wot I red on my hols by alan robson (campylobacter cryptosporidissimus)
It's Not A Bug, It's A Creature.
Winnie the Pooh,
And Tigger too,
Went for a walk in the park.
Jack the Ripper was there,
He was hunting for bear
And he needed to kill before dark.
Jack the Ripper said, "Pooh,
I am coming for you!"
But Winnie the Pooh wasn't scared.
He faced up to Jack
And threatened him back.
"You're dead!" Jack the Ripper declared.
"Oh no," said the Pooh,
"That really won't do.
I'll not play at your silly game.
You cannot kill me.
We're related, you see.
We've both got the same middle name!"
The Saga of Baron Sloan
– Anona R. Slob
From the anthology: Refractory Nose-Pickings For the Gentry
Edited by Nola Bronas
(c) Nasal Boron Press (2016)
The streets of the town where I live are deserted. The shops are mostly closed and so are all the schools.
Our water supply is contaminated with campylobacter bacteria. More than 5000 people, about a third of the population, have suffered terrible gastric problems. One person has died and two are in intensive care. Queues at doctors' surgeries and at hospital emergency departments go twice around the block. Until further notice, we have to boil all our water before using it. Careful hand washing before preparing food is mandatory.
I first became aware of the problem when, quite out of the blue, a friend sent me an email asking me if I was boiling my drinking water, and providing a reference to a story on a local news site that, somewhat breathlessly, outlined what was going on. Since the news site in question generally shows as much respect for the accuracy of its stories as it does for the spelling of the words that make up the story and for the grammar of the sentences its so-called reporters construct from those words (i.e. not very much at all) I treated the report with some scepticism. I knew that the local hospital had recently identified an outbreak of gastric problems in its wards which was quickly isolated and contained and which really didn't amount to anything very much at all. So I simply assumed that the news site was reporting a garbled version of that old story, and I paid no attention.
Over the next few days, it became apparent that we really did have a serious problem. More and more news outlets began reporting on it. Schools began reporting that many of their pupils and some of their staff were absent. As a result, the schools eventually all closed down completely and sent their few remaining pupils home.
A lot of local businesses had so many of their staff off sick that they too had to shut up shop. Cafés and restaurants were particularly badly affected because they, of course, were completely dependant on a clean water supply and without it, they were unable to properly infuse and cook. But even if the cafés and restaurants had remained open, it probably wouldn't have done them any good – there simply weren't any customers around to drink the coffee or to eat the food.
Something was clearly very wrong, and the description of the symptoms sounded quite alarming. Advice about boiling the water before use to keep it bacteria-free began to appear in the news bulletins. A spokesman for the council repeated this advice on the radio and claimed that all local residents had been informed of the problem – a blatant lie. Neither I, nor any of my neighbours received any official notification about what was going on. To be fair, the council was very quick to post information on its web site, but it had little practical effect. Many of the local people are quite elderly and very few of them have any internet access. A report appeared on the news of a person who lived alone and who was suffering from severe diarrhoea. Knowing that this put him in great danger of dehydration, and being quite unaware of the water contamination, he was drinking lots of water and continually reinfecting himself. His condition got worse and worse and worse... Fortunately he was found in time and was able to be treated.
The council quickly moved to chlorinate the water supply in an attempt to kill the bacteria, but the advice to boil the water remained in place. Council spokespeople were interviewed on the news and proudly proclaimed that they had worked with the Red Cross to knock on every door in the town to check on the health of the inhabitants and to keep them informed of the crisis. Again, a blatant lie. The Red Cross pitched a tent in the grounds of the bridge club where they dispensed advice and electrolytes, but nobody actually came to see me or my neighbours.
The local supermarket brought in huge loads of bottled water which they sold at cost (a marvellous public relations exercise as well as being a very practical and useful thing to do). The council got in on the act as well and provided water tankers from which people could fill their own containers at no charge. However this proved to be a less than successful exercise since one of the water tankers turned out to be contaminated with E. Coli, and the water from it was potentially just as dangerous as that from the domestic supply. Again the news broadcasts on the radio were quick to latch on to this and people who had taken water from this tanker were advised to pour it away.
Two whole days after the contaminated water tanker was discovered, I received my first (and so far my only) official communication from the council. A leaflet arrived in my mailbox advising me not to use the water from that tanker. I could clearly hear the sound of horses bolting away and stable doors slamming shut...
I find it somewhat ironic that the local supermarkets and chain stores have no problem whatsoever in promptly delivering junk mail detailing their special offers to every house in the town. And yet the council consistently fails to to distribute its informational leaflets efficiently or in a timely manner. Perhaps the council should ask the chain stores to run its communications division.
Personally, the infected water supply has had little practical effect on me, other than the inconvenience. Certainly I've not had any gastric problems at all. Perhaps that's because I seldom drink water straight from the tap. Mostly it gets used to brew coffee and tea, and in cooking of course. All these activities require the water to be boiled. However I do take some medications with water, and of course I use water when I'm brushing my teeth...
