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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (centesimus)

Beelzebub Down Under

In order to travel from Wellington to Melbourne it is necessary to persuade the aeroplane to take off and fly. The aeroplane that we were sitting in was demonstrating a marked reluctance to indulge itself in such a controversial idea.

"I’m sorry for the delay," announced the pilot, "but the engineers want to perform some final checks on the ailerons and flaps."

Through the cabin windows I could see the wing of the plane. Interesting and complicated swathes of metal rippled hither and yon upon it as the wing distorted itself in obedience to mysterious commands from large oily gentlemen who scratched their heads at it. Eventually they pronounced themselves satisfied and the plane taxied out to the runway. Our Australian holiday was about to begin…

The plane roared into the sky. I watched Wellington airport shrink away to almost nothing as we climbed rapidly. Then the engines seemed to hiccup briefly and the plane dropped like a stone for a few hundred feet. My tummy tried to climb out of my ears and I felt a freezing terror as the ground loomed close again. But then, just in time, the throaty roar of the engines resumed as if nothing had happened. We soon regained the height we had lost.

The cabin crew poured food and drink into us to calm us down and it wasn’t long before Australia stretched out beneath us, brown and sere. We landed at Melbourne without incident. We taxied to the gate and stopped. A man walked out and peered thoughtfully at one of the engines.

Everybody scrambled to get their hand luggage from the overhead lockers and then waited impatiently for the door to open. Through the cabin window I could see the air bridge edging its way towards the forward door of the plane. It gently kissed the side of the plane, missing the door by several feet. It slowly backed away and tried again. This time it came in far too low. It bounced uncertainly for a while as the driver tried to raise it up. He failed miserably and the air bridge retreated all the way back to the gate and then came forward in slow jerks to try again. It was almost twenty minutes before the air bridge finally managed to attach itself.

"The driver must be a trainee," I said to Robin. "Perhaps they should have stuck ‘L’ plates on to it."

"I can’t hear you," said Robin. "I’m not wearing my glasses."

Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss is subtitled The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation and it consists of a series of hysterically funny essays about punctuation, its use and misuse (with special attention paid to the apostrophe).

Before I read this book I would never have believed that an erudite essay on the placement of the comma could have induced in me such fits of the giggles. Never in my wildest dreams would I have believed that the semi-colon would prove to be such a rib-ticklingly hilarious symbol. I do not exaggerate when I say that this book made me cry with laughter.

But at the same time my overly pedantic soul was moved with profound gratitude to find that somebody else in the world thought that these things were important and deserved to be said. I’m sure Lynne Truss will forgive me when I say that from now on I will look to her for support.

The abuse, of both; punctuation and grammar leaves’ far too many sentence’s. Incomplete and harder to understand.

In the two books Winston’s War and Never Surrender (and in other books yet to come), Michael Dobbs has set himself the task of telling the tale of Winston Churchill’s leadership of the English people during the Second World War. Unusually for this kind of thing, these books are not a hagiography. Quite the reverse. Churchill is revealed as insightful and politically deft, the one man who realised what a disaster Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement really was, and the one man who was in a position to do something about it. But Churchill is also shown, warts and all, as petty minded, often vindictive and all too human. And it is this more than anything else that makes these novels ring true.

Dobbs admits that he is writing fiction and not fact. But the facts cannot be avoided; the historical events did take place and the people involved in them were real (my own uncle was one of the soldiers evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, the defining event of the second novel). Fiction can still tell us the truth even when it lies. Perhaps things didn’t happen quite this way (perhaps they should have). None of that really matters; there are higher truths than these.

Dobbs gives us a portrait of an era, a portrait of a man and he has done it definitively. I found the books to be utterly compelling reading. And I very much doubt that Churchill is spinning in his grave – if there is even a grain of reality in the picture that Dobbs paints of Churchill, I’m absolutely convinced that down there in his grave, Churchill is having a party and handing out brandy, champagne and fine cigars. I’m absolutely certain that he would have hugely enjoyed these novels.

