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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (felis seductus)

Alan And The Ultimate Secret

Teenage boys are simply hormones on legs and they think about sex approximately four times a minute. When they aren't thinking about sex, they are thinking about food. And when they are thinking about neither sex nor food, they are thinking about football. This leaves almost no time left over to think about school work.

One weekend Mr Stone, our history teacher, got married. Our first lesson at 9 o'clock on the following Monday morning, was history. Mr Stone strode into class, much as he usually did, and began to regale us with an interminable discussion about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. There is absolutely nothing titillating about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. Even teenage boys cannot find a double entendre in a discussion about the Repeal of the Corn Laws. There being no immediate possibility of sex, food or football, tedium descended upon us all in thick clouds. One adventurous youth, stimulated by boredom, decided that something had to be done.

"Did you have a good wedding sir?"

Mr Stone seemed somewhat taken aback at being interrupted in mid flow, but he rallied well. "Yes thank you Wilkinson. It was very nice."

"I bet you got really drunk on your stag night, didn't you sir?" continued my classmate. "Tell us how much you drank, sir?" We all sat up and began to take notice. This might be fun.

"I never touch it, Wilkinson." Mr Stone sounded quite indignant. "I never touch it at all."

"No sir," said Wilkinson in tones of wounded innocence. "I was talking about what you were doing on your stag night sir, not what you were doing on your wedding night."

There was a moment of shocked silence as we all replayed the conversation in our heads. Had he really said that? Yes, he really had. Gales of laughter swept across the room.

"Harrumph!," said Mr Stone, glowing somewhat pinker than usual. "Boy, you are a buffoon! Now, after the Corn Laws were repealed..."

Latin lessons offered even more opportunities for disruption. Double entendres were far too subtle for Latin lessons. In Latin lessons we got single entendres. We learned to count and the class had to chant in unison:

"Unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex."

That was as far as we ever got. The forbidden word never failed to induce hysterical delight, much to the exasperation of the Latin master.

None of us, of course, were getting any. We were all mouth and trousers. It was an incredibly frustrating time.

As Alexander McCall Smith’s stories about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency continue, they become less and less concerned with detection and more and more concerned with exploring the characters of Precious Ramotswe and Mr. J. L. B. Matakoni and all their friends. And these people are of course the whole secret of the success of the books for Mr Smith brings them wonderfully to life, just as he evokes so magnificently the country of Botswana where they all live. A cynic might call the books naïve because Mr Smith makes his characters believe in the basic goodness of humanity and all the people in his stories are nice people (even the nasty ones). The values that they hold dear are simple ones that many people in the Western world might disdain. They are the values of our childhood, the values that tell us that we must keep our promises, care about our honour, take pride in our work. Things to which we should aspire, but all too often don’t. Perhaps it would be no bad thing if the rest of us could behave and believe like Mma Ramotswe and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni. The world might be a better place. Meanwhile we have the books of Mr Alexander McCall Smith, and they are just sublime.

Morality For Beautiful Girls finds Precious Ramotswe facing a financial crisis. She has had to raise the salary of her secretary Mma Makutsi (who has been promoted to Assistant Detective). There are some cases to solve – a high Government official is sure that the wife of his brother is poisoning him so as to inherit his farm – but Precious is more worried about Mr J. L. B. Matekoni who appears to have withdrawn from the world. His business at Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors is suffering as a result. Precious decides to appoint Mma Makutsi to be Assistant Manager at the Garage and she also closes her own office and starts to run her detective agency from Mr Matekoni’s premises thereby saving some money. Mma Makutsi proves to be a very able Garage Manager. She keeps the apprentices firmly in line. Precious feels quite confident about leaving her in charge while she herself travels to the farm of the Government official to investigate the poisoning.

In The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Makutsi decides to expand the agency by operating a typing school in her spare time in the evenings. She herself graduated from the Botswana Secretarial College with a mark of ninety seven percent and so she is well aware of how important it is to have the ability to type. A lot of men are unable to type and feel ashamed when they go to work and are faced with a computer that demands that they type at it. Surely, reasons Mma Makutsi, she could teach such men to type and earn extra, much needed money. Also, a new detective agency called Satisfaction Guaranteed has opened in the town and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is feeling the pressure of competition.