For the first couple of days after the outbreak was reported, I paid no attention to the alarmist reports on the increasingly shrill news sites. After all, I expected the council to tell me if there was any danger (silly me). So during that time I was potentially at risk. Probably my minimal usage of water direct from the tap helped me to avoid any bad effects. Also I'm a stickler for hand hygiene during food preparation, which also helped. I studied chemistry at university and there's nothing like a session in a chemistry laboratory to teach you about the importance of clean hands – some of those chemicals are nasty. Chemists define themselves as people who always wash their hands before they go to the toilet...
Once I accepted that the council's deafening silence meant that there really was a crisis, I started to avoid tap water completely. I took showers with my mouth firmly closed, and I put a glass and some bottled water by the bathroom sink. I had a stock pot full of water in the kitchen which I boiled for five minutes and then allowed to cool. I used a soup ladle to extract what I needed for this and that culinary purpose. Eventually I got fed up with that laborious process and I started using bottled water instead. But sometimes instinct kicks in, particularly in the early morning when you are still half asleep and one morning I cleaned my teeth and took my morning tablets with tap water before I woke up and realised what I'd done. Bugger! So much for the glass and the bottle of water on the sink...
There wasn't much I could do about the tablets after I'd swallowed them. But I could (and did) sterilise my toothbrush. I put it in boiling water for five minutes. Then I hung a towel over the bathroom taps and tied it down so that I simply couldn't get at the taps any more. That proved to be a very effective deterrent and I haven't made the same mistake again. Fortunately I seem to have got away with that one relapse. It has had no discernible effect on my digestive mechanisms.
I have no idea who Ari Marmell is, but I do know that he writes amusing and interesting novels. Hot Lead, Cold Iron is the first volume of an urban fantasy series set in 1930s Chicago. The hero is a private eye called Mick Oberon. He is an elf prince who has left his aes sidhe world under something of a cloud and he is now living completely in the human world, though he doesn't like it very much. He is the fairly typical cynical, wise-cracking private eye popularised by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, but his magical powers give him an edge that Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op never had. He doesn't carry a gun, he carries a magic wand. It's a Luchtaine and Goodfellow Model 1592 which contains a sliver of the raft that carried King Arthur to Avalon, and it's never let him down.
Finding himself in need of money, Oberon reluctantly takes on a case to discover what happened to the daughter of a gangster wheeler and dealer. It seems that sixteen years ago she was replaced by a changeling and now she is starting to look and act less and less human. Something needs to be done. Tracking her down and finding who changed her (and why) requires him to revisit the faerie realm, something he is very reluctant to do for reasons that are not completely clear – perhaps this will be resolved in later volumes... But it all comes out all right in the end. Maybe.
Marmell has done a marvellous job of bringing Mick Oberon to life. The story is narrated in the first person, and so we are always well aware of what is going on inside his head. And what is going on in there is decidedly alien. Mick looks human (though that is a glamour) and he acts human as far as he can (he really is acting). The combination of all these things is cleverly eerie and it adds a fascinating dimension to what is really a rather routine story.
There are obvious comparisons to be made here between Mick Oberon and Harry Dresden (the hero of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series who is also a magical investigator). However I much prefer Mick Oberon – Harry Dresden's inability to learn from his mistakes and his complacent stupidity are extremely annoying. Unlike Harry Dresden, Mick Oberon does actually have a brain inside his head, albeit a rather strange one. I am greatly looking forward to reading more stories about him.
Robert Llewellyn played the character Kryten in the hugely popular television SF series Red Dwarf. The Man in the Rubber Mask is an autobiographical account of his time with the show. The book is full of entertaining anecdotes about the making of the TV series and if you are at all interested in behind the scenes gossip then this is probably a book you would enjoy. However Llewellyn himself comes across as a very shallow and uncritical person. Like a lot of actors, if he's not speaking words written for him by somebody else, he often seems to have very little to say. It's a rather gushing, "show-business" book with no real critical insight at all. Llewellyn's intellectual depth can be gauged by the fact that he even has good words to say about the utterly dire American pilot programme which was so appallingly awful that the whole idea of an American version of Red Dwarf had to be abandoned! Really, this is a book for completists only.
Graveyard of the Hesperides is Lindsey Davis' fourth novel about Flavia Alba, the daughter of Falco, who was the hero of her first series of novels about a private detective in ancient Rome. The grown up Flavia has taken up the same profession as her father, who is now retired.
I've been rather disparaging about the earlier Flavia Alba novels – I found their plots predictable and their humour clumsy. However I have nothing but praise for this fourth novel in the series. It represents a true return to form. It is funny, cynical, and very dark. The plot is satisfyingly complex and watching Flavia unravel the tangled threads of it is an absolute joy.
Flavia's fiancée has a contract to renovate a run down old inn called The Garden of the Hesperides. While digging up the back yard, his contractors uncover old human bones. There have long been rumours that the previous owner of the inn killed one of his bar maids and buried her behind the inn. Presumably these bones belong to her. He, however, is long dead and therefore is not available for questioning. The body is at least ten years old. Almost everybody has forgotten what might have happened so long ago, and even fewer people are willing to talk about it. But nevertheless, Flavia soon finds avenues of enquiries to pursue.
