In Praise of Pratchett: Raising Steam

I’ve already written about this book once, an ‘Uncollected Thoughts’ an immediate response to completing reading it for the first time, which you can read elsewhere on this blog. Now, after the marathon of re-reading and commenting upon all Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, it’s time for a reappraisal.
With Judgement Day before it, and The Shepherd’s Crown to follow, I was really fearful about approaching Raising Steam again. But in truth, for all its flaws, it is an oasis of sanity, of clarity, of the authentic Pratchett voice.
In the classic manner, Raising Steam is divided into two stories, that merge in the latter half of the book, and it continues, on an impressive level, the theme of Redemption that has been Pratchett’s main concern since he began the sequence of books written in the knowledge that each may be the last.
The front story, as it were, is the coming of the Industrial Revolution to Discworld, in the form of Engineer Dick Simnal – a Lancastrian to the tips of his railwayman’s boots – and his locomotive, Iron Girder. And it’s the most massive, and uncharacteristic change Pratchett could have made to Discworld. It might only be the Railway, which spreads like wildfire, but already every associated industry is spreading with it, and with the Steam Engine harnessed, the full scope of the Revolution will follow.
It’s a change that cannot help but alter Discworld irrevocably, because it brings in Science, with the capital S. The change has been coming for years, as invention succeeded invention, each subtly shaping the Discworld closer to the norms we associate with Roundworld, with our Earth, but this is the one that changes the very ground upon which Discworld stands.
So fundamental is the level on which this changes everything, that Pratchett could only introduce it now, so late. Had there been stories to follow this, had we been guaranteed another decade, another dozen books, those stories would have been changed beyond all recognition. Like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, like 9/11, the world turns over and we are in a time with new rules.
The understory is the determined resistance to change of the grags, the Dwarf ‘Priesthood’ set on reversing history, of taking it back to where it once was, at the behest and for the benefit of a tiny group that are unable to accept the passage of time, who insist on darkness, ignorance and the gathering into their hands alone of anything that represents freedom.
It’s an apt juxtaposition of ideas: the onset of history versus the clinging past, the expansion of knowledge and freedom versus its contraction, and in both sides of the story the future wins hands down, as it was bound to do.
Which is the great flaw of Raising Steam. As I observed on a first reading, and which remains true in re-reading, there is simply no credible opposition in either part of the story. The Railway arrives whole and entire and everything falls into place for it. The Patrician makes the early point that he can stop everything in its tracks by bumping Dick Simnal off, but there’s no sense that he ever seriously intends to.
Instead, he puts Moist von Lipwig in charge of it, but the truth is that it’s a waste of Moist’s considerable confidence-man abilities when all he has to do is negotiate contracts with supposedly slippery land-owners. Moist’s not up against anyone with a serious interest in stopping the railway. Hell, he isn’t even needed to sell the sizzle because there’s just too damn much sausage to go round.
It’s a procession, and Moist is mainly a passenger on the footplate, watching the new world spring up around him, selling to itself without needing him to supply more than the occasional nudge in direction.
As for the grags, not even they are sturdy opposition. They begin by attacking clacks towers, putting themselves on the wrong side of everybody else immediately. They attack a wedding reception and kill the bride, which is like calling themselves Sir Jasper and twirling their moustaches. And even though they supposedly depose Rhys Rhysson, the Low King, when he’s a fortnight’s coach ride away, they are losers from the very moment they appear.
Because what they are is Racial Prejudice, naked and insupportable, the Ku Klux Klan, the National Front, locked into the confines of their own heads, a tiny, stupid fraction of ourselves that history will roll over, leaving not even a tidemark on the beach. There’s isn’t a moment’s doubt, not a second of tension over whether or not the bad guys can do it.
The biggest obstacle in the whole story is a bridge over a chasm, and ever since Making Money, Moist von Lipwig has the deus ex machina to end all deus ex machinas: the golden Golems.
It’s best to be honest. In so many ways, Raising Steam falls short of what we expect from Terry Pratchett. For a number of years, we’d been led to believe that Moist von Lipwig’s next appearance was to be in Raising Taxes, but I think that that had become a book beyond the capability of someone with Pratchett’s condition. Instead, we got the subject of a little boy’s dreams, Steam Engines, an altogether more adolescent and engagingly simpler subject.
But still we smile, and enjoy the book for what it continues to gets right. Best and biggest of all is that other irreversible step that comes at the end of the book, as Rhys Rhysson redeems the Dwarves by openly stating that he is not he but she: Rhys is female, she is Queen, not King, and she is with child. What was begun by Cheery Littlebottom as far back as Feet of Clay, is turned at the last by Terry Pratchett into a tide no more stoppable than the Railway. At a stroke, by dividing Dwarfdom into two visible genders, Rhys Rhysson unites it more powerfully as a single race than it has ever been before.
The Goblins, too, come into their own, after their moment on the stage in Snuff. They became of age and acceptance through music, beauty and art, but between books they have proved themselves naturals to the clacks industry, and the same goes for the Railways. The Goblins have not merely been emancipated, they have discovered their niche, and whilst we may allow ourselves a moment’s wincing at their apparent destiny as the factory workers of the Industrial Revolution, they have succeeded in a glorious ascent from nowhere.
But what makes Raising Steam the book we will still welcome, despite its weaknesses, despite its over-reliance on Tell, and not Show, especially between Moist von Lipwig and the Patrician, is that it is still, mostly, written in the voice of Terry Pratchett. We hear Moist von Lipwig and we believe we are listening to Moist von Lipwig. We hear Havelock Vetinari, and we believe we are listening to Havelock Vetinari. The same goes for Sam Vimes and, to a lesser extent, the less familiar Harry King.
It is not so in Adora Belle Dearheart, who only in a few places is Spike.
But it is there often enough, and long enough, for us to hear and see, as it wasn’t in Judgement Day. As it isn’t, painfully so, in Terry Pratchett’s very last book.

