Book 12 – Night Watch

Some time in 1986 I saw a pair of books in a bookshop.  They seemed to be an amusing and intriguing new fantasy set on a place called Discworld and captured my attention.  Titled The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic they were by an author I’d  never heard of,  named Terry Pratchett and proved to be a entertaining read. The following year two more books were published and the flow continued for 41 books, almost all of which we bought soon after publication – quite a few of which were birthday presents. 

The Discworld  books mostly fall into three main categories though these are not exclusive. The first books were about the Wizards, then came the Witches stories (which can be further subdivided into the Lancre and The Chalk witches). And then came the Watch books.  There are also various books that do not fit into any of these categories,  but they all fit into the main Discworld milieu. 

The first few books were mainly humorous but as the writing developed the themes of the books became deeper, the personalities became richer and the stories more complex. The humour remained of course; in some books (Soul Music and The Truth in particular) there’s a huge number of in-jokes, and many of the books have very funny footnotes.

The books about the Watch are those which are most grounded in humanity, with the Discworld magic more in the background rather than being part of the life experience of the people as is the case with the wizards and witches. And the exploration of humanity and self and and what it means to live in an ordered society grows through these books. At the same time Pratchett’s writing developed over the years. Night Watch is The 29th Discworld novel, the 6th in the Watch series and in my opinion shows Pratchett at his very best. It has a young Sam Vimes, young Fred Colon and a very young Nobby Nobbs, and also introduces a promising student assassin named Vetinari. It deals with tyranny,  civil unrest,  and great evil at both the individual and societal level and because of what it deals with and what Vimes discovers is the least funny of the Discworld books. Terry thought that humour just would not be appropriate given the subject matter. 

For me it ranks with I Shall Wear Midnight as his very best books,  even if the lack of humour is atypical. It is powerful, thought-provoking, engaging,  and at the same time gives an insight into some of the history of Ankh-Morpork. It’s a book that leaves the reader in a slightly sombre frame of mind but at the same time content with the outcome. 

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Book 11 – Three  Men in a Boat

A few weeks ago I wrote a short blog associated with my 2017 reading project discussing some of the books that will be forthcoming over the next few months. A friend commented and gave me several suggestions of what to read,  and ended her list  with the line “And one can never read Three Men in a Boat too many times”. And I realised that she was absolutely right!

Three Men in a Boat was the first novel by Jerome K Jerome. First published in 1889 it immediately became a success, despite some critical reviews. The success continues to this day because the book has never been out of print.

It is usually described as a comic novel,  and tells of a fictional rowing trip along The Thames from London to Oxford in a skiff. The participants are Jerome himself (referred to as J throughout the book), his friends Harris and George and Montmorency, Jerome’s fox terrier. The latter is an essential part of the story,  to the extent that the subtitle is “To Say Nothing of the Dog!” But the author originally intended it to be a travel guide for rowers attempting the journey,  though his wit and imagination gradually got in the way.  What we have ended up with is one of the finest gems of English comic fiction,  that interweaves historic facts,  descriptive and almost purple prose, reflections  on life and brilliant sparkling wit.

Witty comments such as this, as J watches his friends doing the packing:
“When George is hanged, Harris will be the worst packer in this world;”

Or (and did you know that Jerome coined this phase?):
“I like work;  it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

The humour, to my mind, is reflected down the years in Wodehouse and Pratchett, with the asides and anecdotes. In fact Wodehouse actually mentions one of the anecdotes in Psmith in the City.

But it’s the entirety of the book that makes it such a rewarding read.  There’s a wonderful meditation on being in the village of Runnymede on the day of the signing of the Magna Carta; and the story of the trout in the glass case; and the complete volte face on the subject of steam launches. And so on and so on.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining,  informative and witty book that also gives a good insight into late Victorian England. It has pride of place on my bookshelves, though my 1982 Penguin edition is finally falling apart – another trip to Toppings is in order!

