i’ve been reading Terry Pratchett novels of late, courtesy of Toddball. i re-read Thud! last week and have nearly finished Night Watch. Pratchett would be sneered at by purists who regard Dryden as the height of literature. For myself, i like Pratchett and while books have been important to me since i was about 13  i wouldn’t Kurply hate anyone for reading a book i don’t like; i wouldn’t even despise or dislike them. i’ve known very good people who hate books, good people who read Ian McEwan and CS Lewis, and very bad people with excellent taste. Perhaps it’s natural to attempt to classify, to clearly delineate, to say “this is worthless and if you like it, then you are worthless”. i distrust this. i won’t call it snobbishness; it’s just being human in the worst way, regarding your own tastes as god-given, and anyone who disagrees is of the devil. It seems to me a reaction born of fear, a need to defend your world against anyone who might despise you, by despising them first. Pre-emptive contempt.

i had such arguments with the Scump, a vile and talentless Marxist music journalist i knew in my youth. He read widely, seemingly without really taking anything in, and without caring what others read. However, to differ from his musical tastes was to be utter and unadulterated scum. So i endured regular barrages of abuse for liking U2 (this was in 1996, before they became shit), and for not liking country music and some particularly tedious jazz. In his words,  “religion in any shape and form is for people without rationality or intelligence.” When i adduced Milton and TS Eliot he blithely dismissed their Christianity as a puzzling aberration. His vitriolic hatred of anyone who didn’t totally adhere to his musical regulations left me with a bitter aftertaste and a disinclination to judge people by their tastes, or to even think it of enormous value. To hate someone for their politics or their artistic tastes seems to me the ultimate in moral obtuseness. This hatred seems to have blossomed with the internet, as people even boast of being unable to appreciate a film or a book. A recent example, from a comment to one of my reviews:

I suffered through one of the Matrix movies, which pegged the bogometer about 10 minutes in and did not let up. I amused myself as best I could imaging the that “The Matrix” was really a clever pun for “The Maastricht”, as HAL is IBM shifted one letter up, and that this was about the subjection of Europe by the EU. In any case, I don’t remember Agent Smith saying much of anything, just punching.

One can find similar comments on Amazon, people giving King Lear or The Brothers Karamazov 1 star and dismissing it as boring and stupid and anyway they gave up on on the first page.

i like Pratchett in part because he has no side. His books are generally well-plotted, well-characterized, and will provoke at least a few smiles or laughs. They are funny. One can fake seriousness but not humour. By contrast, i regard McEwan as an out-and-out fake, a product of a creative writing school; his books are technically adept but totally devoid of substance. His characters are all upper middle-class Englanders, superficial, uninteresting, trivial Guardian-readers. But they are not intended to be so – it is a failure of his spirit, that he cannot write above himself. i think that when people like McEwan it’s because they project ideas of profundity onto the neatly-labelled blanks of his novel (Enduring Love, Atonement, etc.). i feel that no one will read him in 100 years, any more than they read Marie Corelli. However, to be read now, to appeal to people now, argues some talent, even if i don’t appreciate it.

Pratchett doesn’t fake anything. He can be serious but seriousness is ancillary to his humour. When i was in my teens i laughed, now i just horribly smile but a smile is hard to fake and i don’t think anyone could really fake humour to himself. It is by contrast quite easy to read e.g. Lit Theory trash and convince yourself it’s profound, because that makes you cool. Smiling isn’t cool.

My favourite Pratchett character is Sam Vimes (Toddball said he only buys books which features Vimes). We meet him first in Guards! Guards!, where he is an alcoholic night watchman. He loses the bottle, and book by book transforms the Night Watch into something reasonably non-corrupt and organised. Toddball envisages Vimes as Clint Eastwood but i feel he is more ordinary; whereas Clint generally looks 100% badass, Vimes is somehow an ordinary human being, with indomitable tenacity. He’s brave not because he’s badass, but because he would be ashamed to walk away. i like him for his mixture of ardent idealism and pragmatism. There’s a nice section in Night Watch where he tries to forcegrow some slovenly watchmen:

He was all for getting recruits out on the street, but you had to train them first. You needed someone like Detritus bellowing at them for six weeks, and lectures about duty and prisoners’ rights and the ‘service to the public’. And then you could hand them over to the street monsters who told them all the other stuff, like how to hit someone where it wouldn’t leave a mark and when it was a good idea to stick a metal soup-plate down the front of your trousers before attending to a bar brawl.

And if you were lucky and they were sensible, they found somewhere between impossible perfection and the Pit where they could be real coppers – slightly tarnished, because the job did that to you, but not rotten.

