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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (peregrinatio connubium nubillissimus)

Alan And Robin Catch A Train and Alan And Robin Get Married

In theory it was very simple.

"I'll get home from work about 6.00pm on Friday," I explained to Robin. "We'll have a leisurely tea and then pack our cases."

"What time do we have to leave?" she asked.

"We'll go to bed early," I said, cleverly avoiding the question. "I'll set the alarm."

"What time will it go off?" she asked suspiciously. She knows me of old and was determined to add at least half an hour to whatever time I suggested.

"3.30am," I said. "That will let us get to the airport in good time to check in for our 7.40am flight to Sydney."

However the man in charge of the fog machine at the Meteorological Office had a secret agenda and on Friday morning he superglued the switch into the 'On' position. Then he went home and took the phone off the hook.

Wellington airport was fog-bound and closed all day Friday. There was little or no chance that we'd be able to fly to Sydney the next morning. Indeed, towards the end of the afternoon, our flight was officially cancelled.

A lot of frantic rushing around revealed spare seats to Sydney on flights leaving from Auckland. There was much hurried rearranging of tickets. Now all we had to do was pack in a tearing rush and drive through the night to the other end of the country. Easy!

I slept in the back of the car. Robin snored, so presumably she slept as well. Ross drove and Simon sat in the front passenger seat and talked to him to keep him awake. The fog thinned out and vanished as soon as we reached the outskirts of Wellington and apart from a small patch around Huntley we saw it no more. We reached Auckland about 5.30am, in plenty of time to check in for our flight and we breakfasted on black coffee in the Koru Club lounge so as not to fall asleep in the comfy chairs and miss the last call for our flight.

We boarded the plane. The pilot was obviously going for a world record because we took off on time. Even more surprisingly, we arrived in Sydney on schedule as well. We took a taxi to Sydney's Central Station where we were due to board the Indian Pacific train for three days of sybaritic luxury across the Nullarbor to Perth.

The platform was empty, not an Indian Pacific to be seen.

"It's late," said the man at the enquiry desk. "It's got a flat tyre."

"What time is it due?" I asked.

"It'll probably be here in a couple of hours, but it will have to be cleaned before they'll let you on. You won't be able to get on for ages yet. Hours and hours." He shook his head, taking a gloomy pleasure in his news. "Hours and hours and hours."

We sat in the less than salubrious station bar/café and ate cholesterol and chips. I have sat in railway station cafes all over the world – St. Pancras in London, Nottingham Midland, Beijing Central and the Finland Station in Moscow. Railway cafes are all assembled in a factory in Redditch, to an original design by Bloody Stupid Johnson, and then they are exported to stations worldwide. The one in Sydney is a typical example of the type.

"Pass the heart attack on a stick, please," said Robin. I passed it over and she took a big bite.

The Indian Pacific pulled in on platforms 2 and 3 simultaneously.

"Stand in the middle," said Robin, flourishing a camera. I felt very Harry Potterish as I stood (it seemed) at platform 2½ to have my photograph taken.

There were eight of us in our group, and we had hired our own private carriage; the Chairman's Carriage. It was equipped with easy chairs in which we could lounge luxuriously and sip complimentary champagne. We were all exhausted – some of us hadn't slept for 48 hours. My underpants were making themselves known to the world. Everybody else was just as uncomfortable. We all had a shower and then we went to the lounge car for the reception for Gold Kangaroo passengers. Gold Kangaroo service is available to many, but only we had our own private carriage in as well. We sipped vividly blue champagne cocktails designed to represent the colour of the two oceans that are linked by the train. We indulged in fairly zombie-like conversations with our fellow Gold Kangaroo companions and then we were summoned to the dining car. I dined on trout and Robin had steak. And then, at last, to bed.

The train rattled and rambled and shook its way across Australia and I kept waking up scared, convinced that we were experiencing an earthquake. Nevertheless, I slept refreshingly well and I awoke for the day just before dawn. I could see the stars of the Milky Way smeared across the sky. I don't remember ever seeing so many stars before.

And somewhere in there the day turned in to Sunday. We were safely on the train, we were fully rested and all we had to do was allow ourselves to be waited on hand and foot for three days. It seemed like a minor miracle that we had made it at all.

