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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (bona dictum)

Alan and Robin Unpack

"We’ll deliver six cubic metres of stuff next Tuesday," said the lady from the moving company.

"Fantastic," said Robin. "All my things from Australia have arrived at last." She glowed with enthusiasm. "Now all we have to do is find somewhere to put them."

I poked gloomily at the wall of the house. Nothing had changed overnight. It still wasn’t elastic.

"I don’t know where they can go," I said. "All of the cupboards are full."

"True," explained Robin. "But the cupboards are full of your stuff. If we empty them out, we can fill them with my stuff. Seems straightforward enough to me."

"We’d better hire a skip," I said. And so it was done.

Fifty years ago Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis was published to universal acclaim. Immediately Amis was catapulted into the front ranks of the generation of writers who came to be known as the angry young men, a label that Amis hated and repudiated all his life long. I read the novel about thirty five years ago, and the fiftieth anniversary prompted me to return to it to see how well it had aged.

It wasn't nearly as funny as I remembered, and neither is it as funny as its reputation (and the blurb) would have you believe. What little humour exists is generally at the level of low farce and is vaguely embarrassing. Jim, staying as a weekend guest at his boss's house, falls asleep with a cigarette and burns a huge hole in his bedclothes. Rather than confess his stupidity, he takes his razor and cuts all the burnt bits away (leaving even more gaping holes) and remakes his bed with the huge holes concealed at the bottom. Then, as soon as he can arrange an excuse to leave, he runs away from the house before his hostess can discover his social faux pas. Of course the damage cannot be kept secret for ever and it becomes a weapon of social blackmail. Perhaps Jim isn't very lucky after all?

The book is also very time bound. It is set in the time it was written, the early 1950s, when England was still recovering from the war. Austerity was the order of the day. The world was grey. Jim is a (very) junior lecturer in a university history department (though he loathes history and reserves a special hatred for his major academic speciality). He observes his life in a rather jaundiced way that must have seemed quite radical in the 1950s but which is rather common coin today. Nowadays Jim would probably appear quite conservative in his views and his language. Much like like Amis himself actually. Amis started life as a left wing radical and ended it as a conventional, conservative (with both a large and a small ‘C’) member of the establishment. No wonder he didn’t like the literary label that got hung on him. He stopped being angry (if indeed he ever was – I suspect it was a pose).

Lucky Jim was the novel that made Amis’ reputation. He remained a respected writer all his life long, though the literary establishment sometimes turned their noses up at him when he went slumming in the science fiction and detective novel genres and they nearly had a collective seizure when he wrote a James Bond novel. Personally I always felt that his willingness to experiment was an attractive trait, and I have read all of his novels, and his non-fiction as well, with great enjoyment. Amis had a wonderful sense of humour and a witty, approachable writing style. Today his reputation is somewhat in eclipse and his son Martin is sprawling all over the bookshelves that Kingsley once claimed. I think that’s a shame – Martin is a dull, somewhat pretentious writer with a pedestrian and highly affected prose style and no trace whatsoever of a sense of humour. He isn’t half the writer that his father was.

Lucky Jim may have dated but it still has a lot going for it. I’m not sorry to have re-read it. God willing, I’ll read it again in another thirty five years and I expect that I will enjoy it all over again.

Elizabeth Peters’ new novel is another in the ongoing saga of Amelia Peabody, the Detective and Egyptologist. In the previous books, Amelia’s story has been told chronologically and we last saw her and her family involved in deeds of derring do that were taking place shortly after the devastation of the first world war. However with Guardian of the Horizon, the story goes back to an earlier adventure of Amelia’s and the novel is a direct sequel to The Last Camel Died at Noon, and takes place ten years after that novel in the years 1907-1908,

The Emersons are at home in England when a mysterious messenger arrives. He claims to be the teenage brother of Terek, Prince of the Lost Oasis. He brings troubling news – a strange disease is wreaking havoc through the oasis. Only the Emersons can help. They set off on their long journey back to the place they last saw ten years previously when they rescued their adopted daughter Nefret from a terrible fate. The journey is even more difficult than it was the last time they struggled across that inhospitable desert. Perils await them at every step. And when finally they arrive at the oasis they learn that all is not as they had been led to believe. There are murky politics and conflicting loyalties. Nefret dons the veils of the Goddess again and Ramses, who is madly in love with her, has some hard decisions to make…

Of late, this series of books has dropped off in quality. It seemed that Elizabeth Peters was just marking time. It was as if she had got a little tired of her characters and their lives. However the decision to return to Amelia’s earlier adventures has injected a whole new sense of excitement into the series. I thoroughly enjoyed Guardian of the Horizon. It is vintage Elizabeth Peters.

