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wot i red on my hols by alan robson (beatus maximus)

In Which We Get A Cold, Get Beatled and Pull Up Our Sleeves

It started, as so many of these things do, with Robin sneezing and saying, "I've got a cold."

"Bless you," I said, absent mindedly.

"My nose is dripping like a tap."

I examined her carefully. There really was a chromium plated tap sticking out of her left nostril, and its twin protruded shinily from her right nostril. One tap was engraved with the word Hot, the other with the word Cold. Intrigued, I twiddled them, adjusting them carefully for both flow rate and heat. Body temperature mucous streamed freely from her nose and the house began to fill with slime…

The cats perched themselves on the top of the furniture and regarded the swelling sea of snot with horror. "How am I going to get to my food bowl?" asked Porgy plaintively.

"Swim," advised Bess.

"But I can only do the doggy paddle," whined Porgy, "and I'm scared of dogs."

"You're not getting me in there," said Harpo. "I've got beautiful fluffy fur – there's no way I'm going to slime that up." He watched in admiration as Robin swam past on her way to the bathroom. "That's a stylish Australian Crawl you've got there, Robin."

"Thanks," said Robin. "That's because I'm Australian."

"Are you?" asked Harpo, surprised. "I didn't know that. Prove it to me. Tell me what to do with a wombat."

Robin thought for a moment. "Play a game of wom?" she suggested.

"That's right," said Harpo. "Gosh, you really are Australian."

"Dingbat," muttered Robin in disgusted tones.

"Is that what you use to play a game of ding?" asked Harpo.

"No," said Robin. "It's a precision instrument used for tuning bells."

"Hey," said Porgy. "I've got one. I've got one. What's a numbat?"

"It's a nocturnal, flying mammal that feels no pain," said Harpo.

"Oh, you've heard it before," said Porgy, deeply disappointed, and he pushed Harpo into the seething slime.

Harpo struggled out of the snot pool and began to comb his long, shaggy fur with his claws. "Hey," he said, "look how well my fur holds its shape now. This stuff is even better than brylcreem. Hairdressers would pay a fortune for product like this!" He began to curl, tease and slime his fur into place.

Robin laughed so hard at the sight of Harpo carefully styling his fur that she forgot to control her breathing. She inhaled at precisely the wrong moment, choked on a bogie, coughed and sank beneath the surface. She struggled to the kitchen and supported herself on the sink while she regained her breath. I've always wanted to include the kitchen sink in a story, and now I've managed it!

"Turn it off," begged Robin. "Please turn it off."

I swam over to her, using a rather clumsy breast stroke. I've always enjoyed stroking breasts, I've just never been very good at it. I turned the taps firmly in the direction of off, but to my horror they came away in my hands.

"Oh no!" I cried. "They've broken off and now there's a gaping hole in your pipes."

"Aaagghh!" sneezed Robin as more torrents of high pressure snot threatened to fill the house and drown us all. I opened all the doors and windows, but Robin was producing fluid faster than I could get rid of it. A bowl full of cat biscuits floated past with Bess in hot pursuit. Being the clever animal that she is, she was swimming with an elegant catty paddle.

"See?" I said to Porgy. "Pay attention to your sister. You can learn a lot from her.".

"Woof," said Porgy, miserably.

By the next day, Robin was feeling a lot better. The slime had dried out and the house was now full of huge grey, grimy lumps. Robin hit one with her silver hammer (the one she borrowed from Maxwell) and it disintegrated into a fine, powdery dust.

"Hey! This is fun."

She raced through the house, hitting the dessicated piles of snot. One by one they vanished into a haze of fine ash. All our furniture, the TV, the stereo system and the computers were covered with a thin grey film. Harpo strode in to the room, proudly displaying his new beehive furstyle.

"That looks good," I said.

"Thanks," said Harpo. "You can stroke me if you like."

It was like stroking a concrete path. Harpo wiped his bushy tail over the coffee table, producing clouds of fine grit. Then he sneezed.

"Bless you," I said, and he bit me to show his appreciation.

"That gives me an idea," said Robin. She went into her room and started rummaging about in the drawers and digging around in boxes. "I know I've got them somewhere," she muttered.