Our first stop was at Broken Hill. It was supposed to be quite a long stop with a chance to explore, but the train never made up the lost time from being late out of Sydney and so we only had ten minutes – just enough time to take photos of the station and to browse through the items for sale from the tables of the local entrepreneurs who just knew that the passengers were all eager to buy a tatty paperback to read on the train, or to purchase lumps of the broken hill itself masquerading as jewellery. Simon bought a pack of cards in case he got bored.

Back to the train and we stared through the windows in air conditioned luxury at never ending scrubby red soil. Some wallabies wallabied and once we saw a wedge-tailed eagle soaring majestically.

Next stop Adelaide and we took a coach trip around the city with the most boring tour guide in the world. He told us lots of local scandals involving road building and corrupt politicians. He hated anybody who wasn't from South Australia and he reserved a special hatred for people from New South Wales.

"Don Bradman is the only New South Welshman who ever had any sense," said the tour guide loudly. "He came to live in South Australia."

The train stayed in Adelaide for about two hours. It felt like two days. They were supposed to put the train through the equivalent of a car wash, but in an attempt to make up lost time, they decided to leave it grimy. We left Adelaide only an hour behind schedule.

We had to adjust our watches and clocks as strange Australian time zones caught up with us and then passed us by. Moving from South Australia to the West required the watches to be put back two hours. However the train crew decided this was too big a change to do all at once so we did one hour on Sunday to be followed later on Monday by another hour. And so for almost a day we lived on train time – a mobile time zone different from everywhere else in the world. I felt very Einsteinian for a moment and I began to realise why all the explanations of relativity in the physics text books began with an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman getting on a train.

Monday morning, and the scrubby red soil sprouted spindly trees. Interspersed between them lurked glum, blue-tinged bushes. Perhaps they were blue with cold? Relatively speaking, of course. The soil was red and rusty and the engineering works from the railroad had gouged great gashes in the lumpy landscape. Every so often isolated patches of solar panels sucked greedily at the blazing, pitiless sunshine. It was not immediately obvious what they were powering. Possibly a great, but unknown, underground city?

Suddenly, within half a kilometre or so, the landscape changed dramatically. It became perfectly flat and much less red. The trees disappeared completely and only the scrubby blue bush remained all across the face of the earth from one horizon to the other. This was the Nullarbor, God's ironing board, the flattest, dullest, most unchanging place upon the planet. There is a certain hypnotic fascination to the never ending sameness of it. We saw a herd of feral camels sneering and swearing at the train as it invaded their territory. And always, stretching on forever, the unchanging Nullarbor; brown, sere and washed out.

Cook is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The Nullarbor stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction, flat and empty. Ramshackle buildings huddle together for protection. Cook has a permanent population of two people and fifty million friendly flies. The train re-waters at Cook and swaps drivers. The retiring drivers wait for the Indian Pacific coming in the opposite direction and return to Adelaide on it. While they wait, they count flies. There isn't anything else to do in Cook.

I had a pee in the station toilet and got back on the train. I couldn't help feeling that I'd just passed more water than Cook had seen in a decade. Except for the train water in the holding tanks, of course.

The water we took on at Cook had obviously been sitting in holding tanks exposed to the full glare of the sun. For the next day or so the water that flowed out of the taps marked 'Cold' was almost the same temperature as that which flowed from the taps marked 'Hot'.

And always the flat and dreary landscape baked unchangingly across the whole of the visible world.

A signpost flashed past the train. Blink and you'll miss it. 'Prisoner of War Camp' it declared. There was no evidence of any buildings, no indication that anything had ever been here. It was unclear whether the site was reserved for future implementation or simply a relic of the past. Either way, this would be a terrible place to be incarcerated.

The desert stretched on endlessly. God bless air conditioning.

Kalgoorlie was the next stop. It is a mining town with a fearsome reputation. "We lock all the carriage doors in Kalgoorlie," said the lady in charge of our carriage, "to stop undesirable elements from looting the train."

