The Nuisance Suit Idiocy

Always go for a photo of Penny, no matter how irrelevant…

Though it’s no longer as funny as when it started, The Big Bang Theory continues to be my favourite American sitcom. It’s geek humour, and I’m a geek (as you may have worked out by now): I understand what they’re saying and thinking. And I have watched the earlier episodes at least half a dozen times now and still laugh out loud at the jokes, which is more than I can say for even Fawlty Towers or The Office.

Speaking of Big Bang Theory jokes, the show has suddenly been hit, halfway through its ninth season, with a lawsuit claiming damages, profits and legal costs involved in a breach of, I assume, copyright. It’s all to do with Soft Kitty.

For those not familiar with BBT, Soft Kitty, or rather ‘Soft Kitty’ is a two-line lullaby that Sheldon Cooper sometimes requires to send him to sleep when he’s stressed. It used to be sung to him by his ‘Mee-Maw’ (grandmother) when he was little.

Until I read about this suit, I had assumed the lullaby was created for the show, but in fact it was a genuine, pre-existing song, written in 1937 by schoolteacher Edith Newlan, and published by Kentucky-based Willis Music. The Producers acquired the rights to use the lullaby from Willis Music.

Suddenly, nine-and-a-half years after the show debuted and about five years into its reign as the most popular sitcom in America, this lawsuit emerges, brought by Ellen Newlin Chase and Margaret Chase Perry, the daughters of Ellen Newlin, in whom the copyright vested on her death in 2004 (three years before the show first appeared).

Mrs Chase and Mrs Perry, presumably as the result of a particularly slow-burning urge for justice, fairness and decency, are seeking not only the aforementioned ‘damages, profits and legal costs’ but also an immediate injunction preventing the use of ‘Soft Kitty’ in the show until they have been properly compensated for this unjust, unconscionable and horrendous breaching of their rights.

What makes this into such a massive joke is not the length of time they’ve waited before asserting their claim, but the typically overblown terms in which the suit has been brought. Mrs Chase and Mrs Perry claim that ‘The Soft Kitty lyrics are among the best-known and most popular aspects of The Big Bang Theory. They have become a signature and emblematic feature of the show and a central part of the show’s promotion.’

The Big Bang Theory will, early in 2016, broadcast its 200th episode. ‘Soft Kitty’ has been sung on the show ‘at least eight times’. If we are generous and extend that to nine, that would make once a season. ‘A signature and emblematic feature of the show’? In whose Universe?

To be serious about the suit, given that I have a legal background, I think I can make a pretty good guess at the situation (allowing for the fact that I am not versed in American law). Willis Music are the publishers of the song. As such, they would be under a duty to Mrs Newlin, and her heirs, to manage the song on her/their behalf. This would involve the commercial exploitation of the song at the best available price, in addition to resisting its misappropriation without consent. The publishing contract would, in effect, make Willis Music the agent of Mrs Newlin and entitled to make commercial decisions on her behalf. Such as selling the rights to use the song to a tyro sitcom which may or may not succeed.

But The Big Bang Theory succeeds, massively, becoming a tremendous hit. All licensable aspects of the show’s tropes and memes are exploited, including, but certainly not limited to the ‘Soft Kitty’ lyrics. One assumes that the appropriate copyright notice is affixed to all such items, because if it isn’t, serious shit will arrive on the doorstep of CBS et al.

And one also assumes that, if Willis Music were doing their job properly, the contract would have either included or reserved the appropriate rights to income based on licensing the song.

But that was then, when The Big Bang Theory was a twice-made pilot, a mere hopeful among that year’s crop of would-be TV series. Now it makes millions, and one assumes that Mrs Chase and Mrs Perry – either independently or under the influence of predatory lawyers – have decided that they’re just not getting their ‘fair share’ from their late mother’s composition, and are going for broke.

(As an aside: let me make it plain that I have always believed, and still believe, that the creator should have the primary interest in, and a proper entitlement to payment from the use of their creation, and that goes for their heirs – especially when it’s family – for as long as copyright endures. And I’m in support of the ladies if, and only if, they are being improperly denied what is due to them. But carrying on as if ‘Soft Kitty’ is the be-all and end-all of the programme when it’s no more than a minor and charming element, is risible.)

