Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchet’s Snuff

Terry Pratchett, Snuff (Harper, 2011)

Apart from the Tiffany Aching books (which are for children, and also for adults, and brilliant), I have been out of touch with Discworld, though each Christmas I’ve given the current novel to my younger son, who has been a fan for half his life. Last year he reversed the flow and gave me Snuff. I decided to read it just now for light relief from a string of books about grim subjects – only to find that it’s pretty much about a genocidal slave trade. I don’t know if Terry Pratchett had the European-American slave trade in mind, or Queensland blackbirding, or the Nazi Holocaust, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had read Sea of Poppies – both books feature a drug trade conducted by establishment people and a vessel (the Ibis/the Wonderful Fanny) carrying a viciously oppressed human cargo (not exactly human in Snuff, but certainly sentient) that makes its way down a personified river (Mother Ganga/Old Treachery) and encounters many kinds of turbulence.

There are three overlapping strands in the Discworld series: the witches, the wizards and the City Watch. This is a City Watch story, starring Commander Sam Vines, who when I last saw him was a mere Captain, but has now been elevated like his creator to the peerage. Sam is dragged from his putrid native habitat, the streets of Ankh Morpork, for a holiday on his wife’s ancestral country estate. It takes a while, but of course the country turns out to contain just as much nastiness, danger and corruption as the city, and just as much stumbling heroism, awkward romance and unexpected beauty. A Discworld Jane Austen makes a cameo appearance, and a scatological children’s writer plays a significant role.

Sam is a wonderful character, an uncompromising servant of the law and believer in the rule of law who is all too aware of his own dark side, his own demons (and this being fantasy, both the darkness and the demons are literal). He discriminates among kinds of evildoing. For example, when the main atrocity has been exposed one of the villagers who had failed to intervene approaches Sam, who is having a snack at the village pub:

‘Well sir, yes, of course we knew about the goblins and no one liked it much. I mean they’re a bloody nuisance if you forget to lock your chicken coop and suchlike, but we didn’t like what was done, because it wasn’t … I mean, wasn’t right, not done like that, and some of us said we would suffer for it, come the finish, because if they could do that to goblins then what might they think they could do to real people, and some said real or not, it wasn’t right! We’re just ordinary people, sir, tenants and similar, not big, not strong, not important, so who would listen to the likes of us? I mean, what could we have done?’

Heads leaned a little forward, breaths were held, and Vimes chewed the very last vinegary piece of crisp. Then he said, directing his gaze to the ceiling, ‘You’ve all got weapons. Every man jack of you. Huge, dangerous, deadly weapons. You could have done something. You could have done anything. You could have done everything. But you didn’t, and I’m not sure but that in your shoes I might not have done anything, either. Yes?’

Hasty had held up a hand. ‘I’m sure we’re sorry. sir, but we don’t have weapons.’

‘Oh, dear me. Look around. One of the things that you could  have done was think. It’s been a long day, gentlemen, it’s been a long week … [Addressing the barman] Jiminy, these gentlemen are drinking at my expense for the rest of the evening.’

This is the third book Sir Terry has written since he revealed to the world that he has Alzheimer’s. He can no longer type, but – with the help of voice recognition software – he can certainly still write. For those who have kept up this book may be showing signs of flagging mental ability, but it’s full of wit and passion and sheer inventiveness, and also wisdom. If you haven’t read any of his books I wouldn’t start here. Try Guards! Guards! or Witches Abroad or Mort or The Wee Free Men.

Not the Blue Mountains

Mark Tredinnick, The Blue Plateau: a landscape memoir (UQP 2009)

4541 As well as being a poet and writer of personal essays, Mark Tredinnick teaches writing in both creative and business contexts (not that I think business is never creative, but you know what I mean). I went to one of his Sydney Community College courses a couple of years ago, and not only got a boost for my writing but also was introduced to contemporary nature writing – Mark had us read passages from some of the great American practitioners, did a non-pushy but in my case successful sales job on The Land’s Wild Music, his book about them, and talked about his own longterm project, a memoir about the Blue Mountains. At the Sydney Writers Festival this year, beside stacks of his Little Red Writing Book and  Little Green Writing Book, there was the memoir, The Blue Plateau, in print at last.

