TT: The Omens Look Good

JANE: We’ve talked about the works of both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman at some length in the past, but I would like to note that their collaborative novel Good Omens uses humor to take a look at a very unfunny religiously-charged topic – the end of the world.  One of my favorite bits is the revised Four Horsemen (excuse me, bikers) of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Famine, and Pollution.

Which Reveals the Secret of Milton Keynes

Death and War are fairly recognizable evolutions of the classic trope, but Famine is brilliantly repurposed as a fad diet promoter – an excellent commentary on how (at least in prosperous societies) fear of starvation has changed into fear of becoming fat.  Pollution does not so much replace Plague as expand upon the classic concept in that  humanity is presented not only as suffering from illness, but also as inflicting it upon the natural world.

ALAN: The book is so very British in its tone and in its references that its worldwide popularity never ceases to amaze me. Wikipedia informs me that the American edition (which I’ve never seen) has a plethora of footnotes which, I assume, explain some of these things…

For example, almost every British child born between (roughly) 1920 and 1970 grew up reading Richmal Crompton’s William books. They describe the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy and his gang of friends. Crompton’s books are themselves very funny and remain very readable even today. Adam, the Antichrist in Good Omens, is just a thinly disguised version of Crompton’s William Brown – a delightful homage to a British institution.

JANE: I just took my copy of Good Omens off the shelf.  The American edition does contain a wealth of footnotes but, as far as I can tell from a quick skim, the majority of them are typical of the sort Pratchett used in the Discworld books: side comments, often humorous, but certainly not clarifications.

There are a few clearly put in at the request of some anxious editor, such as this one:

“Note for Americans and other aliens: Milton Keynes is a new city approximately halfway between London and Birmingham.  It was built to be modern, efficient, healthy, and, all in all, a pleasant place to live.  Many Britons find this amusing.”

I must say, I didn’t feel the footnote added anything that an intelligent reader could not have gathered from context.  In fact, I feel that it actually obscured the point by not explaining why Britons find this amusing.

ALAN: Believe it or not, this footnote is in the British edition as well. It’s not hard to find the reason why. It allows Pratchett and Gaiman to mention Milton Keynes twice – once in the body of the text and once in a footnote – thus making the joke twice as funny!

Would you like to know why Milton Keynes is funny? It’s a bit of a tangent, but the story is far too good to miss out on…

JANE: Hey, we call these Tangents for a reason.  If I’d wanted to be forced to stay on topic, I’d be using my blog to write literary essays.  Go for it!

ALAN: Milton Keynes was formally designated as a new town in 1967. Most British towns are several thousand years old and they were never properly designed. They just sort of grew hither and yon, when nobody was looking. So the idea of having a whole new town, properly designed from the ground up, was quite a thrilling one. But of course, it was designed by a committee and as a consequence the final result was more than a little dull and stultifying. Milton Keynes is not an architectural classic… It’s a beige town, bland and unimaginative, a byword for boredom. As the footnote remarks, many Britons find this amusing.

JANE: They find boring amusing or that planning leads to a boring place amusing?

ALAN: All the above, with knobs on. The town is widely perceived as a waste of a golden opportunity. Nobody will ever admit that they come from Milton Keynes. It’s too shameful.

Bill Bryson notes in one of his travel books that he once took a train to Milton Keynes, but when he got off there, he was quite unable to find Milton Keynes.

In an effort to give the place some character, the city fathers commissioned a herd of concrete cows to be built on the outskirts of the town. Nobody is quite sure why. The cows are world famous in England. People come from yards around just to see them. Sometimes the cows get vandalised (clearly that’s what they are really there for). They have been painted pink, turned into zebras, had pyjama bottoms added to them and one of the calves was once kidnapped (a ransom note was sent to the local papers). History is silent as to whether or not the ransom was paid…

JANE: Is “pyjama” really how you Brits spell “pajama”?

