Terry Pratchett: Only He Can Save My Grade (or English in 5th Year: The Panic Button)

The death of someone famous is always a time for reflection on their impact on people's lives and over the past few days there has been numerous glowing obituaries and think-pieces on Terry Pratchett's influence on not only satire but also his own illness and the fantasy worlds that he crafted lovingly over more books than you can possibly conceive of. There is one really interesting thing that he did for me and it was one of his lesser-known books.

There is of course the Discworld series; his crowning glory. But there was also the Johnny Maxwell trilogy of books that featured Johnny Maxwell, a teenage boy, and his two friends - Wobbler and Yo-less (called so because he specifically didn't say "Yo"). In two of the three books Kirsty/Sigourney appeared, and in the three books three separate adventures took place.

In Johnny and the Dead Johnny finds that he can see and talk to dead people in his local cemetery, and they realise that the council is looking to sell the cemetery for demolition and redevelopment to their horror. In Johnny and the Bomb, Johnny and his friends accidentally find out that Mrs Tachyon, a crazy bag lady who roams the town, has some how managed to come across a time machine, and they get stuck during the Second World War the night of a raid on the town that kills many. And in my favourite and the first in the series Only You Can Save Mankind, Johnny is playing a space fighting computer game when all of sudden the alien race whom he has been hunting down surrenders to him, and enlists his help to save their race from the rest of the human players who are trying to kill them.

As is the way with these things when you a child I read them "out of order" - though in reality there is no order and each story stands alone unconnected to each other. The books marked the start of me reading things that I found funny, graduating to The Hitchhiker's Guide and Dirk Gently, and later onto Christopher Brookmyre (and much later onto the actual classic novels that you all should read). I didn't read much as a child to start with, but I would later become a fervent follower of the Three Investigators series, The Hardy Boys, and the Point series of crime and drama novels. It wasn't until after university when my reading got a further injection of enthusiasm - now it's relegated to my Kindle.

During my fifth year of high school I was excelling at Maths, Chemistry, Computer and Physics, but absolutely fucking up English. In the prelim I managed a woeful "Fail", and in the old Higher system of continuous assessment there were three NABs that you had to pass to be able to sit the final exam. In all other classes I bossed them (not to sound too full of my self) but in English I kept fucking up each one. In fact I failed one the requisite number of times to be told that I wasn't going to be able to sit the final exam. Then they "changed the rules", which back then meant I only needed 2 out of 3 passed, but what I think might have happened was that the school took pity on me.

The problem wasn't that I wasn't smart, it was the fundamentals that were failing me; like understanding how to do integration by parts but being unable to do the Four Times Table (uh, I have no idea what you are talking about, 4 x 1 = 4, 4 x 2 = 8, 4 x 3 = 12 etc). My stumbling block was my inability to parse what the question was looking for, then actually extracting the answer from the text, and then managing to get those answers down on paper in such a way that meant that the examiner could easily scan and understand that I'd not shit myself with my clothes on.

I wasn't being taught this by my English teacher during classes which in my memory seemed to only focus on some bumwash Scottish novel titled Consider the Lillies, The Crucible (which we read, then acted out in the class (I was John Proctor, suck it), then watched the movie) and a wonderful poem by Hugh MacDiarmid titled "The Watergaw", the only lasting impression from a class that was taken the least seriously of all that I took in 5th year. I needed help, man, and my mum and dad pushed the panic button once I failed the prelim getting a tutor on board to polish my Fail to at least a Pass needed to get into Uni.

She managed to get the F to a B amazingly.

I saw my tutor twice a week, I think, and she taught me three things;

  1. How to read a question
  2. How to answer that question
  3. (And most importantly) the actual answer doesn't really matter 

Unless you're being asked specific definition, as long as you can answer and then back up that answer, you're golden and they can't mark you down for the answers you do give. In tandem with that was that if you have a three mark question you need three points. If you have two, get them down and leave the third mark to die - not only will they only mark you on the answers you give, but also can't mark you down for wrong answers that you don't try to bullshit. Bullshitting was my default mode for English back then.

Prachett comes in here. As part of the Higher you had to write analysis on a "SPECIALIST STUDY" which was your choice of book. One afternoon we actually had a class trip into town on the train and wandered around Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street for a few hours picking a book. I decided on Pratchett's Only You Can Save Mankind because I liked it, but also I had a few ideas I thought were pretty good. The tutor was unsure it was good enough for the report, not being a "classic" and ostensibly a children's novel of sorts. I argued my case by giving a detailed break down of why I thought it would work, and today I am immensely proud of my work.

You see, it was probably the first time I actually cared about what I was doing or writing about. It was a way to argue my own points and thoughts, and it's certainly not surprising that I think back to that time and that book, and the analysis, and how it probably helped instil my love of writing. The book's multi-layered depiction of the computer game war, Johnny's parents and their own personal issues, the actual Gulf War on television, and other subtle things, were eye opening in terms of metaphor and analysis when I was a teenager, and even more so that I had discovered it "myself" and then wrote about it.  It was around five years before I started writing this blog (2002 for Highers, 2007 for this blog), and the fact that the number of words that I had to write on the book is probably exceeded by this very post should be quite a stark reminder of how influential this single thing might have been.

And Pratchett's novel was the catalysis. Thank, Terry - this is all your fault.