In Praise of Pratchett: Making Money

Terry Pratchett ended the first Moist von Lipwig book by having the Patrician offer a similar route to social utility and redemption to the rather more dyed-in-the-wool Reacher Gilt, who instead opted for Door number Two, with embuggering consequences for his mortal self. Gilt’s mission, should he have decided to take it, would have been to tackle the Royal Mint. However, we still have von Lipwig available, and Albert Spangler’s misdemeanours have not been totally absolved, so…
Making Money came out, as usual, in the autumn, and we read it and enjoyed it. Then, in December of 2007, Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating announcement that all of us who had read and loved his work for twenty years felt like a personal loss. The knowledge of this disease, and the fear of its effects, would lie behind our reception of every book that he would publish thereafter.
Nor can we divorce ourselves of that idea when considering Making Money. It was the last book before the announcement, but whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it, it was a much less successful book than Going Postal, lacking the depth and complexity of most Discworld novels.
Some of this is due to the format of the story. As with Moist’s first appearance, the book is divided into chapters, with short, predictive comments as to their respective contents (though, curiously, this book does contain a Chapter 8, abandoning that old fantasy meme). And von Lipwig is no longer an unknown, striving to turn an out-moded operation around: he is the Postmaster General, he is a raging, public success. When circumstance, Vetinari, an elderly lady who sees right through him and a bulgy-eyed dog conspire to put our confidence trickster hero in as Master of the Royal Mint (and boss of a prominent bank), he does not face the kind of opposition that made Going Postal into such a powerful, anti-capitalist book.
Instead, von Lipwig – who was getting bored with life being peaceful and placid, things going swimmingly well, and Adora Belle ‘Spike’ Dearheart being off in Uberwald, hunting golems – finds himself up against only two, much less fearsome pockets of resistance.
A book of this kind can stand and fall on the quality of its villains, and we are not talking Reacher Gilt here. On the one hand, we have the litigious Lavish family, personified in Cosmo Lavish, who begins the book showing the early signs of obsession bordering upon sanity, and ends the story a long and irrecoverable distance from any boundary whatsoever. On the other, we have the preternaturally serious and sober Chief Clerk, Mr Mavolio Bent, with his overlarge feet, and unusually pedantic manner of stepping.
Cosmo’s a crook, a typically rich, venal, self-centred rich man who wants more. In fact, he wants the Patricianship and is practicing being Vetinari to the point of trying in every respect to become Vetinari, except that he hasn’t got any of the qualifications. Oh, he’s not stupid, but part of his effectiveness comes in Moist having grown so safe and secure this past year that he has to become stupid in order to give Cosmo a chance against him.
And Mr Bent may be completely opposed to coming off the gold standard, as Moist intends, but he’s not a crook. In fact he’s gorgeously, unpredictably, incredulously something else entirely.
Pratchett does provide one other angle of opposition for von Lipwig, in the form of the crude, cruel, denturally-challenged confidence trickster Cribbins, who recognises Albert Spangler from a photo of the Postmaster General on the cover of the Ankh-Morpork Times.
Cribbins is slightly more of a danger than Cosmo, even though Moist’s softness gives him the initial breakthrough upon which he can build, but Cribbins’ power is that he is telling the truth, and the only way to defuse him as a danger is for Moist to tell the truth first, in his best brazen-it-out, flying-without-wings style.
Where it might all have gone wrong is rendered moot by the arrival in Ankh-Morpork of Spike’s golems: thousands of them, forty feet tall, without chem, made of solid gold and answerable, it seems only to Moist von Lipwig.
And that’s the point at which the book sags. Moist’s task, as Master of the Mint, is to get Ankh-Morpork to accept paper money instead of coins that contain less gold than seawater. His economic theory is that gold is irrelevant, that it is not required to back up the paper dollar. Given the success of his stamps, which are being used as de facto paper money already, that’s easy, though his main opponent on economic theory is Mr Bent, who argues that ‘money’ is without value unless backed by solid gold.
Moist can take the public with him, they’re all for the paper dollar, but he cannot shift them from their belief in a currency backed by gold, and he is only ultimately successful by abandoning entirely his theory, and basing the Ankh-Morpork currency on its golden golems. His success is admirable, and it opens the door to Lord Vetinari’s Undertaking (which we will never get to see), but he’s actually defeated in this book.
Nor does Making Money have anything it in remotely resembling the fury Pratchett displays in Going Postal towards Thatcheresque economics. The old economy not only wins, but faces no visceral argument, no ultimate challenge.
As for Cosmo Lavish, he and his litigious family effectively defeat themselves, they through their crassness and stupidity, Cosmo through his ultimately insane attempt to become Vetinari. Opposition melts away without ever putting up a real fight.
And, in contrast to his tightness of plotting in every book so far, Pratchett leaves a loose end: Heretofore, Cosmo’s private secretary, who he uses to obtain the phoney little things that Cosmo believes come from the Patrician himself, spends most of the book afraid for his personal safety, Cosmo not being the kind of guy who leaves witnesses to anything around, and then disappears from the story, his fate forgotten.
A worrying moment, and an indicator for the future that, a few short months after this book appeared, we were told was upon us.

In Praise of Pratchett: Going Postal

At a very late stage in the Discworld saga, Terry Pratchett could still surprise us with a new recurring character, though the name Moist von Lipwig has always struck me as being considerable less ‘real’ than the other denizens of the Disc. And Pratchett also established a strange new approach for this latest of his books, which furthered once more the development of Ankh-Morpork as a modern city environment.
The first thing we notice about Going Postal are the words Chapter 1. Chapter? This is not Pratchett, this is not his way, Terry Pratchett does not write in chapters because life does not come in chapters. Yet here we have it, and chapters headed with brief notes that summarise (in a properly oblique manner, reminiscent of Peter Tinniswood’s page headings) what are to come in these chapters.
And then there’s the… well, how do we describe it? This is a very detailed book, yet, in another way, it’s curiously undetailed. It takes place in Ankh-Morpork, and it features half a dozen or so of the familiar characters we expect to see in Ankh-Morpork, and yet they’re not entirely there, not in the depth we normally expect of them.
Take Sam Vimes, who is the most extreme example of this curious distance. Sam’s there in one scene, close to the climax, when the chance – created by Moist von Lipwig – falls to the Patrician to step in and have exposed the machinations of those who own, and who have exploited the Grand Trunk, the clacks system. Sam is there, but he is not in the scene. Lord Vetinari orders that Commander Vimes arrest the Directors and take them to the cells.
And that’s it. Vimes neither speaks nor is referred to as taking action. He is a ghost conjured up by Lord Vetinari’s words, but he does not ‘exist’ as the Sam Vimes we know.
It creates a two-fold effect. Firstly, it introduces an atmosphere not that far removed from the Young Adult books, in that whilst we may be in Ankh-Morpork, we are not necessarily of it. There are no descriptions, no solidity. The other is to give us an impressionistic introduction to the world of Moist von Lipwig.
Moist is a con-man, a crook. He lives to fool people, to get things out of them, to exploit their gullibility and the unpracticed greed in their souls. In a way, he’s like a walking, talking version of the National Lottery, only with less chance of hitting the jackpot. Ankh-Morpork and the familiar characters  we meet lose several degrees of their reality because that’s how they are to Moist. He’s partly a psychopath, though a strictly non-violent kind of psychopath, because other people aren’t really real to him, and this goes for the consequences of his actions, too.
When we meet him, he’s going to die. He’s been caught, tried, sentenced to hang, and this time there are no clever schemes to con his way out. So he dies. But Moist is being hung as Albert Spangler, and it’s Albert Spangler who dies, because Lord Vetinari has decided that someone with as complex a mind as Moist von Lipwig is the right person to reactivate, re-open and re-animate the Post Office.
And, despite his natural reluctance, despite his conviction that it’s impossible, Moist slowly discovers that the Patrician was, as usual, dead right.
Moist knows that he’s a tool, but what he doesn’t appreciate immediately is to what extent he’s a tool. Many of the later Discworld books show the Patrician as, in one way or another, encouraging the development of Ankh-Morpork (and by natural progression, the whole of Discworld) into a modern city, culminating, of course, in the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Raising Steam, another Moist von Lipwig book. But Lord Vetinari is not interested in the Post Office as such, but rather as an alternative to the Grand Trunk, and a weapon with which to face its Chairman, Reacher Gilt.
Which is where Going Postal goes heavily, angrily and very effectively political.
The clacks towers appeared out of nowhere in the background to The Fifth Element. Nowadays, we think of them as the Discworld equivalent to e-mail, which signals just how fast Time has breezed by us, because to begin with, as the rhyme of the name indicates, they were Discworld’s version of the fax machine.
Either way, at a stroke, the Discworld has been brought together. The clacks towers were the cause of the Borogravia/Zenobia war in Monstrous Regiment. They’re an instrument, the instrument of change. And the Grand Trunk has a monopoly…
Pratchett is both clinical and savage as he tears capitalism apart during the course of this book. The Grand Trunk was conceived, built, created by the Dearheart family, especially Robert Dearheart, the father. It was put together by dedicated men, inspired men, geniuses in their specialised area, and it was run properly by them. They understood their business, they knew what was required to do it right, they prioritised doing it right, for the benefit of everybody.
But such people don’t have the money. They’re dreamers and practical men combined, but they’re not businessmen, so they need businessmen to run things for them, until they look up and find that the businessmen actually own everything, and they own nothing, they run nothing, they control nothing. Their only options are to watch what they’ve built fall to pieces, or to walk away.
Because the only thing the businessmen know about is money, and the only thing they care about is more money. There are always ways to make more money today, corners to be cut, expenditure to be cut, ‘efficiencies’ to be made all in the pursuit of bringing in the next five years’ income this year. That they’re destroying the actuality of the business, to the point where it won’t be there in the second year, is something they neither understand nor care about. If the worst comes to the worst and it all crashes, they’ll simply form another company, buy the old business at a knock-down price and carry on.
The people who understand, who know how things work, who take pride in a job well done have either left in disgust or else been sacked as unnecessary: I’m sorry, actually they’ve been down-sized.
Pratchett picks all this apart with forensic delight, contrasting it with those who can and do understand how things work. He puts Moist on one side, the showman, the flash man, who slowly grows up, and he emphasises things by putting Moist’s equivalent, indeed superior, in charge of the Grand Trunk.
Reacher Gilt is a pirate, he acts like a pirate, he dresses like a pirate. Reacher Gilt is Free Enterprise, overtly opposed to Government Intervention, to Public Ownership, which is an Intolerable Burden on Taxes. Reacher Gilt is Margaret Thatcher. But, in one of the wisest lines Terry Pratchett ever wrote, when Gilt talks of Freedom, it is freedom for himself and no-one else.
Gilt is capitalism rampant. His very name spells it out. Moist, who is the Patrician’s tool to ratchet open a chance to bring Gilt down, recognises an artiste in his own game, but at the same time finds that of his own accord he has to take the honest route, so as not to be Reacher Gilt. Some of that impulse is because of Spike, his pet name for Miss Adora Belle Dearheart, daughter of the cheated and broken Robert, sister of John, who died when he tried to challenge the Grand Trunk with newer and better ideas: Spike, who was a victim of one of Moist’s ‘victimless’ crimes.
Moist has to learn how to live up to the permanently angry Spike, which adds impetus to his determination not to be Reacher Gilt, but the most important part of his transformation is simply not being the man for whom nothing matters but himself, the man who doesn’t hide what he is, only his utter contempt for those who refuse to see, whilst Moist delights in the con because it’s what brings him most alive.
And it is Moist who wins because he knows and understands words and what effect they can have above and beyond truth, the words that don’t need to be legally provable because they go to the heart of what people want to believe. Once they’re spoken, then the Patrician’s form of Forensic Accounting can go in and unravel everything.
And Lord Vetinari can make a similar offer to Reacher Gilt. The Royal Mint needs looking after, transforming, re-animating. Gilt can do for that what Moist has done for the Post Office. He can do great good for others. But Gilt is Free Enterprise, he is Thatcherism incarnate, and the only freedom to be had is freedom for oneself, even if the only thing that can be done with that freedom is to refuse angels and take the other choice.
I’ve left a lot of Going Postal out of this review: most of the ingenuity, nearly all of the comedy. Neither of these are negligible. This is a very clever, very funny book. But it’s also very angry, it’s where the anger lies closest to the surface, and it’s a book that is prescient. Reading it in 2015 holds a different meaning to reading it when it was first published in 2004, before the financial crash that has twisted all our lives out of true and which the Gilts of this world have seized upon to extricate as much of everything as they can for themselves. There are lines which were funny once yet now hold a grim significance.
Pratchett could interweave deep, whole-hearted comedy into that, make it a seamless whole, but I’m nowhere near good enough to do that in a review. I like Moist von Lipwig, and Spike, and rapidly promoted Junior Postman Tolliver Groat, and Stanley, whose un-given surname surely has to be Gibbons. But I respond to Pratchett’s denunciation of those who know the value of money and of nothing else, and I share his rage.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Truth

