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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (aquatus felis)


Every week a coach arrived at our little village school to take us to the swimming pool down the road in Brighouse.

"Eh up! Charra's 'ere."

We all piled on, clutching our swimming togs wrapped up in tightly rolled towels. It was about a fifteen minute journey to the pool. We turned right out of the school gates, travelled for a few hundred yards and then turned left past a pub called "The Malt Shovel" where my grandfather used to do his drinking. Then down past the church and on to Brookfoot which was an enormously steep hill with a very tight turn on to it. I used to wonder whether we'd make it safely, but we always seemed to manage. And so into Brighouse and the pool which smelled tinglingly of chlorine.

The changing rooms were small private cubicles. We'd go into them two by two, boys on one side, girls on the other. I usually shared with my best friend Jimmy Leadbetter. Once when the class was too slow getting dressed again after the swimming lesson was over, Miss Beaver (our teacher) walked along the line of cubicles and pulled all the curtains back, exposing rows of naked children.

"Hurry up!" she yelled.

We hurried up - it was too embarrassing to do anything else. People might point at us and laugh.

When we were ready for the water, we plodded through the disinfectant foot bath and into the pool. Many of the children already knew how to swim and they were left to their own devices, to splash and dive to their heart's content. The rest of us gathered in the shallow end where we were instructed in the arcane mysteries of the breast stroke. We practised all the arm actions as we stood in the water. Then we practised all the leg actions as we supported ourselves on the bars on the side of the pool.

"Now do them both together! Swim across the width of the pool."

I sank like a brick.

The BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Tipping the Velvet was so superb that I just had to read the book. And I was amazed all over again at what a wonderful job the BBC did. The story concerns the adventures of Nancy Astley, an oyster girl from Whitstable who falls in love with Kitty Butler, a music hall artiste. Eventually, under the stage name of Nan King, Nancy and Kitty perform a double act together. But the relationship is doomed and as it breaks, Nancy breaks too. The only way is down and Nancy goes as far down as it is possible to go. But slowly she fights back, slowly she starts to win again.

The book is a wonderful evocation of the nineteenth century music hall, and the larger society that surrounds it. The times come alive again; the sights, the sounds, the smells and the social attitudes that we find all too easy to condemn today but which were the norm for those days. It is to Sarah Waters' credit that she never preaches; she simply shows us how it was. Too many historical novelists fall into the trap of giving their viewpoint characters attitudes and morals that are foreign to the time. Such books teeter on the verge of polemic. Even in her first novel, Sarah Waters knew better than that.

She did it again with Affinity; a much darker work. Selina Dawes is a spiritualist. But even Milbank prison cannot curb her malign influence. Following the death of her father, the young Margaret Prior takes up good works and becomes a prison visitor. Darkness loves innocence, and it isn't long before Margaret becomes involved in the seedy world of seances, shadows and unseemly practices.

Sarah Waters is an amazingly good writer.

Elizabeth Peters also writes historical novels, though hers are detective stories and many of them are set in Egypt. Children of the Storm is the fifteenth book in her ongoing series about Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband Emerson, and it is one of the weakest. The Great War is over and Amelia and her family hope to settle down to some serious archaeology with no political (or other) distractions. However something seems to be going on. Valuable antiques are stolen, her son Ramses is briefly kidnapped by a mysterious veiled woman, and a thief suffers a brutal death. What possible connection can there be between these incidents and a seemingly mentally subnormal boy who haunts Amelia's family?

It is all a bit "writing by numbers". Elizabeth Peters noodles around making her characters jump through all the usual hoops, but her heart doesn't seem to be in it and the book and the characters never really come alive. I was very disappointed with this one and I recommend that you read the other fourteen books instead. They are much better.

I'd always known that water couldn't support the human body. If it had been capable of supporting the body then I'd have been able to sit on top of the water when I took a bath. Much experimentation convinced me that I couldn't. No matter how hard I tried, I always sunk immediately to the porcelain bottom of the bathtub. I had a vague feeling that because I lived in a small and generally insignificant village it was likely that we got inferior water. Perhaps other places got water that would support people. Perhaps people in other places could sit on top when they took a bath. I felt quite jealous of them.

I got pulled up from the bottom of the pool.

"Try again."

"The water's too thin," I wailed. "I need thicker water."

Throughout the 1950s the British Government worked very hard to repair the battered infrastructure that the second world war had left in its wake. Eventually they got round to our insignificant little Yorkshire village and the water stopped being quite so inferior and it thickened up enough that I finally learned to swim in it. But I was deeply disappointed that it never quite reached a standard that allowed me sit on top of it. I always blamed Adolf Hitler for that.

