In January I was exuding gloom all over Acnestis. Things are cheerier now, but first they got worse: in rapid succession I had a personal tax bill for about three times what I'd expected, a very unfunny letter from Gene Wolfe (who turned out to have been hideously offended by my so much as mentioning him in the same magazine column as the antichrist Gregory Feeley), and a surprise dental disaster. On the good side, my long-running efforts at amateur accountancy (This Spreadsheet For Hire) finally persuaded the Newport tax office to cancel their summons of my father to the Star Chamber of the General Commissioners of Income Tax, and my own financial hole was partly plugged by some unexpected late royalties on The Silence of the Langford and the dear old 1978 Necronomicon – still implausibly selling in translation. With Dad's tax affairs in good shape at last (although I dread the possible resumption of an investigation going back to 1989, as threatened at one stage) and the physical danger from acute pneumonia in December now long past, we've been waiting for some return to stability after the disruption of his medication for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's during the emergency treatment.
3 Feb. Things now patched up with Gene Wolfe. Phew.
11 Feb. Good moment: the arrival of an Inland Revenue cheque to my father, refunding over £1,500 of overpaid 1995-6 tax. Bad moment: my mother distraught on the phone because their GP has just raved at the hospital's incompetence in giving Dad some drug that dangerously lowers blood pressure and pulse rate. So he's been taken off it, will need three days to flush the muck out of his system, and meanwhile – in my mother's words – 'He keeps seeing leopards.'
19 Feb. Dad taken back to hospital, apparently unable to cope with home life despite a small army of social workers visiting each day. Consolations: at least this takes the strain off my mother, and alleviates the worry that Dad would, again, fall through one of the full-length glass doors and windows all too numerous in the Newport house.
21 Feb. Tax office confirms more refunds to come (to my father), and signs off with the golden phrase 'I am now closing my file.' Win the battle, lose the war.
25 Feb. Sure enough, another £1,000+ cheque from the tax people arrives. I start wishing, perhaps rather ungratefully, that I could work this magic on the Reading tax office....
4 March. Immense telephonic soothing exercise after my mother's daily visit to the hospital (where Dad is healthy but not mobile): a helpful young doctor accosted her with, 'If your husband should have a heart attack, would you want him resuscitated?' Gasps of horror from the nurses in earshot, who rallied around soothingly once Dr Tactful had moved on ... but this kind of thing really doesn't help.
If I miss Acnestis next month, it's because I'll be at Minicon in Minneapolis (a trip which with visits to US friends and my little brother in Chicago extends over 6-20 April).
Commonplace Book. 'She wrenched from her brow a diamond and eyed it with contempt, took from her pocket a sausage and contemplated it with respect and affection.' (Charles Reade, Peg Woffington, 1853) 'Sinclair Lewis told me this story. Crossing the Atlantic, he saw an old lady on deck reading his latest book, about which there had been some hot discussion. By the number of pages she had read, he judged that she was approaching the shocking passage which had caused most trouble, and he thought he would keep an eye on her, to see how it would affect her. Presently the old lady rose up, walked firmly to the rail, and flung the book far into the ocean.' (A.P.Herbert, Independent Member, 1950) 'There is a joyous story of [Lord] Berners being bored to smithereens by some neighbours who had overstayed their tea-time welcome. He escaped to another room but, to his horror, realized he had left the book he was reading behind. "He crawled into the drawing-room on his hands and knees under a bearskin, retrieved the volume and crawled out again. Nobody mentioned it."' (Literary Review 3/98; Alexander Waugh on Mark Amory's Lord Berners: The Last Eccentric)
Thog's Art Masterclass.
A footnote to this department in Ansible 128: when I shared my giggles with Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Tor, Teresa responded with this slice of life:
Q: How many cover artists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Editor: Um ... this bit here ...
Artist: I think that part came out really well.
Editor: It's supposed to be a lightbulb.
Artist: I've seen lightbulbs like that. They're really neat.
Editor: But it looks like a cauliflower.
Artist: You think so? Really? You're the first one who's said that.
Editor: Uh-huh. Look, the Marketing Department –
Artist: Do I have to change it? That's the only interesting part of the painting. I mean, I hate to say it, but that was a really dull cover concept.
Editor: I'm sorry. Honestly, I like that bit myself, but the average reader –
Artist: And it's gonna take me a while to fix it, you know. I'm going off to visit to my mother tomorrow.
Editor: Does it have to be tomorrow?
Artist: The tickets are non-returnable.
Editor: Right. Okay. How long will you be gone?
Artist: At least three weeks.
Editor: Criminently! Okay, we'll go with it as it stands....
Tailpiece. Spotted by Hazel in local antique shop: a bit of gold chain labelled with some accuracy as 'Charmless Bracelet'.
