Monday, 23 November 2009

Unseen Academicals and the meaning of sport

There's nothing like a hardback book to make you wonder: "what's the point of hardback books?". They're more awkward to use and less portable than paperbacks, they take up more than their fair share of space, and they're expensive. They're grandiose relics, like stately homes in a world designed for suburban semis, except you don't even get a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake when you stump up for a hardback book.

They'd be harmless, though, if it wasn't for the hardback-exclusivity of new books. This actually depresses total book sales, at least from me, because the media review books as soon as they come out, but if a review actually convinces me to buy, I then have to wait up to a year for it to come out in paperback, by which time I've forgotten all about it. And unless it makes the Waterstones 3-for-2, I'm unlikely to chance across it again. Nice work, publishers!

The one advantage to hardbacks is that they are impressive. They have a pleasing heft, and like that other refugee from the past, the vinyl record, they display their covers as nature intended. This is what will ensure their survival, long after cheap paperbacks have been crushed by the coming onslaught of the e-reader. Even after all everyday reading goes electronic, hardbacks will still be needed to grace coffee tables, to be given as Christmas gifts, or to be artfully arranged on the newly-liberated bookshelves. They have a bright future as an ornament, just like old-fashioned ploughing equipment still hangs on the walls of country pubs.

Still, for now buying new is the only reason to go hardback. If there's one author that deserves this extravagance, it's Terry Pratchett. If you're a Pratchett fan, you'll probably know where the title of this blog was stolen from, so it won't come as any surprise that I'm a fan too. If you're not a Pratchett fan yet, I'll let Wikipedia fill you in. Be sure to come back here in 36 books' time (I recommend starting with Mort).

For all the publisher-bashing above, I'm very grateful to them for consistently bringing out new Discworld novels just in time for my birthday. The latest is Unseen Academicals, in which football comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Except it's not really new. As of this book there's always been a traditional form of the game played called "foot-the-ball", and it's now extremely popular to the point where the crowds are getting out of control. To my knowledge there's never been any reference to a sporting culture in the city before, so it's a jarring revelation. This is an occupational hazard in any long-running series, but I think it could have been handled more sensitively, perhaps by making foot-the-ball an annual event, as medieval football games often were in our world.

The action centres on the Unseen University. For the first time we get a feel for how it functions behind the scenes, with rich detail provided in the form of candle dribblers and the Night Kitchen. In these fields work Trev, Glenda, Juliet and Mr Nutt, who go on to play the central roles in the story. All four are interesting characters and increasingly so as they get involved in the game and, not unrelatedly, the fashion industry. Mr Nutt in particular is fascinating. One of the major appeals of the Discworld setting is the opportunity it gives to explore human prejudice much more thoroughly than could be achieved in a wholly realistic novel. Mr Nutt's development is a brilliant example of this.

The wizards of UU play a large part too. In recent times the faculty has approached a comfortable steady state, much like some of the other long-running character groups (the City Watch and the witches). Things are shaken up in Unseen Academicals. The Dean has left for a rival university and Dr Hix, an entertainingly rule-bound version of the dark wizard archetype, has joined. The rivalry with the former Dean synchronises with themes of competition running through the book and gives Archchancellor Ridcully a much-needed enemy to thwart.

The stakes, however, never seem high enough to give the game's preparations sufficient urgency. The social and financial worries that drive the story are minor compared to other books, especially the very early ones where planetary destruction was regularly threatened. It's great that modern day Ankh-Morpork is a complex, subtle environment, but this time around I did long for an incursion from the Dungeon Dimensions.

The handling of the new version of football is also a little off-putting. Too often it descends into explicit parody, harking back to the "Discworld Does X" style last seen in Moving Pictures and Soul Music. Unlike those, however, the philosophical depth typical of the later books is present again, and many aspects of the human condition are brilliantly illuminated through the lens of the game. Pratchett also presents an eloquent defence of football itself, both the visceral thrill of watching it in a crowd and the tactical intricacies of playing it. Some passages are clearly aimed at the stereotypical sport-averse fantasy reader, such as when the obvious similarities to board games are pointed out explicitly.