The Full Cupboard of Life finds Precious Ramotswe wondering just when she and Mr J. L. B. Matekoni are going to get married. They have been engaged for a long time but Mr Matekoni is showing no signs of naming the day. However Mr Matekoni has other things on his mind. Mma Potokwani has asked him to help raise funds for her orphanage and wants him to do something so terrifying as a fund raiser that he really does not know which way to turn! Meanwhile Precious Ramotswe has a fascinating case to investigate. A wealthy woman has asked her to look into the backgrounds of her suitors in order to determine which (if any) of them love her for herself rather than for her money. And Precious Ramotswe herself is, of course, a very intuitive woman…

After gorging myself on the utterly wonderful books of Alexander McCall Smith, I felt the need for science fiction in my life and so I turned to The Wild Blue and the Gray by William Saunders. It’s an alternate history novel set during the first world war. The Independent Confederate States of America has gone to the aid of its old ally Britain and, along with her, has become bogged down in the stalemate of the Battle of the Somme. Amos Ninekiller, of the Cherokee Nation joins the battle as a fighter pilot and the novel concerns itself with his exploits in the air.

As a novel about the futility of the first world war, this is a superb book. It captures the mood perfectly and dramatises the conflict without flinching from the terrible truth of just what it meant to be a fighter pilot in 1916. As a science fiction novel it is much less successful. While the politics of an independent Confederate nation are important to the background of the novel, Saunders never really does very much with the idea. The story could easily be re-written as a simple historical novel without any loss at all. The alternative history aspects are merely window-dressing and their ultimate significance is small.

Robert Reed’s Down The Bright Way starts off brilliantly. The Bright is a pathway linking all the multitude of Earths in a multitude of different universes. Nobody knows who built the Bright. A group of scientists on one of the myriad Earths stumbled across it by accident and they travel the Bright exploring all the different manifestations of Earth, hunting for the Makers. They call themselves the Founders and they recruit people from the Earths to help them in their quest. These people are known as Wanderers.

It’s a superb conceit, true sense of wonder SF and Reed makes the most of the idea. Towards the end the novel starts to degenerate into cliché as the bad guys attempt to subvert and possibly destroy the mission and even the Bright itself. But up until then it really is quite wonderful. This is one of Reed’s very early novels, which has been republished in a new edition. I suspect he might be more firmly in control of his material were he to re-write it today. But even with all its flaws it remains well worth reading.

Ever since the human race came into being in the depths of the primordial soup, men have been faced with a tremendously difficult problem - how on earth will they ever manage to get their end away? The average male is completely inept at this and as a result he spends most of his life bent double with sexual deprivation.

Rumour has it that back in the stone age, when life was much simpler than it is today, a caveman needing to get his leg over would simply club a passing female down, grab hold of her hair, and drag her off into his cave. I'm not sure that I believe this folk tale since I once saw a cartoon in Mad Magazine which revealed the genuine method.

The cartoon depicted a hairy cave man standing idly, just hanging out with his mates. Then a lady passed him by, and the caveman raised his arm high into the air, thereby exposing his shaggy, fragrant armpit to the world. The lady, struck directly in the nostrils, immediately fainted and was then dragged away to a conveniently located cave.

In my youth, I tried this technique - with a distinct lack of success. I can only assume that I didn't really wait long enough after my shower before exposing my armpit to my lady of choice. Perhaps I should have measured the interval between showers in months rather than mere weeks.

I was sure that university would offer more opportunity than school had done. Initial impressions were promising. Brian was in the shower one day (he was not an admirer of the caveman technique). He sang lustily as he soaped himself, for he had a very good singing voice and was extremely proud of it. His girl friend Laura arrived, heard the song coming from the shower, and immediately took off her clothes and joined him there. They sang a duet, her voice blending with his in perfect harmony. He got a lot of brownie points for that, though there seemed to be no immediately obvious way that anyone else could benefit from his technique. None of the rest of us could sing.

Ice skating seemed to offer a lot more promise.

John was an expert ice skater. He could glide backwards, just like real ice skaters do and he could twirl himself to a stop in a dramatically impressive shower of ice crystals as his skates dug deep into the rink. The ladies found this absolutely fascinating and he was constantly surrounded by admirers as he showed off on the ice. All we had to do, we reasoned, was to tie a rope around him and send him out on to the ice to perform. Every few minutes we could pull him back in, peel off the tottie and then send him out again. It seemed as though we might be able to guarantee ourselves an inexhaustible lifetime supply of tottie! What a cunning plan!

