In Praise of Pratchett: Jingo

The bigger the subject, the bigger the book. In Small Gods, Terry Pratchett dealt with Gods and Religion: in Jingo, as I knew from the moment I heard the title long in advance, his subject was War, and his chosen vehicle in which to approach it was Sam Vimes and the City Watch.
I don’t know how familiar people are, nowadays, with the word Jingoism. It’s been in currency for over a century and a half, but I get the feeling that it’s now becoming obsolete – the word, that is, not the sentiment is expresses. It came out of the bellicose attitude of the British public towards war with Russia over the Crimean Peninsula, which represented itself in a popular Music Hall song: We don’t want to fight but, by jingo, if we do/we’ve got the men, we’ve got the arms, we’ve got the money too.
Jingoism: the overwhelming enthusiasm of people to get stuck into a war in which other people will be the ones being shot at.
In Jingo, the cassus belli is the island of Leshp, suddenly re-emerging in the middle of the Circle Sea (with appropriately Lovecraftian designs all over its seaweed shrouded buildings) and of immense strategic importance to both Ankh-Morpork and Klatch (a suitably Arabian/Muslim kind of desert-based empire).
Once Leshp re-appears, even though it’s worth bugger all in practical terms, war is in the air, especially among the ordinary people of Ankh-Morpork and the aristocracy, as represented by Lord Rust, who are naturally the ones who will conduct this violent clash on a basis of outdated assumptions, open racial prejudice and innate, deep-lying utter stupidity.
The whole thing worries and frustrates Sir Samuel Vimes, Watch Commander and reluctant Gentleman, especially when he starts getting dragged into diplomatic meetings with Prince Khufurah and his right-hand man, 71-Hour Ahmed. Vimes decides not to be diplomatic, since he suspects that it’s all a front by extremely clever adversaries to deliberately play along with assumptions and under-estimations, and Vimesy is dead right to think this way. Right up until a nearly-successful assassination attempt on the Prince, which precipitates the conflict everyone’s been anticipating and wanting.
Military Law under Rust displaces the Patrician, not that Lord Vetinari has any intention of letting that cramp his style, heading off to Klatch in a submarine with its designer, Leonard of Quirm, and two specially selected impressed assistants, Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs.
Meanwhile, Vimes resigns when the watch is superceded, only to return at the head of his own private Army, composed of the City’s Watchmen. Indeed, when Angua is taken, in wolf-form, by 71-Hour Ahmed, Vimes gives way to his inmost instincts and sets off in pursuit, precipitating the Ankh-Morpork invasion of Klatch.
But there are wheels, and wheels, and yet more wheels, as the various forces go to a very unusual War, which only seems to end when Vimes reaches the apotheosis of his career and arrests both Armies, and their Commanders, for Breach of the Peace!
Needless to say, the true victor in this turns out to be the Patrician, who calmly outmanoeuvres everyone to bring Ankh-Morpork out on top, with the minimum of bloodshed.
There is so much to admire and relish in this book. Pratchett introduces the Trousers of Time to illustrate the two, competing futures that could apply to this stramash.
To be perfectly honest, whilst I appreciate the concept, and whilst Pratchett manipulates it to great effect in this book, culminating with a steady, and steadily intensifying list of deaths of Watchmen – up to and ending with Captain Carrot – that is utterly horrifying and claustrophobic, I do not and never have accepted the name. At the time Jingo was published, I was still avidly collecting Robert Rankin with the same fervour as Pratchett, and all my instincts tell me that the Trousers of Time are a Robert Rankin concept: the words just do not feel right for Discworld.
Be that as it may, there is so much in Jingo to admire, to amuse and to enthuse over that, to properly look at all of it would require a review at least as long as the book, and considerably less interesting. Just go and read it, which I expect the vast majority of you already have.
I’d simply like to turn back to Vimes, at this stage. He’d always been the centre of the City Watch books, but in Jingo he shows the first signs of breaking away from the pack, as it were, and coming to dominate the series individually, a process that would be almost made formal by the next City Watch story. Here, he is quite plainly Pratchett’s voice, confronting the idea of War, the idea of deliberately planning to slaughter great numbers of men with that mix of anger and incredulity that is Vimes’ own and which he takes directly from his maker.
Though he’s a nominal gentleman, by Lord Vetinari’s creation, Vimes simply does not understand the mentality of gentlemen surrounding him, least of all the supercilious, condescending Lord Rust. And yet, though he cannot comprehend them from the inside, he understands them only too well from the outside. And, being Vimes, he is only too wily and too happy to subvert their mores by following the rules, a walking reductio ad absurdum.
But, as I’ve said, Vimes’ notion of War remains that of the Policeman. He is, from his very core, a Thief-taker, and thief-takers are and must be civilians. For the people, but most of all of the people.
In other aspects of this book, Angua’s ambivalence over her relationship with Carrot is still in evidence, though she is much more settled, perhaps resigned, to her love for him. Pratchett takes the opportunity to reinforce our external impressions of Carrot by separating the pair at an early stage in the narrative, leaving the role of commentator to Vimes himself.
It’s something I haven’t had an opportunity to make much of in these reviews, but Carrot is an extraordinary creation, and his performance – and especially his ability to so rapidly become intimately a part of any environment, however alien, whilst simultaneously rising above it – is in full flow here, especially in the desert sequences, where Pratchett’s Holy Innocent practically becomes a D’Reg overnight. It’s a subtle reminder that Carrot is the perfect King, and by implication an example of the danger he himself stated in an earlier book, the absolute danger of a Good King.
Elsewhere, I’ve nominated Night Watch as the best Discworld book, and that’s an opinion I will never vary from, and which I will expand upon once we get to that point. It’s number 1 in a Top One, but I’d be on much less confident grounds trying to formulate a Top Five.
For what they say that is beyond the simplicity of humour, Jingo would have to join Small Gods in any such list. Especially if you accept Carrot’s maxim that Personal is not the same as important.


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