There are two possibilities here: that Willis Music did a crap job on the contract selling the rights to ‘Soft Kitty’ and the ladies are being grossly underpaid for what the song is genuinely worth – bearing in mind that that song is only worth any elevated value because of The Big Bang Theory – or that the contracts are all fair and reasonable and proper and this is a nuisance suit.

If it’s the first of these, then the joke’s off and thy should get a fair deal. But, and I am likely to be prejudiced here because I love the show, I strongly suspect the latter. After all, if Mrs Chase and Mrs Parry have a case, why are they only bringing it now? When the first suggestion has been made of a possible end to the show, after season 10?

But ‘a signature and emblematic feature of the show and a central part of the show’s promotion’? That is to laugh.

Alfred Bester: a Driver of Tigers – The Rat Race

The Rat Race was first published in Britain in 1984, almost thirty years after its debut in America as Who He? I’m using the British title because that’s the one with which I’m familiar. It’s a picture of the US television industry in those early days of live performance, and Bester prefaced the reissue with a note putting what follows firmly in its place as historical, with no relation to the modern industry.
The book’s appearance took me completely by surprise. By then, I had read almost all of Bester’s SF output, including the two late, disappointing novels, and I had not even heard of any mainstream fiction by him. But it’s very clearly his work: the same drive, the same attack, the same compulsions, the same psychoanalytical underpinnings, applied to a world as strange and rare as that of The Demolished Man, and no less intriguing for being ‘real’.
Though The Rat Race was clearly not a major work, it had been well-received in 1955, and optioned for adaptation as a feature film. The film was never made, but the money Bester received enabled him and his actress wife to tour Europe. This windfall would have extensive effects upon Bester’s career.
Bester and his wife – fictionalised lightly as Kitten (a nickname) and Robin – play peripheral roles in this story, with Bester playing the narrator’s role. The story covers a week, between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and it begins with its end, with the cast and crew of the Sunday night television Quiz/Variety show ‘Who He?’ performing the show live, with a dead body hanging from the set beams, its heels five foot above them, and only just concealed by the stage curtain.
That’s a hell of a set-up.
Central to the story is Jordan ‘Jake’ Lennox. Jake is a scriptwriter, the writer, and co-creator of ‘Who He?’ Jake’s a fighter, who’s come up out of nowhere, battling his way from nothing to his current position of respect and success. But there’s a conflict between his self-image as an elegant, austere, kindly, liberal man, ‘second son of the Duke of Suffolk’ and his inner persona as a roughneck, a scrapper, driven by violent impulses, a hard-drinker. When we first see him, he’s gone on a twenty-four hour bender on Christmas Eve, after the ‘Who He?’ broadcast, and is so drunk he has no idea who he is, having gotten involved with a fat, blonde prostitute, convinced his name is Clarence Fox, a Quaker from Pennsylvania.
Later in the book, the events of that bender will be re-created, and an epic of endurance and serendipity it is.
Back on the show, a crisis is developing. ‘Who He?’ is fronted by the ventriloquist act Mason & Dixon, and Mason’s made a mistake. Asking the caller to give an alternate name for Santa Claus, expecting St Nicholas, he got Kris Kringle and rejected it as wrong: the customer’s husband is a lawyer and he’s already threatening lawsuit. Everyone’s in a panic, and everyone’s passing the blame around so fast, the potato will never cool down.
Jake defuses the situation by offering the offended couple the starring role in a new game show, featuring an ordinary couple trying various game shows (the idea takes off at the end, giving Jake an uncomfortable choice) but before that point we meet all the principle figures in and around the show and get an eyeful of their various neuroses, schticks and tightropes that each walk to enable them to function in this bizarre television world.
‘Who He?’ been running for thirty-nine weeks, successfully, but it has to be wary. Network producer Roy Audibon has his eye on the slot for one of his own productions, is threatening ‘Who He?’ as being ten points below its slot’s potential.
