Monday, 14 February 2011

I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett

I Shall Wear Midnight is the fourth Discworld novel about trainee witch Tiffany Aching. The first three were marketed as trainee Discworld books for younger readers, but Midnight has the size and heft of a standard one. Observant cover-judgers will also note that it says 'A Discworld Novel' instead of 'A Story of Discworld'. Only the chapter divisions hint at its YA past.

I have to confess that I gave up on the Tiffany Aching series after the second in the series as it was a little too determinedly written for children. But the Doubleday marketeers apparently want me to think again and who am I to turn them down? I'm glad that I did so, as I Shall Wear Midnight is a great read that can stand tall among its peers. I have repented and will be buying Wintersmith at the earliest opportunity.

Maybe, though, it felt more grown-up simply because Tiffany has grown-up. She is now 16 and is the witch in charge of the Chalk region. That she is both recognisably the same Tiffany we have known since she was 9 and yet convincingly on the verge of adulthood shows what an excellent job Pratchett has made of her character development. It also gives him a chance to consider at length the difference between your numerical age and your age measured by experience. Tiffany often behaves in a much more grown-up way than you might expect from an average 16 year old, but having seen so much of the sharp end of life as a witch this is hardly surprising.

Midnight follows the familiar template of Tiffany fighting off a supernatural enemy, but this is a much darker tale than before thanks to the stench surrounding the Cunning Man*. Fortunately the Feegles (a race of little quasi-Scottish warriers) are still around to bring some light relief. It's also nice to meet the Lancre witches once again and to get reacquainted with another old friend from the witch books when Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork.

As with Unseen Academicals, this is a book full of satisfyingly rich detail. In the case of Midnight it serves to make a witch's vocation seem as real and necessary as a teacher or doctor. Arguably it does this better than any of the other witch books. It's also a tighter book than Unseen Academicals, with a lot more drive coming from the (admittedly simpler) plot. There is no doubt here that Pratchett is still at the top of his game.

* My one criticism of the book is that given his name, I thought it was strange that he doesn't exhibit much in the way of cunning. But he's certainly got serious children-scaring credentials.

I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett
First published in 2010

Sunday, 6 February 2011

When the Lights Went Out - Andy Beckett

Seventies Britain feels like another country, and not just because I wasn't born until the very end of the decade. Andy Beckett rightly complains that it has been too easily caricatured as a decade of decline and perpetual crisis, even though by several measures Britain has never had it so good, either before or since. Nevertheless, it was a time of dramatic changes. When The Lights Went Out succeeds in its aim of painting a complex picture of the times.

Beckett's book is an unashamedly political history. If you're looking to find out about the career of Brian Clough or the transition from prog rock to punk you'll have to look elsewhere (sadly). But as a guide to the three-day week, entering the EEC, the IMF negotiations or the Grunwick strike, it is excellent. Social concerns do make an appearance at times but only insofar as they are political, as when Beckett convincingly argues that the Seventies, not the Sixties, were the real decade of progress in areas such as feminism and gay rights.

One of the big strengths of the book is the long list of interviews Beckett has managed to obtain, including many of the big hitters such as Ted Heath, Jack Jones, Arthur Scargill, Denis Healey and so on. Beckett weaves their stories cleverly into his text and his keen observation of their mannerisms adds value. It's just a shame that not everyone from the era is alive to be interviewed. On the downside Beckett wastes a lot of time musing about his own feelings as he travels around, though he doesn't let himself intrude on the text quite as annoyingly as, for example, Anna Funder did in Stasiland.

When The Lights Went Out is undoubtedly a Guardian writer's eye view of the 70s, but Beckett does his best to be even-handed, with Heath coming out rather better than Harold Wilson's tired second administration. The unions, too, are portrayed in a balanced way, with the faults on both sides described in each of the industrial disputes we encounter. But there is no hiding that the unions have become drunk with power by the end of the decade. You have to cringe when they then proceed to shoot themselves in the foot with the Winter of Discontent, directly leading to their comeuppance in the form of Mrs Thatcher.

Mrs T inevitably hangs like a shadow over the second half of the book (yes, I was surprised she can cast one too). It's interesting though how marginal her wing of the party seemed before she got into power, even after she became leader. Even more interesting is the revelation (for me) that there was a modest amount of continuity between the 1980s and the Callaghan government. Callaghan declared that the post-war Keynesian consensus was dead as far back as his maiden speech as leader, and by Labour standards he was a social conservative. Nevertheless, at the end of the book you still are left wondering what might have happened had Labour still been in power when the North Sea oil started flowing in earnest.

When the Lights Went Out: What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies
by Andy Beckett
First published in 2009