Book 10 – The Flying Inn

G K Chesterton is a bit of a puzzle to many readers these days, but in his pomp in the first half of the last century he was a literary polymath. His output included novels, short stories, books on literature,  theology  and biography, to name but a few. He’s mainly known now for the Father Brown detective short stories, about a simple Norfolk country priest who has a knack for solving crimes, and to my mind this is rather a shame because he wrote some great stuff. 

The Flying Inn was written in 1914 and is probably one of his lesser known works, though it does contain one of my favourite poems. A taster:

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head. 

The story is of an aesthetic politician who manages to get through parliament a bill outlawing pubs because of his conviction that  Islam was the purest form of thought with its  ban on alcohol. Through a loophole in the law a publican named Pump and his Irish naval friend take the pub sign for The Old Ship, along with a barrel of rum and a large round cheese and open up wherever they place the sign. Hence the name, the flying Inn. 

It’s a somewhat bizarre tale that celebrates Englishness, drink and poetry and certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you know Chesterton then you might well enjoy this.

Book 9 – The Well of Lost Plots

The Well of Lost Plots is the third in the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, an alternative history set in Britain at around this time but with a hugely varied history – the Crimean  War is still going on, for example. The main feature of these stories is that the line between fiction and reality is very thin and people can actually get into books and interact with the characters. Thursday Next is a literary detective and the first book,  The Eyre Affair, shows her, amongst other things, getting into the book Jane Eyre and altering the ending.

I first came across these when we found the first two books in the series in a secondhand bookshop in Oxford a few years ago. At the time I knew nothing of the author, nor of these books, but was immediately interested. After all, how can one resist a book with a heroine called Thursday Next? The whole premise proved to be clever, erudite and funny with dozens of literary allusions and a witty cast of characters. They are not funny in the “laugh out loud” style of, say, Pratchett or Wodehouse, but there is wit and style and a lot of clever writing.

I can strongly recommend these books to any with a love of English literature, as I think they will appreciate the intricate plots and the dozens of intertextual references. And Thursday Next is a very appealing character.

Jasper Fforde has written other books than just this series, and in my opinion the best, and certainly the cleverest is “Shades of Grey”. Before you have apoplexy I must point out that this book predates the more notorious book with a similar title and has absolutely nothing to do with BDSM! It’s a distopian novel set in a world where everything depends on the perception of colour and is a very good read indeed. 

Book 8 – The Etymylogicon

In the week running up to Christmas 2011 The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth was the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and I remember listening to some of it. It so impressed me that I popped into Toppings in Ely to buy it as an extra present for my wife , because,  like me,  she loves language.

I’ve always been a bit of a one for words and the English language;  in fact I’m rather a stickler for spelling and syntax and could be accurately labelled a “grammar nazi”. And etymology has always fascinated me. Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is a favourite and this book ranks up there with it. Subtitled “A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language” this book is a fascinating tour of words,  their history and derivation , peppered with a sardonic wit that makes it an absolute joy. There are so many facts in here that were previously unknown to me that choosing which ones to illustrate this blog is really a matter of turning to any page and sticking in a pin,  but how about this beauty: there was a general on Union side in the American Civil War who was renowned for his vast moustache and the large quantity of hair than ran from his ears to meet it. His name was Ambrose Burnside, and such facial decoration was known as “burnsides”. The general vanished into history and his name became forgotten, but somewhere along the years the facial nomenclature became reversed, because these are on the side of the face and thus we now know them as “sideburns”.

The wit that Forsyth employs is wicked,  but extremely funny. In a discussion on Peter Pan he refers at one point to “W.E Henley (the poet who wrote Invictus and not much else)” with the footnote “Thank God!”

Can you tell that I really liked this book? If you can’t get hold it, then I strongly suggest that you turn to Forsyth’s blog, The Inky Fool (blog.inkyfool.com) where you can find much of the writing that this book came from.