Mig Mason, the humourless, insecure vent, is denying any responsibility for the disaster and wants the telephone girl fired. His permanent entourage consists of one wife, three gagmen and his agent, Tooky Weems, a walking parasite without a human bone in him. Nor is producer Mel Grabinar exactly stable or reliable; hell, nobody in this world is.
Except perhaps Sam Cooper, the show’s rehearsal pianist: Jake’s flatmate and best friend. Sam’s a nice guy, thoughtful, kind, protective of Jake. But even he has a problem: Sam’s written a song, a potentially very successful song. Jake wants to promote it even to the extent of Sam becoming a performer on the New Year’s Eve show. Mig and Tooky want a piece of the song and Jake fights to protect Sam, even though Sam doesn’t want a battle…
Central to the story is a mysterious threat to ‘Who He?’, nasty, vicious, poison-pen letters that drip with filth and anger. The latest promises a killing on New Year’s Eve, and Jake sets out to find and neutralise the source of the threats. Along the way, he quickly encounters the beautiful, pacifistic, communist-sympathising Gabrielle ‘Gabby’ Valentine: the pair fall in love in a relationship that runs through far too many changes and complications, most of these relating to Jake’s changes of mood, his combativeness against Gabby’s pathological urge to avoid fighting, but some of them are down to Gabby being Roy Audibon’s estranged wife.
So Lennox blunders and stumbles his way through a week of intense pursuit and multiple craziness, fighting for his show, his love, his friend and, though he only slowly becomes aware of it, himself. I don’t like giving away major spoilers, but it’s impossible to avoid giving away that the writer of these hatred filled letters is Jake himself, in drunken fugues during which his internal self-loathing comes to the surface.
All things come to a head at the New Year’s Eve show, when all the crazy, unbelievable yet oddly realistic characters come together. One goes over the edge and swings above everybody’s eyes, the sacrifice to madness: not merely Lennox’s own condition but the rampant madness of neurosis that is television at this time and the nerves of those who live with or within it.
For Jake there is a choice at the end. His put-up show to shut up the ordinary couple signs contracts, is a network winner. He has a piece of it again. He can go back into the rat race, free and clear, his problems wiped, his future back on track. There’s a condition to it though, a condition that Gabby will accept but it depends on Jake accepting it too, for the sake of everything he’s done and achieved. Or he can go it the hard way.
The Rat Race is a ferociously tackled, intense, complex, detailed book, driven by the same psychological urges and the same imbalances that characterised Bester’s two SF classics, the one before and the one after it. It depicted an unreal, but real society with the same forensic detail as the two classics, and like both those books, Bester convinces us that what we are seeing is real, despite it being a harder sell.
It’s now, as the author pointed out in 1984, a historical fiction, though I’m willing to bet that, in some aspects, the world of television hasn’t moved that far along from the things we see here.
One thing that I should bring up is that, throughout the book, Jake Lennox displays a virulent hatred towards gays – or fags as he generally calls them. Bester demonstrated in The Demolished Man a definite masculinity of attitude, and that runs through all of his writing. It’s at its worst in the anti-gay attitudes in this book, the arts – and television – being an area that attracts a reputedly higher proportion of gay interest than other professions.
To modern eyes, it’s unpleasant, sometimes loathsome, especially when it’s plain that it’s the author speaking through his character rather than describing a third party mindset. But it’s also of the times, and the only point at which it becomes germane to the story, Lennox is ignorant of the implications and it is the much more enlightened and sympathetic Gabby who takes charge, in a kind, fair but implacable manner that is entirely personal rather than dogmatic.
Otherwise, the book is so strong, and we do have to recognise when reading works that are over fifty years old that they come from a world where our attitudes didn’t hold. A spot of doublethink is often needed and this is one such.
Because it isn’t SF, most of Bester’s fans aren’t interested in The Rat Race, which is a shame. It is him from head to toe, written when he was at his peak, and it deserves attention and a better recognition than it achieves.

Up for t’Cup!

The Cup.

