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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (scandium)

In Which We Fall Down Stairs And Rip Up A Weed

This is the sound that Robin makes when she trips and falls down the concrete steps in the garden:

Bump, bump, bump, bump...Bump.


Thus summoned, I raced outside to see what had happened. Robin was lying, pale, shocked and tearful at the bottom of the steps. I hurried down to her.

"Where does it hurt?"


"Can you stand up?"


"Hang on to me and try and stand. Then we'll get you inside and take a closer look."


Eventually, taking slow, baby steps, we climbed back up and got ourselves into the lounge. I sat Robin down and examined her carefully. There was a small cut oozing blood on her knee and a ragged graze on her other knee. A small graze on her bottom looked quite insignificant, so I ignored it and concentrated on cleaning up the two cuts on her legs. I put sticking plaster on them.

"I think you'll be OK," I said. "You've been very lucky; there doesn't seem to be any significant damage."


"Perhaps you ought to go to bed," I suggested. "You've had quite a shock and you need to rest."


The next morning she was very stiff and sore. The cuts on her legs had scabbed over nicely. However the graze on her bottom, which I'd ignored because it looked so superficial, had blossomed overnight into an enormous purple and red blotchy bruise that covered most of her hideously swollen left buttock.

"You must have taken most of the force of the fall on your bottom," I said. "Good job it's extremely well padded."

I ducked quickly in order to avoid the vase that she threw at me. She craned her neck and admired her left buttock in the dressing table mirror. "Purple," she said in tones of deepest satisfaction. "I like purple. It's my favourite colour."

"Well," I said, "I think you're going to have plenty of time to enjoy it. That is a very impressive bruise!"


The bruise was exactly the same shape as Australia. Interestingly it was exactly the same size as Australia as well. Robin had to shuffle sideways into the bedroom. Continents can't get through doors broad side on; they can only infiltrate with their edges.

"What's that square, pink bit?" she asked, poking the Gulf of Carpentaria. A salt water crocodile swam up from the depths of Robin's bottom and snapped at her fingers. Fortunately she snatched them away in time.

I tried to take a photograph of her bottom, but I couldn't find a lens with a wide enough angle. I pondered the advantages of hitching a ride into low Earth orbit over Robin. Surely her bottom would fit in my viewfinder if I was high enough above it?

She took her bottom to the doctor who was most impressed at the enormous size and the rich colour of the bruising. Nurses were called in to admire it, and there was talk of framing it and exhibiting Robin in the waiting room for the edification of waiting patients. Adverts were booked on the television, an interview was arranged on John Campbell's current affairs show and an eager queue formed outside the medical centre. A nurse was seconded to collect the entrance fee...

But no agreement could be reached on how to split the proceeds, and so the plan came to nothing. Arnica cream was prescribed instead; it seemed a reasonable alternative.

Since Robin couldn't really reach to rub the cream in herself, twice a day I had the indescribable pleasure of saying sternly to her: "Right! Take your pants off and bend over!"

And she did. Oh! The power, the power!

Arnica cream is rather strong smelling. As I massaged it into Melbourne, Robin's sister and her children stuck their heads up and said: "Pooh! What's that horrible smell?"

I rubbed more cream into the Nullarbor desert and herds of feral camels fled in terror across the vast, trackless wastes of Robin's bottom and smashed themselves into the Indian Pacific train. Eventually the cream reached Perth where it made the fairway on the golf course very slippery and completely messed up her father's game. He was furious. "Get that stuff out of here! You ruined a perfect hole in twenty one."

Over the course of the next few days, and after several copious applications of Arnica cream, the purple colour receded until it occupied only Robin's coastline. Sharks swam lazily up and down the fringes of her left buttock, feeding on careless surfers and the corpses of the pre-chewed get-well-soon rats that our cats brought in to comfort her. The interior of her posterior turned yellow and began to look much more like the vast deserts that actually make up much of Australia. At night, when I put my head beneath the bedclothes, I could distinctly see the flickering flames of Aboriginal campfires scattered all over Robin's bottom, and I could hear the hollow, haunting rhythms of a didgeridoo. I watched, fascinated until olfactory evidence convinced me that it wasn't really a didgeridoo that was making that noise, and I was forced to retreat from Robin's weapon of mass destruction, back into the fresh air.