The skip sat emptily outside my front gate. "Heaps of room in there," said Robin enthusiastically. "You’ll be able to fit lots in."

I began to empty my cupboards. In many ways Robin was perfectly right. There was stuff in there that I hadn’t looked at or used for thirty years or more. The only time I ever saw it was when I moved house and took it out of a cupboard at one end and put it back into a cupboard at the other.

Polystyrene beads for a dead bean bag. An electronic flash gun with a fitting for a camera I no longer possess. A 286 computer that didn’t work last time I turned it on. Mysterious cables with unidentifiable plugs at each end, boxes of floppy disks and tape cartridges that I cannot use because the equipment that reads them died a decade ago. Keys that do not fit any lock in the house. Stereo speakers with a mysterious fault that causes them to blow up amplifiers at unpredictable intervals. Blue mechanisms, a set of fish knives, three demijohns and a mouldy briefcase. Not to mention a partridge, a pear tree and a kitchen sink.

All my university notes went into the skip. I closed those folders for the last time on the day I took my final degree exam and I haven’t opened them since. I looked nostalgically at them before tossing them and I found my old exam papers themselves. There were questions on those papers that I’d obviously answered, because I had ringed them. But as I re-read them I discovered that not only did I not remember answering them, I no longer knew how to answer them because I didn’t understand them any more. So much knowledge had vanished from my head. It was all contained in the notes, but it seemed like too much trouble to put it back into my skull, so the notes got thrown away.

Similarly my old university textbooks, though I did keep one physics text book on the grounds that ten years ago I looked up the formula for the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction in it. You never know, I might need that formula again one day. So I kept the book, just in case. But everything else went into the skip.

I found a folder full of documents given to me by the New Zealand Government when I emigrated to New Zealand nearly twenty five years ago. One of the leaflets told me I would be liable for conscription into the armed forces. I remember discussing this with the Government representative at my interview at New Zealand House in London.

"What about conscription?" I asked. "I don’t fancy that."

"Oh, don’t worry," he said. "We got rid of that years ago. But unfortunately we’d printed several warehouses full of the leaflets just before we scrapped it, and we’re still using them up. If you look on page 5 it says that the imminent arrival of colour television in New Zealand is causing great excitement. But we’ve had colour TV for at least ten years. One day we’ll reprint the leaflets and correct the information, when we’ve used them all up. But that won’t be for decades yet."

"Thank you," I said. "I’m glad you clarified that."

I wonder if they are still using the same leaflet? Perhaps I should return my copy so that they can use it again for another immigrant? On second thoughts, into the skip with it!

Boxes and boxes full of wargames (aka military simulations) from SPI, a company that went spectacularly bankrupt about twenty years ago. Towards the end of their life, their games became unplayable because SPI were so desperate to get their games to market and sell them that they published the games without any play testing at all and the rules were inconsistent, contradictory and often incomprehensible. I appear to have bought all of those games and I never played any of them, because I couldn’t! The rules wouldn’t let me. Into the skip with them!

Simon Green’s Deathstalker novels are a good old fashioned space opera in multiple volumes. The story’s got everything - it's got disruptors, and energy shields; it’s got hyperdrives and ESP and aliens. It’s got space battles and an evil empire and a rebellion. And the whole outrageous tale is told in literate and often very funny prose. This is "Doc' Smith with style, Edmond Hamilton with wit, John Campbell with jokes. It is Star Wars as it should have been but never was. It’s got height, it’s got width, and most of all it’s got depth. It's the best space opera I've read in years. No, cancel that – it's the best space opera I've read.

So far there are seven novels in the series. I've read two and a half of them and enjoyed every single over the top, preposterous moment. The saving grace is the humour. Owen Deathstalker, leader of the rebellion, meets a stunning bit of totty. He can think of several things he'd like to do to her, at least one of which would probably put his back out.

The books have embarrassingly bad covers. They are typical pulp rubbish. But please don’t let that put you off. The story inside the cover is a rollicking good yarn.

On the other hand, the three (so far) short novels that make up the Nightside series are thoughtful, dark and in some ways quite serious works. I’m not going to accuse Green of committing literature, but he’s getting dangerously close to it.