We were in Melbourne to see Robin’s sister Wendy and her three year old daughter Ella. Wendy drove us around in a huge four wheel drive monster machine that she referred to as "the truck". It was fitted with an altimeter so that we always knew how high we were driving, but since Melbourne is one of the flattest places in the world, the dial sat at zero for the entire holiday.

We drove out to Brighton, one of the more salubrious suburbs. Robin and Ella went to dig holes in the beach and paddle in the sea. Wendy and I sat in a nearby café and watched them.

Flies buzzed enthusiastically around the café. Corpses piled up in their hundreds on the window sills and overflowed on to the floor where they crunched underfoot. A man came and sucked them up with a vacuum cleaner. Presumably he took the bodies back to the kitchen to bake them into the spotted dick. He left a lot of corpses behind. Perhaps they weren’t ripe enough for the spotted dick yet.

Patrons throughout the café were doing the Australian Wave – the hand brushed languidly through the air in front of the face when the flies got too close. I could trace the paths of the flies across the room as first one table of people waved, and then the next and then the next as the flies advanced.

Robin and Ella came back from the beach, red faced, exhausted and happy. We piled into the truck, and Wendy drove us round to show us some of the sights of Melbourne. Ella was very tired after all her hard work on the beach.

"I want to go home now," she said.

Wendy was determined to show off her city to us and she didn’t want to drive straight home. "We’re going home the special way," she said to Ella.

"Oh no!" wailed Ella, heartbroken. "Not the special way!"

I think she’d been taken that way before.

Melbourne was extraordinarily hot, humid and sweaty. Molten people flowed down the gutters as the high, hot sun beat down relentlessly. The air conditioning in the truck was a blessed relief.

"I wonder what the temperature is?" I asked Robin.

"I don’t know," said Robin. "I’m not wearing my watch."

One of the books that I took to Australia was chosen mainly for its size. I wanted something that would last me for a long time. The Collected Mystery Stories by Lawrence Block contains 882 pages of quite small print. It also contains 71 short stories and an introduction. Unfortunately my plan to occupy great swathes of time with this tome came to naught because I read it in a couple of almighty gulps and instantly became a fervent Lawrence Block admirer. There isn’t a bad story in there – every single one of them gripped me from woe to go. There are cleverly plotted stories, human observation stories, downright disgusting stories, extremely weird stories and astonishingly clever stories (and some stories are all of these at the same time!). What’s not to admire?

I’d been sort of lukewarm about Block before this. I’d read some of his comedy novels about the burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr and mildly enjoyed them, nothing more than that. But this short story collection just set off a fire in my brain and I HAD to have more Lawrence Block. Fortunately he’s been writing prolifically since the 1970s so there is a lot of Lawrence Block to be had. Unfortunately the Australian bookshops didn’t have any of it. Even the New Zealand bookshops only had a thin sprinkling. Huge South American River to the rescue! Even as we speak, convoys of freighters are groaning their way over the Pacific stacked to the gunnels with Lawrence Block books for me to read. Stay tuned to this channel.

My search for Block in the local shops was not entirely without success. Hit Man and Hit List are two novels about John Keller, an assassin. An old man lives in White Plains. He takes orders to kill from anyone who can afford his fees. When a job comes in, his assistant Dot rings Keller in New York. Keller does the job, collects his fee and usually uses the money to buy stamps for his collection.

It’s an unpromising start. How can an assassin be a sympathetic viewpoint character? How can killing for money sound like an honourable profession? Block manages to surmount both these obstacles with ease and the stories about Keller are a sheer delight. The books abound with witty dialogue (Block is enormously good at witty dialogue) and clever plot twists. However I suspect that he finds the stories about Keller very hard to write because there are only these two books in the series.

Block is obviously far more at home with Matt Scudder, the hero of his most voluminous series. There are 15 novels about Scudder. So far I have managed to track down only numbers 9 and 10 and Scudder is very well defined by this point in the series.

Scudder is an ex-policeman and an ex-alcoholic. I gather that in the earlier books he is still a drinker, but by the time I caught up with the series he is definitely on the wagon. Much is made of his sympathy for and understanding of the plight of the serious drinker and it is often an important plot point.

