The Discworld, travelling through space on the back of Great A'Tuin, a Giant Star Turtle, in the original cover art by Paul Kidby.
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“There’s no justice. There’s just us”: Helen Lewis on the politics of Pratchett

A common misconception about Pratchett’s work is the fantasy setting divorces it from the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“He is, of course, writing about us,” A S Byatt observed of Terry Pratchett. “He is good at policemen, businessmen, fraudsters, murderers, banks and shares, and at music with rocks in it besides, as well as at goblins, witches, dragons, trolls and dwarfs.”

One of the commonest misconceptions about Pratchett’s books is that their fantasy setting somehow divorces them from the real world and its concerns. But as the Discworld series developed, its themes became increasingly political (with both a big and a small “p”). Take Feet of Clay (1996), possibly my favourite in the series. It is an interrogation of power as an ancient vampire herald called Dragon, King of Arms searches obsessively for the “true ruler” of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork –while Captain Carrot, the only living descendant of the last monarch, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is the heir, preferring to serve in the City Watch. (His boss Samuel Vimes, incidentally, is a descendant of the last man to kill a king of Ankh-Morpork.) Vimes’s hatred of authority prompts the Machiavellian Patrician to keep giving him aristocratic titles just to annoy him.

Set against this is another plot strand: the desperate attempts by the Golems (creatures formed from clay and kept as slaves by human beings) to make themselves a king. The Golems are given life by the sacred words in their heads, but they fill their king’s mind with so many hopes and obsessions and aspirations that he is driven mad. You might not notice all this on a first reading – you’ll be too busy laughing about a bull that thinks it’s two bulls because each of its eyes has a different field of vision – but it’s in there.

Similarly, Going Postal is about capitalism. It tells the story of a notorious conman given a second chance if he promises to revive the Post Office. This is a shambolic bureaucracy, but one that offers steady jobs to the old and the slightly simple – unlike the rival “clacks”, a semaphore system where equipment is run into the ground and profit is put before the workers’ safety.

In among the sweeping themes are pointed vignettes: in Small Gods (1992), it turns out that only one person sincerely believes in the state religion, despite its enthusiastic enforcement by an inquisition. (This being Pratchett, a deity’s corporeal manifestation is in direct proportion to the strength of belief, resulting in the god Om taking the form of a one-eyed tortoise.)

In Jingo (1997), a new island appears in the sea between Ankh-Morpork and the nearby state of Klatch, prompting both to prepare for war – and culminating in Vimes trying to arrest both armies for a “breach of the peace”. In the earlier Equal Rites, a girl discovers that she’s a wizard, rather than a witch, and tries to enrol at the men-only Unseen University (an eccentric organisation that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in academia).

The moral cores of the series are Vimes and the witch Granny Weatherwax, characters to whom Pratchett has returned again and again. Both are feared –Weatherwax’s nickname from the trolls is “She Who Must Be Avoided” and to the dwarves she is “Go Around the Other Side of the Mountain” – but they are also unbending in their principles, fiercely loyal and protective, and unafraid to take the right decision even if it is hard and unpopular. As Death – another recurring character – says in Reaper Man (1991): “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

Read Laurie Penny's interview with Terry Pratchett and the New Statesman leader "Facing Death (and Binky)" about the significance and afterlife of his work.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle