Thursday 5 October 2023

Equal Rites

 


Sometime earlier this year I noticed that there still remain several gaps in my Terry Pratchett collection. Well, there are gaps in most of my 'collections', not being a particularly obsessive collector, and having developed a philosophy that 'buying stuff off eBay' is not the same as the hobby of 'collecting', which in my mind, at least is an activity that involves wandering around second hand bookshops and car boot sales, usually fruitlessly, looking for items of interest. 

Shepherd Ashley's article "A Stroll Across the Discworld" and the accompanying excerpt from The Light Fantastic published in White Dwarf #82, October 1986, was probably my introduction to The Discworld, and not being at all adverse to comedy in science fiction / fantasy having watched Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy on TV and having, as far as the Mad-magazine humour went, thoroughly enjoyed Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney's Bored of the Rings. Discworld is similar in some ways to Bored, not all the jokes are obvious to the uninitiated, rather than now obscure 1960s brands and fads - The Light Fantastic and Colour of Magic references a vast swathe of once popular fantasy literature - Anne McCaffery's Dragonriders of Pern, Fritz Leiber's  Fafherd and the Grey Mouser, Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné and Howards Conan the Barbarian. Similarly Douglas Adams Hitch-Hikers Guide To the Galaxy's parody of the Encyclopedia Galactica being a reference to Asimov's Foundation series passed me by first time around. Nonetheless the stories and linguistic knockabout humour work even without getting all the references, but the overall sense of erudite parody the  long suffering reader of fantastic fiction, must be missing for some readers. Certainly re-reading those books now, I get more of that aspect than when reading them when first published. 

Pratchett being hugely prolific made his books an easy Christmas or birthday gift for young Zhu, which probably explains some of the gaps. Those Discworld books being published outside of the Zhu celebratory Wheel of the Year, others perhaps loaned to reliably absentminded friends or otherwise left on fairground rides and ending up in the Dungeon Dimensions or wherever. The extended world of Discworld merchandise, the Clarecraft figurines that cluttered up the front of bookshops or the Science of Discworld and it's ilk, never really appealed and or involved in any fandom, I just, you know, enjoyed the books. In the same way I could listen to Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine without wearing a 30 Something T-shirt or regularly watching Red Dwarf without a Smoke Me a Kipper I'll Be Back for Breakfast written on my back, in large friendly letters, which apparently huge numbers of the population of 90s Britian couldn't resist.

As it is, the specific books I enjoyed were the paperback editions published by Corgi from the mid 1980s to the early 2000s, with the original Josh Kirby and later Paul Kidby covers. One reason is that Kirby's artwork is great in and of itself. There is undoubtedly some nostalgia there, but there's also the insane gribbly details that dance in front of your eyeballs like eruptions of molten wax. Something of Russ Nicholsons work for Dungeons & DragonsFighting Fantasy and Warhammer, with it's highly wrought texture of globular detail and also a cartoonish aspect, the sharp bright clear autumnal colour and kinetic energy. Somewhat adjacent to the covers Paul Sample was being commissioned to do by Pan for Tom Sharpes comic novels, that somehow places Pratchett's Unseen University just past the bookshop with blacked out windows and the clientele of men in dirty macs, around the corner past the post-office selling traditional seaside postcards, down the road a bit, turn left at the junction from Porterhouse College. it would be nice to have a matching set in that style, even if the last eleven or so books don't quite fit, without some serious photoshop work.

Having had the opportunity to hunt through the infamous  Hay-on-Wye this summer, not a sausage was found. Oh, there were several hardbacks, and one signed first edition, but none of the Corgi paperbacks. None. I wondered where they'd all gone. The self-styled Book-Town is not what it was, some years ago I'd picked up a first edition (late impression) copy of The Silmarillion for under a tenner (there are hordes of them out there), and waded through piles of mimeographed Dungeons and Dragons zines, and in that befuddled way not purchased any and stood agape at improbable milage of disheveled and suspiciously musty copies of John Normans Gor novels. Nowadays it's mostly crammed with overstock of those special embossed, sprayed edges faux leather editions of ya books, glass cases of genuine ancient collectable first editions and a couple of shelves of stock that hasn't moved in 40 years for good reason.  Pratchett was the  best selling author in the UK during the 1990s, over 100 million copies of his books are out there, lurking, somewhere, but apparently not in second hand bookshops. But the dreaded eBay currently lists over 11,000 results for Pratchett. So perhaps they're all making their slow, solemn pilgrimage across the slippery silicon purgatory of cyberspace.

In a local charity shop, having spied a Granada Asimov I already own (Buy Jupiter, a collection of Asimovs mildly humorous non Robot/Foundation writing, with a wonderful Peter Andrew Jones on the cover doing a fine Chris Foss impersonation). Along the Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelf there is a suspicious void next to a large, oversized, black hardback Pratchett. Night Watch, if I remember correctly. Sounds come drifting across the brick-a-brack.

"Yes. I'm collecting them. I like the old covers better than the new ones."

"Oh. I remember reading these in the nineties, my little neice was always enchanted by the covers. So much colour and detail."

"Here's the list of the ones I've got, and those I haven't"   

"Oh. you've done quite well then."

By now it's quite clear just why there is a void where the Pratchett had once been. Somebody has nabbed them first.  Sudden thoughts cross my mind - aha! a fellow collector - I'll introduce myself,  we could swap notes, keep an eye out for each others lists, maybe swap books - ironically I have a spare of The Truth, I say ironically because well, there's only one truth, isn't there. So I look over, to the source of the discussion.

The conversation is emanating from the lady at the checkout, tall, iron grey hair, twinset, probable owner of a nice. And a teenage girl, large thin-rimmed glasses, baggy black cargo trousers, oversized black hoodie. If I had been on a train of thought, it ground, screeching to a halt, having almost the precise effect that a teenaged Jenny Agutter hoped to have on steam engines by frantically waving at them. There is no way that I, a middle-aged man can encroach upon their conversation without appearing like an even more creepy weirdo than the kind of creepy weirdo who stares at gaps on bookshelves while eavesdropping on other peoples conversations. Never mind. I fully acknowledge that my intrusion into that exchange, as an adult male would be inappropriate. No, instead adopting the flâneurs privilege of the outsider, observing the mechanics of society at a distance: the shopkeeper and customers shared admiration of Pratchett and Kirby's art, a casual bond between strangers and across generations. Perhaps this is really what mass culture, popular art, does best, the function it serves, those tiny moments of connection.

Browsing through the rest of the books I'm not really interested in, no lime green spines, just to make sure the girl has the time and space to leave the premises and walk down the street without feeling like she's being followed. Same way one doesn't walk behind women at night, but instead cross the road or wait in well lit areas for a bit.  And I wonder if for some reason that I've developed a paperback collecting and reading habit that is otherwise naturally the domain of teenaged girls.  I should really be hunting down oddly specific editions of Will Self, John Grisham or Ken Follett or whatever fashionable pulp the publisher ordained priests at the Telegraph or Guardian suggest grumpy middle aged men should be reading these days. 

What it must be like reading Equal Rites for the first time today, seeing Esk and Simons jouney to the Unseen University? Perhaps without the literary contexts of visiting the Island of Roke, chased by a shadow, or even Cackle's Academy with its rivalries and misdemeanours, but almost inevitably having wandered through the stagnant, hollow and dismally derivative halls of Hogwarts School. Or for that matter, what might any of it mean now? Living in a time when, while prejudice still persists, the once hallowed space between mens and womens colleges of Oxbridge are no longer institutionally entrenched and debated as they were when it was published, and the dismantling of these visible barriers no longer  topical as it once was.