Scudder stopped being a policeman when he shot at a pair of escaping thieves. He killed one and wounded another and he received a commendation for what he had done. Unfortunately one of his bullets ricocheted and killed a seven year old girl. Scudder has a conscience. It’s one of the reasons why he was a drinker. Nowadays he is a sort of unlicensed private eye – unlicensed in the sense that he just does favours for friends and sometimes they give him money. Whenever that happens, Scudder pays a tithe. A tenth of whatever he receives goes into the poor box at the church and he burns a candle for a seven year old girl who will never be eight.

The early books are (by all reputation) quite dark but the later books (well, numbers 9 and 10 anyway) definitely have their lighter moments. The same witty dialogue that I’ve noted before and a whole host of hangers on, weird and contrary, friends of Scudder’s who sometimes prove invaluable on his cases. They are more than just spear carriers. Although they are sometimes only sketched lightly, they still seem full bodied and gloriously, eccentrically alive. Block is also extremely good at characterisation.

As private eyes go, Scudder is unremarkable. He has no great deductive ability, no piercing insight into the thread of logic connecting seemingly unconnected facts. He just plods away like a bulldog until something breaks, a thread unravels, bullets fly, knives are wielded.

Sometimes he goes to unsavoury places and talks to unsavoury people. Number 9 is about snuff films, number 10 is about a kidnapper who mutilates his victims in rather horrible ways. Despicable people are shown to be human too. One of the heroes of number 10 is a big time drug dealer whose wife has been kidnapped and murdered, but he comes across as a very sympathetic character indeed and you can’t help liking him. Block is enormously good at making the reader like and approve of unlikeable people (look what he did for Keller) and it is a large part of his talent.

These are very good books. Often very funny books and always very clever and insightful books. You can’t go wrong, it would seem, when you chip something off the Block.

From Melbourne we flew to Perth. At least, that was the plan. However the plane just sat on the tarmac at Melbourne airport and showed no signs whatsoever of taking off.

"I’m sorry for the delay," announced the pilot, "but we’ve got a leak in the coffee brewer and we aren’t allowed to take off until the engineers have repaired it. What’s more, it’s the rear coffee brewer. Very tricky, trying to fly with a leak in the rear coffee brewer."

A man with a wrench strode purposefully to the rear of the plane. Sounds of plumbing permeated the air and then he left again, looking pleased with himself. The crew closed the cabin door and we taxied down the runway and took off for Perth.

Every time I visit Western Australia, I am reminded all over again what a strangely surreal place it is.

We drove along a dual carriageway. As with all dual carriageways, there were regular openings in the dividing barrier to allow cars to cross over and change direction, should they care to do so. And then we saw a sign. In huge, official letters it said:

Median Opening Closed

And sure enough – the next opening wasn’t there!

Another sign said:

Audible Edge Lining

And sure enough, the edge of the road was lined with a rough undulating strip that made the car vibrate noisily should the wheels accidentally stray on to it. A good encouragement to straighten up and fly right. After several miles of this, the strip disappeared and another sign said:

End Of Audible Edge Lining

It didn’t seem to have occurred to anybody that I could work this out for myself by virtue of the fact that the lining wasn’t there any more.

There were a lot of roadworks. I could tell when the roadworks began because a sign said:


and another sign indicated a reduced speed limit. When the roadworks finished, a sign said:

End Roadworks

I could never decide whether this sign was giving me information or an instruction. Or perhaps it was a banner that a protest march had left behind.

As we drove along the main highway, the occasional minor road led off from it. One of these roads was called Fifty One Road. Later on we spotted another one. It was called Sixty Eight Road. But we didn’t pass seventeen other roads between these two. We only passed four.

Nobody in Western Australia ever throws anything away. They keep everything, just in case. This became quite obvious to me on the day that we visited the small town of Pinjarra. Two ancient logs lay in the middle of the lawn just outside the tearooms where we stopped for lunch. There was a plaque attached to one of the logs, and on the plaque the following message was engraved:

In about 1880 these Indian Teak logs were washed ashore
south of Mandurah. They were pulled over the sand hills to
the Herron homestead by a bullock team driven by Robert
Herron where they lay for the next 111 years.