A lot of fuss was made about The Truth being the twenty-fifth Discworld, to the extent that it’s emblazoned on the cover of the book via a silver banner. Actually, though the whole thing is a little on the crass side, and introduces a wholly inappropriate never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width element to things, there are grounds to boast.
As I have observed before, had you told me in 1986 that any writer would start a series of very funny books and that, after twenty-five volumes at a general rate of two a year, they would not only still be good but would be getting even better as they went along, I would have treated your claim as a bigger laugh than anything Terry Pratchett could ever come up with.
We know now that there was a glorious exception to the Law of Diminishing Returns.
The Truth is something of an oddity. My instinct is always to treat it as a non-series book, although it is all but half a City Watch volume, and the plot turns on another plot to oust the Patrician, for the good of the City, or at least for the good of that exceedingly tiny section of the City that consists of self-entitled, aristocratic bastards.
But whilst William de Worde, estranged heir to Lord de Worde, letter-writer to the politically interested, and chip off the old block is the centre of this book, I find it noticeable that the institution he founds within these pages lives on and thrives and grows, but Pratchett rarely brings William onscreen in any other book.
Partly, that’s because in writing The Truth, Pratchett got so thoroughly under de Worde’s skin that he left nothing new to say, and partly because there isn’t all that much to William de Worde, because he’s essentially a vehicle for the true heart of this story: the Press, the Fourth Estate, the Truth, in both abstract and concrete form.
When we first meet William, he’s a man without purpose, an outcast from family and class (though not cast so far that, when the occasion demands it, he can’t revert entirely to their type to a degree that’s frightening, especially in the hero). He gets by by writing newsletters for various personages, such as Lady Margolotta in Uberwald and King Verence in Lancre.
It’s a going nowhere life that could go on forever, but William finds himself struck by an Idea whose time has come: literally – he is run down by a dwarf-constructed printing press. Yes, despite the tradition of opposition, Print is on the up and up, and this time Lord Vetinari is minded to allow the experiment. It’s all a part of what will become a tremendous surge by Ankh-Morpork towards an era more closely resembling our own – as witness the off-stage invention of clacks towers in The Fifth Elephant, simulating e-mail in a more corporeal form. And besides, if things go wahoonie-shaped, William de Worde will find himself responsible for everything.
The subject is an obvious one for former journalist Pratchett, and his enthusiasm shows through all the newspaper elements. There’s no practical opposition to the idea of the Press, despite the feelings of the Wizards, the Priests and the Guild of Engravers, and the only attempt to stop a newspaper gaining ground is the introduction of a rival, which clearly represents the tabloids, because it doesn’t contain a scrap of truth – its only journalist is C.M.O.T Dibbler, need anyone say more?
What seems to upset people most, and this goes all the way as far as Sam Vimes, is that de Worde and the Ankh-Morpork Times is beholden to no-one and nothing except this concept of the Truth. That’s very much the journalist’s idealisation of himself and his profession, and it’s a good idealisation, much unpracticed in our fallen world, but Pratchett is canny enough to allow Vimes a comment that subtly harks back to Baldwin’s attacks on Rothermere and Beaverbrook in the Thirties.
And Vimes is right. Just who is de Worde answerable to in his pursuit of the Truth? The answer is, of course, no-one. Just as no-one permits or allows or tells him what to put in his newspaper, which is exactly as it should be, no-one exists to stop him, or to demand an account of him. For the thing about the Truth is that, in this book, it’s William de Worde’s definition of the Truth that counts.
And as long as he’s pursuing pure facts, if ever facts can be said to be pure, that’s as well as may be. But one person’s Truth is another person’s prejudice, to put it bluntly, and we see by the end that William is a true scion of the forces that gather in this book to order Ankh-Morpork to their liking. I’m not sure I totally trust him after that, and if Sam Vimes had seen the scene between William and his father, he sure as hell wouldn’t either.
In order to give The Truth a dramatic spine, Pratchett falls back on the by now familiar trope of trying to overthrow the Patrician. Anyone with half an eye can see from the outset that the plot is a frame-up, but instead of watching the Watch stumble towards the exposure of the plot, they are shifted out of the centre of the story to enable de Worde and his small band dig out the truth (can’t escape that word) of what happened.
The plot turns on the somewhat cliched production of a double for Lord Vetinari. Everything around it is deliberately dodgy and doubtful, but those who intend to take advantage are very happy to turn a blind eye to the illogicality of the ‘facts’ and once a new Patrician is elected, the Watch will be neutered by the very Authority that gives it authority. Hence the need for a Free Press.
Overall, The Truth is yet another fine book, and another angry one. Pratchett’s hatred of the aristocracy is tempered and directed and he’s never guilty of reaching for the broadsword when he has so many finely-tipped stilettos, and from here onwards, Ankh-Morpork will modernise in great leaps and bounds.
But there’s a certain hollowness to the book, which comes from it being too much about an Idea and not enough about a person. William de Worde is ultimately too designed to Pratchett’s theme to have proper life in him. It’s significant that in later books, the Times will primarily be represented on the page by William’s chief reporter and deputy editor Saccharissa Cripslock (who retains her maiden name professionally) and the vampire photographer, Otto Chriek, painter viz light.
One further thing to mention, and that’s the hands-on villains, the New Firm, alias Mr Pin and Mr Tulip. Much as I like their vivid portrayal, I cannot read them without thinking of Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and in particular the splendid performances in the TV version, by Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell. Both pairs of villains are fantastic creations.