"Are you looking for something?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, as she examined and rejected a shoe, a ship, a stick of sealing wax, a cabbage and a King. Then: "AHA! I knew they were here." She was clutching a bag that was packed full of small gaily painted boxes.

"What are you going to do with those?"

"I'm going to fill each one to the brim with my snot dust and then sell them for a vast profit on TradeMe."

"Who's going to pay money for a small box full of dried slime?" I asked.

"Everybody will want one," said Robin. "I'll market it as genuine, high class, luxury, fully tested, pre-sniffed snuff."


"Snuff," she confirmed. "Straight out of my nostrils and into yours. Satisfaction guaranteed. An authentic sneeze in every particle. It can't fail."

And now you know why Robin has as much money as she does.

Porgy and I haven't done much reading this month. We've had a bit of a financial crisis and the number of new books flowing into the house has dropped a bit. We did a lot of re-reading, but you've already seen my comments about those books, and when I discussed them with Porgy I found that he completely agreed with my opinions, so neither of us had anything new to add.

But we did settle down with a copy of Ian Rankin's new novel The Complaints. The story concerns one Malcolm Fox who works for the eponymous department. He and his colleagues are unloved even by other members of the force, for they are the policemen who investigate policemen. Malcolm Fox is the answer to the question quis custodiet ipsos custodes.

As the book opens, Malcolm Fox has just successfully closed a case against a corrupt officer in the Edinburgh force. However he has no chance to rest on his laurels. Another policeman, Jamie Breck has a black mark against him. His credit card has been used to join a paedophile web site. Fox is asked to investigate.

It isn't long before another complication enters his life. His sister's partner, a rather brutal thug called Vince Faulkner, is found murdered. Although he is warned off the case, Fox still pokes his nose into the investigation. He forms an alliance of sorts with Jamie Breck and together they find themselves involved in a murky world where criminal activity, property development and official corruption overlap.

The plot is one of the most complex I've ever come across. Porgy was quickly lost in the maze of twists and turns, betrayals and redemptions. Even I found it hard to follow at times and we were both constantly surprised at the size and shape of the rabbits that Rankin kept pulling out of everybody's hats. This is a brilliantly clever book, firmly set in the here and now. A major plot point concerns the effect of the current financial crisis on criminal activity – you'll be amazed at the ramifications.

Ian Rankin rose to fame with a series of police procedural novels about Detective Inspector John Rebus. However, a couple of years ago, Rebus retired from the police force and Rankin was left at a little bit of a loose end. What to do now? With luck, the introduction of Malcolm Fox will start a whole new series. I hope it does; he's a fascinating character.

"I thought he was a much nicer man than Rebus ever was," said Porgy.

"I agree," I said. "He's about as far from Rebus as you could get and still be in the same job. He's a recovering alcoholic, so he never takes a drink. And he's a man who has to work by the book and never break the rules."

"Well of course," said Porgy. "That's the job he's in. He enforces the rules and therefore he has to set a good example."

"True," I said. "But I think he'd do that anyway, because that's the kind of man that he is."

"You're right," said Porgy.

Ian Rankin's mate Peter Robinson also had a new book out this month and Porgy and I thought we might give that one a go as well. Initially we were a bit dubious – The Price Of Love is a collection of short stories and novelettes and Peter Robinson has always been first and foremost a novelist. Such people are seldom happy in the artificial constraints of shorter lengths. But we like Peter Robinson a lot and so we thought we'd give it a go.

It was actually a lot better than either of us expected. Normally, with his police procedural novels about Detective Inspector Alan Banks, Robinson is stuck firmly in the here and now of a modern society. He has on occasion surmounted this limitation by writing stories that depend heavily upon historical events, but nevertheless his chosen genre imposes constraints on his writing. With The Price Of Love he proves that a skilful writer (and he is a very skilful writer) can do justice to any theme.

And so we have a story of colour prejudice in the second world war, a supernatural story, a story of the hippy generation and a story of the horror of the trenches in the first world war. There are three stories about Alan Banks (Robinson is far too fond of his major character to ignore him completely). One of these (Like A Virgin) gives us an insight into Alan's early life in the Metropolitan police, before he moved up north to Eastvale. It is quite fascinating to compare the Alan of this story with the Alan that he became in later years.

"I think Like A Virgin was my favourite story in the whole collection," said Porgy.