As it turned out, I watched a World Cup Final before I watched an FA Cup Final. England beat West Germany in the summer of 1966, after a month of football that may well have been the first football I ever watched on TV. The following May, 1967, I watched at least some of the Cup Final between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.
Nowadays, I could tell you, almost without thinking, that Spurs won that 2-1, to win the FA Cup for the fifth time, out of five appearances in the Final, and that it was the first London Derby Final, which, given just how many London clubs there are, was pretty overdue.
I could also tell you that Derby Cup Finals are pretty thin on the ground. There’s never been a Manchester Derby, or a Birmingham Derby Final, although there were two Merseyside Derby Finals within the space of four years. Incidentally, in the years since 1967, there have been four other London Derby Finals.
And I could expand from there. I could pick a stat here, a fact there, spiral ever outwards in incident, anecdote and statistic until you would forget that all this happy, obsessive detail started with the 1967 Final. And I didn’t even watch a full, start to finish Final, until the following year (West Bromwich Albion 1, Everton 0 in extra-time, goalscorer Jeff Astle).
You see, I like the FA Cup. In fact, I love it. I can be, in fact I am, an FA Cup bore. I can recite the FA Cup Final results back as far as 1953, and scorers to 1968. Any kind of fact, statistic, anomaly is grist to my mill. I fall upon questions about FA Cup history. Who are the only Cup winners to play only top-flight opposition in every round? Nine teams have lost their only Cup Final appearance but which club has frustrated the dreams of no less than four of them? (The answer’s the same team, by the way).
And I have just found out whole areas in which I am completely ignorant. Not just ignorant but bemused. Stunned at the opening up of an area of Cup history of which I was completely unaware, that paints a picture of the FA Cup – the World’s oldest football competition – in a light in which I have never seen it before.
The FA Cup wasn’t always as it is now (and I don’t just mean to hearken back to the days when it was respected by the clubs, who wanted to win it).
Something drew me, at long last, to the details of the FA Cup in its infancy. I was looking up Wanderers, the first FA Cup Winners, indeed the first team to two, three, four and five wins, all in the first seven seasons. The first team to win three successive Finals (it’s only been done once since, and not in either of the current or previous Centuries), which entitled them to keep the Cup in perpetuity. Except that they handed it back, on condition that nobody else ever be allowed to keep it.
Wanderers’ story is fascinating in itself. As well as being the first winners, they were the only team to reach the Final on a bye direct to the last game, at a stadium they were allowed to nominate. They were a peripatetic club, an association of ex-public schoolboys, who never had a home ground. They entered the FA Cup in each of its first eleven seasons, although they withdrew from the tournament without playing a game in each of the last two years.
Overall, they were five times FA Cup winners in nine years, during which they played only 30 games, winning 21, drawing five and losing only four. One of their games is still, 140 years later, the record score for an FA Cup tie. And their success was the cause of their demise.
Through researching Wanderers, I came upon Wikipedia’s detailed, season-by-season records of all the FA Cup results, an openly available resource that I’d never thought to even hunt for, let alone consult. It’s a record of a competition that bears no resemblance to the Cup as I’ve known it all my life, that’s so utterly removed from the fixed and repeating structure that endures today as to be almost impossible to reconcile. How can this be the same competition? How can these histories  be the same?
It’s almost January again, just eleven days until the Third Round, Football’s New Years Day. I’ll be dipping into the Cup’s history, a decade at a time, throughout 2016. Next year’s Final will be the 144th year the competition’s been around, the 134th such game. I’ll see if I can catch up to date in time.

Third Generation Wainwright – Second Opinion

Whilst in Ambleside, back in November, I discovered that the second of Wainwright’s Pictorial Guides had just been reissued in its Third Edition, as revised by Clive Hutchby. I bought it after a chat with the bookshop owner, in which I expounded on the views I’d formed about the first such book. The owner confirmed that that was how Hutchby came over in person.

I decided to postpone reading The Far Eastern Fells until Xmas, but the day has been and gone, I’ve read through the book, and it seemed appropriate to give a Second Opinion about how Hutchby is handling his set task. Especially as The Central Fells is on its way as early as the first week in March 2016.

Second Opinions are usually a reassessment, a re-ordering of perceptions. This Second Opinion is not. It is exactly the same as my First Opinion, only worse.

