Friday, 21 October 2011

Snuff, Terry Pratchett and literature

My blogging has been curtailed this last two weeks because, first Lois, and then me, have been struck by a virus that likes to camp out in your sinuses and generally make life miserable. If that wasnt enough, we have also had the decorator in. The combination of inflamed nasal passages and assault by strange paint fumes definitely subdues the creative urge.
To the rescue comes Terry Pratchett in the form a new novel, Snuff. As it happens I accidentally ordered the audio book rather than the hardback, or possibly Amazon accidentally sent me that version. Either way it is something of a godsend because reading with your sinuses blocked and your eyes streaming is no fun.
I cant as yet make any sort of proper critical assessment of the story, because the disadvantage of the audio book is that it is easy to fall asleep while it is playing, especially if you have your eyes closed. No one has yet made the Iphone app that stops the playback when the listener starts snoring. How hard can it be? This means that despite listening to Snuff on and off for four or five days I have still not heard it from end to end in sequence.
Whilst this is unusual, it has some advantages. Losing the plot makes one notice the actual writing, the turns of phrase, gems of description and so on. This should come as no surprise I guess, because every creative writing class Ive attended always dealt with extracts of books when discussing technique and style. It is all too easy to dismiss Terry Pratchett as a rather successful comedy fantasy writer who has been very prolific and generated many fans, but because the books are full of Trolls, Dwarfs, Dragons, and in this case Goblins, they are somehow not literature.
This is nonsense and most probably a temporary position in the long evolution of the subject. No one suggests that Gulliver's Travels is some sort of silly fantasy novel, not to be taken seriously. Gulliver visited imaginary lands with imaginary species, not quite the disc world, but not a lot different. Orwell's Animal Farm sets the book on what is presumed to be Earth, but the animals talk and behave in ways that we know animals do not. Again, this is not widely regarded as a trivial book. Alice in Wonderland and its sequel are sometimes thought of as children's books, but never dismissed as trivial.
What do these authors do? They set up an invented world in order to focus on the relationships and scenarios between the key players. The dialogue and management of situations is used to get the messages across. What does Pratchett do? He sets his books on an imaginary world where the play of situations and characters makes the point. On top of that, he manages to produce endearing characters with whom vast audiences have an emotional attachment and hence has created a market for sequel after sequel. In his books, he tackles issues such as class prejudice, racism, misuse of power, foolish management, and many others. He addresses the human condition, both individually and as human societies. On top of that, he writes astonishingly well, and he is funny; maybe that's a crime to the literati, though that accusation is not levelled at Swift or Carroll.
Pratchett is often very economical in his use of words, capturing the essence of a scene simply by triggering the imagination of the reader. "Miss Beadle led the way into a room in which chintz played a major part." Do you need an elaborate description of the room in order to have a picture of the room in your mind?
Here is Pratchett, through a character, being tongue in cheek about the writing craft, "one day I thought, how hard can it be? After all most of the words are going to be and, the and I and it, and so on, and there's a huge number to choose from, so a lot of the work has already been done for you."
In Snuff, he develops the Goblins as characters, using them to explore a number of aspects of racial prejudice. Much of the language used by the oppressors could be taken straight from the concept of manifest destiny that was used to exterminate the Red Indians, or the sort of things that were said about Aboriginals in Australia or used to defend Apartheid. Pratchett goes further, the goblins say little, but when they do speak, he gives their speech a unique cadence, so that not only do you know when a goblin is speaking, but you have to concentrate. Too much of this would be a bore, so it is used very sparingly, and hence is even more effective. How many writers can say that you can tell which of their characters is talking, simply from the way the words work.
"Wonderful is good," said the goblin girl, as though tasting every word. "Gentle is good, the mushroom is good. Tears are soft. I am tears of the mushroom, this much is now said." The character comes straight off the page.
Of course he can make the language funny too "She's got me marked down for balls, dance, dinners and, oh yes soirées,' he finished, in the tones of a man genetically programmed to distrust any word with an acute accent in it." Again, it is economic, but there is no doubt, along with the laugh, that you know the man.
I appreciate that I may be in an abnormal suggestible and emotional state, in that this Snuff has rescued me from three days of feeling miserable and bored and unable to breathe properly, but I'm still pretty sure that this book, like so many other Pratchett novels could just as easily be classified as literary fiction as fantasy. Surely, it is time to wake up and realise that Pratchett is very much a political, and managerial satirist a commentator on modern life, using an important literary tradition of an imaginary world as the vehicle.
Of course, in that tradition, Pratchett has gone too far, writing more than fifty books, and producing endearing characters that people want to hear more of, hardly 1984. Alice did at least have a sequel, but there does not seem to be have been much demand for the further adventures on Animal Farm or Gullivers next voyage. On the other hand, I suppose that if word got around that Pratchett, despite his knighthood, is not a pillar of society, but is in fact a subversive political satirist putting forward an egalitarian liberal philosophy, hed probably never sell another book.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Coffee on the move

