any idea what is going on, and yet it is obvious from the very start that whoever is responsible for the crime is playing with Ikmen, giving him enigmatic clues. A thread of catch-me-if-you-can is tangled up in the general mystery, but it all arises naturally out of the social tensions of race and class – particularly class. The Ottoman Sultans would have understood it perfectly.

Both books are an absolute triumph. I hope we hear a lot more of Inspector Ikmen in the future.

The Vanuatu group comprises 80 islands. There are 170,000 people living in these islands and between them they speak 110 different languages. That’s more than one language per island which is quite incredible, given how small the islands are.

Travel between the islands is very common and there are many marriages between people from different islands. As a consequence of this, most people are multilingual. Everyone speaks the language of their mother's island, the language of their father's island, and the language of their own island (if they happen not live on one of their parents' islands). They all speak Bislama, the pidgin lingua franca that allows everyone to understand each other regardless of their native island and language. They also speak English and French because of their colonial history when the islands (then called the New Hebrides) were jointly administered by England and France. Monolingual tourists soon get huge inferiority complexes in the face of such linguistic diversity.

I did a cursory web search after I got back home and soon discovered a Bislama translation of the story of the Tower of Babel, which I found appropriately satisfying.

"Thank you very much," I said to the English-speaking waitress as she poured my breakfast coffee.

"Merci beaucoup," I said, showing off to the French-speaking waiter as he poured my after dinner coffee.

"Tangkiu tumas," I started saying to both of them within a couple of days. Bislama grows on you.

On our last Thursday in Vanuatu, Mark and his wife Gayna took us out for dinner to Hideaway Island. First we drove to a Nakamal for kava and a spit and then, suitably relaxed, we drove off to the ferry. Just as we were about to turn down a one way street, a car came rocketing out of it, against the traffic flow. Mark braked sharply and then shrugged.

"French," he explained.

Personally I didn't think it mattered. "They were only going one way," I pointed out with impeccable logic.

The general thinking in the islands is that the French should be kept off the roads and in the kitchen. In colonial days the joint administration led to a lot of bureaucratic duplication - there were two police forces, for example. The British were regarded as being somewhat more lenient than the French; but in compensation, the food in the French prisons was much better.

The French influence is still very strong and the food in the islands is absolutely wonderful. Mind you they have the best of ingredients to work with. The home-grown chicken is incredibly tasty (I'd forgotten that chicken could actually taste of something; in most countries it is just a sort of bland, tasteless plastic that fills up the empty spaces in the sauce). The home-grown steak simply melts into tiny taste bombs in the mouth. And the fish that they pull fresh from the sea each day is just heavenly. There are more exotic foods available as well; I ate stir fried stingray for the first time in my life, and very good it was too. Oddly, it didn't taste like chicken. It tasted like stingray.

For breakfast every day, I gorged myself on fresh mango, paw-paw and pineapple. It was positively orgasmic. There was fresh passion fruit as well, but I am less than passionate about this and so I passed it by. There was also a white, slimy native fruit with very little taste and an obscene texture. I avoided it after one mouthful.

Vanuatu grows its own coffee (the French take their coffee very seriously) and it has a wonderfully rich, almost smoky, taste and texture like no other coffee I've ever drunk.

We parked the car by the beach and walked out on to the sands. Mark waved vaguely at a dark blotch out on the sea. It turned and headed towards us and revealed itself to be a small aluminium boat with an outboard motor. The driver drifted up close to shore and we paddled through the shallows and boarded the boat. It chugged off towards a shadow in the sunset. After about five minutes we pulled up at a pier on Hideaway Island. The restaurant was right on the beach and we had a table outside on the sand. We dined romantically by the light of the moon (and a small candle) while the sea whispered secrets to the sand. It was perfect in every way.

As we rode back in the ferry, the wake glowed with streaks of light from phosphorescent algae and the soft, silk night embraced us as we took off our sandals and paddled through the sea from the ferry to the beach and then up to the car.

Two days later I was back in New Zealand. The contrast was marked!

Mbae mi lukem yu, Vanuatu. Mbae mi kumbak.

John Harvey Off Minor Arrow
John Harvey Wasted Years Arrow
John Harvey Cold Light Arrow
John Harvey Living Proof Arrow
John Harvey Easy Meat Arrow
John Harvey Last Rites Arrow
Michael Kube-McDowell Vectors Bantam Spectra
Stephen Baxter Evolution Gollancz
Barbara Nadel Belshazzar’s Daughter Headline
Barbara Nadel A Chemical Prison Headline

Previous Contents Next