#73. Night Watch by Terry Pratchett
“Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions. People die, and nothing changes.”
—- (Terry Pratchett, ‘Night Watch’)
‘Night Watch’ was written by Sir Terry Pratchett in 2002. The protagonist of the novel is Sir Samuel Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. The story offers a complicated and potentially grim scenario in places, with dark humor and entertainment thrown in for balance. The working title of the piece was The Nature of the Beast, referencing the “beast” within Vimes, but it was discarded when Frances Fyfield published a book with that very title in the UK in the latter part of 2001. I did not realize that Night Watch was the 29th novel in the Discoworld Series, and have dutifully placed this “series” on my “Must Read” list. From various reviews I have read regarding Discoworld, it is more accurately labeled a collection, as opposed to a series, although Pratchett often brings in a character, or references a character or activity from a previous book.
Terry Pratchett, like TS Eliot’s Webster, has always been much possessed by death. The short biography he used to have on his book jackets began with the information that he was born in 1948 and is still not dead. It went on to say that he began work as a journalist one day in 1965 and saw his first corpse three hours later, “work experience meaning something in those days”. Like all good storytellers he writes against death, creating impossible escapes, thrilling dangers, the come-uppance of the wicked and so on. But unlike many creators of fantasy worlds he makes sure his readers know death is real, while at the same time finding ingenious devices to help us to accommodate that knowledge.
His characters die quite frequently. When they do, they take time to realize what has happened. They are met by Pratchett’s personified Death – a skeleton with a scythe, an hourglass and a white horse called Binkie – who has organized himself to resemble what human beings think he is, is courteously inhuman, but has increasing bouts of oddly caring behavior, prompted by his long association with our agitated species. These matter-of-fact deaths are curiously comforting – people shake themselves and stagger or stroll off in the direction of the horizon. The device means that good characters can die, who, by normal fairy-story rights, should have survived to triumph over evil. Pratchett invented the City Watch of his squirming and insanitary metropolis Ankh-Morpork, he once said, so as to make heroes of the supernumerary guardsmen and extras who are present in most stories simply to be killed in droves to show how bad the bad characters are, before the hero deals out justice.
Pratchett has said once or twice recently that his imagination is getting darker. The storyteller’s dealings with death have become grimmer and not so calmly comic. The series began as a parody of the fantasy world of sorcerers and magic, with the adventures of the cowardly wizard Rincewind who is always being projected through space-time, accompanied by a bad-tempered piece of luggage on hundreds of little legs. Rincewind survived by being a survivor, and by invoking the million-to-one chance that is a dead cert in a magical tale. He has not appeared for some time now, whereas the characters from the tales of the witches of Lancre and the complicated polity of Ankh-Morpork have appeared more grimly.
Vimes inhabits his own past as a dead hero. He feels he is in an enduring state of suspended animation. I have never liked stories where characters visit either the past or the future of their “real” lives – except possibly for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Such stories attenuate both their reality and the hopes and fears they meet in the story they are now in. This feeling is strong in ‘Night Watch’. The alternative Vimes is only a hypothesis. But the nastiness he faces – loosely based on the fascist nastiness of the real Cable Street and on police corruption and torture everywhere – is unusually nasty for Pratchett, and Death’s appearances are only perfunctory and not consoling.
In Terry Pratchett’s writing, one can see the various influences and “dedications” that are present, if one is only aware. And why should ‘Night Watch’ be any different? The situation that Carcer finds himself in, does indeed mirror the plot concerns of Jean Valjean in Les ‘Miserables’. While Carcer is a murderous super intelligent psychopath, he claims that his original crime was stealing a loaf of bread, reflective, again, of Valjean. The police men in both pieces (Javert in ‘Les Miserables’ and Vimes in ‘Night Watch’) are concerned only with justice. Javert, however, defines justice as the punishment of the guilty, while Vimes defines it as the protection of the innocent. A street urchin plays a role in the rebellion. ‘Les Miserables’ sees Gavroche die, while ‘Night Watch’ allows Nobby to survive. Both pieces have a rebellion led by frilly-shirt-wearing impassioned revolutionaries who take a long time to die.