The Miocene Arrow and Eyes of the Calculor are the second and third novels in Sean McMullen's Greatwinter trilogy, following on directly from Souls in the Great Machine which I reviewed in my last column. They are not quite stand alone novels and you might find them a little confusing if you haven't read the earlier volume.

The Miocene Arrow is set in America and it details an interminable war between the few city states that manage to eke out a precarious living on the continent. Vast swathes of land have been rendered uninhabitable by the Call. Unknown to the natives (at least at the start of the book) the war has been instigated by Aviad infiltrators from Australica (sic). I found the book a little long winded and the details of the war were very confusing because I really couldn't get a handle on who was fighting who and exactly why. The social, political and geographical niceties were never properly explained and remained fuzzy and vague to me throughout the novel. I found this a little unsettling and ultimately irritating. This is definitely the weakest book of the trilogy.

Eyes of the Calculor takes place shortly after the end of the American war. The Mirrorsun (for arcane reasons of its own) has refused to allow any more electrical devices on Earth and has destroyed all the ones that now exist. In Rochester the new High Librarian has to resurrect the old human-powered calculor. The political ramifications of this, and the motives of the Mirrorsun, and the aftermath of the recently concluded American war are the disparate threads that hold this story together. And what a superb story it is. It has everything from high drama to farce, and it never lets go. It's a huge book (588 pages) but it held me enthralled. It's by far the best of the three - utterly superb.

The Wee Free Men is (supposedly) a children's novel set in the Discworld. Children will love it - but so will adults. Ignore the labels, just read the book. It's wonderful.

Young Tiffany Aching lives on the chalk downs and thinks she might be a witch. Her grandmother might have been as well, but it's hard to tell. What her grandmother mainly was, was a shepherd who specialised in diseases of the sheep which she cured by the judicious application of turpentine. As the book opens, Tiffany might have seen some small blue men who talk in Scottish accents. They are the Nac Mac Feegle, pictsies who were thrown out of fairyland for being drunk and disorderly. They warn Tiffany that a monster is coming. Tiffany barely manages to escape, and she decides that something has to be done. She attracts the monster back by using her young brother Wentworth as bait. Then she hits the monster with her frying pan! The Nac Mac Feegle are most impressed - there's nothing they like better than fighting and this young lady seems to be very good at it.

Then Wentworth is kidnapped by the Queen of the Fairies, and Tiffany and the Nac Mac Feegle set off to rescue him...

To an extent, the book is thematically similar to the earlier Lords and Ladies. But that doesn't really detract from it. It is screamingly funny and deeply serious at one and the same time. That's a potent mixture and nobody mixes it better than Terry Pratchett.

My two cats Porgy and Bess have developed an inordinate fondness for water; the thicker the better. When Robin fetches the hosepipe to water the garden they go into paroxysms of joy. They chase the stream of water as it plays over the sweet peas, and they splash gaily in the mud pools it leaves behind. They drink delicately from the filthy puddles and then, muddy, soggy moggies, they leap lovingly into our arms and wriggle ecstatically. Old clothes are de rigueur in the Robson household these days.

Inside water is almost as much fun as outside water. They can hear a tap from half a house away and they always come running to take part. On emerging from the shower of a morning, it is not unusual to find a cat sitting in the washbasin, eagerly awaiting its turn. As you towel off your moisty bits, the cat will jump down into the shower stall where it will lick up the soapy residues before they can all gurgle away.

Porgy is particularly fond of watching me when I clean my teeth. He can sit in the washbasin while water is actually running! He taps delicately at the stream with a paw and then quickly shakes off the excess. But what he is really waiting for is the excitingly orgasmic moment when I spit.

The one thing that Porgy simply cannot resist is the sound of me walking into the toilet and lifting the seat. He knows exactly what this means and races in so as not to miss anything. He puts his front paws against the rim of the toilet bowl and stares up, eyes round with wonder and delight. When he can't resist the temptation any longer, he reaches out a tentative paw and plays pat-a-cake with the stream of urine. When I finish, he sits down and thoughtfully brushes his paw behind his ears, then he licks his paw and chews between his toes to ensure that none of the bouquet is missed. When I flush, he immediately climbs up again to enjoy the swirl and twirl and gurgle.

I have to confess that the unnervingly unswerving stare of a fascinated cat has a distinctly desiccating effect upon the Robson bladder and Porgy is currently banned from the toilet, much to his disgust.

Most of Fredric Brown's detective novels had only ephemeral paperback print runs and have long been almost unobtainable. Stewart Masters Publishing has promised to bring them all back into print in handsomely presented hardback volumes printed on acid-free paper. Hunter and Hunted is the first volume of this series and reprints four connected novels which feature the detecting exploits of Ed Hunter and his uncle Ambrose.