Over time, we eased off on the application of Arnica cream. Sales of gas masks in Australia dropped as dramatically as a Qantas aeroplane and the feral camels of the Nullarbor stopped their hysterically frenzied attacks on the first class coaches of the Indian Pacific railway. The aborigines ended their corroboree and packed the didgeridoos away in the luggage compartments of their Daimler and Rolls Royce billabongs. Robin's father had a hip replacement operation to try and improve his golf game. It worked brilliantly, but he remained uncertain as to whether or not the lack of Arnica cream was a contributing factor. All the sharks died of starvation. The swelling died down and once again, Robin had a pristine bum and could walk forwards through doors.

And they all lived happily ever afterwards.

I don't know about you, but whenever I think about Scandinavia I tend to picture gloomy, bearded men huddled around fires, drinking beer from cow horns and chanting sagas to each other down their mobile phones. As far as their presence in literature is concerned, it seems to begin and end with Henrik Ibsen and possibly Tove Jansson and the Moomins, if you are that way inclined (and who isn't?).

But now I'm going to have to revise this picture – it seems that for the last few decades, the Scands have been busying themselves with the writing of absolutely top-notch detective fiction, but nobody in the English speaking world knew about it because the books weren't being translated.

And then, a few years ago, Vintage, an enterprising publisher, took a punt and brought out translations of Henning Mankell's novels about the Swedish detective Kurt Wallender. It seems that they sold quite well and so they began to cast their eyes over the rest of the Scands to see if there were any more potential money spinners hiding there. And what a treasure trove they found! Now, as well as Henning Mankell, we have Ake Edwardson, Jo Nesbo and the utterly sublime Arnaldur Indridason. And probably many others that I haven't found yet.

(I wish I knew how to put the proper diacritical marks in here: there's a little circle over the A in Ake, the O in Nesbo has a diagonal line through it and the second d in Indridason has a cross on it like a letter t. But you are just going to have to imagine all of those…)

Mankell was the first of these writers that I read, and he's been very prolific. There are 8 Wallender novels, 2 sidestream novels and several standalones. So far I've only read the first 3 Wallender books, but I really enjoyed them.

Kurt Wallender is an inspector of police based in the Swedish town of Ystad in the district of Skane. He's a fairly stereotypical genre policeman – his wife has left him, he is estranged from his daughter, and he drinks too much. However the attraction of the books arises partly from the interplay of character (Mankell is extremely good at bringing his characters alive) but also from the historical and political insights that arise from a series of novels set in a European country with a very different history from those countries that surround it. Sweden was neutral during the second world war, but the countries around it were invaded and occupied by the Nazis and (in the case of the Balkans at least) subsumed into the Soviet empire after the end of the war. This has had an effect on Sweden's political and social growth and has also, to a certain extent, isolated it from the European mainstream.

This different way of looking at the world colours the books; it is always there in the background, adding a sometimes quite foreign and uncomfortable tingle to the story, which I find very refreshing. On occasion, these background details are overtly invoked in the foreground – an important plot point in Faceless Killers is that the murder victim made a lot of money during the war by selling food to the Germans.

Sometimes the books are very unconventionally structured. The Dogs Of Riga opens with two dead men drifting in a life raft. We never learn exactly who they were or who tortured and murdered them (though we do learn why). Instead those two corpses mark the beginning of a trail that leads Kurt Wallender into Latvia (which, he learns, was once a Swedish colony) where he finds out far more than he ever wanted to know about life under a totalitarian regime. Politics are very important in Henning Mankell's books. The third Wallender novel (The White Lioness) is about the apartheid regime in South Africa. It's hard to imagine how political upheavals in South Africa could be at all influenced by criminal goings-on in Sweden, but nevertheless it happens and the nail-biting plot is utterly convincing from page 1 onwards.

It seems quite clear that Henning Mankell has a political agenda of his own. He never preaches overtly (at least I don't think so; it's hard to tell, because I'm definitely in the choir that he's standing in front of). However his saving grace is that he always overlays whatever message there may be with a rattling good yarn, which, let's face it, is all that really matters in the final analysis. I've got a large pile of Mankell books sitting on my shelves now, and I'm greatly looking forward to reading them.