Read in Reading
Roald Dahl, The BFG, Matilda, George's Marvellous Medicine (omnibus): just curiosity, really. Plenty of inventiveness and fun here, but reading three Dahls in a row does bring out certain similarities of determined outrageousness, almost verging on a formula. The BFG sets up a problem of murderous flesh-eating giants, audaciously takes it to the top by roping in the Queen to despatch her armed forces against the foe, and plays to the child audience with a lovingly described Farting Enormously In The Queen's Presence scene. The appalling school headmistress in Matilda earns her come-uppance by grabbing kids by their hair and hurling them great distances through the air after the fashion of throwing the hammer. And George's Marvellous Medicine more or less recommends poisoning unsympathetic grannies: there is a certain amount of magical byplay and fudging of this point, but you can't help noticing that the ultimate result of young George's pharmaceutical experiments (approved by all, including his parents) is one less granny in this world. Suddenly I remember an abortive 1995 attempt to ban Dahl's books in Virginia, their crime being 'glorifying dangerous and disrespectful behaviour.' Calvin Trillin, An Education in Georgia (1964) ... I've mentioned Trillin's humorous writing before. He also does some of those great lumps of solid journalism that The New Yorker likes to publish – American Stories is a good and varied collection of such pieces – and this is an early example. In relentlessly prolix detail it tells the tale of the first two black students to be admitted to Georgia State University in Atlanta. I'd vaguely assumed that the issue of segregated US universities went away before I was born (well, sort of: such segregation was ruled unconstitutional in 1954). It was thus a bit of a jolt to read about the university's undisguised obstructiveness; of public officials repeatedly perjuring themselves in court with statements that the black pair's endlessly delayed and mucked-around applications were being treated just like any others, oh yes; and of a student body which laid on a smallish riot in protest against the eventual admissions ... all this in 1961. The primitive past isn't as far away as we think. Also by Trillin, Killings (1984), found in the Charing Cross Road soon after I wrote the above: short essays about violent deaths, treated as flashbulbs that light up the oddities of small US communities which find themselves the scene of the crime. Franz Werfel, Star of the Unborn (1946) ... had to be read, as a matter of honour, after I collected vast kudos for deducing it as the answer to a Usenet 'please ID this book' query ('translated from German ... two-word title, one word starts with O ...'). This is your classic flawed far-future utopia with a 'tour of the widget factory' travelogue structure as a 20th-century revenant, Werfel himself, is shown around. It's a good deal wittier than I unworthily expected, and slightly prophetic in terms of later sf: the nasty side of utopia (being how they deal with death) prefigures Ballard's 'Mr F is Mr F'; there's some slightly tongue-in-cheek stuff about foods so incredibly refined that a mere drop brings satisfaction, anticipating a gimmick in First Lensman; surface transport uses a relativistic twist so that your destination comes to you; one scene, about disporting oneself (protected by an impalpable spacesuit) in liquid-metal pools on the hot side of Mercury, is pure John Varley; and there are weapons which fire depressions and suicidal impulses, making me think of Aldiss's Acid Head War. Star of the Unborn gets no mention in Trillion Year Spree, by the way. Steven J.Frank, The Uncertainty Principle (1997) ... sparky borderline-sf novel about MIT life and the bright narrator's twin coming-of-age transitions, both the usual one involving sex and a subtler loss of virginity in which great big wonderful mathematical ideas need to be sold to the cruel world of commerce. Both fun and scientifically literate. Osbert Sitwell, Sing High! Sing Low! (1944) ... essays, some a bit too elaborately mannered for my present jittery taste, but with occasional plums: 'Gone are the days of such picnics as that to which Rossini alluded when, on meeting Patti and congratulating her upon her incomparable singing, he remarked, "Madam, I have only cried twice in my life; once, when I dropped a wing of truffled chicken into Lake Como, and once, when for the first time I heard you sing.'" You wonder which way the lady took it. Susan Cooper, Dawn of Fear (1970) ... 39p hardback in Oxfam, gloat gloat. Economical and effective non-fantasy in which a child protagonist, initially too young to be afraid of nightly WW2 bombing. learns more than he wanted about the grotty side of human nature. Also provoked me to reread The Dark Is Rising and nod at how the invasiveness of the fantasy Dark – forever trying to violate your country, your home, your head, helped by inner weakness and fifth-columnists – resonates emotionally with Cooper's childhood fears of Nazi invasion. (Not a Great Langford Insight: she has said as much herself, somewhere.) Tom Stoppard, Arcadia (1993) ... funny, clever, tragic and almost sf; one plot strand has a precocious girl guessing at the workings of entropy and time's arrow in 1812. Michael Holroyd, The Shaw Companion (1992), collecting the pendants to his colossal Bernard Shaw biography: The Last Laugh with all the posthumous wrangling over the estate and Shaw's legacies to the cause of Spelling Reform, plus the cumulative notes and index. Orson Scott Card, Seventh Son (1987), Red Prophet (1988) and Prentice