ALAN: Of course it is. Perhaps we should both compromise on PJ…

JANE: PJ it is.  Of course, that’s also American shorthand for “peanut butter and jelly,” but we shall trust to context.

Remind me to tell you about a similar series of art projects here in the U.S.  I can’t remember what the one with cows was called, but there was another called The Trail of Painted Ponies.  It was exceedingly popular and for good reason.

But that’s a huge Tangent.  Let me go back to Good Omens.  In leafing through my copy, I certainly didn’t find any note about the William books.  However, I don’t think this would be necessary.  Although we don’t have “William” books precisely, we do have hosts of books about groups of children, doing the sort of things that groups of children like to do.  It is not a uniquely British theme.

 ALAN: No, it’s not uniquely British. But the William books are a very British institution with a unique place in popular culture. They are known to, and loved by, almost everybody who was born during the fifty years that Richmal Crompton was writing them. I’m sure that there are American equivalents, but William is very recognisably ours.

JANE: I wonder why they didn’t name Adam “William” then?  Were there other cues that Adam was “William,” not just an Everyboy hero?  Maybe his three pals were very like William’s?

ALAN: Quite unwittingly, you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Adam and his gang correspond very closely to William and his gang.

JANE: We’ve taken a detour to Milton Keynes, and it hasn’t been in the least beige.  Still, let’s take a breather and get back to this next week.

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7 Responses to “TT: The Omens Look Good”

  1. James M. Six Says:

    This might be a dupicate comment but I’m having computer issues:

    My favorite funny line from Good Omens still cracks me up to this day:
    I DON’T CARE WHAT IT SAYS, said the tall biker in the helmet, I NEVER LAID A FINGER ON HIM.

    (Although, the British pre-decimal currency footnote is amusing, too, but I can’t quote it from memory.)

    From seeing Neil Gaiman at conventions, he has confirmed that “Good Omens” was his (and Pratchett’s) version of a William book and that “The Graveyard Book” was his version of a Rudyard Kipling Jungle Book type of tale. That makes me start wondering what other British authors Gaiman paid homage to in his works.

    As for an American equivalent of the William books, there aren’t many that would be equivalent. The Alvin books by Clifford B Hicks sound in line with the tone of the William books from your description (Alvin’s Secret Code; Alvin Fernald, Superweasel; etc.) but although popular enough for a series, I don’t know that they were as central to growing up in America as the William books sound for Brits. I’ve never actually read a Babysitters Club book so I don’t know their plotlines or main cast to know what they cover. (Personally, I preferred the Encyclopedia Brown stories by Donald J Sobol.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      Me, too, regarding Encyclopedia Brown. I think the Babysitters Club books came later. I never read them.

      I think the closest the U.S. had in my childhood might have been books like Nancy Drew, and/or Hardy Boys, but as these were built around mysteries, not just daily life, they weren’t the same.

      • James M. Six Says:

        I thought about those, but Frank, Joe and Nancy seemed older, at least 18, and I was trying to think of younger characters. In the end, I think that niche of “kids and daily life in fiction” was probably taken up by Charles Schulz and “Peanuts,” with Snoopy being the emobidment of imagination. With a comic strip every day and TV specials at holidays, no book series really had a chance to compete.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Interesting point. I think Nancy and her friends are high school age, but their boyfriends are in college…

        I like the Peanuts comparison, although, as you said earlier, it’s not a precise fit.

  2. Peter Says:

    “The one with cows” is Cow Parade, and it’s actually international (it started in Switzerland in 1998.)

    • janelindskold Says:

      I shall make up for my lack of knowledge in this coming Thursday’s photo! Thanks!

      • Peter Says:

        I’ve seen it in a couple of cities. My favourite was one I saw in Madrid six or seven years ago, done by (of all people) the local transit authority. They took inspiration from one of those drawings you used to see in butcher shops with dotted lines showing the cuts of meat on a cow, only the lines on this cow were a map of the Madrid Metro 🙂

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