Reading Pratchett: Part 1

With the death of Terry Pratchett this month, I’ve seen a lot of people sharing beginners’ guides and reading lists describing his work for the uninitiated. Most of them make some fairly basic mistakes, like describing a “Death series”, a “Watch series”, and so on within the Discworld books, and saying to read those in order.
Now, it’s true that, for example, Guards, Guards, Men at Arms and Feet of Clay (the first three “Watch books”) all share a lot of the same themes and characters — so much so that they could almost be seen as increasingly able attempts at writing the same book, there is almost no similarity between, say Guards, Guards — a broad satire of fantasy tropes, whose climax depends on the observation that million to one chances happen nine times out of ten, with the heroes setting out to ensure that they have *precisely* a million to one chance — and Thud, a dark conspiracy thriller with something of the feel of The Wicker Man about it. And if one were to read those in series as “the Watch series”, and then go back and read, say, “the Witches series”, there’d be a sense of whiplash, going back to the style of the earlier book, and seeing characters who’ve died alive again.

While it’s handy to know what characters are going to appear in which books, and while Pratchett did (and it still hurts to talk of him in the past tense — more than you’d expect for a man I only met twice, very briefly, when I was a teenager) use particular characters to discuss particular ideas (so the Death stories are “about” humanity, the Watch stories “about” justice, and the Witch stories “about” stories themselves), you’ll have far more idea if you’re going to like a Pratchett work based on what phase of his career it was written in.

Because Pratchett has very clear phases. They’re not perfectly demarked, of course — it’s not like he sat down one day and said “now I am going to enter my First Golden Age!” — but very roughly if you like a Pratchett book from 1994, you might not like the ones he wrote in 2004 or 1984, but you’ll probably like one from 1995.

So I’m going to look very briefly at the phases of Pratchett’s career. I’ll be looking almost exclusively at the Discworld novels — his first three, non-Discworld, books were juvenilia, and everything else was ephemera, collaborations with other authors, children’s books, and only a couple of things that most people coming to Pratchett fresh will find interesting. He never wrote a truly bad book, even before he became a professional writer or in his last years when illness was clearly affecting him, but the Discworld books are the ones that he’ll be remembered for and which new readers should come to first.

Early Novels (1983-89)
One piece of advice that is correct for new readers of the Discworld books is “don’t start at the beginning”.
The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, the first two Discworld books, are fairly generic comedies pastiching specific fantasy stories, in much the same way as those Bored Of The Rings style books do. They’re fun, but not the place to start, for the simple reason that if you’re the kind of fantasy reader who’s heard of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser then you’ve undoubtedly already read Pratchett, while if you’re not you won’t get the jokes.
They’re the first two books to introduce the Discworld itself (a flat world that rides on the back of a giant turtle), the great city of Ankh-Morpork (sort of fantasy medieval London, with a chunk of Venice or Rome in these early books, but much smellier), and the character of Rincewind, an inept, cowardly wizard who has become the unwilling tour guide for Twoflower, a tourist from the Counterweight Continent (basically Generic Oriental Fantasyland), and who is accompanied by The Luggage (a vicious box that moves on dozens of tiny legs). Once you know that, you know all you need to know from these books.

Equal Rites, on the other hand, is a reasonable place to start. It’s the first really strong novel Pratchett did, and in many ways is his breakout book. While the first two books had been broad comedies, Equal Rites is a more thoughtful book — the story of a young girl, Esk, who is bequeathed a wizard’s staff by mistake, and so gets magic powers — but the “male” powers of wizardry, not the “female” powers of witchcraft. It’s a story about breaking out of prescribed gender roles, and while not a perfect one (Pratchett was a cis man and this was the 80s, there’s only so enlightened he could be) it’s surprisingly good, especially when compared to the two earlier books.
It also introduces Granny Weatherwax, here a rather generic witch, but who will become much more.