Whether Unseen Academicals convinces the sport-phobic is an open question. But it should at least put to rest the doddery old argument that sport is meaningless, that football is just 22 people kicking a ball around in field. By that token life is meaningless too: it's just 10^79 atoms bumping into each other in a universe, after all. We have to invest meaning in things ourselves, and it's no less real a concept for that. The hardback format gives Pratchett a chance to point this out, prominently, on the back cover:

The thing about football - the important thing about football - is that it is not just about football.

PS: I was lucky enough to visit Portland, Oregon while I was reading Unseen Academicals. If you're ever there, keep a look out for a wall featuring Pratchett's autograph:

More on this place in the next post.

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
First published 2009

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

The Card

After the feast, the wafer-thin mint. Arnold Bennett's The Card is just as funny as A Fraction of the Whole and its mood is refreshingly upbeat.

I picked up The Card on a visit to Didsbury with Mrs Tomsk at the start of summer. We stopped off at a tearoom that not only did a mean sausage sandwich, but transitioned seamlessly to a second-hand bookshop at the back. This is what heaven must be like, presuming God is a tea-loving bookworm.

One thing the holy high street would not stand for, however, is political posturing. The bookshop side was at first glance unthreatening, even welcoming. But the European election campaign had begun, and the proprietor was not discreet in his affection for the UK Independence Party. Posters and leaflets were everywhere, all inevitably featuring the 1953 winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. I wonder if he would appreciate his presence in a bookshop being reduced to flicking V-signs for the greater glory of UKIP.

The proprietor, of course, can dress his shop however he likes. But it struck me as out of place. Books, after all, are the symbol of reason, the opposite of braying election propaganda. And more to the point, why did he have to go and support a party I disagree with profoundly? I didn't want to get into an argument, so the only avenue for retaliation was to find a purchase that clearly demonstrated how much I opposed him. Perhaps a biography of Jacques Delors. But the search was fruitless, and I left with an unprovocative mix of Mark Twain treasury and The Card.

Would Arnold Bennett have been pro-European? Would he have looked at Britain's role in the world, its alternatives of becoming a strong voice in Europe or America's poodle, and chosen Europe? Would he have delighted in the ratification of the Lisbon treaty? It's difficult to say. He's been dead for a while. But he did live in Paris once, and was apparently keen on French writing. So let's put him down as a "maybe". That's considerably more evidence than we have for Churchill being a UKIP supporter.

I'd encountered Bennett before as a non-fiction writer, and he struck me then as sharp and witty. I'm happy to say that his made-up stuff is just as good. Much of it concerns the "Five Towns", a fictionalised Stoke-on-Trent, and The Card is also set there. It tells the story of the entrepreneur Denry Machin as he rises through Five Towns society as if attached to a helium balloon. His adventures along the way are enjoyably far-fetched, from a runaway pantechnicon (I had to look it up too) to inadvertent burglaries, newspaper wars and the conquering of Llandudno's summer season.

My fear with any book written in the olden days is that it will conform to the stereotypical Victorian format of long-winded descriptive passages occasionally interrupted by a bit of story. Thankfully, things seem to have loosened up by Edwardian times and The Card is very snappy indeed. When description is needed (as in the Countess's stately home), description is provided, but it's always just enough to illustrate and never enough to bore. Whole scenes are ruthlessly cut short (as at the church) when they no longer serve a purpose. The effect is comparable to watching His Girl Friday for the first time and realising that the modern world doesn't have a monopoly on ultrafast comedy.

The most obvious comparison is to P.G. Wodehouse, and there were moments when I half-expected a cow creamer to show up. The main difference between The Card and the average Wodehouse novel is that the latter is clearly set in a make-believe world, whereas The Card is grounded in the reality of Staffordshire life. It often reads like a work of social history, as when it describes the swagger of early car owners, the status of Llandudno as a must-visit destination, the onset of women smokers and the class structure of transatlantic sea journeys, among many other topics.

Bennett is better known for his serious novels, but on the evidence of this book he is also a very fine comic writer. And the last two lines of The Card are the best defence of comedy I have ever read. I won't spoil them here, but you can find them at the link below. I recommend you read the rest of the book first.

The Card by Arnold Bennett
First published 1911
Available as a free e-book from Project Gutenberg