The first, and strongest, of the novels is The Fabulous Clipjoint. The eponymous clipjoint is the city of Chicago which Brown brings alive in all its seedy grittiness - you can almost taste it. Ed's father has been murdered and he and Ambrose have to solve the case. The plot, while quite masterful as are all of Brown's plots (he loved plotting and his stories are often highly ingenious and twisted), takes second place to the sense of style. This is a very noir novel and the story often plays second fiddle to the atmospherics. It's a haunting and brilliantly written book.

The Dead Ringer, the second novel, appears to be mostly an exercise in plotting. A midget, a monkey and a child are murdered, seemingly because they are all the same size! None of the three have ever met each other and they have nothing in common. What on earth can connect them? What possible logical explanation can there be? Read the book and find out!

The Bloody Moonlight appears almost science fictional to begin with. A rich recluse has invented a new kind of radio that seems to be picking up signals from aliens on a moon of Jupiter. His niece has hired the Hunters to determine whether or not she should invest in his invention. Is it practical? Is there money in it? On his way to the uncle's house, Ed stumbles across a corpse with its throat torn out. Is there a connection to his case? You bet there is - but the explanation is a long time in coming. However when it does, it's a humdinger.

In the last novel, Compliments of a Fiend, Uncle Ambrose has disappeared. Ed must find him. The only possible explanation for the disappearance seems to come from the notebooks of the paranormal investigator, Charles Fort. Fort theorised that there might exist an Ambrose collector. And he appears to have collected another one!

They are all excellent books. Even when you know the reasons behind the convoluted plots you can still read (and re-read) the books with great enjoyment. Now that's skilful writing. It's wonderful to see these books back in print after so long.

I never really fancied reading any Dick Francis novels. I knew that Francis was an ex-jockey and I recalled many interviews on the television with several of his contemporaries. Generally I felt that the journalists should have interviewed the horses instead of the jockeys - the horses would have been much more intelligent and articulate. Also, my mother told me that the Dick Francis novels she had read were all about horse racing and therefore by definition, as far as she and I were concerned, they were boring. And who is a boy to trust, if he can't trust his mother?

And then my good friend Nancy bought me a Dick Francis novel and insisted that I read it, and so I did.

Now I feel rather like Goldie Hawn, who once staggered into view on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In carrying a candle that had a large flame burning at each end.

"Mother was wrong!" she chortled gleefully.


For Kicks opens in Australia. The Earl of October persuades Danny Roke to travel to England and work undercover in his stables in order to try and infiltrate a horse doping ring. October is absolutely certain that horses are being doped, but chemical tests reveal no trace at all of any drug. He doesn't know how it is being done and he doesn't know who is doing it. Danny Roke, a complete stranger to the British racing scene, represents his last hope. October feels that because Danny is a newcomer, he is more likely to be able to infiltrate himself into the shady side of racing. He brings no reputation with him, no baggage.

The plot is pleasingly complex (and the solution to the chemically undetectable dope is wonderfully ingenious). The characters are well rounded and believable (though October's psychopathic daughter strains credulity a little). The horse racing is not at all intrusive and is very interestingly portrayed (I never thought I'd hear myself say that). However the last third of the novel is a little anti-climactic and somewhat gratuitous. Danny has found the solution to the problem and has gathered all the evidence he needs to convict the dopers. Both logically and dramatically, the story is over. And then the dopers capture the girl he loves and he has to rescue her. Lots of thrilling derring do here, and very well written to boot - but it is completely unnecessary and appears to be there only to pad the page count out to the required number. 

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the book, badly structured though it is. And to be fair, it dates from 1965 when Francis was just getting started as a writer. He shows such skill in this early work that I'm sure his later works will prove to be more properly structured. 

Sorry mum - it was a perfectly good and thoroughly enjoyable thriller.

Up Through an Empty House of Stars is a collection of critical essays and reviews by Dave Langford. In my opinion Langford is the best of the current crop of commentators on the SF field. He feels passionately about SF, but that doesn't stop him from pulling its leg when he feels it deserves it. There are deep critical insights in these essays as well as lots of very funny jokes. But even the jokes have a serious point - one of Langford's strengths is that he can wrap a serious comment inside a funny one. You don't even notice that you are swallowing the pill.

So stop reading my reviews. Go and read Langford's instead!

Oh! You have...

Sarah Waters Tipping The Velvet Virago
Sarah Waters Affinity Virago
Elizabeth Peters Children of the Storm Morrow
Sean McMullen The Miocene Arrow Tor
Sean McMullen Eyes of the Calculor Tor
Terry Pratchett The Wee Free Men Doubleday
Fredric Brown Hunter and Hunted Stewart Masters Publishing
Dick Francis For Kicks Pan
David Langford Up Through An Empty House Of Stars Cosmos Books

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