Mort is the first book to feature Death as a main character. The standard scythe-and-hood, skeletal, anthropomorphic personification of Death had featured in the first three books as a minor character, but over the course of the Discworld books (he appears in all of them except children’s book The Wee Free Men and the last two books released to date — Pratchett seemed uncomfortable in interviews when talking about the character’s non-appearance, but given that he had a terminal illness at the time, the reasons are perhaps obvious) he develops into one of the most human of Pratchett’s characters, in a good way. Here that process begins, as Death takes an apprentice and it’s revealed that he also has an adopted daughter. The apprentice and the daughter, of course, hit it off…

And finally in this first phase came Sourcery, a return visit from Rincewind, who this time meets up with Conina The Barbarian Hairdresser (daughter of Cohen the Barbarian from The Light Fantastic), Nijel The Destroyer (a young nerd who wants to be a barbarian hero) and Creosote (the man for whom the phrase “rich as Creosote” was coined) to defeat an evil sourceror (with a u) and prevent the Apocralypse (so called because it’s been threatened so often that it’s regarded as somewhat apocryphal). He eventually stops the end of the world with the aid of a half-brick in a sock.
As you can tell from the description, this is another book which is mainly straight parody and daft jokes, and while it’s much better written than the first two Rincewind books it’s very much a retrograde step after Equal Rites and Mort.

And this is as good a place as any to stop for now. We’ve reached 1989, and Pratchett has by now become big enough that he’s no longer being co-published by Colin Smythe, the small press publisher who put out his earliest work. All the books from now until 1998 will be published by Gollancz, and the next one introduces some characters who will go on to be rather important…

First 25 Pages of New Novel, for Patreons

For those who are donating $1 a month or more, you can now read the first 25 pages of my new novel at Patreon. I decided the reason I was going so slowly with this compared with my other writing was that I wasn’t writing to an audience, so I’ve uploaded chapters one through eight plus prologue (this is a thriller of sorts, chapters are short) as a PDF, and I’ll be doing at least one extra chapter a week on Patreon until the book’s done in first draft. I’ll then do a rewrite and publish it, and only then will I start to serialise it here.
In this week’s bumper edition:
A perilous journey!
A suicide!
A new job hinges on a crossword!
An unhappy couple!
A puzzle that needs a Professor!
Satanism in the corridors of power!
A history lesson!
And an unresolved puzzle!
Featuring Dennis Wheatley, Rudolf Hess, Alan Turing, Aleister Crowley, and Ian Fleming’s brother, As Yet Untitled Second Novel is worth anyone’s $1 a month, probably!

Thoughts on the No Pier Pressure Previews

Now that about half Brian’s new album has become available to listen to in one form or another, my very preliminary thoughts on what we’ve heard.
Note that my opinions on Brian Wilson tracks change a LOT in the first year or so after I hear them, and also that this is based on lossy streams of one kind or another. This is after only hearing these songs once or twice, and I’ll be posting a proper review when I get a CD copy in a week and am able to properly listen to the whole album, in order, on headphones, a few times. This is just my initial opinion.
The Right Time has some nice harmonies, but a dull AOR instrumental arrangement. A gorgeous lead vocal from Al is marred a little by the autotune, and there’s no real song there as such, but it’s a bit of a grower.
Saturday Night on Hollywood Boulevard sounds like it comes from the soundtrack of a bad 80s family adventure film starring Michael J Fox or someone. If you’d told me this was Huey Lewis & The News’ new single I’d believe you. Given that Brian’s not on it vocally very much, I’d honestly not have guessed it was a Brian song.
Runaway Dancer sounds like a Scissor Sisters B-side. Which is brave, coming from Brian, but not really something I’m interested in listening to a lot.
Our Special Love has some lovely harmonies, but the song’s unmemorable — I’ve heard it half a dozen times and couldn’t remember it to write this (I had to put it on again just to check what it sounded like). I don’t like Hollens’ voice at all on his lead sections, and Brian’s voice on the “Our special love” section is autotuned to death. I’m also not a fan of beatboxing.
The Last Song This one’s very nice, and sounds much more “Brian” and less “Joe Thomas” in its production than some of the others. It reminds me of Pacific Coast Highway from That’s Why God Made The Radio or Midnight’s Another Day from That Lucky Old Sun, both of which were very much growers. The strings also sound like Paul Mertens’ arranging, which has been a feature I’ve liked a lot on Brian’s solo work over the last decade or so (he has a fairly unique style of string arrangement which reminds me of Bartok by way of Van Dyke Parks). I’m not sure if the song is as strong as the production, but this is by *far* the best arrangement, and the one that sounds best to my ears.
On The Island is another favourite. A perfect Jobim pastiche, with Zooey Deschanel sounding quite a bit like Peggy Lee. A trifle, but a fun one, and the most natural sounding vocals on anything we’ve heard so far.
Sail Away isn’t the song that Brian did with Van Dyke Parks in 1995, and nor is it a cover version of the Randy Newman song from one of Brian’s favourite albums. Which is a shame, as both those Sail Aways are better than this one. Which isn’t to say it’s bad as such, and it’s always good to hear Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine back with Brian, but this has the sort of slightly overblown feel of the Beaks Of Eagles section of California Saga, or the Monterey bit of Al’s Looking Down The Coast, and the musical quotes from Sloop John B just highlight how much better that song was than this one.
I’m Feeling Sad is a nice track. A nice, bouncy, piece of sunshine pop, very Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach.
Guess You Had To Be There is a pleasant, if insubstantial, track. Kacey Musgraves’ vocals are processed to death, unfortunately, but the song is very catchy.