The plaque was dated 15/10/91, so by the time I read it, the logs had been lying there for a further twelve years. For 123 years, nobody has been able to think of anything to do with the teak logs except attach a plaque to them commemorating that fact. But they are far too good to throw away. They might come in handy one day…

"I wonder how far it is from Mandurah to Pinjarra?" I asked Robin. "How far did those poor bullocks have to pull the logs?"

"I don’t know," said Robin. "I’m not wearing my hat."

I suppose I ought to review some SF books. Isn’t what this column is supposed to be about?

Robert Sheckley has a new collection of short stories out. It’s called Uncanny Tales and it’s pretty good. Long before Douglas Adams was even a gleam in his mother’s eye, Robert Sheckley was writing the definitive set of funny, clever stories that highlighted the foibles of humanity and the extreme silliness of simply being alive. Throughout the 1940s, the 1950s, and well into the 1960s, he wrote novel after novel and story after story which were described by one critic (Brian Aldiss) as "… Voltaire and soda". As a summary of Sheckley’s style and world view I don’t think that can be bettered.

I was never as enthusiastic about Douglas Adams as a lot of other people were. I’d seen and heard and read it all before. And no – before you misunderstand me – I am NOT accusing Adams of plagiarism. Adams was a complete original. It’s just that Adams and Sheckley both viewed the world in the same way and took the same huge delight in its idiosyncrasies.

Sheckley’s best work is hard to find these days. It is long out of print. And his reputation wasn’t helped at all by a few extremely dire "serious" novels that he published in the late 1970s. After a long silence, he popped up again a few years ago with a couple of entertaining (and somewhat dark) detective novels and now we have this new collection Uncanny Tales. All the stories are previously uncollected, but were mostly written in the 1990s and early 2000s and many of them were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, an extremely prestigious journal.

I’m pleased to be able to report that these are vintage Sheckley – quirky, eccentric and bizarre. Perhaps a little less of the Voltaire than once there was, perhaps a bit more of the soda. But great fun, nonetheless.

Robert Reed’s new novel Sister Alice is a fix-up from a series of stories and novelettes originally published in Isaac Asimov’s SF Magazine. Some millions of years in the future, we find that humanity is under the control of the descendants of a thousand individuals who were chosen in a moment of great crisis to form the stock of a governing council. Moreover, many of the early progenitors are still alive, for the secret of immortality is theirs. Not unnaturally they are extremely powerful beings, held in almighty awe as they pursue their own mysterious projects. Sister Alice herself is one of these people, one of the early members – number Twelve in fact – of the mighty Chamberlain family (a name with odd resonances for the British among us. Neville Chamberlain was a British Prime Minister who did not cover himself with glory. I wish that Reed had chosen a different name. But I quibble).

The book has a delightful premise but Reed doesn’t do much that is original with it. And his prose style is extremely annoying. He writes in an overblown and vague manner and he is so imprecise that often it is very hard to figure out just what is going on. Motives are concealed and information is withheld from the reader. It is annoying.

For example, the first story concerns a visit that Alice is making to the Chamberlain ancestral home. She arrives in a never quite explained manner and immediately hides herself in her room, refusing to meet anybody except Ord, who is one of the younger members of the family. The reasons for this behaviour remain mysterious. What does become clear is that Alice is having an attack of conscience. She has been to the galactic core (we don’t know why) doing something or other (we don’t know what) and some sort of catastrophe has happened (we don’t know exactly what has happened, there’s a lot of hand waving here, but it was horrible – no doubt about that) and she has returned home to lick her wounds. The galaxy might be in some sort of unspecified danger and since she, and everyone who matters, is immortal, the destruction of the galaxy will happen in her lifetime and she doesn’t like it. And neither will anybody else of course. And it’s all her fault. Lots of wailing and beating of breasts.

It’s all very unsatisfactory and not very original either (Larry Niven did the exploding galactic core much better more than thirty years ago). Reed just uses vague prose to conceal the essential paucity of his imagination. Stick flowers round it and sprinkle it with perfume. Maybe nobody will smell the rotting meat.