I was mildly disappointed with the only Ake Edwardson book I've read. Frozen Tracks is a novel about a paedophile. It is autumn in Gothenburg. An anxious mother calls the police. Her son, who is sitting quite safely at home, has told her a worrying story about being in a car with a man who offered him sweets and took him for a drive. Other children report similar events to their parents but all the incidents take place in different police districts and there is no central administration for coordinating the reports. So nobody knows that a possible paedophile is stalking the children of Gothenburg. The reports are filed and largely forgotten as one-off incidents. After all, the children returned home unharmed.

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Winter (a curiously Anglophonic name for a Swedish policeman, I wonder if the translator was taking liberties?) is investigating a series of attacks on university students. Then a four year old child is abducted. Winter finds out about the previous incidents and becomes alarmed, particularly when he finds a connection to the students he has been investigating. The plot thickens in a nicely complex manner and the tension tightens unbearably. I was thoroughly engaged with the plot and the characters. But then I got to the end of the story and I found it a big let down – the resolution of the problem was simply not convincing. To a certain extent I can forgive the weakness of the ending for the sake of the chase; but nevertheless I was very disappointed.

Jo Nesbo is Norwegian. The detective hero of his novels is called Harry Hole, an unfortunate name to English-speaking eyes, but never mind. Again he's a clichéd cop; alcoholic, driven by demons, a man who breaks all the rules. But if you can put that behind you, you will be rewarded with stories of pleasing complexity.

Again there's a political subtext. Running behind the scenes (and sometimes in the foreground, particularly in The Redbreast) is Harry's ongoing feud with another detective, Tom Waaler. Unknown to Harry (but known to the reader, so this is not a spoiler), Tom is a neo-nazi, violently prejudiced against jews and liberals and non-patriots. He smuggles guns into Norway and he arms and controls various far right splinter groups. Often his political beliefs shade over into his police work and Harry suspects him of having killed witnesses and policemen who got in the way of his hidden agenda.

Woven in and around this feud (which stretches over several books) are surprisingly rich and complex stories full of keenly observed action and immediately identifiable characters. Nesbo seems intimately at home with subjects as diverse as the Norwegians who fought for the German Army at the Siege of Leningrad and the intricacies of the modern day diamond market.

And then there is Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason who is just stunningly brilliant by any yardstick you may choose to measure him with. His detective hero is Erlendur. Together with his two sidekicks Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli, they investigate crimes in Reykjavik.

Indridason's novels generally have an unconventional structure. Sometimes we aren't even sure until quite late in the book that a crime has even been committed at all. And even when we are sure of the events, we still take pleasure in watching Erlendur struggle with the circumstances because we, the readers, always know far more about what is happening than the police themselves do. It makes for an unusual and interesting kind of story.

But perhaps the real hero of the book is Iceland itself and the strange society the Icelanders have built for themselves in that harsh, cruel country hidden from view at the top of the world. The population is small and almost everybody is related to everybody else. For all practical purposes, surnames are non-existent (patronymics and matronymics abound, but that doesn't help). Everybody is addressed by forename, and even the telephone directories are arranged in alphabetical order of first names.

The land itself is cruel and unforgiving. When Erlendur was a child he and his younger brother were caught in a sudden snow storm. Erlendur survived; his brother did not. And his brother's body was never found. He just vanished like a will o' the wisp into the darkness. That experience has coloured the whole of Erlendur's life. Even now he sometimes returns to the grim, barren landscape of his youth and spends his holidays searching for his brother's remains. If there is any truth to my somewhat whimsical opening remarks about angst-ridden Scandinavians, it is true of the Icelanders.

Around this central theme, Indridason has wrapped complex stories of character and (sometimes) politics; stories of drugs and spying and of growing up alienated and holding grudges. And sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically, Indridason uses the storm that took Erlendur's brother as a thread to weave motive and opportunity together. These are strange and deeply unsettling books that crawl into your head and refuse to come out again. The genre that Indridason has chosen to build his stories upon is an irrelevance – yes, these are detective novels. But they are first and foremost novels. Everything else is window dressing.

Obviously I've suffered a surfeit of Scand this month, but I have read a modicum of SF as well. Two books, in fact – a rather disappointing novel by Kage Baker and the utterly brilliant last novel in Jo Walton's small change sequence.

I think that after completing her massive time travel series about The Company, Kage Baker is just noodling around looking for something new. Perhaps she's waiting for inspiration to strike. The House Of The Stag is a fantasy novel set in the same world as her earlier novel The Anvil Of The World though if the blurb hadn't told me that, I don't think I'd have noticed. It lacks the whimsical humour of the first novel and falls flat on its face as a result because the story it tells is really rather ordinary.