Other references can be found on page 16 where Pratchett writes “Sammies, they were called,…”. Sir Robert Peel, British Prime Minister in the 1830s and 1840s, is best remembered for the organization of a metropolitan police force in London, operating out of Scotland Yard. The colloquial term for police in Britain, ‘bobbies’, is taken from Peel’s name, as is ‘Peelers’, an older nickname. On page 22, he writes “None of that “comic gravedigger” stuff” as a nod to Shakespeare’s gravediggers in ‘Hamlet’. He refers to events in his own book, ‘Thief of Time’, on page 40, when he states “They said afterwards that the bolt of lightning hit a clockmaker’s shop in the Street of Cunning Artificers, stopping all the clocks at that instant.” On page 82, he stated “The Abbot of the History Monks (the Men In Saffron, No Such Monastery… they had many names) …“. “Men In Saffron” is a reference to the “Men in Black”, possibly inspired by the movie of that name (which Terry has expressed a liking for), but more likely directly referring to the original, mythical federal hush-up agents the movie is named after. “No Such Agency” is how in our world the American NSA (National Security Agency) is jokingly referred to, because of their reputation for extreme secrecy and paranoia. On page 131, he writes “Morphic Street, 9 o’clock tonight. Password: swordfish. Swordfish? Every password was swordfish!” This is possibly a reference to the 1932 Marx Brothers’ movie ‘Horsefeathers’, in which ‘Swordfish’ was the password for entering the speakeasy, and passed into history as the archetypical password. On page 148, it says “For a moment, the tiger burned brightly.” This is a passing reference to William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger‘ (see the annotation for p. 46 of ‘The Last Continent’).
I had to wonder about the comments regarding the torture using ginger beer. As it turns out, Terry states that “To save debate running wild: I’ve heard this attributed to the Mexican police as a cheap way of getting a suspect to talk and which, happily, does not leave a mark. The carbonated beverage of choice was Coca-Cola. Hint: expanding bubbles, and the sensitivity of the sinuses.” Interestingly enough, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch confirm that this kind of torture is regularly reported as being used by the Mexican police. The Dolly Sisters Massacre is reminiscent of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which a cavalry charge into a crowd killed eleven people and injured over 400 others, including many women and children. Local magistrates had been afraid the meeting organized by people asking for repeal of the Corn Laws (which had led to high bread prices) would turn into a riot, and prematurely sent in the cavalry — led by a nincompoop — with drawn sabers to break up the meeting.
“It was Peterloo that I had in mind, as discussed here some time ago. But as a general rule, when things look bad there’s always some dickhead who can make them worse.” The reference to “Leggy Gaskin” on page 209 is actually Herbert Gaskin, whose funeral occurs just before the start of his other novel: ’Guards! Guards!’: “It had been a hard day for the Watch. There had been the funeral of Herbert Gaskin, for one thing.” It is also mentioned he died because he ran too fast and actually caught up with the criminal he was chasing — hence, presumably, the nickname ‘Leggy’. His widow also gets a mention in ‘Men at Arms’. On page 224, it’s mentioned “Dark sarcasm ought to be taught in schools, he thought.” It’s a wonderful reference to the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s classic hit ‘Another Brick in the Wall‘:
We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers, leave them kids alone
Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
On page 229, he writes “‘I regret that I have only one life to lay down for Whalebone Lane!'” This is from a famous quote attributed to American revolutionary Nathan Hale before he was executed as a spy by the British army in 1776: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country“. On page 243, he uses a saying of Chairman Mao: “‘That’s right!’ he said. ‘The people are the sea in which the revolutionary swims!‘”
The cover illustration of the British edition, by Paul Kidby, is a parody of Rembrandt’s painting ‘Night Watch’. This is the first main-sequence Discworld novel not to have a cover by Josh Kirby. Kidby pays tribute to the late artist by placing him in the picture, in the position where Rembrandt painted himself. The actual painting by Rembrandt is used as the back cover illustration.
‘Night Watch’ placed second in the annual Locus Poll for best fantasy novel. A five-part radio adaptation of the novel was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from February 27, 2008 that featured Philip Jackson as Sam Vimes and Carl Prekopp as young Sam.