Previous Contents Next

wot i red on my hols by alan robson (ultima antipodea)

The Flight Of The Humble Me.

I always arrive at the airport sufficiently early to allow plenty of time to catch my plane. I have to – if I didn't, events would conspire to prevent me from ever completing my journey.

Every time I walk through the sliding doors into the check-in area, I find that I have to stand in a vast and slowly moving queue that is wending its way towards the only premium check in window that is open. The premium person currently checking in appears to have lost his Koru Club card. He has forgotten his name, and he didn't remember to put his underpants on this morning. The person in charge of the counter is being very patient – she fires powerful X-ray beams at his skull in case his name is engraved on the inside. The X-rays shoot through the vast, empty, echoing caverns inside his head and bounce around for a while. His eyebrows fall off and wriggle like demented caterpillars all over the desk. Men in white coats hold him upside down and shake him. Small coins, fingernail clippings, peanuts, hot wireless sets, aspirin tablets, the sandpaper sides of used matchboxes and something that might have been castor oil fall out of his pockets.

Aha! A Koru Club card appears! It is picked up and examined closely and the premium person's name and number are punched into the computer which goes down immediately and is counted out.

The computer thinks carefully for a while and then tells the premium person that he does not exist. With an agonised scream, he melts into a greasy puddle and oozes into the carpet. The next person in the queue steps up to the counter and the whole rigmarole is repeated.

After several geological ages I finally arrive at the desk. I proffer my Koru Club card. The lady examines it carefully.

"Did you remember to put your underpants on this morning?"

"Yes of course." They aren't going to catch me out that way!

"Did you pack them yourself? Do they contain any forbidden substances, sharp objects or weapons of mass destruction?"

I consider the contents of my underpants carefully. "Yes," I say. "No," I continue.

She taps my number into the computer and issues me with a boarding pass for the wrong seat. I politely point out that my preferred seat is a front aisle and that this information is recorded in my Koru Club details.

"Sorry," says the lady. "Our check in computer system, isn't attached to our Koru Club computer system and it can't look those kinds of details up. Seats are assigned by a random number generator."

"Then why did I have to provide the information in the first place?"

"That's in case we ever manage to get the two computer systems to talk to each other. We haven't been able to make it work yet. But we've only been trying for twenty years. These things take time."

"Can I have my preferred seat please?"

"Of course you can."

She tears up my boarding pass and taps a few more keys. A new boarding pass is disgorged and a luggage receipt is issued. A luggage sticker and a priority tag are attached to my bag. I wend my way to the Koru Club lounge, where I indulge myself in hideous dissipations until my flight is called. I stagger bleary-eyed, weary and sore to my seat, and I strap myself in.

The plane takes off at least three quarters of an hour late. There are two passengers somewhere in the terminal who are ignoring all boarding calls. Eventually muscle bound security men track them down, club them into submission, bind them hand and foot with rusty manacles and carry them on board the plane to the accompaniment of rousing cheers.

The safety demonstration is performed as we taxi to the runway. I pay careful attention to everything that is said. My closest exit is behind me. The bag on my oxygen mask may not inflate. There is a life jacket in a pocket under my seat. Should the plane crash and kill me, I must put on the jacket and I will come back to life. Makes sense.

We lumber into the air and bump and grind across the sky. For my reading pleasure there is a copy of the Air New Zealand magazine in the pocket of the seat in front of me. I read it. It gives me no pleasure.

I drink lukewarm black sludge that pretends to be coffee. I refuse a sweetie. The plane lands and I make my way to the baggage claim carousel which whirrs and clicks as it spasms on its infinite journey.

Bags appear on the carousel, none of them mine. The first thousand or so bags that pass me on the carousel have no priority tags on them. The only function of a priority tag is to ensure that any bags adorned with one will be the very last ones off the plane. Koru Club members pay an annual fee of umpteen hundred dollars to enjoy the benefits of this service.

Eventually, after most of the people have collected their bags and vanished in the direction of surface transport, I spot the distinctive yellow and green striped handles of my case. It sits forlornly with the rest of the priority luggage, coming off last. I pick my case up and head off to get a taxi. There aren't any taxis. The passengers who didn't have priority luggage have used them all up.