So after having heard about half the tracks, about half of what we’ve heard is at least pretty good. Given that the stuff that was let out first is far worse (to my ears) than the stuff we’ve heard more recently, I’m guessing the ratio of good to rubbish will only improve on the actual album itself. I’m cautiously optimistic about this one.

Flash Fiction: Filth

[Once again doing Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge. This time he’s said to write, in 2000 words or fewer, a story that’s in some way about filth, inspired by the controversy over Clean Reader, an app that removes swear words from books. This story was written in 48 minutes with no revision and is UNPLEASANT, though I will note that it contains not a single word that Clean Reader would block. This story has trigger warnings for self-harm, body dysmorphia, homophobia, and general nastiness. It’s unpleasant enough that I didn’t want to post it, but I kept to the spirit of the thing.]

This one’s genuinely nasty, so I’m putting it behind a cut

My prediction for the election

I’m going to do a proper blog post later, if I’m well enough (been busy today and it’s taken it out of me), but I thought I’d set out my best guesses as to what the final result of the election will be.
I think in terms of MPs, we’re going to have something like 280 Labour, 270 Tory, 38 SNP, 35 Lib Dems, and no other party having any significant numbers (the Northern Irish parties will be roughly the same, Plaid will get four, UKIP will if they’re *very* lucky get three but will most likely get one, the Greens will probably hold their one MP). The other parties will mostly be interesting in terms of how they affect the results in marginals — will more Labour-leaning than Lib Dem-leaning people defect to the Greens, for example, giving the Lib Dems an advantage in otherwise difficult Labour-facing seats?

I also suspect that the Tories will get *slightly* more votes than Labour, but fewer seats, and that UKIP will get a *LOT* more votes than the Lib Dems (though not as many more as the polls show at the moment — UKIP’s support is very soft and they’ve got lousy get-out-the-vote compared to other parties) but basically no seats. The SNP will come sixth in votes and third in seats. Basically, the result will be a mess.

If I’m right, or anything close to it, there will need to be a three-party agreement in order to form a government. The SNP have already ruled out working with the Tories, but not with Labour. Labour have ruled out coalition with the SNP, and vice versa, but neither have ruled out confidence and supply. The Lib Dems haven’t ruled out working with either Labour or the Tories, but *many* of the front-benchers have been hinting very strongly that they think Labour would be easier to work with, and Ed Miliband recently refused to repeat his old rule that he won’t go into coalition with the Lib Dems while Clegg is the leader.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile, are very unlikely to be happy with confidence and supply if the party can keep a fairly reasonable number of MPs. They’ll want full coalition.

So my guess is that if the result looks *anything* like what I expect, the only viable option will be a Labour/Lib Dem coalition with SNP confidence and supply. The stupid result will reopen the debate about electoral reform, and even Labour, who will have benefited from it, will notice that they’ve been nearly completely wiped out in their former strongholds in Scotland. So I *very* strongly suspect we’ll get electoral reform *at least* at the council level. Labour may well be persuadable that STV would be better than d’Hondt for Euro elections, too…

I suspect that with a result like that Nick Clegg would have to step down, but not until coalition negotiations had been completed and enough of a decent interval had passed that it didn’t look like he was being forced out by Labour — possibly waiting until party conference in September. If we *don’t* get a coalition, he’s pretty much definitely gone long before then.