"I liked it a lot," i said, "but I think I preferred The Eastvale Ladies Poker Circle."

"That was certainly a very good story," said Porgy. "Quite funny in parts. But I still prefer Like A Virgin."

"There's no accounting for taste," I said.

1963 was the year when everything changed. On November 22nd, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the new Beatles album With The Beatles was released. The lights went out in Camelot, but they were turned up very brightly in Liverpool. And the hindsight of history suggests that the release of the album was perhaps the more significant of the two big events of that day.

The album had a monochrome cover with the half-shadowed and very grainy faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo glaring at the world. It was their second LP that year – they were always a prolific band – and I'd practically played the grooves off Please, Please Me, their first album. Now I had some new songs to listen to. I approached it with a sense of enormous anticipation.

Initially I wasn't impressed – the quality control on the new album was terrible, it was obviously a rush job aimed at the Christmas market. The sound balance and the mix was appallingly bad; and on my cheap Dansette record player there were tracks where Ringo's cymbals all but drowned out the voices and guitars of the other three. And the only way I could get Roll Over Beethoven to play at all was to put a sixpence on top of the stylus to weigh it down and force it to follow the grooves. Without the sixpence it jumped and skipped and made nonsense of the song.

Nevertheless, this was a Beatles Album, the new Beatles album. In 1963 that overshadowed everything else.

There had been music before the Beatles, of course. I had an LP by the Shadows and singles by Marty Wilde and Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. I even had some singles by American singers; Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly. And who could forget the gloriously named B. Bumble and the Stingers with their rock and jazz inspired parodies of classical themes? But that music was just there, not quite in the background, but definitely not part of the foreground either. If it came on the radio I listened to it with enjoyment, but I made no great effort to seek it out and often I didn't turn my record player on for weeks at a time.

But in 1963 the Beatles were number one in both the singles charts and the album charts and absolutely nothing else had any significance to me at all. I was living in a whole new world, a whole new time, a whole new sensory experience. Black and white turned into colour overnight. Away with drabness and post-war austerity! Begone dull care! We'd never had it so good. Suddenly music mattered in a way that it had never mattered before. It was a revolution into style, to paraphrase George Melly who wrote a whole book about it. Popular culture had turned into art, and the Beatles were in the vanguard of the revolution.

In that same magical year of 1963, Dora Bryan sang All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle. My friend Chris' cat had four kittens. They were called John, Paul, George and Ringo, and who cared that they were all girl cats? Everybody wanted a Beatle for their very own. Newspapers conducted surveys to find out which Beatle was the most popular Beatle. It turned out that they all were.

The carefully coiffured duck's arse haircut with its outrageously elaborate quiff that my generation had borrowed from the teddy boys of the 1950s, and which we cemented securely into place on our head with brylcreem, was now a thing of the past. Brylcreem vanished from the shop shelves. We washed our hair (some of us for the first time in years) and we combed it forwards and we grew it long, inducing apoplexy in retired colonels from Tunbridge Wells. I remember having hair inspections at school. Grim faced masters with rulers measured the length of our locks and issued firm instructions to visit the barber. (Today, now that shaved heads are a fashion statement, I imagine that the teachers issue firm instructions to stop visiting the barber. So it goes.)

It couldn't last, and it didn't last. By 1970 the Beatles had split up and gone their separate ways. We only had them for seven years and thirteen albums. Such a short time to change the world; but that's what they did.

And now those classic albums have been remastered and re-released in an attractive CD box set and as I played them all this weekend I realised that, quite literally, I knew every word and every note of every song on every album. The Beatles had worn deep, familiar grooves in my mind. But familiarity has not bred contempt. Far from it. True magic can never grow stale.

The Beatles defined and sometimes redefined the meaning of music. Even in the early songs, when they were just another rock and roll group, they still managed to demonstrate musical and lyrical subtleties that were head and shoulders above anything their contemporaries were producing. ("Twanging guitars!" yelled my father in annoyance. "I'm fed up of hearing twanging guitars!").

Everybody who was anybody (and quite a lot who weren't anybody at all; do you remember Marmalade?) wanted to record a Beatles song, and most of them did, to their great, albeit temporary, fortune.

