Good Omens (1990): Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman


The imminent Apocalypse has been a bit of a theme recently: first I, Lucifer and now this. It wasn’t my first time reading Good Omens, but it’s been long enough that I’d forgotten most of the jokes and ended up giggling uncontrollably on the bus; which is a bit of a faux pas on London public transport, where it’s customary simply to pretend that you’re somewhere else. In fact, if you combine this book with doses of Blackadder, Monty Python and Caitlin Moran, you basically have a primer to my sense of humour. And the humour here is very, very English, with jokes about Milton Keynes, Manchester and traffic wardens, although that hasn’t prevented the book from becoming a cult classic across the world.

From the closing line of the preface, where Gaiman and Pratchett nod to the much-parodied Edward Bulwer-Lytton (‘It was going to be a dark and stormy night‘), to the rather anti-climactic attempt at an Apocalypse – you just can’t trust the English to do anything properly – the book is a complete joy. There are so many quotes I’ve underlined that I can’t possibly fit them all in this post without making a list of bullet points, but I’m certainly going to try my hardest to get in as many as I can. With both authors on sparkling form, the novel is effectively a story told in a series of one-liners.

It focuses on the eternal antagonism between the incarnate forces of good and evil, namely the demon Crowley (‘an Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards‘) and the angel Aziraphale (‘Many people, meeting Aziraphale for the first time, formed three impressions: that he was English, that he was intelligent, and that he was gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide‘). Both of them have come a long way from their initial incarnations, as respectively the serpent and the angel with the flaming sword in the Garden of Eden: Crowley now tends to be human-shaped, wears dark glasses at all times and drives a vintage black Bentley; Aziraphale runs a second-hand bookshop in Soho.

And, to be honest, the eternal antagonism isn’t quite what it used to be: when you’re stuck on earth for six thousand years with only another eternal being to talk to, it stands to reason that eventually, despite all your best intentions, an awkward kind of friendship might arise. Over time, Aziraphale and Crowley have become rather fond of the world they’re charged with guarding and have settled into a discreet entente cordiale which keeps both their superiors happy without disrupting the status quo too much.

Many phenomena – wars, plagues, sudden audits – have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A… It was one of Crowley’s better achievements… It had earned him a commendation.

Things are about to change, however. The End Is, once again, Nigh and this is heralded by the birth of the Antichrist. Intended to be swapped at birth with the son of the American ambassador, the said Prince of Darkness (etc.) is actually – through the ineptitude of the Satanic nun who assists at the birth – exchanged for the child of Mr and Mrs Young of Lower Tadfield. While the forces of good and evil focus on the upbringing of the ambassador’s little boy, Adam Young grows up well away from any sort of occult interference… until he is eleven years old, when things start to happen.

To date, the only thing that’s been unusual is that Lower Tadfield enjoys precisely the right weather for the time of year: snow at Christmas; glorious sunshine during the school holidays (yep, English humour means jokes about the weather). But now dark clouds are, literally, beginning to gather. Leylines are starting to shift. Anathema Device, the last remaining descendant of the world’s one absolutely reliable prophetess, the 17th-century Agnes Nutter, moves to Lower Tadfield in order to play her part in her ancestor’s Nice and Accurate Prophecies. Witchfinders, mediums and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse begin closing in on the quiet country village. And Adam discovers, to his surprise, that his father really has given him a dog for his birthday (a hellhound, actually, which is having identity issues in its incarnation as a small terrier with one ear turned inside out).

The combination of Gaiman and Pratchett results in a very special kind of rampant English silliness, which is grounded in some very smart writing. Their vision of Adam’s childhood is pitched to read like an updated Enid Blyton story, with the gang of four children and a dog, the resident grumpy villager who shakes his fists at their antics, the dens, the comics and the lone girl who actually wants to be a boy. I loved their description of the perfect country landscape around Lower Tadfield: ‘If Turner and Landseer had met Samuel Palmer in a pub and worked it all out, and then got Stubbs to do the horses, it couldn’t have been better.’

And they are very, very clever in updating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: a beautiful woman who is the best war correspondent in history (she’s always the first one on the scene; in fact, she gets there before the war does); a very chic, sleek man whose diet scheme and product ranges have taken the world by storm (they keep you very thin; in fact, they give you a helping hand towards starvation); and a young white-haired man who tends to work in a lot of nuclear power stations and oil tankers (which consequently explode, leave oil slicks and contribute to the world’s pollution – a very clever update to Pestilence, who apparently retired following the introduction of penicillin). And then there’s the Other One. Am I the only one who detected a cameo by Discworld’s Death – the blue flame and the stars deep within the eyes; the habit of speaking in capitals…? Naturally, the mode of transport has also been updated: when the Four ride, they do so not on horses but on motorbikes, and of course they all wear leather jackets with ‘Hell’s Angels’ written on the back.

This is the funniest book I’ve read in a long time (since Caitlin Moran, actually, though it’s a rather different kind of humour), and it provides answers to some of life’s most vexing questions: the ubiquity of The Greatest Hits of Queen, for example, or the question of whether God or the Devil created traffic wardens. It’s the kind of race-against-time-to-save-the-world story that is very familiar from modern films and yet, unlike those films, the final confrontation rather delightfully takes place not in New York or Chicago or over the White House, but in a rather modest English village in the Home Counties. The characters are bizarrely wonderful, although Crowley and Aziraphale have a special place in my heart: they were the only characters I remembered from the last time I read the book (I was at school) and I loved them even more this time, because I understood more of the jokes. And, despite all the cosmic folderol, there’s a serious message at Good Omens‘ core. Although you may choose to believe that good and evil nudge us one way or another, ultimately it’s human agency – our choice – that can change the world. Brilliant.

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6 thoughts on “Good Omens (1990): Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

  1. graycope14 says:

    Excellent review. I recently re-read this wonderful book and appreciated it even more than the last time. Yes it is very “English”. I’ve often wondered what other countries’ readers make of it, especially the humour. It led me to seek out the Discworld books Terry Pratchett released around the same time, notably ‘Reaper Man’ and ‘Witches Abroad’. I haven’t read ‘Reaper Man’ yet but I loved the third Witches book. Granny Weatherwax is one of my favourite characters:)

    I’ve also been enjoying reading through some of your Discworld reviews. Great stuff!

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