Alvin (1989) ... another invocation of the 'gawd, have I had these review copies that long without reading them?' rule. Unusual and undeniably powerful alternate-pioneer-America fantasy sequence which deserves some praise yet (typically, I think, for Card) conveys much unease with its determined emphasis on the poison as well as the affection in family ties; and also, at times, on excessive pain. E.g. when an unfortunate boy falls foul of a villain's plans, I feel I would have got the general idea from the careful description of the violent breaking of his leg across the killer's thigh and the snapping of his neck. The page in between that elaborates on the smashing of an elbow, of both legs above and below the knee, of both arms ditto ... fingers disjointed, hands crushed, ribs stamped to bits ('bending in and out any which way'), ear bitten off ... there is a sense that someone is enjoying himself a little too much here, and I'm not entirely sure that it's just the fictional killer. Then there's the follow-up scene in which the lad can be magically healed insofar as he's able to overcome excruciating pain and set his own bones.... Patricia Wrede & Caroline Stevermer, Sorcery and Cecelia (1988), a jolly little epistolary romp set in magic-infested Regency England – loaned by Tanya, who was alarmingly insistent that I'd like it, and proved to be dead right (thanks!). Ken McLeod, The Cassini Division (1998) ... closely linked to The Stone Canal and read for SFX review. Er, I liked it, and fell off my chair on reading the bit inserted just for me on pp40-41. The sheer fun Ken has with socialist utopias and 'smart-matter' technology make further Banks comparisons inevitable, but he actually deals with tougher political and moral issues than Banksie is currently including in 'Culture' books.
Eric Idle, 'Hello Sailor' (1975): ten years unread on the shelf, seized in hope of merry drollery, abandoned after 30-something pages. Much attempted outrageousness (gosh, politicians of all sexes repeatedly and shamelessly shagging one another, wot searing satirical insight) and zero plot interest. As John Cleese said when characterizing the Pythons' sketch-writing styles, 'anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric's.' Not, perhaps, a reliably successful technique for novelists....
John Wells's collections of journalism, The Exploding Present (1971) and Masterpieces (1982): he died in January, another funny writer gone. Some of these 1961-81 pieces were too topical to raise much of a laugh in 1998, but many have lasted well. A.A Milne, By Way of Introduction (1929) ... a miscellany of essays, mostly book introductions. Contains the piece explaining his decision to stop writing about Christopher Robin: 'I do not want C.R.Milne ever to wish that his names were Charles Robert.' That thought came a bit late, didn't it? Michael Gilbert, Smallbone Deceased (1950), a mildly witty detective story set in an eccentric solicitors' office where the eponymous very small trustee is discovered inside a very large deed-box. This one strikes me as much more fun than Gilbert's other crime fiction, a possibly relevant data point being that he was a solicitor. Another is that several of the office staff (perhaps a matter of stock characters rather than undue influence) are uncannily reminiscent of the ad agency people in Dorothy Sayers's successful Murder Must Advertise. Emma Lathen, various ... more anodyne crime. Clive James, The Metropolitan Critic (1974) and At The Pillars of Hercules (1979), early books of criticism which – apart from a certain tendency to show off, especially about polyglot erudition – still seem worthwhile. Mervyn Wall, The Unfortunate Fursey (1946), comic/satirical romp about diabolical doings in 11th-century Ireland. As might be deduced from the fact that Brian Stableford recommended it, the satire is all against the horrible, intolerant, witch-burning Church; the Devil is infinitely more gentlemanly and benign. Martin Rowson, The Waste Land (three words, Claire, not two) ... always fun and always with another surprise: this time I noticed that one frame in which the hero briefly holds Madame Sosostris's crystal ball is – how could I have missed that? – a parody of Escher's self-portrait. Robert Conquest, The Abomination of Moab, more critical essays; I find these books of pieces soothing reading when distracted. Robert Heinlein, The Door into Summer, Time for the Stars. Palinurus (Cyril Connolly), The Unquiet Grave ... less in this than meets the eye, perhaps, but it's full of fine phrases and aphorisms. Coincidence corner: it quotes, in isolation, that Housman quatrain mentioned in past CCs as mysteriously turning up in Patrick O'Brian. Sax Rohmer, The Dream-Detective ... entertaining but crap detective stories solved by aetheric sleuth Moris Klaw, who makes Hercule Poirot look modest and does away with all that fiddly forensic apparatus by photographing 'odic thought-impressions'. Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore ... very soothing during grim days of wrestling with the Newport tax office. Keith Laumer, Dinosaur Beach ... in which, as Brian Stableford pointed out, the hero not only turns out to be a superman but repeatedly – whenever in a tight plot corner – discovers himself to be an even more super superman than previously revealed. Algis Budrys, Benchmarks, yet more interesting reviews. Rudyard Kipling, Kim, Stalky & Co, and a stack of short stories. Robert van Gulik, heaps of Judge Dee historical detective thingies. Oh, lots more stuff. Just trying to stave off gloom, to the extent that this list seems too boring to continue.