We begin in a sort of Neolithic Eden. One family of the Yendri tribe has adopted a small child who they find abandoned in the forest. There are suspicions that Gard (as they name him) might be a half-breed demon. Nevertheless he grows up quite happily in the bosom of his adopted family. Then the paradise in which they live is invaded. The Riders conquer and enslave the peaceful Yendri. Only Gard appears to have the necessary rage (and skill) to fight back against them and for a time he wages a one man guerrilla war against the conquerors. But the struggle ends with the loss of his adopted family and Gard is exiled from the tribe. He travels into the mountains where he is captured and enslaved by a race of wizards who live underground. Gard starts at the bottom of this society but he soon learns how it works. The hidden rules and regulations that bind any society are his to manipulate. And so by skill, cunning and sheer good luck he rises to a position of great power and is able to take his revenge on those who have wronged him.

There's not a lot to get excited about in this story; we've all read it a thousand times. Normally I'd have expected Kage Baker to tell the tale with wry humour and to invent quirky, almost Vancean social structures to wrap her story around. Certainly that's what she did in the earlier The Anvil Of The World. But she fails to do it here and consequently the story just plods along.

Half A Crown is the third novel in Jo Walton's trilogy about life in fascist Britain after the so called Farthing Peace Accord ended the second world war in 1941. Earlier novels (Farthing and Ha'penny) explored the effect of the Farthing Accord on British life in the immediate post war period. For the elite, not much really changed in terms of the way they lived their lives, but for those lower down in the food chain life was often rather grim. Jews, anti-government protesters, homosexuals and similar undesirables simply vanished into the death camps.

The current novel is set in 1960. Peter Carmichael, the policeman hero of the earlier novels, has now left the force and is the head of the Watch, a gestapo-like organisation charged with weeding out dissenters, traitors and Jews. He uses his privileged position to sneak as many dissenters to safety as he can, treading a very fine line between duty and desire. He is living an extremely dangerous life – not only is he abusing his authority by sabotaging the final solution, he is himself a practising homosexual and if his relationship with his valet Jack is ever made public he too will be sent to the camps.

As the novel opens, Peter's debutante teenage ward Elvira is about to be presented to the Queen. Unfortunately she overhears a conversation that will, if she reveals what she knows, destroy her guardian. Elvira is a political naïf who has lived a life of casually accepted indulgence. She's a feather brain who accepts the authoritarian society without question.

"...and you, Miss Royston, are you fond of fascism?"

"Oh yes, I think it's the most terrific fun."

But then she ends up in police custody after attending a political rally that turns violent. Her eyes are rudely opened to the realities of fascism. Watching Elvira change and mature is the chief delight of this novel.

Jo Walton has always had a lot of fun in the telling of these stories by introducing historical characters whose lives have taken somewhat different courses from the lives they lived in our world. In Half A Crown I was pleased to meet a thinly disguised Guy Burgess, much risen in the world but philosophically indistinguishable from his alter-ego in our own historical past. Though perhaps he is marginally more sober. I was also amused to see a political agitator, a handsome and talented, though unnamed, singer from Liverpool who incites riots and preaches against the establishment. Given that the novel is set in 1960, I think we can all draw the right conclusions.

One of the strengths that has raised this whole trilogy above the norm is Jo Walton's magnificently clear vision of just what British fascism would really have been like had the blackshirts ever come to power. It would have been utterly unlike its Continental manifestations because, quite simply, the British are not European. Despite all that has happened, British institutions remain decidedly British. It takes more than a repressive government to stop the gels coming out for the season. Even the interrogations in the police cells have to stop for a cup of tea; and yes, the prisoner gets one as well – denying the prisoner tea would have been regarded as utterly inhumane; quite horrifying.

There's a cunningly constitutional twist in the tail of this wholly delightful book which rounds the series off nicely. It's not quite "and they all lived happily ever after", but it does leave a refreshing hope for the future. The trilogy is a tour de force and Jo Walton richly deserves all the plaudits that she has received for it.

My garden was a jungle. Creepy creepers crept over the lawn and engulfed the shed. Triffids lurked in the weeds, stalking and ambushing the innocent travellers who waited patiently at the bus stop on the footpath just outside the gate. On quiet days the pathetic cries of strangling roses wafted in the wind. Deep in the foetid undergrowth gangs of Maori freedom fighters could be heard holding a hui on the application of Marxist-Leninist doctrine to iwi and hapu, and its effect on whanau in a post-Hegelian, post-Colonial society.