The Nightside is the gaudy, neon-noir secret heart of London. It is always three o’clock in the morning there. It is a place where gods and monsters meet to make deals and to seek pleasures denied to them elsewhere. John Taylor works in the Nightside. He’s a freelance detective with a special gift – when he opens his third eye, his private eye, he can see into hidden ways and he can look down them to find anything that is lost. And sometimes he is asked to find some very dangerous things; things like the Unholy Grail, the cup that Judas Iscariot drank from at the Last Supper. It corrupts all who touch it, but it gives enormous power.

The stories are told in the style of a noir novel of the Chandler-Hammett era, and although each novel tells a complete story with a beginning, a middle and an end, there is an overall sense that the story as a whole is not yet finished. There are dark hints of what is yet to come and there are unexplained menaces and references that are not followed up. This all gives a feeling of depth and a reality. The Nightside is lived in and bizarre though many of the inhabitants are, you believe in them, every one. It is only the lesser stories that are resolved. The greater ones still have a way to go.

Shadows Fall is an early work of Green’s and was probably a bit too ambitious for the writer he was then (I’d like to see him tackle it again, now that he’s gained a mature skill).

Shadows Fall is a town that you won’t find on the map. It protects itself from discovery, though it is there for you, if you need it badly enough. It’s a place where stories find their ending, where quests are concluded. The super heroes whose comics are no longer published live here and so do the cartoon characters whose films never really became popular. Old rock stars whose years of glory are far behind them come to Shadows Fall. People die in Shadows Fall but they don’t always stay dead. There are doors in Shadows Fall that will take you to places that no longer exist and worlds that some day might.

There’s a killer loose in Shadows Fall and he kills brutally without rhyme or reason. James Hart has come back to Shadows Fall after twenty five years away and there is a prophecy that he will bring about its destruction. And a group of fanatics from the outside world want this supernatural anachronism wiped out.

It’s a hugely complex conceit. Green is juggling with archetypes and personalising cosmic forces. It’s all too easy to lose control of that kind of thing and when you do the story becomes either too twee for words or else dull and unconvincing. But even in his early days as a writer Green was too skilled to fall into either of those traps and he stays firmly in control until almost the end when suddenly all the balls that he’s kept well in the air up to then drop down on to the floor and scatter. It’s an anti-climactic ending and this (perhaps inevitable) weakness casts a retrospective shadow over the book as a whole.

But even in its failure it’s a tour-de-force.

The skip was starting to bulge ominously as I filled it up with decades of detritus. The phone rang.

"Hello, it’s Annette here. Do you need any help with the sorting and unpacking.?"

"Yes please!"

Scarcely had I put the phone down when Annette arrived with a distinct whoosh.

"Oooh! A skip!" she said. "I love skips!"

She clambered in and started sorting stuff.

"War games! You can’t throw those away!" She piled them carefully by the side of the skip so she could take them away with her. "Oooh! Text books! Chemistry text books! I love chemistry text books. Are there any physics books as well?"

"No, I kept the physics book."

Her face fell with disappointment. "Oh well, never mind." The chemistry books joined the pile.

Annette burrowed deeper and deeper into the skip. Every so often she would emit a squeal of joy and emerge red-faced and puffing with a new treasure for her pile.

"Oooh! Blue mechanisms, a set of fish knives, three demijohns and a mouldy briefcase. Not to mention a partridge, a pear tree and a kitchen sink." By now her pile was tottering alarmingly.

The skip was now embarrassingly empty. I had nothing left to throw away because I no longer owned anything. The situation was desperate.

"Don’t worry," said Robin, "I’ve got lots of garden rubbish."

The next day dawned and we went out to the skip to throw garden rubbish into it. Much to our surprise, someone had wandered past in the night and thrown some of their rubbish into it. We were now the proud possessors of a (presumably) empty LPG cylinder; the kind of thing you use on barbecues and stoves.

"I don’t like that," I said. "I’m pretty sure you can’t just dump those in a skip. They are quite dangerous, even when they are empty and they have to be disposed of properly."

"How do you dispose of them?" asked Robin.

I didn’t know, so I rang the council.

"How do I dispose of an empty LPG cylinder?"

"Take it to the Northern Landfill," said the council person. "It’s called the Happy Valley Tip. They’ll dispose of it. It will cost you $6."

We continued to fill the skip. I was bereft of possessions and the garden had no more rubbish. And so the men came and took the skip away.