I must admit, though, that a Lab/Lib coalition is my preferred outcome out of the possible ones (though I’d wish for a MUCH larger number of Lib Dem MPs than we’re likely to get, and if it relied on a third party for support I’d prefer the Greens or the Pirates to the SNP, though I don’t find the SNP as viscerally revolting as some of my Scottish friends do), so while I think I’m being sensible here, there may be an element of wishful thinking. But I don’t think so. I think something like this is the most probable result, though “most probable” when predicting a chaotic system through several inferential steps is still not hugely likely in absolute terms.

On the other hand, those results *could* go another way. There’s been an uncomfortable amount of kite-flying about a Labour/Tory coalition recently, and other than UKIP being in government I can’t imagine anything worse for the country.

What do you think?

The Solid Silver 60s Show

One thing I do occasionally, but rarely write about, is attend package shows of old 60s pop stars. These shows have a bad reputation, and not without reason, but at the same time they do provide a service. Very occasionally you’ll get someone on there who could hold down a full show by themselves — I saw the Zombies on a package tour last year, for example — but there are a lot of musicians who had one or two big hits, but who you wouldn’t particularly want to see do a full show. But put five or six of them on the same bill, and there’s no chance of getting bored.

They’re also a useful source of money for these older performers. Almost all the performers who end up doing these tours are non-writing performers, doing material written by others — and songwriting is where the long-term royalties are in music.

This is a review of last Monday’s Solid Silver Sixties Show at the Palace Theatre, but really it could double for any of them. While this show ended up almost accidentally organised by genre — Immediate Records pop-soul followed by Merseybeat — all these shows really have a hierarchy based on number of recognisable hits and, crucially, original members — with original members, it’s not just number that counts, though. A drummer counts least, the lead singer most. Non-original members who played keyboards with the band for two weeks in 1965 and rejoined in 2004 get half points.

All these shows start with the band with fewest original members, first doing their own set and then acting as backing band for the solo performers who aren’t big enough to have their own band. For this show, that was The New Amen Corner, who can be distinguished from Amen Corner by their not having any members of Amen Corner (the programme suggests that their sole connection to the original band is that their saxophone player is a friend of the original band’s sax player). They did, however, do a competent medley of Amen Corner’s hits, or at least the first verse and chorus of each of them, and they all looked very smart in their blazers.

Then on came P.P. Arnold, the main reason I came to this show, and she was utterly breathtaking. Her performance was slightly let down by The New Amen Corner’s drummer (who’s fine on the ballads, but on anything above mid-tempo just thrashes the hi-hat frantically, trying to keep on the beat). But her performance of Angel Of The Morning in particular (her opening song) sent literal shivers down my spine. She sounds as good as she did fifty years ago, and on If You Think You’re Groovy and The First Cut Is The Deepest she was almost indistinguishable from the records. I was in actual tears at points, and she was worth the ticket price on her own.

She rounded out her set with covers of the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, and River Deep Mountain High (the record she was promoting as an Ikette when she first came to Britain) before introducing Chris Farlowe.

I’d seen Farlowe before, about fifteen years ago, supporting Van Morrison, and remembered him as being a bit rubbish, but I really like a couple of his singles from the 60s, and I’d thought maybe I’d misremembered or had been a bit harsh. It turns out I *had* misremembered, in that he isn’t just a bit rubbish, he actually has magical anti-music powers.

Farlowe has a fantastic voice, even now, and Out Of Time and Handbags And Gladrags are great singles. Adding in a Small Faces cover, a version of Stand By Me, and a couple of other crowd-pleasers should mean that he’d be able to put on a great show.

But sadly, where on the record Farlowe sings, say “what’s become of you my love, when they have finally stripped you of, the handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy?”, in performance he sings something like:

“Wha-a-a-a-at, I say what, what what what, I say what Manchester becomes, I say what becomes, what becom-om-om-om-omes oh yeah oh yeah, I say what becomes of you mamamamamamama ma luhhhhrve oh yeah what becomes of you Manchester, when they I say they lord oh lord when they have I say when they have I say what becomes of you Manchester when they have…”

On top of this he jumps between registers completely at random, going from a growl to a falsetto shriek to his normal voice with no thought whatsoever to musicality or the needs of the song. It was painfully, shockingly bad, the worst performance I’ve ever heard from a professional singer. Oddly, he went down quite well with the audience, but it was godawful.