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.

In Praise of Pratchett: Feet of Clay

Terry Pratchett took seven books to get from the first Night Watch story to the second, but it was only four books before they turned up again, and suddenly the City Watch couldn’t be stopped, with a flood of appearances over the next few years establishing them as Discworld‘s strongest strand. The City Watch are the beginning of evolution for Discworld.
Actually, we’re not quite at that point with Feet of Clay, which rather marks time, without even a further expansion of the Watch at its close. Where the book does take us forward is in introducing the theme of the expansion of Society by the absorption of seemingly alien – i.e., non-human – species to a boiling pot of a City that is already divided amongst humans, dwarves and trolls.
The beneficiary, on this first, somewhat isolated occasion, is the Golem. They are a strange subject, clay figures that are indefatigable workers, in a sense a parody of human, animated by the words in their head. They’re a distinctly minority group, so far from human, or even Undead, as to give Sergeant Angua the willies.
But the Golems only form one part of the story. This is another book that is built on two, separate stories, with only a tangential relationship between the two. If anything, it’s the lesser of the two parts, a case for Carrot and Angua to work upon whilst the former is deliberately excluded from the other, wider-ranging element, an assassination attempt upon the Patrician, as a means of supplanting him with a rightful heir to the Throne who will be amenable to the ‘advice’ of those bred to rule.
Yes, we’ve been here before, certainly. It’s practically the plot of Men at Arms, though there are very few similarities between the details of the two plots. The least important of these is the modus operandi: nothing like so spectacular as the Gonne, in this instance the Patrician is being poisoned in some unknown, undetectable manner that’s driving Commander Sir Samuel Vimes to distraction.
(It’s neither unknown nor undetectable to the Patrician, who studied at the Guild of Assassins, but it’s important to his plans, not to mention amusing, to allow Vimes to piece his slow way there).
More importantly, the shape and basis of the conspiracy is vastly different. This is not a plot orbiting the head of a half-insane, bitter, almost laughable individual but a true conspiracy, among the Upper Crust, the aristocracy pushed aside, rendered irrelevant in everyone’s eyes except their own, to set things straight. And, having learnt from the past that Captain Carrot would not be accommodating to their goals of returning themselves to their rightful place in the Order of things, a few strings are pulled in the Books of Heraldry, the records of lineage of everyone who matters, to establish that the True King is indeed an unheralded Watchman. In fact, it’s Nobby Nobbs.
(But the man’s an absolute tit!)
Puzzling out what lies behind the attack on the Patrician, Sir Samuel has little time for what he doesn’t realise is a flank attack via the noble and ancient family of the de Nobbes. Nobby himself is uncertain of whether his unexpected elevation in Society is a good thing or not, at least until it is got through his thick skull that somebody wants him to be King, at which point the matter is settled: Mr Vimes will go mental! Nobby doesn’t want to have his head chopped off, not by ol’ Stoneface. It runs in the family.
Slowly, though, things are starting to come together for Vimes. Eventually, the source of the arsenic poisoning is identified, just at the point where Fred Colon is also, by chance and without understanding what it is he’s learned, is also discovering the first lead to the culprits, and the two storylines are about to share what little they have in common.
Carrot isn’t on the Patrician case, much to his obvious hurt and disappointment. This is because too many people ‘know’ he is the rightful King and, knowing that his Captain is one of those who most stands to gain from Lord Vetinari being removed from the scene, Vimes is keeping him well away from the case.
It’s typical of Vimes that not until it is put directly to him that he realises that he, too, is high amongst those who stand to gain. Thankfully, Vimes is such a suspicious – and well-prepared – bastard that he’s not only prepared for the constant round of Assassins, he can deflect the obvious trap designed to ‘prove’ that he’s not fit to guard the boss he loathes.
But Carrot, and Angua’s time is being taken up on the murder hunt involving two old men, a priest and a baker, both killed by crushing blows to the head, blows that might have come from a Golem. This latter lead is produced by the Watch’s latest recruit, the dwarf Cheery Littlebottom, who is the only applicant to become the Watch’s Forensic Department. As such, the nervous, fretful, werewolf-fearing Dwarf is the bridge between cases, her ‘expertise’ called upon to assist both teams.
Did I say her? Pratchett also uses this half of the story to deal with a few personal elements. Chief amongst these is the constant, private refrain from Angua that she must leave Carrot, and Ankh-Morpork soon. Not until the end of the book are we let in on the reason being her fear that she will end up hurting Carrot, not physically, but because of her nature. She is a werewolf, and the Wolf cannot be controlled. Not for ever. Carrot already suffers from pain at the cautious way everyone treats Angua, and she means to go before she does something that makes that conflict unbearable for him.
It doesn’t help that she so quickly detects Cheery is female, this being a point of distinction that not even dwarves can be totally sure of. Cheery’s big problem is that when male and female dwarves can’t be distinguished from one another, the unanimity of thought and interest between the two genders is still ineluctably male.
The fact that Cheery – or Cheri as she becomes – can be feminine alongside Angua to any extent at all, contrasts with the little dwarf’s continuing uncomprehending diatribe against werewolves. Angua puts up with it, to the extent of allowing Cheri access to her make-up and to little touches of dwarf femininity that arouse mixed feelings amongst fellow dwarves – which includes a horrified Carrot whose mind is perhaps the most hidebound of all.
But the Golem case proves to be almost elemental in its simplicity. The City’s Golem’s have created for themselves a King, the first new Golem in millennia, baked in part from their own clay, his head full of hopes and aspirations. Too many, sadly: the King is mad. He has to be ended by one of his own, the Golem Dorfl, whose ‘reward’ is the destruction of hos own chem, of the words on his head that give him life.
Carrot, however, has a strange faith. The broken Golem can be re-baked and given new words in his head. These consist of a receipt, by which Carrot takes ownership of Dorfl, and then gives him away, to himself. Dorfl’s new owner is Dorfl, and the transformation is almost mystical. The City Watch has a new recruit, who plans to save his pay until he can buy the next Golem, and release him. Revolution, the capitalist way.
But by the time, Vimes has worked everything out, worked out who is to blame, though he’s astonished to find that behind everything, the motive of the vampire who is Dragon King of Arms at the College of Heraldry, the genealogist of all genealogists, is to avoid the risk of Ankh-Morpork having a King called Rex…
There’s no punishment, not legal punishment anyway, for those whose hands have pulled the reins are too far up the scale for punishment, especially not on the evidence Vimes has gathered. True, since Ankh-Morpork is not a democracy, but rather a barely Enlightened Tyranny, some people may find themselves quietly inconvenienced in the coming months, and others can be quelled by the knowledge that things are known. But that’s not enough for Vimes, who is Justice’s man far more than he can ever be the Patrician’s. A judicious cigar, accidentally placed as often as is necessary in a room full of paper, and enough of the past can go up in smoke.
And whilst Angua knows that it simply can’t go on like this, Carrot’s inevitable, external simplicity is enough to persuade her of the only thing that sometimes matters between people, that it needn’t be today. Tomorrow can be sufficient: that something is inevitable doesn’t mean that it has to be now.