You don’t have to scratch far in non-Aboriginal Australian literature before you come across the idea, usually accompanied by an element of yearning, that people live in close mutuality with the land they inhabit. It could hardly have been otherwise – the first settlers were discovering a new nature. Barron Field had fun describing a kangaroo

Nature, in her wisdom’s play,
on Creation’s holiday

and it probably makes sense to read a lot of Henry Lawson’s stories as exploring the deep interconnection of humans and environment – as in the oddly bathetic final sentence of ‘The Bush Undertaker‘:

And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush – the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.

Not to mention Judith Wright and all those poets who wrote about the landscape of the mind (‘South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,/rises that tableland’ etc).

Mark Tredinnick is consciously part of a different tradition. Just as Patrick White decades ago revolted against ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ which he saw as dominating Australian literature, looking instead to European models, Mark T looks to North American models. I know this, not because I’ve read any of them, and not just from the enthusiasm of The Land’s Wild Music, but from references embedded in the text – explicitly to Barry Lopez, in a nod and a wink to James Galvin, and perhaps by a mention of bell peppers where someone writing in an Australian tradition might have said capsicums or red peppers. The book offers a wealth of stories, mainly of three families – two who lived in the region for generations, transformed it in big and small ways by their labour, and were transformed by it; one who came as an immigrant and found home there. Actually make that four families, the fourth being the author, his partner and children: their stay in a place up on the ridge by Katoomba, and Mark’s attempt to belong there, is a central narrative thread. Many of the stories are classic bush yarns – miraculous escapes from bushfires, lives lost from flood and rockfalls. That is to say, they have the subject matter of classic bush yarns: they are told in elevated, mellifluous language, rich with simile and, especially, personification, a very far cry from the tightlipped, sardonic discourse we have come to think of as typically Australian. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the book is a tapestry of yarns in the manner of Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life, though in more high-falutin language. True, like Furphy’s fabulous book, it lacks a straightforward linear structure. But it is a very different beast: self-described as something that has been eroded, leaving only fragments of its whole, it is indeed fragmentary, to be read, I think, almost like a book of poetry. Some of the “poems” are ten pages or more long. The narrative of Les and May Maxwell stretches through the whole book like a backbone. There are many outcrops of observation, reflection or anecdote that are barely a paragraph long.

(A newspaper review on the weekend lamented the absence of Indigenous people, except ‘obliquely’. And it’s true that no Indigenous person appears as a character. But one of the distinctive features of The Blue Plateau is the way the Gundingurra people are a constant, though abstract, presence. Perhaps this is a book that’s easy to skip. And that’s every reader’s right, but one that, when exercised, makes it hard to be an accurate reviewer.)

Improbably, the opening paragraph reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s descriptive writing. I thought at first that to mention this would be to make fun of Mark Tredinnick’s elevated style. But that ain’t necessarily so. On reflection, I think it’s fair to say that my favourite fantasy writer manages to slip brilliantly lyrical writing past our defences by taking the mickey, Mark’s lyricism is full frontal, dares us to laugh, and restores the mickey to readers who are timid about lyricism in their prose. Here are a couple of excerpts from The Blue Plateau and bits of Terry Pratchett. See if you can tell which is which.

It’s early September, the driest month of the year, and the valley is rolling over into summer. The sun has been out all day, and now what’s left of it has fallen into the valley and is lying there on the yellow grasses like whisky in a glass.

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.

[The] soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, like golden syrup. It paused to fill up valleys. It piled up against mountain ranges. When it reached [placename here], it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.

The valley is a woman who likes  a bath, and she likes to smoke while she lies there. She breathes down the sky, and she lets it travel through her body, and she holds it a long time, and then she breathes it out again, heavy with desire and complaint.