Of course I read ravenously while stranded in Oz, but to be honest it was mostly garbage. I am, obscurely, more ashamed of having plugged my way through the nasty, sexist and pretentious The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury than the rabidly conservative, sexist but unpretentious and immensely readable Score! by Jilly Cooper. The History Man, which is supposed to be one of Bradbury’s best, is, like the TV adaptation of Lucky Jim I recently endured, Comic without being funny and Literary without being any good at all. The main character is so sickeningly unsympathetic that he makes the foul Ray Finch from Norman Rush’s Mortals seem, errm, slightly less awful by comparison. Maybe I’m just allergic to academic novels. I don’t like David Lodge or AS Byatt much either. I do like Philip Pullman’s Oxford and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University, but then they’re imaginary, right?
Hmm. I’ve been thinking a lot about Ankh-Morpork and Trollope, as you do: fictional Londons, their origins and uses; Discworld, Barchester and Palliser, why so addictive. I love Pratchett better and better over the years, in belated homage to my woefully unappreciated high school librarian Marie Sutching, may her name live in glory forever, who recommended to me many books that to my shame I did not read until years later and whose recommendations were never wrong. As well as Henry Fielding and Victor Hugo and Elizabeth Gaskell all of whom I now adore and could not live without, she tried to get me to read The Colour of Magic. I dismissed it as bad imitation Douglas Adams and ignored Pratchett for another ten years until I met the man himself and heard him read at Trinity. He was wonderful, duh. Granny Weatherwax, Angua and Carrot are old friends now, but Sam Vimes is probably going to end up recognized as Pratchett’s masterpiece. He just gets more and more complicated and vivid in every book.
I wonder whether Mrs Sutching liked Jilly Cooper? Bad as her books unquestionably are, with their uniformly appalling politics and puns more dire even than mine and cliched tropes you can smell a mile off (every left-wing character without exception has deplorable hygiene and just needs a wash and a shave and jolly good shag from the charismatic blond(e) Tory hero or heroine), Cooper has the same moreish quality as Pratchett. In her case I think it’s her acute sensitivity to tiny but telling class-indicators – she actually wrote a book in the Nancy Mitford U and Non-U tradition, titled simply Class. In it she spells out a lot of what’s implicit in the rest of her books. You can always tell her aristocracy, for example, because they’re potty about animals and don’t give a crap what anyone else thinks of them; the working class come across in almost exactly the same way, whereas lower-middle class social climbers tend to be grim, insecure and all-around unpleasant to know.
Pratchett and Cooper have quite a lot in common in this respect. Vimes’ wife Lady Sybil, with her dragon rescue organization and her interchangeable Sarahs and Emmas, would feel right at home with Rupert Campbell-Black’s wife Taggie and her heroic mongrel Gertrude. Vimes’ acute self-consciousness is more insightfully drawn than anything in Jilly Cooper, but she has made stabs at the same kind of thing with Jake Lovett, for example. Even Cooper, with all her bizarre prejudices, has more time and temper for likeable and humane characters than Bradbury and Lodge and Byatt put together. Tenure seems to make people a little bit misanthropic, don’t you think?
Marie Sutching had some kind of Parkinsonian disorder, which made her hands shake and her handwriting lurch off the library card like some species of spider. I was phobic about that. After I finished my first degree I called her and told her how I’d done, and she wept for joy. I wish I’d stayed in touch. She’s not in the phone book any more. I wish I’d talked to her more and read the books she recommended and remembered everything she ever said to me. I didn’t have the intellectual equipment back then to appreciate my luck in knowing her. She’d won the University Medal at Sydney and studied overseas; London, I think. She won a major poetry prize for a coronet of sonnets. When she got back to Sydney her father had burned all her poems. “You won’t be needing those now you’re getting married.” She never forgave him, and never wrote anything else. Her husband was a foul vampire who sacrified her academic career to his own, then ran off with the departmental secretary. She was good-naturedly resigned to her fate, and beyond brilliant. Having a woman like her working in the library at this godawful suburban high school was like having Charlotte Bronte as your English teacher at a dreadful little college in Brussels. I owe her so much.