In Praise of Pratchett: Maskerade

I’ve managed to get several of my Discworld books signed, with a variety of messages (especially the time the whole family attended and we got a bunch of books signed in one go, there being five of us). Maskerade holds something of a pride of place among such books as it was bought as a present for my fortieth birthday (even if I had to buy it myself), and Sir Terry signed it to me with a Happy 40th Birthday wish (and a quick sketch of Death’s scythe).
It’s another book about the Three Witches or, as Pratchett takes quick pains to establish with a parodic gesture to the opening of Wyrd Sisters, the Two Witches. Magrat Garlick is now busy being Queen and, five months after the wedding, presumably no longer qualifies for the Maiden part of the traditional Maiden, Mother,… Other One line-up. But, wet hen that she was, Magrat was right about one thing: the basic unit of witches might well be one, but the correct number for a coven is three, and that means there’s one missing.
Granny Weatherwax is getting nervous, and that is making Nanny Ogg worried. Granny’s bored. There’s nothing in Lancre to challenge her, and without that her mind may be prone to Wandering. Nanny reckons that her friend needs a distraction, such as training up a new Third Witch. Fortunately, there’s an ideal candidate in the village, with the touch of the craft already, ideally suited to be the Maiden’s role.
This is Agnes Nitt, she who was wont to call herself Perdita in Lords and Ladies. There’s just one little problem. Agnes has enough of the craft already to see where her future lies and she’s not in the least bit keen to spend it running around at the beck and call of two old ladies, who don’t actually do any magic at all, just this stupid headology and coloured water. So Agnes – or rather, since she can re-invent herself, Perdita – has run away to seek her fortune, in Ankh-Morpork.
Now Granny’s certainly not going to stoop to run after Agnes, not even when Nanny paints a picture of a naive young Lancre girl, on her own in the city, in need of protection, but fortunately there’s another factor that satisfies Granny’s pride. For Nanny Ogg has become an author.
Yes, Nanny has sent a bunch of recipes to a printer in Ankh-Morpork with two dollars to cover the cost of printing them up. Being Nanny, all the recipes have one common effect, an effect that has led to the book being entitled The Joye of Snacks and selling like, er, hot cakes. So much so that the printers have generously returned Nanny’s two dollars with an additional three, that she’s holding onto very tightly in case they realise their mistake.
The book has been published as by ‘A Lancre Witch’, which raises Granny’s hackles, despite Nanny’s fine distinction that Esmerelda Weatherwax is in fact THE Lancre witch. And Granny has a harder-headed attitude to publishing than Nanny, to the extent of calculating that her friend has something like three thousand dollars due to her. And whilst she won’t go chasing after Agnes, she has to see that Lancre Witches aren’t being disrespected, whether Gytha Ogg likes it or not. And if they bump into Alice in passing, they can help her out as well.
Speaking of Agnes, after the usual embarrassing mistake about the Guild of Seamstresses, she’s ended up taking her one undeniable talent to the obvious place: Perdita has joined the Opera. Not quite in the manner she would have liked, since her appearance is against her when it comes to the business of stepping out on stage and getting the plaudits due her, but her voice – and the control she can exercise over it – is superb, so she can’t be excluded.
At least, not physically. Since the true *star* role is reserved for Christeen, who can no more keep a tune than she can keep a thought in that pretty head of hers, but is both skinny and blonde, Agnes is allowed to sing though Christeen. It’s both embarrassing and insulting, but Agnes accepts it because she is endowed with a wonderful personality. As for the insults, well, everybody does this, openly to her face.
Pratchett has great fun with the Opera, its tensions, pressures and craziness, its complete divorcement from reason and rationality, and there’s plenty to laugh about, though the only ‘truth’ he extracts in demonstrating what Opera truly consists of is that it spends its entire time surfing the edge of the catastrophe curve of Impermanence. No wonder that everybody is so incredibly tense when any day, every day, could be the last. The last day that those finely trained talents which make up one’s life are the perfection your being, Opera itself, demands. The first sign of a crack isn’t simply the beginning of the end, of transition: it is the end, and everybody lives on on the blade of forcing that not to happen, not now, not today.
The story, as in the plot, comes from the inevitable existence of a Phantom.
Here, he is the Opera Ghost, and in suitable fashion there are actually two of him, one benign and caring only for the music, the other cynical and homicidal. Agnes finds herself trying to unravel the mystery of the Opera Ghost, and indeed successfully identifies him with the person who is such an unlikely figure for the role, only to fall foul of her own senses. It takes Granny and Nanny, the former posing as an extremely rich Opera patroness with the latter’s royalties, to see through the extremely simple fact about masks.
Given that the story involves murders, and is set in Ankh-Morpork, we see the first instance of what Pratchett later identified as a bit of a problem: if the story comes to the Big Wahoonie, how do you keep the City Watch out? That side of things is dealt with here by restricting the Watch’s overt presence to such obvious characters as Colon, Nobbs and Detritus, but Pratchett provides a far-from-overt Watch presence in the form of Andre, the organ-player at the Opera, who will turn out to be a member of the Cable Street Particulars, the Watch’s new undercover branch (secret policemen for secret crimes, as the off-stage Vimes puts it).
That’s an interesting, and fully logical development, though Pratchett undercuts it by having Andre implicitly distracted away at the end to become a full-time musician. The Cable Street Particulars is a revival of an old name in Ankh-Morpork history, whose true provenance won’t be encountered until Night Watch, and other than a passing mention in the next book, the new version drops out of sight, never to be used again. Then again, the developing City Watch strand does rest heavily on the public performance of Justice, making the Particulars an anomaly.
Mentioning the Opera Organ, which is a Bloody Stupid Johnson, reminds me that the Librarian also pops into the story, but even though we’re in Ankh-Morpork, home to Unseen University, neither Mustrum Ridcully nor the Faculty appear, having featured in six of the last eight books.
One thing that’s struck me most forcefully on this re-reading, to an extent I’d never fully appreciated before, is how savage Pratchett is with Agnes, and just how much that has to do with her size and weight. The key characteristic with Agnes, indeed the only thing anyone can think of whenever they so much as think of her, is that she is fat. Of course she was always going to be fat: Magrat Garlick was resolutely skinny, with stringy, uncontrollable hair, so Agnes would naturally have to be fat, albeit with good hair.
But Agnes isn’t merely fat. Though Pratchett never directly says it, even through the mouth of the most nasty person in the book, Agnes is beyond ‘fat’. She’s hideously, discomfortingly, unhealthily fat, fat as an object of scorn. It’s plain beyond measure that Agnes is perfectly suited to be the Maiden because, let’s face it, no bloke will ever want to shag that, even in a darkened room.
And everybody keeps saying it, even when they’re being at their nicest, to Agnes’ face, over and over: you’re fat, you’re fat, you’re fat fat fat.
I wouldn’t mention this if it wasn’t so emphatic, so unending, and it’s carried on to an extreme which is extraordinarily unusual, in fact wholly uncharacteristic of Pratchett, whose anger and disgust is usually reserved for those who deserve it, and not someone who’s supposed to be a heroine. But there’s no denying it, on a level he may not have consciously understood, Pratchett is disgusted with Agnes, and nowhere is that more drastically demonstrated than in a tiny piece of offhand cruelty near the very end.
Agnes has tried to make a life of her own, and the prospect of it is there. She has her voice, she has talent oozing out of it, though her fatness is a barrier to its proper deployment. Agnes will only ever be the voice for someone more photogenic, like Christeen, a life for which Granny has a disinterested scorn.
So Agnes is beaten, and has to return to Lancre to take up the life ordained for her, but before she can do this she has to not merely be beaten, but broken, defeated absolutely, crushed. Granny and Nanny travel back to Lancre in the comfort and dryness of a coach. Agnes has to walk, drenched to the skin in incessant rain – yes, go on, make the fat girl walk, get some of that pork off her – and when the coach passes her, it passes her. Agnes defied Granny, and has to be made to pay.
And given that Agnes only ever appears in one more book, the cruelty is all the more blatant for having no ultimate purpose.
To end on a brighter note, returning to the Opera aspect, Pratchett, as I said, has great fun satirising its foolishnesses and foibles, especially the outlandish and implausible plots. By the end, though, the real Opera Ghost has found an antidote to Opera, in the form of the invention of musicals, which Pratchett, half-seriously, presents as Opera That People Enjoy And Which Sells.
If you’re going to riff off The Phantom of the Opera, I suppose you’ve got to expect a bit of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, even when, over here, a bit of Lloyd-Webber is way too much. This may be another generational thing, but whilst I don’t like Opera, that’s because it operates on a musical level high above my tastes, and I wasn’t sympathetic to the diss of suggesting that Lloyd-Webberesque stuff is better somehow.
My, I’ve got all creaky about this book, haven’t I? And yet it’s another Pratchett stormer. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
Though I’m obviously not as large as Agnes Nitt…