I am taking on trust the accuracy of Hutchby’s amendments, which is the sole positive aspect of this book. It is everything else about this Revision that I loathe.

I previously mentioned the way that Hutchby’s version is being presented not as the Third Edition, but as the Walkers Edition. The more I see that, the angrier I get about it. It’s a shitty claim, combining within it the suggestion that it’s taken until now, and Clive Hutchby, to get it properly right, and openly demeaning Wainwright himself by the blatant implication that his original version was somehow not for Walkers.

It’s a touch of arrogance that allows Hutchby to inflate himself at the expense of someone far more talented than himself, and far far more original. It’s a far cry from Chris Jesty’s respectful sublimation of himself into the refreshing of the work of someone he never once pretended to even equal.

I admit to never having been entirely happy with the stylistic changes made for Jesty’s Second Edition, which moved the series a few steps away from Wainwright’s classic simplicity. The use of red lines and dots to indicate paths and routes I always regarded dubiously.

Hutchby’s Edition takes this several steps further, making the red lines deeper, darker and more prominent. This has the unwelcome effect of dominating the page: the eye is drawn to the red, especially on pages where Hutchby has to accommodate a profusion of alternative paths in small areas, and the dominating colour obscures the rest of the page.

Instead of a well-balanced, clear map or image in which all the elements are of equal importance, the red lines impose a cage effect upon the page: everything else is behind bars that cross before the eyes.

It only serves to exacerbate the effect of so many fussy, overstuffed pages. Wainwright, though completely untrained, had an immense natural skill at composition. His primary concern was, at all times, clarity, and he kept his pages simple and clear. Hutchby, in contrast, is eager to cram more, ever more in to every page.

To some extent, that’s inevitable. The Far Eastern Fells comes over sixty years after its original, and amongst the many changes it has to encompass is the appearance of multitudes of paths where once Wainwright only indicated a trackless route. Many pages are busier because the ground Hutchby has to present is busier, and he cannot be blamed for a sometimes cramped response.

But Hutchby’s instincts are to cram in even more information, to overload pages that are already in danger of losing any focus. Worse, to achieve his ends he will play about with entire chapters, shifting images and paragraphs from one page to the next, shrinking the space for the elements to breathe and cramping everything up.

In at least one instance, to achieve this Hutchby has had the main image on the first page of a ‘chapter’ shrunk by half an inch in depth, in order to stuff other things in.

The more I look at The Far Eastern Fells, the more despairing I get. It appears that the obvious solution to the necessity to add material, namely, adding extra pages, has either been overlooked, or else rejected, be it in the interests of cost, or thickness or other reason. But the effect is clunky and unlovely.

I cannot enjoy these editions. What was so great about the original Wainwright Guides was that as well as being a clear, concise and utterly practical guide to the Lake District fells, they were simultaneously a work of art. They were only ever intended to be the first of these. The second aspect arose naturally, out of the hand and eye of Alfred Wainwright.

Chris Jesty revised the Guides out of love and respect, intent on every page in reflecting Wainwright and not supplanting him. Clive Hutchby appears to be out to do his own version, replacing Wainwright wherever there’s the merest crack into which he can insert something clearly superior. And Frances Lincoln Publishers, in the absence of their founder, are collaborating in the junking of something beyond the collective ability of all of them to achieve.

Binge-athon – and a word of thanks

I’ve known all along that I was going to feel a little put out this Xmas without a new Hobbit film to watch, although the feeling was alleviated to some extent by having the ‘Extended Trilogy’ box-set to unwrap on Xmas Day (unwrap being in the sense of tearing off the brown paper used to package it by the guy on eBay from whom I bought it).

It’s a quiet Xmas, this year, and today I set the day outside to binge on the entire Trilogy. I’m not really a binge person, in that sense: I have been known, when off ill in the past, to watch as many as four episodes of The West Wing from the comfort of my bed, but this is my first attempt at a binge and I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to take an hour’s break between films 1 and 2.

But I needed to get the paper. And I surprised myself with 1,003 words of fiction, out of the blue.

Anyway, I might have a go at a repeat on Thursday, or Friday, with The Lord of the Rings.