Next up were The Merseybeats, closing the first half of the show in the pseudo-headliner spot always given to a band who still have their lead singer. In the case of the Merseybeats, they actually have both guitarist/vocalists, who’ve been performing together for nearly sixty years, and while neither has an exceptional voice, they harmonise beautifully together, in a very Everly Brothers manner. Their set included very strong versions of their major hits (including a FANTASTIC version of Sorrow, one of the best singles of the 60s), and cover versions of songs they would have played at the Cavern in the early days (Hey Baby, Let It Be Me). They’re not a band I’d want to see do a full show, but a half-hour set of hits left a big smile on my face.

For the second half, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Amen Corner came back on, this time in collarless Beatle suits, to back Mike Pender, former lead singer of The Searchers. A friend tweeted to me earlier that day calling Pender the epitome of chicken-in-a-basket performers, and there was certainly an element of that about him (in fact, his scouse banter and white quiff combined to remind me more than a little of Tom O’Connor), but there’s no doubt that some of the Searchers’ hits are among the best records of the early 60s, and he performed them competently enough. The best moment, though, came when he performed Four Strong Winds, a song he had apparently been encouraged to add to his normally-fixed repertoire on the recent US British Invasion package tour (I suspect Andrew Sandoval, who produced that tour, suggested it). At that point, the slick professionalism gave way entirely to a much more subtle performance — I suspect because he’d not played the song ten thousand times before.

The final act was Billy J Kramer, backed by his own band. Kramer (who was also on that package tour with Pender) is in many ways the anti-Farlowe. Kramer is well known for having had no singing voice or ability whatsoever, and for only being signed because Brian Epstein fancied him. His vocals on his hits were only barely competent, and that because George Martin got him to multitrack them to smooth out the errors, and then added a harpsichord line to show people where the melody was.

But over the last fifty years Kramer has clearly worked on his vocals a LOT. He’s someone with no natural ability who has managed through sheer effort to get a resonant voice, great projection, and good musical sensibilities. He’s still not a *great* singer, but he’s more than competent, and he’s managed to give himself a really quite impressive voice.

Unfortunately, the impressive voice he’s given himself is his chest voice, which is a resonant baritone somewhere in the general vicinity of Scott Walker or Johnny Cash, while his records were all sung in his head voice, a rather breathy tenor. He now sounds nothing like he did on his hit records, and his attempts to sing them in his new style clearly disappointed a LOT of people — a substantial chunk of the audience walked out. However, when he performed Jealous Guy and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, he was genuinely impressive. It’s sad that by becoming a much better singer, Kramer disappoints so much of his audience.

The show then finished, as these things always do, with a full-cast singalong, this time to Glad All Over.

Overall, these shows are generally more interesting anthropologically than as a musical entertainment — a lot of the interest is seeing the old showbiz patterns of fifty years ago, things that have become cliches and signifiers of schlockiness, preserved almost as in amber and still managing to appeal to crowds as much as they ever did. For someone who grew up in a time when there was a huge distinction between serious music and showbiz, seeing Mike Pender say “Oh, you don’t want to hear Sweets For My Sweet or When You Walk In The Room or any of that old stuff, do you?” and the crowd eating it up is quite bizarre but fascinating — this is a show for people who have a totally different set of expectations than any other musical performance I’ll attend this year.

But at the same time there *is* plenty of genuine musical value there. P.P. Arnold singing Angel Of The Morning (and if she ever tours doing full shows on her own, I’ll be there — she’s incredible). The Merseybeats doing Sorrow. These are things I’m very glad to have seen and heard, and the fact that they’re presented in a less-than-sophisticated context makes the performances all the sweeter — that these people weren’t performing for an audience of music snobs *but still managed to be that good* is impressive.

These shows aren’t for everyone, but it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone who has any affection for the music of the pre-psychedelic 60s. Wait until you see one of these tours (there are three or four of this type every year) that has at least one act you actually want to see, and buy a ticket. It’s a trip back to the past in more ways than one.