I've been overindulging in Colin Bateman this month. He's written a huge number of novels and I've only just discovered him, so I have a lot of catching up to do.

Bateman is from Belfast and he writes about what he knows, and he writes it from the heart. What he knows about is the sectarian violence that has divided Northern Ireland's Protestants and Catholics for most of his life (and mine as well). He finds his artistic inspiration in terrorism and its horrors bleed from every page. Two of his major series' characters have lost small children to the hard and angry men, and much is made of the small white coffins in which the children are buried. It's a poignant and very moving symbol of the futility of violence as a means to a political or religious end.

But despite all of that, when you read Bateman's books you will laugh through your tears. And there will be tears, for the brutal reality of the beast that lies just beneath the surface of the world is never glamorised at all. But the dialogue and situation will always turn those tears of sadness into tears of laughter for even in the darkest moments absurdity is always ready and willing to pop up and blow a raspberry and hit you with a pig's bladder, even while the blood flows and the children die in agony. It's a terribly difficult tightrope to walk along and yet Bateman always manages to do it and he never falls off. He takes you with him (not always willingly) into the heart of the darkness that is hate and fear and bigotry.

For most of my adult life the IRA have been setting off bombs in mainland England. When I lived there, I quickly learned to put up with body searches when I entered public buildings, and on more than one occasion I joined the crowds streaming for the exits as the building was evacuated because of a bomb threat. Once I missed being blown up by only seven days – I'd been drinking in a pub in Birmingham just a week before the IRA destroyed it. The day that the bomb went off, almost everybody in the bar was killed or seriously injured.

Some years later I was in America, in an Irish pub in Washington DC (yes, they do exist). I was drinking a rather indifferent Guinness that was far too cold for comfort. There was a collecting tin for NORAID on the bar and the TV set in the corner was tuned to a news channel. The announcer came on with details of yet another IRA bomb in England, yet another long casualty list of the innocent dead. The Americans in the bar cheered and whistled and pounded each other on the back with glee. Every terrorist is somebody's freedom fighter. Who cares how many people die as long as they aren't American? Can you say hypocrisy? I thought you could.

It's that ambivalence which illuminates Bateman's books. Many of them are set in the Irish-American heartland (and he says much crueller things about American support for terrorism than I could ever say). But the humour always shines through. The blurb on his books compares him again and again to Carl Hiassen and the comparison is valid, though I think that Hiassen is a shallow thinker when compared to Bateman. His concerns are more environmental than they are political or religious. Bateman's books have a seriousness, a depth, and a razor sharp cutting edge that Hiassen's lack.

Intellectually and emotionally Bateman's books pack one hell of a punch and I cannot recommend him highly enough. The word genius is sadly over-used, but sometimes no other word will do.

Larry Niven's new book is called The Draco Tavern and it is a collection of short stories (some so short that they are vignettes rather than proper stories). The tavern itself is situated on Mount Forel in Siberia. When the aliens first landed on Earth, their ships drifted down, following the magnetic lines of force. Mount Forel was a convenient gathering place where the lines of force merged. Rick Schumann built a tavern there and the stories in the book detail his interactions with the myriad alien species who stop off on Earth for a brief pause on their journeys among the stars.

Niven has been writing stories set in the Draco Tavern for the whole of his career. The earliest story in the book dates from 1977, the latest is copyright 2006. The stories represent a cross section of his writing and unfortunately they are a perfect illustration of his decline as well. The earlier stories are crisp, incisive and a lot of fun. But as time goes on they become woolly, fuzzy and often utterly incomprehensible. I keep buying Niven's books on the basis of the wonderful stories and novels that he wrote at the start of his career. Once upon a time there was nobody to touch him. But something has eaten his brain. He hasn't written anything worth reading for donkey's years and this collection is no exception to that observation. It's such a shame.