In Praise of Pratchett: Men at Arms

It took Terry Pratchett seven books to get back to Sam Vimes and the Night Watch, which reinforces my opinion from reading Guards! Guards! that he had no intention of them turning into series characters. Tribute to the cannon fodder, wrap Vimes up with a marriage, toy with the joke of Carrot as the long-lost heir but both ignorant of it and, fundamentally, too simple, job’s a good ‘un.
But there was always too much potential in Vimes for it to be left like that, too much more that was possible for Carrot. Vimes had the soul of a Policeman. And Carrot couldn’t be as simple as that, except perhaps on a deliberately maintained surface…
And with one more book, shuffling similar cards and laying them out in a slightly different pattern – plot to assassinate the Patrician instead of plot to overthrow him – Pratchett bought himself into the hottest streak of all the hot streaks that run through Discworld and all its forms and folk.
The biggest difference between the two books is that, no matter how wonderful it was, Guards! Guards! was essentially a static book. Vimes’ tacit understanding with Lady Sybil, Carrot’s promotion from Lance- to full Constable, and that’s it. The Night Watch ended the book the same as it began, as a small collection of misfits, disregarded, laughed at, ignored. And Ankh-Morpork went back to being what Ankh-Morpork was before.
Though the bones of the concept are the same, though the aim is to put a King back on the throne – albeit this time the actual ‘real’ one – Men at Arms is a book about growth, about transition from an unsatisfactory state to one that might, tentatively, be thought of as an improvement.
It’s about switching on the light inside both Sam Vimes and Carrot – one seen from the inside, the other from the outside – and watching them change; like flowers at last exposed to sunlight and water, both expand into their natural, hitherto unseen even by themselves, personae.
And the Night Watch grows too, throughout the book. It grows in size before the start, with Carrot promoted to Corporal and enough new recruits to almost double the Watch’s size, even if they are only Affirmative Action hiring, pressed on the least important institution in the city: one dwarf, one troll and one w… woman.
Actually, we’re not going to do that, are we? We know that Angua is actually there to represent the Undead, in the form of werewolves, the least objectionable Undead you can have if Captain Vimes has absolutely got to have one. Pratchett doesn’t conceal it all that long from the readers and, by the end of the day, it’s only Corporal Carrot who doesn’t know until it’s very nearly the worst moment.
But I’m thinking mainly of the final scene, which replays the one in Guards! Guards! where Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs ask for a comically minuscule reward for saving the city. This time it’s Carrot, the new Carrot, and on top of the trivialities he starts with, echoing Colon and Nobby, there’s the demand for a real Watch, a Watch, not a Night Watch and a Day Watch, a serious Watch with men, stations and resources.
In short, into the city of Ankh-Morpork, whose principle appeal is that, as Pratchett takes care to emphasise in the opening third of the book, it ‘works’, Carrot intends to insert a Police Force and with it its concomitant principle, Law. Instead of the Patrician’s carefully constructed array of absurdities that wouldn’t for a second ‘work’ but which represents the precise balancing of forces against forces so that everybody cancels everything out, we will have a force whose primary purpose is to benefit and protect that one class of person in Ankh-Morpork who is not otherwise represented: the ordinary person.
That’s one hell of a step to take.
As it moved onwards, the City Watch strand began to focus more and more upon Sam Vimes, but at this early stage, whilst it’s his transformation into a Policeman that first starts to shift the ground under everyone’s feet, Carrot’s transformation is perhaps the bigger, bolder and more expansive of the two. When anything resembling Law and Order breaks down, it is Carrot who, though a lowly Corporal, takes over, has officers senior to him saying Sir and following his orders. It’s because he’s the King, we know that, but it’s a case of the finest and best aspects of Royalty and ultimate command flow backwards into the form of someone who is genuinely a Good Man.
And a simple one too. Pratchett makes much of this, primarily using Angua as a commentator to make the point, which is that whilst Carrot is simple, it is some kind of super-simplicity which conceals a breadth of incredible knowledge and understanding, both of situations and of people that, armed with his natural charisma, enables him to rally and direct people.
Later books will speculate that Carrot is not as apparently oblivious as he seems, but Pratchett took the wise decision never to take us into Carrot’s head and show us only the same surface the rest of his characters see. And the thing about Men at Arms is that this surface arises, burnished and complete, in one fell swoop. Which is precisely why Vimes dominates later books, because he is here just beginning to grow, and from here he never will stop.
Because what Vimes is doing is growing into himself, into what he always was beneath the surface but never got the chance to explore, because the Night Watch was a joke, because the Law wasn’t in the Patrician’s – any Patrician’s – plans. Vimes starts to grow as soon as he faces the prospect of leaving the Watch, of joining the rich he instinctively (and in many ways rightly) hates, of having nothing to do and nothing but luxury to spend his time in.
As soon as he is forbidden to investigate this latest series of murders, Vimes reacts as Vetinari expects from him, as he has, quite secretly, been conditioned to do. He starts to turn into a Good Policeman, the good copper that, very early on in the book, both Pratchett and Vimes say he’s not. That’s a journey with a long trajectory, but Vimes moves far enough along it that, at the end, he is able to resist the most evil force on the Discworld, the Gonne.
Ah yes, the Gonne, the Discworld’s first, and only, piece of personal firepower, the invention, naturally, of Leonard of Quirm, introduced in this book. My one criticism of Men at Arms is that Pratchett imputes sentience to the weapon, to the extent that it ‘talks’ to those who carry it, acting independently of their will and inducing them into ‘conversations’ with it. That’s one flawed step to me, a stepping back from what Pratchett otherwise anatomises as the true corruption of such a thing: the sense of individual power it gives, the ability to act as a God. If the Gonne speaks, or even thinks, it removes the true evil into the weapon, not where it properly sits, with the wielder. Vimes resists, after a struggle. Carrot doesn’t give it a moment’s thought, literally.
Elsewhere though, Pratchett’s deconstruction is on fine form. He shreds the aristocracy and their assumption of self-superiority, and his attitude to the idea of kingship, which will be yet further expanded upon by Vimes in the future, is strengthened by having Carrot, who is King, equally aware of its flaws. It does help that I share his beliefs absolutely.
And upon such subjects, I want to end with a quote. It’s an absolute gem of encapsulation, touching unfathomable depths in human psychology with an economy of words that is astonishing. In the light of the Election this year, it is as painful as it is perceptive.
“People ought to think for themselves, Captain Vimes says. The problem is, people only think for themselves if you tell them to.”