Paul and Maureen: huge sympathy on the loss of Paul's father, even though I understand very well that things had reached the state where it was best he didn't suffer any longer.
Lots of People asked about the Harlech flat. (And those who read famous fanzine Plokta will have found more about its joys in issue 10. All right, I may have exaggerated the rain.) Being reluctant to do a hard sell, I'm not quite sure what to say. It's a one-bedroom upstairs flat, all quite clean and presentable. The bedroom has a double bed (bring your own sheets and pillow-cases); the living-room has a sofa-bed which theoretically opens into another double bed but is too uncomfortable for use without extra padding. Most normal amenities of life are present: bath, electric storage heater and hot water, table-top two-ring stove, tiny microwave oven, small fridge, and so on. It's in Glan Gors, a 60s estate of miniature flats without any real local history (meaning that no one ever sets fire to those purchased by outsiders), on the coastal plain over which Harlech Castle looms and indeed is visible from the living-room window. Local Cambrian Coast Line rail station in easy walking distance; ditto shops, post office and the castle's lower entrance. Parking spaces right outside the flat. I have a detailed sheet of directions somewhere, prepared for parents and the Hoares. Negatives: no telephone unless you bring a mobile, no smoking please, and – this is Hazel's tuppence worth – no small children. The upkeep of the place is less than £40/week; until further notice we'll be happy for fan friends to stay there for a weekly contribution in that general region.
Andy S ... the soft spot I have for Swinburne (what have you got against his final 'e'?) mightn't have survived an actual meeting with him, and I'm not sure that it would survive an encounter with either his plays – the famous choruses from Atalanta in Calydon always excepted – or that intimidating novel Lesbia Brandon. Tell us all how you get on! Catie ... John Dickson Carr's other historical novels? The Devil in Velvet, Fire, Burn! and The Bride of Newgate are, I think, the best. Also reasonably OK: The Demoniacs (set in 1757 London, with appearances by Laurence Sterne and Henry Fielding's magistrate brother), The Witch of the Low-Tide (1907 England) and, as Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same (1795 London, with a lot of boxing). Not so good according to me, mainly owing to poor plots: Most Secret (intrigue at the court of Charles II), Captain Cut-Throat (1805 France), Papa La-Bas (1858 New Orleans), Scandal at High Chimneys (1865 England), The Hungry Goblin (1869 England with Wilkie Collins as sleuth), The Ghosts' High Noon (1912 New Orleans), and Deadly Hall (1927 New Orleans) – the last being set in the same year as Carr's first detective novel It Walks By Night (1930), which wasn't historical; such are the perils of a long career. Paul K ... the Crispin quote you wanted is from The Moving Toyshop. '"Let's go left,' Cadogan suggested. 'After all, Gollancz is publishing this book.'" Claire ... if you liked Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels and What's Bred in the Bone, it would be folly to stop there – get hold of The Lyre of Orpheus, which completes the trilogy. And which – in an ideal world where someone like Mike Scott Rohan wrote the Fantasy Encyclopedia's OPERA entry, in place of that ghastly academic tosser with his 49 columns of ill-arranged, drivelling minutiae – would have been interestingly discussed in the aforesaid entry. But I digress. Paul H ... Michael Scott Rohan, an old pal whom I just mentioned, wrote The Lord of Middle Air and other stuff (the 'Winter of the World' high-fantasy trilogy and the 'Spiral' romps) but is not the same person as Michael Scott (No Rohan), whose stuff is mostly horror. Do you think you'd have detected any stylistic similarity (mind you, 'uneven writing' isn't exactly a style) if their names had been quite different? KVB ... blimey, I swooned at your praise for the dear old Space Eater. Makes me wish again that some publisher would reissue it. 'Only if you complete the trilogy, Langford.' Oo-er. Chris ... the Party Seven was, as you deduce, a seven-pint container of beer – in fact, a very big tin. In my Oxford days, Watneys Party Sevens would travel round the student party circuit like mathoms exchanged by hobbits, growing inexorably rustier as the terms went by. No one who had ever opened one and tasted the stuff wanted to repeat the experience.... Elizabeth ... The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature gives Anthony Buckeridge a bare mention and lists none of the Jennings books. I once owned a dozen; there are at least 18. Don't remember 'Aged Ps', though.