Coyote Frontier is the last book in Allen Steele's trilogy about the settlement of the moon called Coyote. The series has been sneered at by a lot of critics, but I rather enjoyed it and the last book was, I felt, truly magnificent in the old fashioned sense of wonder manner. As in all the earlier books, exploration of Coyote takes second place to the politics involved in building an off-Earth colony, particularly given the reactionary politics that have developed on Earth as a result of various ecological crises. Those ideas sit uneasily on the shoulders of the more liberal settlers on Coyote who are not yet facing environmental crises of their own. Complicating the mix is the discovery of a sentient, not to say sapient species on Coyote. The moral dilemmas raised by this are explored very neatly.

If Allen Steele has a fault, that fault is an insistence that his contemporary political system (i.e. that which prevails in the USA at the moment) represents the best of all possible worlds. This is of course arrant nonsense. He is at times revoltingly patriotic and terribly ethnocentric. But in his Coyote novels (as opposed to some of his other writings) the preaching is never too overt and he presents his case cleverly enough that I for one am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. The story is skilfully and subtly told and there is sufficient good old fashioned SF in the mixture to satisfy the most jaded palate. I really don't understand why so many critics have said so many bad things about this series. I think he's done a magnificent job.

But he still doesn't know how to spell Alan, damn him!

When Stephen King finished his Dark Tower magnum opus he announced his retirement from writing. He'd done everything he wanted to do, said everything he wanted to say. That was it. I didn't believe a word of it and so I wasn't surprised when Cell appeared out of the blue last month and I will be equally unsurprised when his next novel (Lisey's Story) appears in October 2006.

The basic premise of Cell is that a sub-lethal pulse is sent over the worldwide cellular phone network. Anybody who uses a cellphone will have their brains blasted and will turn into a lurching zombie straight out of Dawn Of the Dead. The viewpoint character was not using his cellphone when the pulse struck and, of course, he never turns it on again because he doesn't want to have his brain burned by the pulse that is (presumably) still going on.

When the pulse happens, he is on the opposite side of the country from his family. Once he realises what is going on, his over riding concern is to get home. So he embarks on an odyssey across a devastated America. Cell is his story.

And it's great. It's stuffed full of Stephen King's usual gross-out gore and guts. It's the prose equivalent of a George Romero movie (quite intentionally so) and he's done a superb job. I loved every bloody minute of it.

Laura Resnick is Mike Resnick's daughter. Undeterred by her father's huge reputation as a writer, she has determined to follow in her father's footsteps and carve out a writing career of her own. Good for her – I admire her courage. Unfortunately Disappearing Nightly is not going to do much for her reputation.

The basic premise is fascinating. All over New York, stage magicians are putting their gorgeous female assistants into boxes and cases and cabinets. And then the magicians say the magic words and in a cloud of purple smoke, poof! The assistant vanishes.

Except they really do vanish. They vanish all the way. And they don't come back. It's very humiliating for the magician. The act ends on an anti-climax.

The novel, of course, investigates the reasons for the vanishings and tries to come to terms with the arcane secrets that lie behind the curtain.

Unfortunately, after a promising start, Laura Resnick proves unequal to the task she has set herself. The novel is plodding and tedious; it never catches fire and there is no sense of involvement with the characters (who are mostly caricatures). I found the book hard going and I can't honestly recommend it to anyone.

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a book that collects together two extended essays by Samuel R. Delany in which he describes and defends the gay culture that grew up around the sleazy porno movie theatres in Times Square in New York. Delany has been a very active homosexual for most of his life. And much of his sexual activity involved casual encounters in the movie theatres in Times Square. He was quite devastated when the area was earmarked for redevelopment and most of the theatres were closed down and eventually demolished. This book is his attempt to document the life and times and the social etiquette involved in cruising the gay scene in Times Square in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The first essay in the book (Times Square Red) is a factual description of the gay lifestyle that Delany lived during those years. It is full of very graphic descriptions of homosexual encounters (Delany has a penis obsession and he indulges himself in detailed penile reminiscences). It's a cheerful and interesting and often very amusing bit of social commentary. It's great fun and in many ways it's a valuable social document because it describes a way of life and a venue which no longer exists and probably never will again. I enjoyed reading it – it gave me insights into the gay lifestyle that I'd never considered before.

