In Praise of Pratchett: Unseen Academicals


There was no Discworld book in 2008, Pratchett taking that year off to publish Nation. For those concerned as to the potential effect of his Alzheimer’s, this was a splendid rebuff, for Nation  was one of the finest books Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and if it had been the only book he had ever written, he would still be entitled to be regarded as a first-rank author.
We returned to Discworld the following year with Unseen Academicals, a story bringing together the Faculty, social growth and change and the sport of football. On a first reading, I thought this book was one of the all round funniest Discworld books in years, though part of that could be attributed to my desperate need for humour and lightness in a time of great upheaval and depression.
What’s certain about this book is that it’s a much smaller and more personal matter than any book for quite some time. Pratchett has been dealing, in one form or other, with great social themes for a very long time, and whilst that aspect isn’t entirely ignored herein, a book whose major concerns are the fashion industry, street football and the personal relationships of two young couples is something of a holiday.
Where Unseen Academicals does line up with Pratchett’s more ‘traditional’ concerns, it is in the small, seemingly helpless form of Mr Nutt, of who, or rather what he is, and upon his absorption into the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork.
Mr Nutt is, as we discover about two-thirds of the way through the story, an Orc. That, in itself, is a very specific borrowing from Tolkien, unusual in Pratchett’s work (when approached on a serious level): his interpretations of fantasy have otherwise always stuck to the traditional characters of oral storytelling history.
In The Lord of the Rings, the Orcs were an invented race, akin to the Goblins, a corruption of the Elves into nasty, brutish, violent, hateful and irredeemable creatures: they are damned as a race in a manner that we would nowadays equate with racial prejudice, except that they are specified as a race deliberately corrupted to be such things.
Such things don’t exist in Pratchett and Discworld. Nothing and no-one is beyond redemption, and the last years of his life and fiction revolved around the bringing of outcasts into the brilliant circle of reasonable and responsible life, as functioning citizens who are ‘just like us’, to put it very crudely. Orcs are hated and feared in Discworld as they are in Middle-Earth, and the consensus is that such few of them as are now discovered to have escaped extermination should be wiped out, finally.
But there is Mr Nutt. He is a candle dribbler, a quite specialised albeit ultra-lowly position at Unseen University. He is small, skinny, fearful, yet highly, almost excessively competent and intelligent, whilst being ignorant in most respects of ordinary life. There is a mystery about him from the start, known to only a few: he comes from Uberwald, where he was once chained to an anvil for seven years until freed by Pastor Oats (the Omnian priest of Carpe Jugulum), he is a ward of Lady Margolotta and in Ankh-Morpork only Lord Vetinari and Archchancellor Ridcully know what he really is.
Though the mystery intrigues, by the time we are let in on Nutt’s nature, we have seen enough for us to see him as Nutt, not a crazed, indefatigable, destructive killing machine. His frantic need to accumulate worth is gradually growing into an acceptance of having worth, he’s a deep thinker, quoting continually from all the best German philosophers, and he’s training the Unseen Academicals, the University’s revived football team, to take on a joint Ankh-Morpork side in a game that’s assumed the dimensions of a social test. But more of that later.
What bemuses me somewhat is that, whilst the idea is great and glorious, it’s also a curiously narrow and private idea. We’ve gotten used, down the years, to Discworld being a funhouse mirror, in which the distorted reflections of our own society create far more revealing and fundamental portraits of what is wrong about the way we live.
We’ve seen dwarves, trolls, even vampires find a place in a society that reflects our own, inner need for things to stay the same and be recognisable, and to learn from those who are different in order that we continue to grow. The redemption of the Orcs via Mr Nutt is a metaphor for tolerance and understanding, but it’s entirely too personal. The Orcs are just too extreme a race to reflect ourselves: we don’t recognise in them aspects of ourselves that we need to learn to deal with. And they are too much a private conception, they belong to Tolkien in exactly the way that everybody else belongs to Humanity’s collective consciousness. It’s not long enough since The Lord of the Rings was first published for them to have disassociated themselves into the collective mythology.
I’m not decrying the story, but I don’t think it has the universality that Pratchett wanted for it.
Nor am I wholly convinced by the story’s upfront theme. So far, Discworld has never seriously subscribed to the idea of sport, at least not as something for the unwashed masses to become involved in. The nobs, the movers and shakers, that’s a bit different. So you can say that in introducing football, Pratchett is for once operating on a very democratic level.
In essence, the story is this: Ponder Stibbins, in his new role as Master of the Traditions, discovers that it is imperative that the Wizards play a football match within a very short space of time or lose a bequest that funds 87% of their food bills. Facing the threat of a cheeseboard with, at most, three choices, the Wizards decide to play.
At the same time, the Patrician has decided that it’s time to absorb football officially into the life of the city, despite his personal aversion to it. It’s supposed to be banned, but as long as it keeps to the side streets, a blind eye (though not an uninformed one) is turned.