Among the many things involved in buying and breaking in a new motorhome is the question of espresso. Although these mini palaces on wheels come with beds, air conditioning, a shower and loo, fridge freezer, TV aerial point, gas, electricity in multiple voltages, and a gas cooker, it is a sad fact that espresso is not built in.
We have discovered the solution, or at least a solution. The little machine in the picture makes a single cup of the right stuff. The thing is ingenuity itself, but understanding the way it works leads one to wonder what the prototypes were like.
It operates as follows; first, you pump up pressure, watching a gauge to ensure that you have it exactly right. You lock in the pressure, pour in a measured amour of hot water, add coffee in a small device that fits inside, screw on the cover, turn it upside down over the cup and release the pressure. Water is forced through the coffee and out drips a genuine espresso (for a video see this link). You can get a version that uses coffee pods or you can put your own grounds into little capsule filter devices that fit inside. I use the grounds because I usually mix my own blend.
Our machine is covered in elegant black plastic to add style.
So, what we have is a bicycle pump with a sieve in a box, to which is added boiling water. Trying to imagine the process through which this was invented opens up all sorts of possibilities. I picture some enterprising boy scout, or possibly an intrepid cyclist sitting by a campfire idly playing with his bicycle pump while a kettle boils.
What if I attached the pump to the spout? The pressure inside would rise and superheated water would result. Did he pour this onto coffee grounds? Or maybe he had one of those vicious little Italian devices where you put the water in and as it boils the steam forces it through a central chamber full of coffee grounds. Those things do make espresso. We used to have one when I was a kid, but we never did find a way of avoiding the boiling water coming up with explosive force. The flavour was hard to judge when you have to lick the coffee off the kitchen walls.
At higher altitude, say if you were on a skiing holiday, the water boils at a lower pressure, so the coffee might be nothing like as good. Perhaps our intrepid cyclist was up a mountain, making unsatisfactory espresso in the Italian style when it crossed his mind that a bicycle pump might just make all the difference. Maybe a tyre valve welded on to the side of a coffee pot; who knows.
Whilst I am fascinated to know how the inspiration came about, the main thing is, it makes good coffee and it is very portable. You don’t even need a kettle, hot water from a thermos will do.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Is this really October?

We spent the first day of October trying out our new Campervan, except it is so posh it has to be called a Motorhome. It may even be a Recreational Vehicle. We slept last night at a conventional camp site where you can plug in electricity, but first thing this morning we drove down to Widemouth beach and watched the surf roll in.
The sun came up into a hazy blue sky, kicking off what may turn out to be the hottest ever day in October, we won't know that till the weathermen have done their sums, but down here in Cornwall it is near perfect (It did break the record). Add to the sunshine the fact that the surf is clean and up to 3 to 4 feet. The blackboard outside the lifeguard hut sums it up Conditions - Great! Thanks to the skill of the Met Office we knew it was coming and packed our wet suits and surf boards. The only thing wrong with the whole scene is that I am nothing like as fit as I used to be.
We surfed for about half an hour and then tested the next piece of kit in the van. We had hot showers, right there at the beach, changed into dry clothes and strolled off to have lunch in the beach cafe. We could have cooked our own, but we have a long running piece of research going to find the best beach cafe in the world. This one is OK but unlikely to make it into the top ten.
The economy may be in dire straights but it is interesting to see that the car park is full. Plenty of people still have the means to charge down to Cornwall to enjoy the sunshine and fill their shoes with sand. Cameron and Osborne need to lighten up and hit the beaches.
The only thing to diminish a perfect day is that there’s virtually no phone signal. Although I can write this on the Ipad, I can’t upload it until I get home, five hours drive away.
It appears that the temperature record for October was broken, Up to 29.9C. We now can enjoy the joke that the previous record temperature for October happened in March. (March is a place in Cambridgeshire).