In Praise of Pratchett: Guards! Guards!

Sometimes, tiny little details that appear to be insignificant at the time assume a greater prominence later on. Terry Pratchett’s first two Discworld novels were published by Colin Smythe Ltd, but their success meant that Pratchett would need a larger publisher, and Smythe became his agent instead, whilst the hardbacks started to appear from Gollancz SF. Yes, SF.
Suddenly, however, with Guards! Guards!, the actual books went up a size, larger, wider, thicker, as if representing a more important, more prestigious approach to Pratchett’s work. That it happened with the first book of the City Watch strand is probably no more than a fortuitous coincidence, and not a subliminal recognition that the most important and serious of Pratchett’s various series was coming into being.
Certainly, Pratchett himself didn’t know at this stage what his book would lead to. Though not to the same extent as Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites, Guards! Guards! is an off-key introduction to Sam Vimes and the veterans of the Night Watch that, in two respects, doesn’t quite ring true with what the characters go on to become. Indeed Pratchett, in a short preface, makes it clear that his only thoughts at this time were to pay homage to the cannon-fodder, the common guards whose usual job is to rush the hero and be beaten, and give them the centre of the story for once.
The plot is surprisingly simple. A mysterious individual manipulates a group of malcontents and losers into magical rituals that summon a real dragon into Ankh-Morpork for increasingly longer periods. His intent is to put forward a young man, posing as the long-lost King, who will ‘defeat’ the dragon and then rule, under the plotter’s advice of course. The plot develops a serious flaw when the dragon decides to stay on and rule itself. The only people to take the threat seriously are the overlooked, mocked, derided Night Watch, which includes among their minuscule number the real heir to the throne. With the aid of one of the city’s leading swamp dragon breeders, they succeed in seeing the threat off, leading to an improvement in their standing.
That’s far from all there is to it, but on that relatively straightforward foundation, Pratchett starts to build some of his finest characters.
The Night Watch, at this time, consists of three people. These are the drunken Captain Sam Vimes, the fat and bumbling Sergeant Fred Colon and the petty pilfering Corporal Nobby Nobbs. Until very recently they were four, but Sergeant Herbert ‘Leggy’ Gaskin made the mistake that the Night Watch work so assiduously not to make, and actually caught up with the villains he was pursuing, and so after the funeral, they’re all that’s left.
But they’re also soon to be restored to four, thanks to the arrival of Constable Carrot. Carrot is a dwarf, not that you’d think to look at him, given that he’s six foot six inches tall, with bright red hair and his muscles have muscles on them. Carrot’s an adopted dwarf, you see, culturally dwarfish but physically human, survivor of a cart wreck that left just a baby and a functional sword. He also has a birthmark on his upper arm, shaped like a crown.
Carrot, we are led to believe, is the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork, not that he’s aware of this.
Four of them, four no-hopers, Sad Sacks, in an unwanted organisation, in a city that has privatised crime and has thus done away with the need for Policemen.
Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs arrived perfectly whole and entire, a double act as perfectly tuned to one another as Morecambe and Wise in their prime. Pratchett got them 100% on their first outing, and if they haven’t gone on to develop, it’s because they’ve never needed to.
The slow, bumbling Sergeant with the low level sense of entitlement about freebies due his rank, comfortable, rotund, pretending to knowledge and understanding he clearly lacks, and the dirty, semi-simian Constable, perpetually smoking dog-ends, the petty pilferer and trier of unlocked doors, wiser in some ways than his superior but still unfathomably ignorant would be unbearable in real life.
But in fiction, they are a comic team who are ultimately completely endearing, because under their frailties, Colon and Nobbs are honest (to within a given value for honest) and they are loyal and, when push comes to shove as it does in Guards! Guards!, they are true, reliable and even brave (no matter whether it’s artificially stimulated).
To an extent, Fred and Nobby don’t get to play their best role here. In future books, their double act is enhanced by the added dimension of their being the past, the link to the bad times for the Night Watch: here they are the Night Watch in the bad days, and their story is of their following Captain Vimes’ example and starting to take being the Law seriously.
And then there’s Lance-Constable Carrot, the six foot six red-haired dwarf who radiates an air of absolute simplicity: well, no, not quite here. For most of this book, what Carrot radiates is naivete, and there’s a very big difference.
The problem is that there’s no-one to see through Carrot’s surface in Guards! Guards!, not like Angua will in later books, and without that kind of insight, Pratchett is limited to only showing the surface. True, Carrot starts to grow in stature towards the end of the book, when his natural charisma and innate leadership qualities come to the fore, unconsciously, but at this stage, that’s just a function of his barely concealed status as the rightful heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork.
Though it comes in handy at the end, I tend to suspect that Pratchett introduced Carrot’s heritage as an ironic counterpoint to the villain to defeat the dragon by producing an ‘heir to the throne’ of his own, an irony multiplied by the fact that it is he – Lupine Wonse, the Patrician’s secretary – who signs Carrot into the Night Watch that he, uniquely, is eager to join.
No-one, especially in the Watch itself, can understand why, especially not drunken Captain Vimes.
I believe, and I am very far from being alone in this, that Sam Vimes is Terry Pratchett’s finest creation. He is, very simply, The Decent Man. To the depths of his soul, beyond all his self-recognised failings, prejudices, shortcomings, angers and his burning desire to arrest the whole world for doing things wrong, Sam Vimes is the most honest, most principled person you will ever find. And he is all these things and believable as a person at the same time.
Just as with Carrot, I don’t think Pratchett saw this in writing this book. The intention was to honour the cannon-fodder, to put them at the centre of the story, and it’s very noticeable that it would take another seven books before he brought back the Night Watch, because I think the possibilities of Carrot and, especially, Vimes, needed that time to grow into the futures that aren’t really visible to them from here.
At the moment, Vimes is a drunk. He has no family, no relationships, nothing outside the Night Watch, which, as he is all too aware, is a joke. The news that someone wants to join the Watch, instead of being pressed into it, is incomprehensible to him. His life is empty of anything with any significant meaning, except a bottle.
What kick-starts the astonishing transformation in Vimes? The Dragon: or rather it’s a coloured silhouette on a wall, in the Shades, of four thieves who made the mistake of attacking the wrong victim. Because inside Vimes, forgotten for many years, is a Policeman. And, in the face of all opposition, from above as well as below, Vimes sets out to solve a Crime.
And in doing so, it brings the Captain to the home of Ankh-Morpork’s leading swamp-dragon breeder, who can give him very cheerful, jolly-hockeysticks professional advice about dragons, in the form of Lady Sybil Ramkin. And that starts another story for Sam Vimes…
For the moment, though, let’s concentrate on the main story, on the transformation of Sam Vimes. It’s a classic arc, the seeming no-hoper who, in a time of crisis, demonstrates an unexpected competence, even genius. Because drunken Captain Vimes is, despite his fears otherwise, a Policeman. Suspicious of others, determined to put a shape on things, but committed to the notion that those who do not have power, or privilege, status or wealth, should not have their lives destroyed for the whims of others.
Pratchett presents Vimes as the Copper Incarnate, though we’ll see this more in later books. Despite the fact that, except for comic purposes, Politics plays about as much part in Discworld as sex does, I think that Vimes is also the pure Socialist.
In the end, the Dragon is banished, the day is saved. Vimes is going to marry Lady Sybil, Carrot promoted to Constable. The tradition of rewards begins in comically minimal fashion. But in essence nothing changes, which supports my instinct that Pratchett intended nothing more than a one-off. Thankfully, he didn’t leave it like that.
And let us not forget, when we’re concentrating upon the Night Watch, that this is the book in which we first see, in all his glory, Lord Havelock Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, and guider of that city into a future more complicated than any might have imagined at this point in time.