Drastic action was required. I made a desperate phone call.

"Help," I explained.

"I'll be there immediately."

There was a whoosh and suddenly there he was – Supergardener to the rescue! His torn cloak billowed in the wind. He wore a blue boiler suit with grass-stained underpants hanging loosely on the outside. He struck a dramatic pose. The dramatic pose struck him back, but after a brief squabble Supergardener triumphed.

"Show me this garden, squire," he commanded, and I obeyed.

"Oooohh. Sheeee...," he sucked air through his teeth. "It's a big job, squire. Lots to do. And it's a bad time of year." He paused and thought for a while, supporting himself on the desiccated corpse of a Mormon missionary that was slowly digesting in the belly of the enormous Venus Fly Trap that coiled around the front gate. "I'll tell you what," he continued. "Because it's you, I'll give you a special rate and we'll clear the lot for a small fortune. How does that sound?"

"Fortunately", I said, "my fortune is very small indeed. It's a perfect match. I'll accept your kind offer. When can you start?"

"Tomorrow," said Supergardener. He scratched vigorously deep inside his grass-stained underpants. "Hedgehogs," he explained.

The next day Supergardener and Derek the Boy Wonder turned up bright and early, pitchforks at the ready, flame throwers cocked. Slowly the jungle retreated under their onslaught. "Nasturtium," said Supergardener as he dragged a huge ragged bush up the garden path to the trailer attached to his ute. "You can put that in a salad. Good for you." He tore off a broad leaf and took a bite. He chewed thoughtfully for a time and then spat it out. "Perhaps not," he said and re-entered the fray. He rescued Derek from the clutches of an over-enthusiastic vine that was slowly strangling a power pole and which appeared to prefer the taste of the Boy Wonder to the taste of concrete lightly seasoned with possum collar. "I've warned you about that stuff before," he said. "Don't you ever learn?" Derek looked suitably chastened.

Faster than I would have believed possible, the dynamic duo cleared up the weeds. Naked beds of dirt shivered in the breeze and hunched against the fence, protecting their vitals with rampant roses and begging for mercy and mulch.

Supergardener leaned nonchalantly on his pitchfork. "Just got to get rid of the stuff we pulled up and then mulch the dirt beds and we're done," he said. He turned his super gaze to the tottering tower of foliage piled up in the trailer. Heat rays shot out from his eyes and the foliage shrivelled and burned to a dull grey ash which blew away in the wind.

"Very Aristotelian," I said.

"Yes," agreed Supergardener, "those post-Platonic Greeks really knew their stuff when it came to their theories of vision and their descriptions of how eyeballs work."

He sent the Boy Wonder off to get a load of mulch and when he returned they hastily spread it all over the whimpering soil. Sighs of relief could be heard quite clearly as the mulch covered the multitude of sins that the weeding had exposed. The garden lay naked, silent and still, basking in the sunshine.


Supergardener and Derek the Boy Wonder left to rescue another hapless garden. This fight was over now; it had been just another job. From their point of view it was just one more skirmish in their never ending battle to make the world a sanctuary for flowers; a place where vegetables could stand tall and proud without their rights and freedoms being compromised. Death to All Terrorists! Weeds will never flourish as long as Supergardener and Derek maintain their vigilance.

"Who was that masked man?" asked Robin as they rode off into the sunset.

Now that everything was safe and quiet again, the cats came out of hiding and began to explore the revitalised garden that had been presented to them.

They were thrilled. So many new toilets, so little poo.

Henning Mankell Faceless Killers Vintage
Henning Mankell The Dogs Of Riga Vintage
Henning Mankell The White Lioness Vintage
Ake Edwardson Frozen Tracks Vintage
Jo Nesbo The Redbreast Vintage
Jo Nesbo The Devil's Star Vintage
Jo Nesbo Nemesis Vintage
Arnaldur Indridason Tainted Blood Vintage
Arnaldur Indridason Silence Of The Grave Vintage
Arnaldur Indridason Voices Vintage
Arnaldur Indridason The Draining Lake Vintage
Kage Baker The House Of The Stag Tor
Jo Walton Half A Crown Tor
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