I’ve also a word of thanks to make to you out there. This blog started rather quietly in April 2011, though it didn’t really get properly underway for almost a year, and didn’t become a regular thing until later that year. It’s sort of had three starts to get itself going, and it’s become something that’s given me a lot of fun along the way.

I’m under no illusions as to the possibility of this one day being discovered by the world at large and becoming a mecca for readers hanging on my every opinion, and it’s certainly never going to build any kind of audience large enough for me to tart making an income from my efforts.

As evidenced by the fact that, sometime during the course of today, whilst I was in Middle Earth, one of you became my 50,000th visitor.

It’s been a long time coming, though I hope it won’t take nearly five years for me to get into six figures. But to everyone who has at any time read a piece on this blog, and especially to those who have come back for a second visit, notwithstanding, you have my thanks.

In return, I promise to keep trying to entertain, enliven and sometimes, I hope, inform.

It’s been a great privilege to have all of you reading me.

In Praise of Pratchett: I Shall Wear Midnight

By the end of this novel, it seemed that Terry Pratchett had completed the story of Tiffany Aching. I Shall Wear Midnight is about many things: her greatest challenge, the completion of her apprenticeship, the resolution of what, after all the misdirection, is her relationship with Roland and the Chalk’s relationship with witchery, and the promise of a genuine, solid romance.
It’s a book of fulfilments, endings and completions. Though it is careful also to be a book of opening, into a future, it is nevertheless Childhood’s End, and for a character who was introduced as a Young Adult, albeit a nine year old, that is traditionally where the story stops. An Adult is something different. Sex changes perspectives.
Once again, two years have passed, and Tiffany is now fifteen, or, as the book puts it on every occasion, ‘nearly sixteen’. She’s back from her apprenticeships in the mountains and is the Witch of the Chalk, fully-fledged, working alone, doing all the things a witch is needed for.
There’s a particularly horrible example of this up front. A man called Petty, an unusually stupid, aggressive and sodden man, has savagely beaten his daughter, to the extent that she has miscarried her baby. What he has done has sparked the rough music, a spontaneous decision by the rest of the people that a situation has passed the point of being tolerable, or else ignorable, and that something will be done about it. It’s a kind of folkloric lynching, to be frank, the difference being that instead of prejudice, it’s a communal purge.
Tiffany has to deal with this in all its cruel, vicious, stupid, pathetic and horrific aspects, including keeping the villagers from murder, however justified. She has to rescue and heal the girl, Amber. She even has, the morning after, to save Petty from hanging himself.
What goes by almost without comment, is that Amber, who has lost her child, is herself only a child, a thirteen year old. As is William, her ‘beau’. Yes, severely underage sex, which is to be perpetuated given that, when we get to the epilogue, a year later, Amber and William are a married couple, at fourteen.
Pratchett once again shows his underlying intelligence as to structure by placing all of this is Chapter Two, and having the sexual aspect be an ironic reflection of the dilemma introduced into the deliberately light opening chapter. It’s the Summer Fair and Tiffany, in her usual green dress, is enjoying herself among the country pursuits, one of which, traditionally, is finding a beau. It’s of concern on two levels this year, one being whether a witch wants, needs or even acknowledges a sexual relationship (Nanny Ogg being the glaringly obvious exception).
The other is that, after three books of preparatory work establishing a common bond between Tiffany and the Baron’s heir, Roland, the moment puberty’s seriously hit, he’s only gone off to get engaged to Letitia Keepsake, a particularly pale, weedy and damp blonde girl, with a seriously bullying, stuck-up, more-aristocratic-than-thou mother of a Duchess.
Or should that be Duchess of a mother?
And Tiffany’s miffed. In her head, she’s accepted it, accepted that what brought her and Roland together to begin with was not attraction to each other, but mutual exclusion over their differences from others. In her heart, though, Tiffany is suffering from the only evidence that she is actually a fifteen year old girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, namely jealousy.
All of this, and the after-effects of the Pettys, takes up quite a bit of space. For once, Pratchett is in no hurry to get to the meat of the story. There is another element to introduce, to dovetail with those already on the page. The Old Baron is still dying, slowly, with Tiffany daily taking his pain away. But the time has come: the old man is temporarily lucid and thoughtful, showing signs of the deeper character behind the bluff Baron-ness that goes with the role. And there is a beautiful moment of memory and delight that is one of the best things Pratchett ever wrote, that merges into the old man’s death.
After which there is mourning, from all the Baron’s subjects, genuine mourning, without pretence or reservation. But there is also a worm in the apple, in the form of Nurse Spruce, a poisonous hater of witches, a castigator of unholy powers, who sows the seed of discord that will twist throughout the book.
Nurse Spruce is the forerunner. She’s lazy, unhelpful, malicious, overtly religious, and she’ll be found to be a thief too, but she’s the poisonous precursor to the Cunning Man, who Tiffany will have to face and overthrow, not only for her own sake, but for that of Witchdom.
