Friday, 2 July 2010

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

Since it is World Cup season (Wimbledon wouldn't be so uncouth as to try to claim itself a whole season), I decided I needed to learn to understand what this football business is all about, so, like any right-thinking library-dweller, I turned to Terry Pratchett for advice, and picked up Unseen Academicals. It was certainly more fun than watching the England matches. As the back of the book helpfully points out:
'The thing about football - the most important thing about football - is that it is never just about football.'
And of course, the thing about the Discworld is that it’s never just about the Discworld. In the course of thirty-seven novels (and shedloads of associated bumph) the series has gone from being a loose collection of jokes about fantasy to being one of the most reliable, well-intentioned and consistently entertaining sources of satire since Rory Bremner went angry.

This time, it’s about class, belonging, prejudice, race, and not being ground down by, for want of a better term, The Man. I mean, it’s about lots of other stuff, too (like pies), but the really vital images are about trying to make something of oneself – whether it’s clambering out of the crab bucket while others try to haul you back down, ignoring the non-existent hammer of social pressure, persuading the leopard to change his shorts, or working out how to escape from the Shove, the press of baying, surging, roaring football fans:
“It’s a hard life in the Shove when you’re a dumb chuff with no mates.”
“This ain’t the Shove!”
“Better wake up, kid. It’s all Shove.”
The wonderful thing about Terry Pratchett (alright, one of the wonderful things) is how supremely decent he is: he manages to be wittily satirical without being pessimistic. He finds a fundamental goodness in people, and has a real fairness to his moral vision. This means that when his little, oppressed people find ways to flourish in the tough ole’ world, you genuinely feel great about it. 

In other words, there is a warm, hopeful glow to the series, and Unseen Academicals is no different. Trev, the fan, the lad, the cheeky chappie who’s basically, when it comes down to it, a good bloke; Glenda, the ingenious night-chef at Unseen University who just wants to look after everyone, and wishes life were a little more like the trashy romances she hides beneath her bed; Juliet, who might be dim but sometimes sees through into the heart of things; and Nutt. Mr Nutt. Whatever he is...

Plot-wise, it’s as clever as ever, with surprises in the right places and a hearty dollop of sentimentality. Archchancellor Ridcully, after some devious Patrician-based machinations, ends up having to put together an Unseen University team for a game of ‘foot-the-ball, or porre boyes funne’, and from there things become, as is their wont, silly. In all the right ways.

It’s funny. Of course it is. This is the Discworld, where there always jokes, fabulous footnotes, lovably wonky characters, scatty, witty dialogue, and cunning little references. There's also a brilliant willingness to spend half the book setting something up just for the sake of a ridiculous pun at the end. 

Unseen Academicals won’t convert anyone who shivers at the sight of the word ‘wizard’, but that doesn’t really need saying. The point is that it’s a solid, thoroughly enjoyable Discworld book, and if you like them in general there’s no need to be put off by the inclusion of football or the exclusion of whichever set of characters happens to be your favourite (alright, second favourite – everyone like the Watch best, don’t they?). There are some great cameos (it’s worth it for the drunk Patrician alone) and references to the other books, including some ace insights into long-established characters, but really this one is about the everyday folk of Ankh-Morpork – it’s about society and how it can be made to work, and how we shouldn’t let ourselves be held back by silly prejudices and the nasty oiks that crop up every so often. It’s best summed up by Mr Nutt’s constant, urgent desire to achieve ‘worth’.
“What does ‘worth’ mean, Mr Nutt?”
“It means that you leave the world better than when you found it.”
And if you look at it that way, Sir Terry Pratchett is about as worthy as they come.  

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