It isn't long before more bones are uncovered behind the inn. The back yard seems to have been large enough for several bodies, though oddly the heads are missing and one of the bodies seems to have only one leg. How strange...
If this wasn't enough to cope with, Flavia finds herself coming under more and more pressure from the rest of her family (particularly her sisters) as they try to plan her wedding. Of course they pay no attention whatsoever to Flavia's wishes on the matter. They have their own ideas, which are clearly much better than hers.
Along the way to the solution of the mystery, we learn a lot about social life in ancient Rome. We learn about brothels, the economic realities of life as a prostitute and what happens to sacrificial pigs. We learn all about daily life in the Rome of the underclasses during the reign of the tyrannical emperor Domitian. Lindsey Davis clearly enjoyed researching the background to this novel and her deft touch with the results of her research brings the whole city to boisterous life. It's her best book in years.
Breaking Cover is Stella Rimington's ninth novel about MI5 agent Liz Carlyle, and it's one of the better ones. There's a certain voyeuristic feeling when reading Rimington's novels about the secret service because she herself was actually Director General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996. You can't help wondering just where fiction stops and fact begins in her books.
Some of the Liz Carlyle novels are marred by sometimes melodramatic scenes of violence that just don't ring true. Breaking Cover does not fall into this trap. There is a little bit of violence, but it mostly takes place off stage. This novel is really about the craft of espionage, the tricks of the trade as it were, and it's quite fascinating as a result.
To use a newspaper cliché, the plot has been ripped from the current headlines. The murder of Alexander Litvinenko by Russian agents, the Brexit campaign and Edward Snowden's revelations about national and international security are the backdrop for a story that investigates the nature and depth of Russian penetration of the security services. It all starts with a vague rumour sends Liz on the trail of Russian agents who are working to undermine one of Vladimir Putin's fiercest opponents who is now living in England. And the game's afoot!
In 1977, the book Midnight Express by Billy Hayes was an enormous best seller. A year later, the movie of the book was an equally huge award-winning success. It seemed that Billy Hayes had it made. The book was a lightly fictionalised autobiography and it told of Billy's experiences in a Turkish prison. He was arrested trying to smuggle four pounds of hashish out of Turkey and was given a life sentence. After five rather harsh and harrowing years, he managed to escape. The story had everything going for it: drama, hardship, humour, excitement. It's hardly surprising that it was so popular. Now, almost forty years later, Billy Hayes has written Midnight Return which talks about his life after Midnight Express...
It covers some of the same ground as the first book in that he revisits many of his experiences, though this time he doesn't put quite as much of a fictional gloss on them as he did before. If anything, that makes what he went through sound even more horrific! But Midnight Return also talks in depth about how Billy coped with the notoriety (and the money) that the book and the film brought to him. We also learn that Billy kept up a lengthy correspondence with his friend Harvey who remained locked up in Turkey long after Billy got himself home. Billy's escape made things much harder for Harvey. The Turkish authorities didn't have Billy to punish any more, but Harvey made a good substitute. The film (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the book) showed Turkey in a very bad light – as Billy admits in Midnight Return, the corruption and sadism that was inherent in the system was over exaggerated. Not unnaturally, the Turkish authorities took umbrage, and again they took their frustrations out on Harvey. For a time this drove a wedge into the friendship between Harvey and Billy, but later they were reconciled and their correspondence was renewed. After many years, Harvey was eventually repatriated to America, and he and Billy met again in person for the first time in more than a decade. They remain close friends to this day.
Both Midnight Express and Midnight Return paint Billy in a rather poor light. He comes across as a selfish and very egotistical person. I'm not sure I'd like him very much if I ever chanced to meet him. But there is no denying that both books make very powerful statements about the darker sides of humanity.
One good thing has come out of this public health débâcle. I was taking Jake the Dog for his evening walk late one afternoon when a car overflowing with District Nurses on their way to succour the sick came screeching to a halt beside me. Jake looked on benignly, wagging his tail as he enjoyed the spectacle. A District Nurse in full regalia climbed out of the car and spread her arms wide.
"Jake!" she cried. "It's me!"
Jake went absolutely berserk with happiness. His tail wagged so fast that it helicoptered his rear end off the ground. His ears were flat on his head and a huge, joyful grin lit up his whole face. He slobbered all over her and she hugged him tight and told him how handsome he looked.
It was Caroline, his foster mum, the lady who had rescued Jake from the pound and put him up for adoption. Jake hadn't seen her for eighteen months but there was no question that he remembered her and he was absolutely thrilled to see her again.
Dogs are great rememberers. Keep that in mind the next time you meet a dog.
|Ari Marmel||Hot Lead, Cold Iron||Titan Books|
|Robert Llewellyn||The Man in the Rubber Mask||Penguin|
|Lindsey Davis||Graveyard of the Hesperides||Minotaur Books|
|Stella Rimington||Breaking Cover||Bloomsbury|
|Billy Hayes||Midnight Return - Escaping Midnight Express||Curly Brains Press|