The Cunning Man was once an Omnian Priest, in the witch-burning era of the Church. He found and arranged to burn a witch, but fell in love with her and plotted to enable her escape. She, seeing in him all he had done, and the continuing conflict between his ‘duty’ and his impliedly temporary ‘love’, refused escape and clasped him to herself in the fire.
Ever since, he has been a discarnate force, recurring at times, occupying, burning out and destroying bodies as he pursues his rotting, stench-laden pursuit of witchery, mouthing vile imprecations. He has no eyes.
The Cunnning Man is a frightening, corrupt, almost invincible thing. He’s been attracted towards Tiffany because she became visible two years ago, kissing the Wintersmith into dissolution. Granny Weatherwax dismissed him once, but he always returns, because he is Hate and Fear, and there is something of him in every one of us. Tiffany must defeat him. The rest of the witches will stand by, not to help, because a witch deals with her own problems or she is no witch, but to deal with whatever  emerges if Tiffany loses…
Given what the Cunning Man is, actual contact with him must be brief and attenuated in order to keep the book going until the inevitable confrontation. But the rising tide of anger, fear and resentment towards witches in general – which has already spread as far as Ankh-Morpork, where Tiffany goes to break the news to Roland and bring him home – and its personal effects on Tiffany, suspected of killing the Old Baron, are more than enough to maintain the story without any sag, and to build a gradually accelerating sense of menace and tempo.
The biggest surprise comes when Pratchett brings the utterly wet Letitia on stage as something more than the cartoon figure of Tiffany’s resentment. Letitia is indeed weepy as hell, but she has a lot to be weepy about, what with her repressive mother (who, in a glorious nod to Pratchett’s only Twentieth Century superior at light comedy, P. G. Wodehouse, turns out to be a jumped-up Chorus Girl) and the fact that, being a natural, untrained witch herself, her jealousy towards Tiffany has kick-started the whole thing.
With that knowledge in place, and with Letitia’s goodwill tipping the balance back in Tiffany’s favour, Pratchett sets up the climax, which is to take place between the Old Baron’s funeral and Roland and Letitia’s wedding.
Crucial to both is Nanny Ogg, who dissolves the tension of the former by allowing the guests to relax into memory and celebration in a genuinely touching fashion, and who, at Tiffany’s instigation, takes the soon to be blushing bride on one side for a good talk…
But though the elder witches are to hand, the battle is Tiffany’s, and her alone. It doesn’t preclude her from seeking non-magical aid once she realises the course she has to adopt, and whilst that’s meant to be Preston, the young, clever, Castle Guard who is clearly the non-romantic real thing for Tiffany, it expands to include both Roland (covered in pig-shit after his stag do) and the determinedly helpful Letitia.
And, of course, the Feegles, who I haven’t mentioned so far, but who are in the thick of things throughout.
So Tiffany dispels the Cunning Man, until next time. She asks for things from the New Baron that are meant to uplift, improve and expand the horizons for the young folk of the Chalk, in a scene whose spirit and effect is lifted directly from those regular chats with the Patrician at the end of a City Watch book. And she has her beau in Preston, who understands both her and the role he has in her life.
All is well. Tiffany is now a Witch, a Witch of the Chalk, respected in full measure as an equal by her elders. Childhood has ended. All’s right with the world, the story is complete. If only it were.
I’ve left out an awful lot of what goes on in the pages of I Shall Wear Midnight. It’s a big book, in its way, and the many stories are inter-related to a greater degree than most other multi-plotted Discworld books. To go into further detail would mean going into further detail yet, and I’d prefer to allow new readers to take things in from Pratchett, rather than from me.
It is a tightly-woven, beautifully-conceived and effervescently-written book that entirely refutes any suggestion that Pratchett’s condition was affecting his work and that’s what most needs saying.
There is one further aspect of it that needs to be considered separately, and that’s Pratchett’s surprising decision to return to a character long unseen. This is Esk, Eskarina Smith, the girl who became a Wizard a very long time ago in Equal Rites.
Her presence is very odd indeed, and it’s the only thing in this book that I am not sure about. She’s a concrete reminder, and a re-validation of a book that made a very poor start on Granny Weatherwax. She’s also considerably older than she should be for the years that have passed, and which have transformed her into a mini-myth of her own. Structurally, she’s a deus ex machina, removing Tiffany from danger and feeding her exposition about the Cunning Man, before disappearing again, not to have anything more than peripheral effect upon the rest of the book.
Eskarina has the ability to travel in time, an ability that she will, in small ways, exercise for Tiffany’s benefit. She also as a son whom she must protect, but that’s a throwaway line, a dangling mystery that might once have led to a book that will now never be written.
She serves, in the finale, to bring Tiffany face to face with her much older self, Granny Weatherwax old, there to reassure her that all will go well, and drop a stonking great hint that Preston is, indeed, the one, and that Tiffany will be happy.
Except that Pratchett has done this before. It’s all back to sex again, the great absence. How many times has Pratchett done this to Susan Sto-Helit? Wound her up to harmony with a man who can provide her with what is good about a relationship, including snogging sessions in the stationery cupboard, only to vanish him the next time the character is wanted?
There will be another outing for Tiffany, and once again Pratchett will undercut his previous ending and tear it apart. But I’ll say what I have to say about The Shepherd’s Crown soon enough, so let it wait till then.