But this is not football as we know it. It’s a street game for indefinite numbers, a pushing, shoving, clogging business that’s closer to fighting than football, in which the ball is rarely seen by anyone, least of all the spectators, and which Trev Lively’s late Dad, Dave (who was kicked to death in a game) is an imperishable hero for his unheard of lifetime achievement: Dave Lively scored four goals.
What football is about is The Shove, the packing of the street by the masses, crammed in, surging to-and-fro, hither-and-yon, come together in a mass mind, if mind it be called. It’s not pretty, in fact it’s pretty brutal, but the point is made, more than once by one of the book’s three main viewpoint characters, the Night Kitchen cook Glenda Sugarbean, that it’s by and for and of the people: it’s their own thing, created without influence or order from those above who believe the common people to be incapable of running their own lives.
Because Vetinari is about taming football, domesticating it, turning into something resembling the early days of Nineteenth Century football: a better game, a better spectacle, but defanged: better for the lower classes. It’s an unusual viewpoint for Pratchett to allow, and it’s one for which he has no answer, save for the practical one that the Patrician is a Tyrant (and besides, some kind of football Goddess also has a vested interest in this).
Between this unanswerable point, and the inexorable adaptation of Vetinari’s new Football, there’s a curious dichotomy that undercuts the book. It’s compounded for me by the fact that, though he can write with understanding about allegiances and their competing natures, I don’t get the feeling that Pratchett likes Football or, deep down, understands it as we fans understand it. He feels much more at home with Vetinari’s caustic denunciation of all physical activity, early in the book, than with the game itself.
All of the above deals primarily with the abstract themes in the story, and yet the book remains more a story of private concerns, which is down to the four, seemingly insignificant people at its heart, who bridge both strands and keep them related.
I’ve already mentioned Mr Nutt, Trev Likely and Gloria Sugarbean, and the fourth of these is Juliet Stollop, aka both Jools and Jewels. Nutt we know about. Trev is his workmate and, technically, superior, but he’s a lazy sod, a likely lad, and street-wise kid, but without any evil in him, not like his fellow fan, Andy Shank.
Gloria knows Trev well. She’s a cook, a very gifted cook, as she needs to be because she’s also very fat: not Agnes Nitt fat but enough to make her sexless, as in who’d-want-to-do-it-with-her? She’s very common-sensical, very practical, and she’s also a crab bucket, though at first she doesn’t know it, then doesn’t understand it, but when she gets her head around what it means, she’s smart enough to change.
She’s best friends with Juliet, who also works in the Night Kitchen. Juliet, in complete contrast, is a gorgeous, tall, slim, long-legged, blonde-haired knock-out. She’s also pretty dumb with it, her head filled with the Discworld equivalent of Hello and OK. Juliet is a natural model, a role that she discovers by chance when she’s picked out by the Disc’s first great fashion designer, Pepe. He’s the one who calls Glenda a crab bucket, not directly as such, but rather as being the product of a crab bucket.
And slowly, Glenda realises what that means, and how she is one, and that whilst Juliet is never going to become an intellectual, the main reason she’s as hopeless as she is is that whenever she struggled at anything, Glenda didn’t act like a friend and show her how to do it, she acted like a mother and took it off her and did it for her.
But Juliet’s found her niche, and Trev’s in love and wants to live up to her, and Glenda’s insistence on being helpful has done much for Nutt’s worthiness, so much that four friends become two couples (though without anything more raunchy than hand-holding for Glenda, which may be just as well, given that Nutt is, after all, an Orc, but Glenda’s still a fat girl. Only the normal sized Trev and Juliet get to kiss. Sex just isn’t a thing in Discworld, it’s somewhere locked, barred and bolted away, only allowed for those who are physically normal).
So there are three things in one in Unseen Academicals, even if a couple of them don’t quite add up. And Pratchett does get in one shot that is firmly on his best form: Tolkien’s Orcs were corrupted from his Elves, but Pratchett’s are corrupted from Men: no other species could have that viciousness and imaginative cruelty inherent in them to begin with.
One final point, one thing that, for me, stuck out and worried me as to the possibility Pratchett’s Alzheimers was already affecting him. I mentioned Andy Shank. He’s another in Pratchett’s seemingly unending line of bastards, cruel, bullying, tormenting bastards, vicious and violent and unhinged. Andy’s a psychopath, one of those who prods and pushes and taunts and drives others into snapping,  but who is always innocent. There is no reasoning with him, no lever with which to divert him. Like others in the series, he can only be stopped by being put down, and this is made explicit, several times.
But all Pratchett does, in a sequence of false endings in homage to Kenneth Wolstenholme’s most famous line, is send a harder man after him to blind him. The unstoppable Andy lives, and that’s so not Pratchett, so not Discworld at all. It’s a soft ending in a series never afraid of hard endings. It was a palpable doubt.

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