There is, however, a considerable difference between theory and practice and the cunning plan quickly developed a fatal flaw. John's complex skating patterns simply caused the rope to weave itself into complicated knots all over his body, whereupon he fell over, immobile and rigid. Oh the ignominy! His charisma disappeared and all the tottie vanished without trace.

Leslie Thomas has written several novels about the build up to the D-Day invasion of France by the allies in the second world war. Waiting For The Day is the latest of these. The bulk of the book is taken up with events in the lives of several characters in the months leading up to the invasion. Martin Paget has been on several undercover missions in occupied France, many of them hilariously (and sometimes tragically) bungled. Sergeant Harris is an artillery officer training on Salisbury Plain. He is worried about how his young wife is coping without him. Private Warren and Private Blackie are in his troop. US Officer Harry Miller is coordinating the training. Fred Weber is a German sergeant who has fought on the Russian Front. Invalided out with wounds, he is now a cook on the island of Jersey.

Inexorably all these people are drawn together on the beaches of France where the great battle begins.

Thomas’s great strength as a writer is his ability to see the funny side of the war without ever losing sight of the seriousness as well. Tragedy and triumph are two sides of the same coin to him and when he tosses that coin, the reader seldom knows which way up it will land. Thus we can laugh when Paget is flown to France in a Lysander which crashes into a sheep when it lands. The pilot of the plane dies in the crash. Everyone eats roast mutton that night. Yum, yum. That’s war for you.

The bulk of the book concerns the preparations for war and it is full of the typical Thomas magic, by turns extremely funny and extremely sad (often wrenchingly so). But when the action finally moves to France as the invasion takes place, the book becomes very rushed and the exploits of the many characters are dismissed so briefly that it feels unsatisfying. It was almost as though Thomas had reached his allotted page count and had to end the book as fast as possible. (There is a brief, one page appendix called "What Happened To…" that talks in outline about the future course of the lives of some of the characters which only serves to reinforce that impression). A pity really. I’d been enjoying the book a lot until then.

Andrew Taylor has written a series of detective novels (six so far) known as the Lydmouth Mysteries. They are set in a village called Lydmouth some time in the 1950s. A policeman called Detective inspector Thornhill and a journalist called Jill Francis investigate various crimes.

The novels are primarily stories about social attitudes. I grew up in a village in England in the 1950s. Post war austerity was coming to an end (the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, proclaimed "You’ve never had it so good.") but the shadow of the war still lingered and the parents of many of my friends had served in it. I remember it as a grey time (even the television was black and white) and also a very simple time in comparison to today. We were much more insular then and local events took precedence over things that happened elsewhere. Local life loomed large. I recognise so many of the institutions and the attitudes in the way of life described in the books. Taylor has conjured up an era magnificently.

Not content with that, he also uses his books as a vehicle to examine just what we mean by crime and just what makes a criminal. This is far less black and white than you might think. In An Air That Kills workmen find the skeleton of a baby in a disused cess pit when they demolish a row of old houses. Evidence suggests that the body dates from the nineteenth century and a local historian unearths the tale of a Victorian woman who was eventually hanged for the murder of a child. Perhaps this was another of her victims. But all is not what it seems – there are more modern ramifications and another death in the village makes Inspector Thornhill very suspicious. It looks like an accident. Even if it was deliberate, there are good reasons for everyone to pretend that it was an accident. Technically perhaps it was a crime, but morally it was not. Thornhill vacillates.

The Lover Of The Grave opens with another death. A man is found hanging in a tree, his trousers round his ankles. Is it suicide, murder or accidental death resulting from some bizarre sexual practice? To begin with it is not even clear who the victim is – the initial identification turns out to be wrong.

At last we find out that the victim was a teacher at a small local school. Thornhill is told that he was well respected, even liked, and was in line for a promotion. His death is very upsetting. But there are cracks in the façade and soon Thornhill starts thinking of the dead man as a much more unpleasant person than he first believed. There are indications of blackmail and seduction. Perhaps there were good reason to want him dead.