There is something very English about Vimes. Gaw once told me that Peter Hitchens isn’t English because he’s a Trotskyite extremist (and half-Jewish, i suppose). i disagree and don’t think you can say someone isn’t English just because you don’t like them. After all, England has a long history of extremists; it’s just that they tend to be balanced by pragmatism. There’s a nice section in Night Watch where Vimes defuses a potential riot by instructing his watchmen to keep the station doors open and not to wear their swords. His reasoning is that as long as people remember you’re a human being and fellow citizen, rather than a black-clad stormtrooper, they’re less likely to throw stones. There is something very English in the ability to hold irreconcilable contraries in mind and just let them be, not attempt any spurious synthesis. To quote Wikipedia:

An incorruptible idealist with deep beliefs in justice and an abiding love of his city, he is also a committed cynic whose knowledge of human nature constantly reminds him how far off those ideals are. A member of the upper classes, he still has an innate dislike of hereditary wealth and a horror of social inequality. The Patrician observes that Vimes is anti-authoritarian even though he is, himself, an authority figure, which is “practically Zen”. The conflict within Vimes is between his virtuous nature (“the Watchman”) and what he calls “the Beast”. In The Art of Discworld, Pratchett explains that Vimes protects himself from the Beast with the symbol of his own badge, which prevents him from becoming the criminal he despises, at least in his own mind

The “politics” of the Discworld is, roughly, one of Tory anarchism. Pratchett seems to distrust organised authority of any kind. Night Watch features the psychopathic paranoid Lord Winder, complete with secret police, torture chambers and all. During the novel he is overthrown and replaced by Psychoneurotic Lord Snapcase – who is hailed as a savior, a man of the people, a just man, etc., but turns out to be exactly the same as Lord Winder. Eventually (after the novel), Snapcase is dethroned and succeeded by Lord Vetinari, a pure pragmatist. It is typical of Pratchett that under the purely Machiavellian Vetinari, all is well. The paranoid and psychopathic are not pragmatists. A pragmatist allows a measure of dissent. A pragmatist allows disorder, to a point. And Vetinari acts without niceties. From a later novel, Snuff:

“Well, there was a bit of a fracas, as we say, and it turned out that a man had a dog, a half-dead thing, according to bystanders, and he was trying to get it to stop pulling at its leash, and when it growled at him he grabbed an axe from the butcher’s stall beside him, threw the dog to the ground and cut off its back legs, just like that. I suppose people would say ‘Nasty bugger, but it was his dog’ and so on, but Lord Vetinari called me in and he said to me, ‘A man who would do something like that to a dog is a man to whom the law should pay close attention. Search his house immediately.’ The man was hanged a week later, not for the dog, although for my part I wouldn’t have shed a tear if he had been, but for what we found in his cellar. The contents of which I will not burden you with. And bloody Vetinari got away with it again, because he was right: where there are little crimes, large crimes are not far behind.”

Englishness, the slow development of several millenia, has been systematically dismantled and attacked in my lifetime, so the only people i would call English (in the best sense) are uneducated working class (with the emphasis on working), people over 50, and certain toffs and aristocrats. If the powers that be succeed in destroying it totally, to make way for some multicultural burning city egalitarian paradise, at least some of it will survive in these novels. A nice touch from Night Watch: there is a popular uprising and a Guardianista windbag called Reg Shoe attempts to take control of the food supply:

“What’ve you got?” said Vimes.

“Steaks, mostly,” said the old sergeant, grinning. “But I liberated a sack of onions in the name of the revolution!” He saw Vimes’s expression change. “No, sarge, the man gave them to me, see. They need eating, he said.”

“What did I tell you? Every meal will be a feast in the People’s Republic!” said Reg Shoe, striding up. He still hung on to his clipboard; people like Reg tend to. “If you could just take it along to the official warehouse, sergeant?”

“What warehouse?”

Reg sighed. “All food must go into the common warehouse and be distributed by my officials according to – “

“Mr Shoe,” said Dickins, “there’s a cart with five hundred chickens coming up behind me, and there’s another full of eggs. There’s nowhere to send ’em, see? The butchers have filled up the ice-houses and smoke-rooms and the only place we can store this grub is in our guts. I ain’t particularly bothered about officials.”

“On behalf of the Republic I order you – ” Reg began, and Vimes put a hand on his shoulder.

“Off you go, sergeant,” he said, nodding to Dickins. “A word in your ear, Reg?”

“Is this a military coup?” said Reg uncertainly, holding his clipboard.

“No, it’s just that we’re under siege here, Reg. This is not the time. Let Sergeant Dickins sort it out. He’s a fair man, he just doesn’t like clipboards.”

“But supposing people get left out?” said Reg.

“There’s enough for everyone to eat themselves sick, Reg.”

Reg Shoe looked uncertain and disappointed, as though this prospect was less pleasing than carefully rationed scarcity.

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