I’ve really liked Reed’s other books – but I’m sorry, I didn’t like Sister Alice.

Perth was hugely hot. Every day I felt as if I had been hit in the face with a red hot bar of metal. Melbourne had been hot, but Perth was incandescent. I could feel the fillings in my teeth melting and my toenails frying in sweat. Each day seemed hotter than the last, each night more sultry.

Friends from New Zealand rang us up. "It’s ever so hot here," said Annette. "It’s 29 degrees!"

"We had 29 degrees," said Robin. "We passed through it on our way to 40 degrees."

Perth had its hottest day for six years. Even the locals felt mildly uncomfortable. I felt like my blood was boiling in my veins. Puffs of steam came out of my ears. When I went to the loo, the urine evaporated before it reached the toilet bowl.

"Let’s go south to Margaret River," said Robin. "It will be cooler there. We can visit my sister Jenny. And if we drive down, we can spend a few hours with the air conditioning in the car turned right up!"

And so we did.

Margaret River proved to be just as hot as Perth but with the added disadvantage of thick clouds of flies desperately seeking moisture from all the people. Everybody did the Australian Wave all day long. Flies creepy-crawly tickling in your ears and up your nose. Buzz, buzz, buzz.

A fly flew into Robin’s mouth and she swallowed reflexively and then spat. A leg and a wing came out but the rest went down her throat. Throughout the day she kept burping at irregular intervals.

"Tastes like fly," she said in disgusted tones.

Robin’s sister Jenny owns a 50 acre block of native bush where she encourages the growth of native plants. She harvests the seeds for sale and generally does her best to conserve and protect the land. She showed us round proudly. In the centre of the block was an open area of dry, dusty earth, pounded down by the relentless sun. A small plastic toy boat lay forlorn, encrusted with dirt.

"In the winter," said Jenny, "we get a fair bit of rain and this area becomes a shallow lake. It’s called Lake Jenny. And the boat is called HMAS Jenny. She patrols the lake and keeps it safe from pirates and piranha fish."

"I wonder how deep the lake gets," I asked Robin.

"I’m not sure," said Robin. "I’m not wearing my earrings"

I’m now up to date with Andrew Taylor’s Lydmouth series of detective stories, though I’m sure there will be more to come. The novels are all set in a small town in England in the 1950s. Events in one of the novels I’ve just read allow me to date that novel precisely to 1952.

One the one hand, the books are a completely convincing picture of small town living in claustrophobic and conservative (small and large ‘C’) 1950s England. On the other hand they examine the morality of crime. Is it possible that something technically illegal actually does some good? Is the legally immoral actually moral in special circumstances? On the gripping hand, they show how a love affair can spoil a friendship, how much it can hurt. The ramifications spread far beyond the lovers themselves. The last book finishes with Jill going away from Lydmouth, leaving her lover Richard Thornhill behind. Neither of them want it to happen, but there are too many complications for love to flourish in that climate of opinion, at that time in history. I’m sure there will be other books and I’m sure she will be back. But given the times and given the people that they are, it was inevitable.

The books are absolute gems. Every facet sparkles. Taylor does everything well – the crimes are interesting, the motives are believable. The people involved are real people, not Agatha Christie ciphers. The sense of history and time-binding is beautifully done. The love story is convincing. You can’t go wrong with these books.

Ian Rankin is a hugely popular writer. His stories about Rebus have been given the ultimate accolade of their own TV series! He makes a very comfortable living from his writing, thank you very much. But it wasn’t always so – there was a time when he was a struggling young novelist. Orion have recently republished one of Rankin’s very early novels. First editions of The Watchman were selling for fabulous sums on the internet (when you could find a copy; it had a very small print run). Now you can read it for a reasonable price. And if you do, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. All the talent that made the later novels such best sellers was there in the early days. The Watchman may be an early novel by a very young writer, but it is still a damn good one!

Miles Flint works for one of the shadowy branches of the intelligence service. His job is watch and listen. He spies on people and reports back to his superiors. He likes his job – he doesn’t want the rewards of promotion, he doesn’t want to be involved in the action. He wants to sit on the sidelines, watching the dramas unfold.

