If there is such a thing as World Cup fever I must have genetic immunity, so it’s a rare day that I find myself reading a book about the beautiful game. But then, as all wives and bookish brothers know, football is more than just a game. That is doubly true when the football in question is taking place in Discworld.
This is the second time I’ve been drawn to the terraces by this novel. Like much of Sir Terry’s best work, there is great joy to be found in a return fixture (okay, I’ll stop with the football terms; I can see they’re bringing back uncomfortable memories of PE teachers and laps round the field). When re-reading a Pratchett, now that you don’t have the power of narrativia urging you ever onwards (pleasant though that is), you get to wallow in the word play, dig deep into the subtext, search out new jokes and new satirical pokes at that thing we call civilisation. Like sex, Discworld is often better the second time around.
So, onto the story. Set not this time in the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork, but in it’s equally colourful crab bucket (knowing Ankh-Morpork this is probably because someone stole the melting pot and melted it down for scrap) this Discworld outing begins with the wizards of the Unseen University discovering that their grant funding – and, much more importantly, their snack funding – is under threat. A forgotten condition in the will of an ancient benefactor stipulates that the wizards must play one game of foot-the-ball every hundred years or lose that considerable financial support. Time is almost up and there is a real risk second breakfast will have to be cancelled.
Not ones to take such things lying down – perhaps because their rotund forms might make it difficult to get back up again – the wizards arrange a match against the best (and worst) Ankh-Morpork’s rough and ready street teams have to offer. In amongst the build up to the sporting face-off, Pratchett weaves stories of redemption, of self-discovery, of Shakespearian love, and of one very special candle dribbler, who finds out what it means to mean something.
Like all the best sporting stories, Unseen Academicals is about the people, not the game. It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts. And of those taking part, while Mr Nutt can be said to be the player of the day, it was the matriarch of the Night Kitchen, Glenda Sugarbean, that stole the show for me. At the start of the tale she is trapped by tradition and the perceived expectations of those around her, always trying to be who she thinks she should be, rather than who she really is. Fear of the unknown has caged her spirit, but when that cage is broken and the clunking hammer of convention is banished from its Damoclean position she becomes an unstoppable force, brave enough to give even the Patrician of the city a stern ticking off.
Last time, I wrote about reading the right book at the wrong time. If there is a right time for this book it is when self-doubt creeps over you, when it tries to pull you down and make you feel small. The key to the appeal of football, as Pratchett rightly picks out, is to be part of something bigger, something united. It lifts you up and gives you strength: they aren’t called supporters for nothing. Those who enjoy Sir Terry’s writing draw that same strength from his work.
To be a Discworlder is to be part of a team. It is to belong. On simple numbers alone, you’ll never meet even 1% of that team, but there’s strength in that all the same. I for one will proudly wave those colours for long years to come.
From Discworld to Transylvania: next up is Dracula. I’ve actually already finished the book so my next post should be up in two flaps of a bats wings.