Kalgoorlie sounded like fun. A pub crawl was obviously called for,

The town was almost deserted. It was Monday evening and everybody was at home watching television. We found an empty pub which had Swan beer on tap. When in doubt, always drink the local beer. We ordered a Swan and discovered why the pub was empty. Swan beer has a putrid aftertaste and a rancid duringtaste. After one sip, the evil anticipation involved in the beforetaste is overwhelmingly off-putting. We went back to the train.

"Are you an undesirable element intent on looting the train?"


"What's the password?"


"Enter friend."

And so to bed.

The following day we had breakfast and then packed our bags. Next stop Perth and the end of the journey. We arrived at 9.15am almost exactly on time. It was the end of a great adventure.

* * * * *

Kelley Armstrong has written a series of fantasy novels about werewolves and witches (and ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties) set in contemporary times. There's a lot of scope for good material here and indeed, her plots are satisfyingly complex. Unfortunately her viewpoint characters are dumb, dysfunctional bimbos with an over-inflated notion of their own cleverness and competence. I'm sure the books were bad for my blood pressure because I kept wanting to shout: "Don't do that, you idiot!"

The stories are clever and involving, the society within a society that Armstrong sets up is convincingly drawn. There is much that is good about these books.

What a shame about the protagonists.

In a similar vein, Kim Harrison has written a couple of books about a witch called Rachel Morgan who makes a living as a bounty hunter in the dark hollows of Cincinnati. They are rather fun, in a gruesome sort of way. Lots of vampires, demons and similar low-lifes. And Rachel is much more appealing person than the protagonists of Kelley Armstrong's books.

John Scalzi and Robert Buettner have both written novels about life in the military, and battles against aliens. The most obvious comparison to make is with Heinlein's Starship Troopers and indeed they are both quite similar in structure to that classic novel. But they are nowhere near as good.

Scalzi's Old Man's War has an intriguing premise. John Perry is seventy five years old and he has very little left to live for. His wife is dead and his house and his life are both empty. So he joins the army.

The army wants to recruit mature people. They can bring a wealth of experience to the fight against the aliens. But it is a one way trip. When you join the army you are shipped off Earth and subjected to some sort of top secret rejuvenation process. And you are forever forbidden to return home. Perry has no reason to want to return – he sees this as no hardship.

Buettner's Orphanage is a much more ordinary tale. Aliens have landed on Jupiter's moon Ganymede and are launching projectiles aimed at the Earth. Whole cities have been vaporised and Earth is under siege. Humanity gambles on a desperate counterstrike and hurriedly assembles a fleet of scrapyard spaceships and an army of expendable soldiers, orphans like eighteen year old Jason Wander. A desperate invasion of Ganymede is launched.

Both novels follow the Heinlein model and describe the training of the recruits, and then the terrible battles that they fight against the aliens. Neither novel preaches or lectures as much as the Heinlein novel does. On the other hand, neither has the pretensions to intellectuality that Starship Troopers exhibits, and both are fairly shallow as a result.

Old Man's War is by far the most successful of the books, though the final sections are a little weak. Orphanage, on the other hand, is so full of gung-ho patriotism that it is positively vomit inducing. Old Man's War flirts with this a little but never over-indulges itself like Orphanage does. Both books have lots of fighting and slaughter. Doubtless both heroes have very big dicks.

I have no doubt that both books will spawn sequels. I am not at all certain that I'll bother reading them.

Sunstorm by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter is the sequel to (and completion of) the story begun in last year's novel Time's Eye. It takes place on the Earth in the year 2037. An anomaly is discovered in the core of the sun. It seems a gigantic sunstorm is due and it will scour the Earth of all life. Evidence from Bisesa Dutt's experience on the jigsaw world called Mir suggests that the anomaly is not a natural phenomenon. The Firstborn want the people of Earth to die. However the people of Earth have other ideas – and in a race against a furiously ticking solar time bomb, preparations for survival are put in place. And the Firstborn are watching.

These two novels make an absolutely classic, spine-tingling science fictional read. Stories like these are the reason most of us started reading SF in the first place. They just don't come any better than this.