Hardly a Vintage Year

The Annual List of Bestselling Books turned up in the Guardian today so I did my annual scan of it for books I actually bought or read, and it’s an almost record-breaking four – though that depends on the resurgence of To Kill and Mockingbird, which I’ve owned for thirty years now, and the first Game of Thrones book, which I read from the library over a decade ago.

That leaves just two genuine 2015 books I have bought and read, Owen Jones’ The Establishment, and the last Terry Pratchett.

I was thinking about books before I even got to the bestsellers’ list, as the Guardian also filled three pages of readers’ best books of the year, the only one of which I had read being the aforementioned The Shepherd’s Crown, which the reader was praising to high heavens on every level. I could only think: if you say that sort of thing about this book, what the hell have you got left for a Pratchett book that was actually any good? Let alone the truly great ones.

I’m trying to remember what new books I’ve read this year. I’ve read continually, as I always do, but apart from Jones, the only new books I can remember were Pratchett’s last (which is a dreadful disappointment) and the new Gene Wolfe, A Borrowed Man. Now it’s years since Wolfe last wrote a true classic, and you have to go back to the end of The Book of the Short Sun trilogy for that. The last six standalone novels have been enjoyable in themselves, but none has been better than B-list standard, and A Borrowed Man (to which Wolfe is writing a sequel) isn’t even up to that level.

Wolfe’s pace is now approximately two years per book, and whilst we who find his work so brilliant should be grateful for anything we receive from an author who is now 88, I confess that the prospect of waiting four years for something about which I can feel optimistic is, at both his and my ages, a touch depressing.

Given the overall brilliance of their respective bodies of fiction, I really have nothing to reasonably complain of about the latest of both Pratchett and Wolfe, but to be disappointed by both in the same year is a sad coincidence.

I am becoming a creature of the past, but ends of years are times when you find yourself forced to look forward, anticipating the new. And on the evidence of 2016, the new ain’t cutting it when it comes to books. 2015 was hardly a vintage year, for anything, come to think of it.