“Guards! Guards! – Discworld #8” by Terry Pratchett

I’m rereading the City Watch series this year because it’s about the real power of the law to protect the weak from the powerful and the powerful from each other and to create an environment that allows inclusion and diversity to prosper.

I need this to bolster my hope while my country slides towards the collapse of the rule of law as we tear our democracy apart in the pursuit of Brexit, which I fear is our Reichstag Fire, creating an emergency so Ministers can grant themselves extraordinary powers.

I believe that Pratchett had a firm grasp of both politics and ethics. He understood that politics without ethics is merely a blood sport for the powerful, that ethics without politics is a sterile intellectual exercise and that its the rule of law that yokes these two together.

His depiction of the evolution of the City Watch in this subseries is romantic not in a soppy way but in a way where the Watch aspires to be more than it can sometimes manage to be. In a way that gives us something to live up to – whether we want to or not. That’s a romance I’m happy to embrace in this Brexit year.

The first book in the subseries is “Guards! Guards!” The City Watch is three people, led by Captain Vimes, a man so depressed by the current state of the world that he spends much of his time drunk. This is the book where all of that starts to change.

It’s been more than twenty years since I first read “Guard! Guards!” and even though I remembered the plot (more or less) it was a bit of a shock to meet Vîmes, one of my favourite characters, the one I hope I might get to be for a while on my very best days, drunk in the gutter.

Fortunately, I know that the arrival of Carrot in the Watch means everything is about to change for Vimes so it made me smile to read about him looking at the ancient Watch House and reading the old motto:

“It must have been quite imposing once, but quite a lot of it was now uninhabitable and patrolled only by owls and rats. Over the door a motto in the ancient tongue of the city was now almost eroded by time and grime and lichen, but could just be made out: FABRICATI DIEM, PVNC”

Carrot, the six-foot-six human who thinks he’s a (very tall) dwarf because he was fostered by a dwarf King, has been sent to the big city to join the Watch. He’s prepared himself by reading an old and now largely ignored lawbook. Carrot is likeable, fights well, wants to be the kind of dwarf his mother will be proud of and takes his duty of enforcing the law seriously.

Early in the book, Vimes leaves Carrot alone in the Watch House, polishing his helmet and breastplate, so as to keep him out of trouble. When the Librarian of the Unseen University (an Orangutang with a vocabulary restricted to “Oook” – it’s a long story) arrives at the Watch seeking help, Carrot leeft a note for Vimes saying “Gone To Fight Crime” and…

“…then he went out on to the streets, untarnished and unafraid”

What a great description that is.

One of the things that I love about Terry Pratchett is that he leaves you to draw your own conclusions about whether Carrot is a hero or an innocent

I prefer to think of him as an innocent. He’s not self-aware enough or egotistaical enough to be a hero.

Labelling Carrot as an innocent made me smile until a voice in my head whispered a quote from Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American”

“Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

Of course, I know that Terry Pratchett won’t let Carrot cause any harm. Perhaps that’s why I’m rereading Terry Pratchett and not Graham Greene

Captain Vimes is one of my favourite characters because I like how he sees the world. He sees what’s really there rather than what everyone tells him is there and he feels obliged to act on what he sees..

This is Vimes’ reaction to seeing, for the first time, the huge dragon that is attacking the city:

“And it was all wrong, Vimes thought. Part of him was marvelling at the sheer beauty of the sight, but an insistent, weaselly little group of brain cells from the wrong side of the synapses was scrawling its graffiti on the walls of wonderment.”

The combination of Vime’s refusal to look away from the truth of how things are and Carrot’s absolute belief in his duty to enforce the law combine to create a force that rescues the city from the merciless rule of a power unleashed by someone who yearns for the City’s glorious past but sees none of its current strengths and completely fails to understand the price that will be extracted by summoning a dragon.

To my Brexit-dominated consciousness, the parallels are too powerful to miss.

“Guards! Guards!” isn0t a political essay. It’s a book full of humour, draped around a reasonably complex plot and populated with larger than life characters.

It’s a great start to a great subseries and I feel better for having read it again.

Next up is “Men At Arms” where the new City Watch really starts to emerge.


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