The Serpent On The Crown is Elizabeth Peters' new novel about the adventures of Amelia Peabody. It is 1922, the war is long over and Peabody and her family are looking forward to some serious archaeology. But best selling trash novelist Magda, Countess Von Ormond (aka Magda Petherick) arrives to disrupt their lives. She has inherited a statuette from her late husband's Egyptological collection. She is convinced that it is cursed and that the curse killed her husband. Now the curse has been transferred to her. She pleads with Amelia and Emerson to lift the curse. Reluctantly Emerson takes possession of the statuette. It isn't long before the usual mysterious black-clad afrits, thefts and even murders eventuate. The usual game's afoot, and the whole family is involved.

This is one of Peters' best books – the story fair rattles along, the plot is satisfyingly complex, lots of evil villains, lots of derring do, lots of lovely jokes. Wonderful fun!

Ash and Bone is the latest instalment in John Harvey's new series about retired Detective Inspector Elder. The plot is nothing unusual – a police sergeant is murdered, there are indications that there is corruption in the force. Elder's estranged daughter is getting mixed up with undesirables in Nottingham and is arrested for possession of heroin. But the book isn't about plot; it's about atmosphere and tension, about motives and feelings, about being alive and being dead. And as such it is extremely unsettling, extremely tense. Harvey has a genius for getting inside the minds of nasty people and showing us what makes them tick. It's a disturbing mix of idealism and cynicism and it grabs hold and won't let go.

Larry J. Kolb is an American businessman who was recruited by the CIA. Overworld is about the covert intrigues in which he was involved. It's a terrible book. Kolb is a snob and much of the book consists of nothing much more than what he said and did when he met Rajiv Ghandi, Ronald Reagan, Adnan Kashoggi and other headline-grabbing personalities. The book is a never ending name-dropping catalogue of drinks, meals and conversations as Kolb tries to make himself sound important. The book is dull junk. Don't waste your time with it.

Conn Iggulden's novels The Gates Of Rome and The Death Of Kings are the first two in an ongoing series about the life and times of Julius Caesar. They are rollicking action-packed yarns which make perfect holiday reading. You'll love these books, as long as you aren't interested in historical accuracy or depth of characterisation. The pages never stop turning and all the climaxes are cliff-hangers.

Thunderhead is a thriller by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. Nora Kelly, an archaeologist, receives a letter from her father. He has been dead for more than sixteen years – he vanished into the deserts of the Utah searching for a lost city full of gold. He has been dead for sixteen years, but the letter bears a recent postmark. Nora puts together an expedition that will follow her father into the desert. This is a ripping boys-own, fingernail chewing yarn. It's utter rubbish, but I loved it nonetheless.

Andrew Taylor's new novel The American Boy is a sumptuously detailed novel set in the year 1819. Thomas Shields is a tutor at a school just outside London. One of his pupils is a young American boy called Edgar Allan Poe and his best friend Charles Frant (to whom he bears an extraordinary resemblance). Shields finds himself drawn to Frant's beautiful but unhappy mother. And when a brutal crime is committed he quickly becomes involved in a deadly tangle of deceit.

Wilkie Collins could have written this book. Dickens would have loved it. Even Poe would have found much to admire in it. It is a book to sip delicately, like fine wine. It is a book that rewards careful reading. It is a masterpiece.

Alexander McCall Smith's new novel 44 Scotland Street is made up of a series of vignettes (originally published in The Scotsman newspaper) which concern the many and varied inhabitants of the eponymous address. By turns funny and sad, it is a beautifully observed, beautifully written comedy of manners and a perfectly mannered comedy of errors. It has a surface story full of wit and grace and a deep sub-text that addresses matters of trust, honesty, snobbery and hypocrisy. Truly this is a mature work of great genius.

David Pirie's The Night Calls is a sequel to his earlier The Patient's Eyes and is a fictionalised account of the life of Conan Doyle who solves crimes with his old university lecturer Joseph Bell (the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes). Annoyingly The Night Calls is not a complete story. It finishes on a cliff hanger that will not be resolved until the next book in the series. Bugger!