William Mann, a music critic with The Times analysed their music and praised the aeolian cadences of John Lennon's voice as he sang Not A Second Time. When Lennon read the article he was heard to mutter, "What the hell is an aeolian cadence? Sounds like an exotic bird!"

Perhaps the Beatles really didn't know what they were doing in a strictly technical sense. Certainly there's absolutely no doubt at all that behind the scenes the svengali-like presence of George Martin, their record producer, contributed enormously to their success. But talent is its own reward. When you pay no attention to the rules (because you don't know what the rules are) the results are almost always dire unless you are genius enough to invent a whole new set of rules to put in their place. Out of ignorance, the Beatles told George Martin what they wanted to do. He showed them how to do it. It worked. Oh! How it worked.

I suppose everybody has a favourite Beatles song. Mine is Penny Lane. What's yours?

Penny Lane was released in 1967 as a single (backed with Strawberry Fields Forever which is also my favourite Beatles song). I'd pretty much given up buying singles by then because they were too expensive. But I bought that one and played both sides of it to death. My father hated it.

"Living is easy with eyes closed," sang John Lennon on Strawberry Fields Forever.

"That's stupid," said my dad. "You can't live with your eyes closed. You'd keep bumping into things and hurting yourself. It isn't easy at all, it's very hard."

My father, a very literal man, simply couldn't cope with metaphors.

As Robin and I listened to the Beatles over the course of a music filled weekend, Robin said something very profound:

"The only drawback of being a Beatle is that you never got to listen to the music the same way that other people did. Isn't that a shame?"

One of Porgy's favourite writers is Jane Lindskold and when he told me that she had just published a new novel I went straight out and bought it, and hang the expense.

It is called Nine Gates and it is a direct sequel to her earlier Thirteen Orphans. Indeed it takes up exactly where Thirteen Orphans left off. If you haven't read the earlier book (or if you have forgotten some of the detail of the plot) you will find Nine Gates very confusing indeed.

The mission from the Lands of Smoke And Sacrifice has failed, leaving the protagonists stranded on our Earth. The only way back requires the Thirteen Orphans to build the Nine Gates. To do that they must first save the Four Guardians of the Lands Between who are under magical attack.

Meanwhile, romance is blooming. Brenda Morris (the Rat) is falling in love with the handsome young man who is the Tiger from the Land of Smoke and Sacrifice, much to the annoyance of the young woman who is the Snake.

The Significant Capital Letters and the somewhat arbitrary nature of the tasks the groups have to perform are redolent of plot coupon devices which are only there to pad out the story. To be fair, that is intrinsic to the kind of story that Jane Lindskold has opted to tell, so we shouldn't judge her too harshly, but nevertheless a bit less Significance and far fewer Numbers would have been a huge relief.

On balance, the tale is excitingly told and it is definitely a page turner.

"I thought it had too many characters to keep track of," said Porgy.

"There's certainly a lot of them," I agreed. "You really have to concentrate. My major problem was keeping their relationships and motivation straight. I was often confused about who was doing what to whom, and why."

"That's what happens in big, complicated stories," said Porgy. "Let's face it, this isn't volume 2 of a series. It's the next instalment of a very long continuous narrative."

"That's quite insightful of you, Porgy," I said. "I think you are absolutely correct."

Robin came home from work bubbling over with excitement.

"I've been asked to knit some jumpers for the dogs," she announced.


"The Animal Control people at the city council want jumpers for their dogs so that the poor things don't get cold in winter. We're all doing it. Look – here are the patterns." She showed me a leaflet with a picture of a goofy dog on the front cover. It was wearing a blue jumper and it looked mildly embarrassed. Its tongue was blushing.

"Isn't it cute?" asked Robin. "This is going to be great. Knitting dog jumpers is my favourite kind of knitting."


"Because dog jumpers have four sleeves."

Robin is good at knitting sleeves. Eventually, when she has enough of them stockpiled, she will grudgingly knit backs and fronts, tops and bottoms, necks and crotches. But she rather resents having to do that. Sleeves are her pride and joy. Once she knitted me a jumper.

"It's got three sleeves," I said.

"No it hasn't," said Robin. "It's got two sleeves and a willy warmer."

Ian Rankin The Complaints Orion
Peter Robinson The Price Of Love Hodder and Stoughton
Jane Lindskold Nine Gates Tor
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