The second essay (Times Square Blue) probably covers much the same ground but it stands back from its subject matter and fills the void with vague philosophical witterings complete with extensive footnotes. That's a semi-polite way of saying that I haven't the foggiest idea what he's talking about in it. As far as I can tell, it's a load of pretentious tosh. It's completely opaque, and probably not worth reading.

For most of the twentieth century one single family provided the hangmen of England. Henry, Tom and Albert Pierrepoint were all in succession number one on the Home Office list of men who were authorised to execute people on behalf of the Government. One extended family of licensed serial killers. Over more than half a century (1901 to 1955), they executed 834 people. Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners is their biography.

In many ways it is a disappointing book. It amounts to little more than a list of the people the Pierrepoints hanged, together with a brief description of the crimes that brought those people to the gallows. I was hoping for much more than this.

In 1974, Albert Pierrepoint published his autobiography. In it he discussed his reasons for applying for the job of hangman. He talked about his father and his uncle (Henry and Thomas) and their lives as executioners. He described what it felt like to conduct an execution, he described the mechanics of the gallows and the secrets of ensuring that the condemned person had a swift and painless death. He placed his life and the lives of his family in the social context of the times and he freely discussed his own opinions on capital punishment. After a life full of death, he came to the conclusion that although the people he killed almost certainly deserved to die, the threat of capital punishment was definitely not a deterrent to a murderer. The shadow of the rope never stopped any killer in their tracks. One anecdote proves the point – on one occasion Albert Pierrepoint was called upon to execute a close friend, a man he knew well. That friend was fully aware of Albert's calling; he knew that Albert was England's executioner, he knew that if he committed murder the last thing he would ever see in this world would be his old friend Albert putting the noose around his neck. It didn't stop him.

Pierrepoint's own book is a much more valuable and much more insightful document than Steve Fielding's. Fielding's book seems hastily put together. It is long on fact and short on feeling. I learned little or nothing about the lives and times of the Pierrepoint family from it. Steve Fielding's book is just a list, a simple catalogue of death, without a single insight, without a single speculation without a single redeeming feature. It has nothing new to offer. It's a waste of paper.

I always arrive at the airport sufficiently early to allow plenty of time to catch my plane. For my latest flight, I left home while the dawn chorus was still having a cough and a spit, prior to bursting into song. The plane was scheduled to take off shortly after dusk.

However this time it proved to be an unnecessary precaution. To my enormous surprise, I was checked in faultlessly within thirty seconds of arriving at the terminal. I was even assigned my correct seat without having to ask. And the secret sins available in the Koru Club were the most sensual and decadent that I have ever indulged myself with.

The plane took off on time and arrived at its destination on time. My luggage, positively festooned with priority tags, was the very first bag to appear on the carousel. There were so many taxis waiting for passengers that I had to fight the taxi-touts off with a stick.

Things always go wrong when I fly. This journey was no exception to that rule. What went wrong was that everything went right. It completely upset all my plans.

And so, as always, I arrived at my motel tired, and fed up with the inefficiencies of Air New Zealand.

Colin Bateman Divorcing Jack Arcade
Colin Bateman Chapter And Verse Headline
Colin Bateman Driving Big Davie Headline
Colin Bateman Cycle of Violence Harper Collins
Colin Bateman Mohammed Maguire Harper Collins
Colin Bateman Turbulent Priests Harper Collins
Colin Bateman Shooting Sean Harper Collins
Colin Bateman Of Wee Sweetie Mice And Men Harper Collins
Colin Bateman Belfast Confidential Headline
Colin Bateman The Horse With My Name Headline
Colin Bateman Maid Of the Mist Harper Collins
Larry Niven The Draco Tavern Tor
Allen Steele Coyote Frontier Ace
Stephen King Cell Scribner
Laura Resnick Disappearing Nightly Luna
Samuel R. Delany Times Square Red, Times Square Blue NYU Press
Steve Fielding Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners John Blake
Previous Contents Next