Doyle and Bell investigate some bizarre assaults on women in notorious brothels. The police are baffled. The crimes become increasingly freakish, eventually culminating in a murder. Doyle and Bell soon come to realise that they are facing an enormous challenge from a sophisticated criminal mind; a criminal who Doyle will later immortalise as Moriarty, the master criminal. (Fortunately for his peace of mind, Doyle died years before the Goons mirthfully deconstructed Moriarty).

Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising is a novel about the building of the Empire State building. The corruption that infested American politics in the 1920s (and for all I know, today as well) is brought brilliantly to life. This is a deeply cynical novel; everybody is a bastard, everybody is on the make. But it is also a profoundly moving novel that casts the rise of the Empire State building as a heroic project and Kelly invests the men who did the actual building with a true nobility.

The Great Stink is Clare Clark's first novel. It concerns murder and mayhem in the rotting sewers of London. The stink of shit rises from every page. The setting is wonderfully evoked. You'll want to take a shower at the end of every chapter, and examine your underpants for rats. Unfortunately however, the plot and characters are supremely dull and even the wonderful sewers of London cannot rescue this book from tedium.

St Dale is Sharyn McCrumb's retelling of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in a modern setting. Her pilgrims are motor racing fanatics on a pilgrimage to the racing tracks on which Dale Earnhardt raced his most famous races before the crash that killed him. The pilgrims tell each other the stories of their lives and how their lives intersected with the (holy) Earnhardt himself. It has its intermittent moments, but the Chaucerian parallels are rather too overt, and despite McCrumb's best efforts, she simply cannot make motor racing interesting.

Graham Joyce's new novel, The Limits Of Enchantment, takes place in the high, hippy days of the summer of love. Mammy Cullen is a midwife of the old school. She has the knowledge passed down through the centuries. In an older time she might have been called a witch and even today there are those that whisper it in the night. Fern is Mammy's ward, her adopted daughter, her apprentice. Fern listens to pirate radio stations and likes the new music. After Mammy's death she is persuaded to regularise her midwife practices by studying at night school, and passing a certification exam. But the dark knowledge, the old knowledge is sometimes at odds with what she is taught in class. The hippies have some sympathy with her (and she with them) but when the crisis comes, as crises will always do, it becomes clear that Fern may not have enough of either the old skills or the new skills to survive. She is on the cusp, neither one thing nor the other and it is tearing her apart.

* * * * *

Wednesday 23rd March 2005 dawned bright and hot in Perth. The sun was a yellow furnace in a bright blue sky and the maximum recorded temperature that day was 42 degrees. I was glad I was getting married indoors at the Hillcrest Restaurant; a place with very efficient air conditioning.

Robin spent the morning being equipped with wedding hair, wedding fingernails, wedding toenails and a wedding face. When all was finished to her satisfaction, she climbed into her wedding dress. She tried very hard not to smile in case the make up cracked and fell off, but she couldn't help herself and she grinned widely at her reflection in the mirror. Fortunately everything stayed in place – a great tribute to the skills of Kylie the make up specialist who had been summoned with frantic last minute phone calls the night before.

I arrived at the Hillcrest about 3.00pm. People drifted in slowly.

"You look very calm," said Phyllis, my soon to be mother-in-law.

"Only on the outside," I said.

At about 3.45pm Robin arrived. Unfortunately, her brother Ian, her sister Wendy and her niece Alex had not yet appeared. But nobody told Robin. The bridal music blared and Robin walked in on her father's arm. She looked around, puzzled.

"Where's Ian? Where's Alex? Where's Wendy? She's got the video camera. We can't get married without a video camera."

"Sorry," said Carol, the celebrant, "but you'll have to go out again and wait. The guests aren't all here yet."

Robin and her father backed out and the wedding music faded away.

"I've been marrying people for thirty-one years," said Carol, "and this is the very first time I've had to send the bride away."

"The only wedding in the world," I said, "where the bride is on time and the guests are late. It could only happen to us."

Eventually Ian, Wendy and Alex arrived. Alex and Wendy were festooned with musical paraphernalia: a flute, a music stand, the occasional cello. They bustled in a corner as they put everything together. Eventually they were ready. The video camera was switched on and we began again.