The next day, we discovered that the phantom skip filler had again visited us during the night. He had been intent on disposing of a rusty bicycle frame. Annoyed at finding that the skip had gone, he had simply dumped the rusty bike in front of my garage and run away. I rang the council.

"How do I dispose of a rusty bicycle frame?"

"Take it to the Northern Landfill," said the council person. "It’s called the Happy Valley Tip. They’ll dispose of it. It will cost you $6."

I began to wonder if perhaps the skip filler had got into the habit of giving me difficult to dispose of rubbish. What more would I receive? The next day I found out. I rang the council.

"How do I dispose of a rusty centurion tank that is missing its caterpillar tracks?", I asked.

"Take it to the Northern Landfill," said the council person, completely unfazed by the question. "It’s called the Happy Valley Tip. They’ll dispose of it. It will cost you $6."

"Thank you," I said.

"No worries," said the council person. "We’ve been getting a lot of those lately."

The Atrocity Archives contains two short novels by Charles Stross. They are best described as a cross between the novels of Len Deighton and the stories of H. P. Lovecraft. Now there’s an odd mixture! The two novels have Deighton’s distinctive cynical style and obsessive attention to detail together with Lovecraft’s psychic monsters lurking at the threshold. But they also have Lovecraft’s overblown style and Deighton’s cold war politics as well. Believe me, it is a wonderful feeling to read a secret service thriller that, quite legitimately, contains the phrase "squamous and rugose".

In the world of the stories, the computer scientist Alan Turing developed a theorem on Phase Conjugate Grammars For Extra-Terrestrial Summoning. Turing’s work paved the way for some rather esoteric mathematical work that, when implemented in the laboratory, had the unfortunate side effect of opening gates to other realities, other reflections of the platonic realm. And behind these gates are listeners some of whom can be brought through the gates, often to the great detriment of those who do the summoning.

Bob Howard works for a shady governmental organisation known as "the Laundry". He’s a cynical, insubordinate computer hacker. We first meet him as he breaks in to a research establishment where he then hacks in to a computer network from which he extracts a paper called Towards a Proof of Polynomial Completeness in Hamiltonian Networks. He trashes the network and makes his escape. Someone, it seems, is getting too close to some highly classified state secrets. In the wrong hands, the wrong gates would open.

It isn’t long before we learn that the secrets the Laundry protects were well known to the Nazis. Towards the end of the war, when all was collapsing round their ears, the Ahnenerbe-SS performed a summoning that used the power from ten million murdered souls. They opened a gate to an alternate universe and closed it behind themselves. The world forgot about them for a generation. But now there are hints that the gates are opening again. Are the Ahnenerbe-SS coming back to take their revenge? Something certainly is. Stand by for Lovecraftian horrors the like of which you never saw before!

The subject matter of both novels is utterly ridiculous. What makes the stories work so brilliantly is the sheer skilful delight with which Stross combines computer technology, high energy physics and supernatural monsters. I never read anything more squamous, or more rugose.

My cupboards were now utterly empty, and so Robin began to fill them with her stuff. In went blue mechanisms, a set of fish knives, three demijohns and a mouldy briefcase. Not to mention a partridge, a pear tree and a kitchen sink.

"What’s this?" I asked, holding up a bottle full of rough grey-brown objects.

"Oh I’ve been looking all over for that," said Robin. "We’ve got to put that in our display cabinet. Right at the front where everyone can see it."

"OK," I said. "But what is it?"

She gave me her withering don’t-you-know-anything look. "It’s a bottle full of gall stones," she said. "When I had my gall bladder operation they let me keep the stones as a souvenir. Impressive, aren’t they?"

"Very," I said. "Perhaps we could have them polished up and set into a pendant or possibly made into ear rings?"

"Don’t be silly," said Robin. "Who wants to wear gall stones in their ears?"

Now all the cupboards are full again, but Robin still has several boxes of indescribable things lurking in the spare room. The walls of my house are still not elastic. More cupboards are called for…


Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim Penguin
Elizabeth Peters Guardian of the Horizon Morrow
Simon R. Green Deathstalker Roc
Simon R. Green Deathstalker Rebellion Roc
Simon R. Green Deathstalker War Roc
Simon R. Green Something From the Nightside Ace
Simon R. Green Agents of Light and Darkness Ace
Simon R. Green Nightingale’s Lament Ace
Simon R. Green Shadows Fall Gollancz
Charles Stross The Atrocity Archives Golden Gryphon
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