But even the passive nature of his job has its disturbing side. Miles loses contact with a suspect, and the consequences are quite horrifying. Already in a sensitive state because of this, Miles becomes too involved with the watching of a young Irish woman. His own marriage is crumbling beneath him and some temptations are too tempting to resist.

A trip to Belfast with a watching brief becomes a trip into terror and murder and soon Miles is running from both the IRA and his own organisation. How will the voyeur survive this?

The plot is complex, full of double dealing by people who are not what they seem. But that is de rigueur in a spy novel. The ending is extremely satisfying and the tension never lets up. It’s not a great book, but it tells a thrilling and involving tale. It’s certainly head and shoulders above the kind of competition that it had when it was first published.

Playing With Fire is the fourteenth novel in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series. If you’ve read the others you will know what to expect in this one (and you won’t be wrong). If you haven’t read the others, you’ll find it to be an extraordinarily good (though traditional) detective novel.

Much more interesting is his novel Caedmon’s Song. Again, the blurb bills it as a detective novel, but it is a stand alone book, not related to anything else he has written and it is more of a psychological drama than anything else.

The book opens with Martha’s arrival in Whitby. She takes a room in a cheap boarding house. She hasn’t got a lot of money, and she won’t be there long.

The next chapter introduces Kirsten who is sitting in a pub with some university friends. They leave at closing time to go to a party.

In the next chapter, Martha explores Whitby. She is looking for somebody.

In the next chapter Kirsten attends the party. After a time she leaves. By herself.

Martha wonders if perhaps she will have to look further afield than Whitby.

Kirsten walks through the park and is attacked.

It soon becomes clear that Martha and Kirsten are the same person. The Martha chapters are set in the present and the Kirsten chapters are flashbacks. Kirsten has been raped and horribly injured (the extent of the injuries are quite graphically described). She survives the attack, but some other girls have not been so lucky. It would seem that there is a serial killer on the loose. Martha has a good idea who he might be and has come to look for him.

The book examines the reintegration of Kirsten’s personality and life after the horrific events, and the disintegration of Martha’s as she comes to grips with the reality of what has happened and what she proposes to do about it.

If this one doesn’t scare the willies out of you, nothing will. It is an unrelenting and extremely frightening look inside the skulls of some very disturbed (and very disturbing) people.

Sometimes Australia can be magical. One warm twilight evening we were driving home from Jenny’s along a quiet country road when a pair of kangaroos came bounding across the field on our right. One of them bounced into the road just in front of the car and casually lolopped along ahead of us, keeping us company. Its friend remained in the field and stared at us in horror.

"Oh, oh, oh! I need to get out into the road, but there’s a roaring monster there. Oh, oh, oh! What can I do?"

Eventually the roo in front of us decided that it had travelled far enough down the road and it veered left, off the road and into the bush. As we passed it by, I could see it looking around for its companion. It seemed puzzled.

"Funny – I’m sure there was someone else with me when I started out. I remember it distinctly. I wonder where they went?"

We drove away and left them to it. I hope they got back together again. I’m sure they did.

"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" asked Robin.

"I’ve no idea," I said. "I’m not wearing any underpants."

Lynne Truss Eats Shoots & Leaves Profile Books
Michael Dobbs Winston’s War Harper Collins
Michael Dobbs Never Surrender Harper Collins
Lawrence Block The Collected Mystery Stories Orion
Lawrence Block Hit Man Orion
Lawrence Block Hit List Orion
Lawrence Block A Dance At The Slaughterhouse Orion
Lawrence Block A Walk Among The Tombstones Orion
Robert Sheckley  Uncanny Tales Five Star
Robert Reed Sister Alice Orbit
Andrew Taylor The Suffocating Night NEL
Andrew Taylor Where Roses Fade NEL
Andrew Taylor Death’s Own Door NEL
Ian Rankin The Watchman Orion
Peter Robinson Playing With Fire Macmillan
Peter Robinson Caedmon’s Song Macmillan
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