The Beatles All You Need Is Love blared out. Robin walked in on her father's arm to the trumpet fanfare and John Lennon's nasal voice assured us all that we could do anything. All you need is love.

Carol introduced herself and went through the preliminaries. Then she asked: "Who brings this woman to be married to this man?"

"I do," said Tim. I shook his hand. "Good luck with her," he said. "You'll need it." He had both a twinkle and a tear in his eye as he went to sit down. He really does love his daughters.

Then it was time to make our vows. We turned to each other and held hands as we repeated the words that Carol read to us. It was the first time I had looked directly (and closely) at Robin since she arrived and I had an almost irresistible urge to giggle for somehow her make up had slipped and there was a thin, white half-moon arc of cream decorating the bottom of each lens of her glasses. She blinked owlishly at me across the top of the cream. Fortunately I managed to contain my giggles and we both declared our love for each other and held that love up for all the world to see. It was our moment, our magical moment. We exchanged rings (miraculously they had not been lost).

And we were married.

As we signed the register, Wendy and Alex played Bach in the background. It was a perfect moment.

We milled around for a while. Photos were taken, champagne was drunk, canapés were nibbled. The children played with the wedding balloons, chasing each other around the room. Someone had bottle of bubble mix and soon lots of people were blowing bubbles. Alex's brother opened his mouth to eat a canapé and Alex blew bubbles into it. He remonstrated mildly with her. After we cleaned up the blood, we went into the restaurant. Food!

But first, after we were seated, my best man Laurie sang The Sparrow And The Gentle Dove by Henry Purcell to a flute arrangement by Geoffrey Coker. He was accompanied by Wendy on flute and Alex on cello. It was sublime.

Then Wendy's five year old daughter Ella danced to Grow by Hi-Five. I've never seen someone so young dance so well. She is stunningly talented.

Then food. And drink. Yummy stuff! And Robin and I got it first. Boy! This marriage lark is a good idea. Plates groaning beneath a heavy load, we chomped.

Then it was time for speeches. Tim officially welcomed me to the family and I got huge hugs from a seemingly never ending queue of utterly gorgeous sisters in law and nieces.

"Can we get married again?" I asked Robin. "I want to go round and hug them all a second time."

The best man gave a speech which it turned out I'd written. Laurie nicked some of my more vividly described autobiographical writings and strung them together to present a word picture of me. It seemed to go down well, though I couldn't help feeling that he shared rather too much information about my underpants with my gorgeous new sisters and my stunning new nieces. Sometimes one needs to retain an air of mystery about these things.

Then the master of ceremonies called on me to speak. I rose to the occasion and took a deep breath. But Robin was having none of it. She forced me to sit down again before I had said a word. She stood up regally and surveyed the crowd with an icy optic:

"My husband and I…"

There was more music from Wendy and Alex. Then Robin's other sister Jenny accompanied her daughter Moana on guitar and together they sang for us, finishing with a rousing rendering of Rockin' Robin. Go girl!

And then by special request (from me), Jenny and Wendy took to their flutes and played a most wonderful arrangement of J. S. Bach's Bourée.

What a perfect way to finish.

Kelley Armstrong Bitten Orbit
Kelley Armstrong Stolen Orbit
Kelley Armstrong Dime Store Magic Orbit
Kelley Armstrong Industrial Magic Orbit
Kim Harrison Dead Witch Walking Orbit
Kim Harrison The Good, The Bad, And The Undead Orbit
John Scalzi Old Man's War Tor
Robert Buettner Orphanage Aspect
Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter Sunstorm Del Rey
Elizabeth Peters  The Serpent On The Crown Morrow
John Harvey Ash and Bone Heinemann
Larry J. Kolb Overworld Bantam
Conn Iggulden The Gates Of Rome Harper Collins
Conn Iggulden The Death Of Kings Harper Collins
Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child Thunderhead Warner
Andrew Taylor The American Boy Harper Perennial
Alexander McCall Smith 44 Scotland Street Polygon
David Pirie The Night Calls Arrow
Thomas Kelly Empire Rising FSG
Clare Clark The Great Stink Penguin
Sharyn McCrumb St. Dale Kensington
Graham Joyce The Limits Of Enchantment Gollancz
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