The books are deeply subtle but their moral concerns never get in the way of the story. Some of the Lydmouth books are traditional whodunnit mysteries but others are more concerned with the why than with the who, and even when the crime is out in the open and the criminal is known there is still an exciting story to be told.

Perhaps the times really were simpler then or perhaps the complications were all in different areas so we only think of the times as simple. Today morality is more pragmatic than once it was and we see fewer absolutes (and therefore some would like to return to those simpler times when we had more certainty about what was right and what was wrong). But you can’t unwind the clock, and anyway retrospective vision is rose-coloured.

Taylor knows this only too well and so he gives us a portrait of an era, beautifully painted in exacting detail. Yes, yes – that’s what it was like. And deep inside we know that it still is like that. Only the surface changes. These are books to make you think. I believe they call it art.

Nowadays I work for a living and the caveman technique is frowned upon during office hours for it disturbs the people around me. Daily showers are de rigueur. I still can't sing and I do not know anybody who can skate. It would appear that I stand no chance at all of getting my ashes hauled.

However, quite by chance, I have discovered the holy grail, the secret of ultimate success, the keys to the gates of the universe, the knack. And I am going to share this secret with you all.

Just call me a saint.

It happened like this. I was working away from home. It had been a busy day and I went back to my hotel feeling quite tired. I was meeting some friends for dinner later that night and I knew that we would be going to a reasonably upmarket restaurant. I decided not to bother getting changed and kept my suit and tie on.

Sue and James came to pick me up and as we drove to the restaurant, James and I played our usual let's out-geek each other games while Sue looked on tolerantly. She knows that we are both still little boys at heart, though only one of us (me) wears long trousers.

"I'm loading Debian Linux on to a laptop computer," said James proudly. "I only need seven CDs."

"Aha!" I said delightedly. "I use Redhat Linux. Three CDs."

"Oh gloom!" declaimed James in tragic tones. "Yours is smaller than mine."

Size matters, don't let anybody tell you otherwise. And when you're a geek, small is extraordinarily beautiful.

I entered the restaurant in an extremely good mood, glowing with bonhomie, secure in the knowledge that everything of mine was the smallest of all.

It was a Thai restaurant with a menu crammed with exotic and unpronounceable delicacies. I ordered a conservative dish, a stir fry with ginger and spring onions. Sue ordered something which memory insists was called oom-pah oom-pah stick-it-up-your-joom-pah, but I'm sure that's not quite right. It was a fearsomely pink pork sausage with flakes of raw chilli sprinkled upon it and served on a bed of salad. Apparently the bits of sausage in between the chilli flakes were very tasty.

James ordered flaming chicken.

The waiter stalked across the restaurant to our table, plate held high. Upon the plate sat a whole roast chicken impaled upon a vicious spike through its bottom so that it sat up and begged (wouldn't you?). It was smothered in something flammable and as he walked towards us the waiter clicked a cigarette lighter close to the unfortunate bird. Flames sprang several feet into the air, almost removing the waiter's eyebrows. Fortunately he was prepared for this and had leaned backwards as he ignited the chicken. He placed it on our table with a dramatic flourish. It burned for about half a minute then the flames slowly died down. For the next minute or so it continued to burp and fart, and blue tinged flame spluttered from every orifice. Eventually it lay quiescent and James began to eat it.

"What's it like?" I asked.

He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "Tastes like chicken," he said.

Extremely violent books populated almost exclusively by psychopaths appear to be a singularly American phenomenon. James Crumley has been described as the heir of Chandler and Hammett, writing hard boiled private eye novels of unremitting violence, doom and gloom enlivened by a savage wit. The Mexican Tree Duck is typical.

As the novel opens, C. W. Sughrue and his lawyer are manhandling a juke box onto the railway tracks. It contains music that Sughrue hates and he thrills to the sound the juke box makes as the train smashes it to fragments.

Later Sughrue takes a debt collecting job offered to him by his lawyer. A motor cycle thug called Norman (one of Sughrue’s old friends) has stolen a tank of tropical fish from two fat twins and they want the money, or their fish back. Sughrue is rather bemused to discover that not only are the twins fish fanciers, they also have a huge collection of (probably) illegal armaments, including a Sherman tank. The psychopathic Norman is eventually persuaded to settle for the fish, though it takes a lot of bullets to convince him.