In Praise of Pratchett: Sourcery

The early Discworld books were certainly inconsistent: odd was naff, even was good. Sourcery certainly lived up, or down, to this syndrome.
It’s definitely a step back from Mort. Rincewind is once again the main character, along with the Luggage, but for the most part, the supporting cast add very little to the setting, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Pratchett feels the need, at the end, to reset Discworld’s reality to negate everything that’s happened in a decidedly ‘…and then they woke up and it was all a dream’ style.
Having tackled deeper matters, Pratchett moves back into pure fantasy, the novel being solely about magic, and the wizards of the Discworld. It’s an old saw of fantasy that wizard’s are made from the seventh son of seventh sons (which translates into eighth of eighth on the Discworld) but what if we go a generation further. What is the magical status of the eighth son of a wizard? He is, in fact, a sourceror.
The pun is obvious, but it’s also central to Pratchett’s conception of the subject. Wizards manipulate the natural magic of the Disc, sourcerors are a conduit for raw magic itself. Into the comfy, cosy world of Unseen University, which is rapidly beginning to evolve away from the serious practice of magic as seen in earlier volumes, towards the Old Buffers’ Club we recognise from today, is dropped a sourceror, with much the same effect as a red-hot iron on a best dress shirt.
The sourceror’s name is Coin, and to everybody’s surprise, he’s only ten years old, a suitable age it may seem for the faux-naivete with which he approaches any question that interests him. And there’s only one question that interests him, which is, why aren’t wizards ruling everything by eminent force.
The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, that, since the Mage Wars of aeons ago, there is no longer the strength in the Discworld’s natural magic field to enable them to do so, and secondly, the wizards don’t really want to rule. They want to potter around, leisurely, making sure to not be too far from the table when the next meal is served.
But Coin brings with him so much raw magic, accessible by all – even Rincewind can perform spells, which should tell you all you need to know – that the first objection is just blown away. And whether it be by fear of the boy sourceror, or else reverting to natural type when accessing unlimited power, Coin pretty much overwhelms the second objection as well.
Not that it’s actually any of his fault. Coin, we deduce, is being manipulated, even ordered about, by his ultra-powerful Octiron staff, in which the spirit of his bitter, twisted father, Ipslore the Red, has taken refuge to escape Death (but not forever, naturally).
Where does Rincewind fit in to all of this? Far from having become Archchancellor, as the ending to The Light Fantastic hinted, he’s ended up as Assistant Librarian, in charge of the banana supply. But despite his utter ineptitude, he finds himself becoming responsible for preserving the Archchancellor’s hat, the true ‘head’ (heh, heh) of wizardry, and keeping it from being possessed by Coin.
In this quest, he is aided by what must be two of Pratchett’s weakest creations, Conina and Nijel the Barbarian. I would prefer not to say anything about Nijel, a barbarian of three day’s standing, who’s obeying his mother’s instructions not to take off his woolly vest. Only the, mercifully brief, presence of a yuppie genie, horrendously dated, spares Nijel from being the worst thing in this book.
As for Conina, she’s a perfectly normal, sweet, platinum blonde with an ambition to become a hairdresser, who just happens to be a daughter of Cohen the Barbarian and to have inherited all of his strength, speed, reactions, instincts and skills. It’s an attempt to pull two widely disparate stereotypes together, and for once Pratchett fails to pull it off.
Indeed, he fails to pull the story off, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rincewind, Conina and Nijel racket around, getting the Hat to Al Khali, where it ends up gravitating to the Grand Vizier, after which a straightforward magical battle with Coin and the Ankh-Morpork wizards ends in the destruction of the Hat, with no more consequences than the destruction of an ordinary cloth cap.
Pratchett also tries to pull off another pun in the threat of the Apocralypse (a kind of Apochryphal Apocalypse that no-one really believes in) which calls for the riding out of the Four Horsemen, except that Rincewind, Conina and Nijel steal everyone’s horses from outside the pub so they stay for more drinks and never set off. It’s a scene the mature Pratchett would have knocked off in his sleep, but in this book it just fails to generate a single bubble of laughter.
In the end, it all boils down to the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are forever lurking in the background in these early Discworld books. Coin’s magic is too much of a draw for them. Rincewind manages to get far enough with a half brick in a sock to finally inspire Coin to stand up against his father, but all its gets them is trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions. One wrong move…
That wrong move never comes. Rincewind identifies the need to avoid the use of Coin’s magic as that would tip the balance and, in an excess of courage, uses the other sock, full of sand, to draw the Things away on an eternal, seemingly fatal chase, whilst Coin returns to Discworld and puts everything back the way it was, with most of the memories clouded.
The ending feels very much like a writer trying to dispose of a character he’d grown tired of, like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Pratchett felt anything like that, and having had Rincewind as hero for three out of five books so far, with a cameo in a fourth, it’s possible that he may have felt confined by his audience’s expectations, he still left a note of hope that, in due course, would be happily fulfilled.
There’s little else to say, save to note that Sourcery is where the Patrician is first named as Lord Vetinari, and first outlined in the shape we know him as, although he spends most of the book transformed into a small, yellow lizard. Pratchett is yet to appreciate the subtlety of the man.
It’s also noticeable, and faintly worrying, that Sourcery sees a recycling of ideas by Pratchett, and only five books in. They may have been created for different purposes, but Coin and Eskarina Smith cousins under the skin: children possessed of a magic that they may control physically to an extent unsuspected by them, but who lack the moral imagination and life-experience to understand the full implications of their actions.
Above all, though, I see Sourcery as a slight failure of nerve on Pratchett’s part, a retreat to pure fantasy after entering deeper waters in Mort. If so, it’s only a momentary hesitation. The Discworld pendulum would swing up again for the sixth book – even numbers – but after that it would only rarely swing back occasionally, as Pratchett’s humour, and the depths we was prepared to explore, took his readers to ever increasing heights.