Norman asks Sughrue to help him find the woman who he is convinced is mother. He spins a sorry tale of his childhood. Sughrue, Norman, the twins and Sughrue’s lawyer go hunting. Lots of people die, lots get injured.

I’m not sure why I enjoy books like this so much. I’ve met a few violent people in my life and they scare me. But I don’t lose any sleep over it for by and large we live in a society that frowns upon the self-indulgence of extreme violence as the answer to every problem and when these people lift their head above the water they tend to get it lopped off. The police, and societal expectations keep us safe. Mostly. But novels like The Mexican Tree Duck pay no attention to that. The police barely exist (and when they do are often more violent than the protagonists) and absolutely everybody expects that when tempers flair the only sensible thing to do is resort to guns and knives. There are no nice people in books like these and the cynicism and world-weariness positively leak out of the covers. It’s completely unrealistic. Perhaps that is why it attracts me. I always did prefer unreality to reality. That’s why I’m a science fiction fan as well.

James Lee Burke’s novels are in a similar vein. Last Car To Elysian Fields is the latest in a long series of novels about Dave Robichaux and Clete Purcel. It’s hard to tell which of these two people is more violent, more psychopathic. Probably Purcel, but I only say that because the novels are told from Robichaux’s viewpoint and so we see inside his head a lot. It doesn’t excuse his behaviour but at least we see him trying to control it. At least he knows what he is doing is wrong even if sometimes he can’t help himself. Purcel, on the other hand, appears to have no understanding at all of the difference between right and wrong and that puts him completely beyond the pale.

James Lee Burke writes hauntingly beautiful and lyrical prose about the ugliest things. It’s an odd and somewhat unsettling combination.

The meal was pleasant and so was the conversation. I managed to avoid spilling anything messy on my shirt, tie and trousers - a big plus. Soon no food remained. We collected our stuff together and went to pay the bill. As I walked past one of the other tables, a voice said,

"Ahhhh! What a wonderful tie!"

The tie that I was wearing that day is one of my favourites. It has a picture of a very large, very smug looking grey and white cat on it. Clutched in the cat's mouth is a freshly killed mouse (of the computer variety, you understand), with its cables dangling forlornly. The whole ensemble is unbearably cute, particularly for people who are owned by cats.

The voice belonged to a stunningly beautiful lady.

"Thank you," I said. "I'm glad you like it. I'm very fond of it."

"It's just gorgeous," she said, quite overcome. "My name's Julie." She looked at me expectantly.

"Hello Julie. I'm Alan." We shook hands. Her hand was cool and her nails were lovingly manicured and coated with clear polish. Reluctantly I returned her hand to her.

"I have to go," I said. "My friends are waiting."

"Aha!" said Sue as I rejoined her and James at the till, "you are wearing The Tie That Pulls." Sue is the only person I know who can pronounce capital letters.

"Indeed I am," I said. "It never fails. Whenever I wear this tie hordes of friendly ladies appear from nowhere and fall worshipfully at my feet. It's quite exhausting. I'm not as young as I used to be."

"It's a valuable tie," said Sue. "I know men who would give anything to own The Tie That Pulls. It is spoken of in legend and in myth. They say that it is woven from thread spun from the very fabric of the universe. Casanova wore that tie and so did Valentino. It is said that Kennedy had it briefly round his neck before Camelot crumbled into the dust at Dallas."

"You are right," I said. "It is written in the hidden books of lore that he who can extract the Tie That Pulls from the hidden Wardrobe of Desire will surely be laid, end to end. Many have tried. Few have succeeded. Dark were the paths I trod to retrieve this tie, and terrible were the sights I saw."

"Has it been worth it?" asked Sue.

"Oh yes," I said.

Alexander McCall Smith  Morality For Beautiful Girls Polygon
Alexander McCall Smith The Kalahari Typing School For Men Polygon
Alexander McCall Smith The Full Cupboard of Life Polygon
William Saunders  The Wild Blue and the Gray Wildside
Robert Reed  Down The Bright Way Orbit
Leslie Thomas  Waiting For The Day Heinemann
Andrew Taylor  An Air That Kills Coronet
Andrew Taylor  The Lover of The Grave NEL
James Crumley  The Mexican Tree Duck Picador
James Lee Burke  Last Car To Elysian Fields Simon & Schuster
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