“Feet Of Clay – Discworld #19 City Watch #3” by Terry Pratchett

“Feet Of Clay” kept me curious, made me laugh and invited me to think.

Reading Terry Pratchett is like eating the perfect fruit cake: textured, complex, filled with bursts of intense flavour that nevertheless catch you by surprise, easy to eat, satisfying but still leaving you wanting more.

Here’s an example of one of the surprises.

Mr Hopkins, a museum curator, has been murdered using one of his exhibits as the murder weapon. He is so annoyed by the damage caused to the exhibit by being used in this way that he refuses to acknowledge his own demise even with DEATH standing next to him. When he finally accepts his own incorporeality, he complains to DEATH, saying:

“This really is most uncalled-for. Couldn’t you have arranged a less awkward time?

ONLY BY CONSULTING WITH YOUR MURDERER

It all seems very badly organised. I wish to make a complaint. I pay my taxes, after all.

I AM DEATH, NOT TAXES. I TURN UP ONLY ONCE.”

The shade of Mr Hopkins began to fade.

“It’s simply that I’ve always tried to plan ahead in a sensible way…

I’VE FOUND THE BEST APPROACH IS TO TAKE LIFE AS IT COMES

That seems very irresponsible…

IT’S ALWAYS WORKED FOR ME”

This small slice of fruitcake is so rich it’s worthy of Bettys Tea Shop in Harrogate. It deserves to be savoured, perhaps with a good slice of Wensleydale and a cafeterier of coffee.

As this was a re-read for me, I managed to control my appetite and consumed “Feet Of Clay” one small slice at a time for three weeks. Re-reading this confirmed my respect for Terry Pratchett’s storytelling craft, his irrepressible sense of humour and his ability to bring complex issues to life in a way that makes sense in Ankh-Morpork but which also resonate with my current experience of the world, more than twenty years after “Feet Of Clay” was written.

As I rolled through this enjoyable romp of a book again, I kept finding things to admire.

The means used to poison Vetinari was fiendishly clever. Even so, I’d forgotten it since my last read so I had the joy of rediscovering it and I fell (as I probably did last time) for his playful nod at “The Name Of The Rose”.

I love Pratchett’s ability to let me see things in new ways, sometimes just through a play on words and sometimes through refreshing a concept.

He never takes words for granted. He knows that, like the Golems of the story, the words in our heads have power over us. So, in the midst of all the chaotic action of Fred Colon’s slap-stick attempt to escape a killer Golem we get:

Firstly, the drainpipe he was riding hit the wall of the building opposite. In a well-organised world he might have landed on a fire escape, but fire escapes were unknown in Ankh-Morpork and the flames generally had to leave via the roof.

It’s just a little wordplay but it does make me stop and think, “If I blinded myself to reading fire escape that way, what else am I blinding myself to?”

Sometimes, the concept-twisting works more like a running joke, gathering meaning as it splashes through plot puddles. Pratchett gets us used to the idea that Golems are powered by the words in their heads, then he gets us to think about how those words might change and who would change them. He has us nodding along because we’re all thinking programming computers and then he twists it back to people. Carrot watches, unable to get close enough to act, as one Golem kills another and we get this exchange with the always pragmatic Angua:

Carrot shook himself free. ‘It’s murder,’ he said. ‘We’re Watchmen. We can’t just… watch! It killed him.’

‘It’s an it and so’s he-‘

“Commander Vimes said someone has to speak for the people with no voices!’

He reallybelieves it,Angua thought. Vimes put words inhis head.

This reminder of the consequence of well-turned phrases resonated with me. I’ve been watching terms like “Brexit means Brexit” and “Make America Great Again” spread across social media like mould on a shower curtain and I know they affect real life.

Then there’s the way Terry Pratchett twists that moment, which is a commonplace in crime drama, when the detective and the (smug at being so astute while actually having been led by the nose) reader have the insight that solves the case. This is how Vimes, a man who is too sunk in despair and too quick of mind to believe in clues, sees that ah-ha moment:

This is it, he thought- This is where we’ve filled ourselves up with so many questions that they’re starting to overflow and become answers.

This reframing of the commonplace so that I see it differently makes reading and re-reading Terry Pratchett rewarding. We see the twist, we smile and then we say to ourselves, “but actually, that’s true as well as funny.”

Part of the power of the City Watch series comes from Terry Pratchett’s deep understanding of the need for the rule of law. It’s in Vimes’ marrow, a bone-deep belief, not a theoretical concept. This time, it’s balanced against the hunger for freedom on one side and the reflexive need for a King or other authority figure on the other. Vimes uses the law to mitigate the worst effects of both urges. I particularly liked this exchange between Vimes and Vetinari. I’ve been on the receiving end of a comment much like Vetinari’s and both he and Vimes make perfect sense to me. Vetinari says:

‘Commander, I always used to consider that you had an anti-authoritarian streak in you.’

‘Sir?’

‘It seems you’ve managd to retain this even though you are authority.’

‘Sir?’

‘That’s practically Zen’

‘Sir?’

Finally, I admire the lightness of touch with which Terry Pratchett explores what it means to be a person, the power of choice, the need for individuality and peoples’ natural tendency to step back from freedom into long-forged habit.

He avoids pompous lecturing by orbiting his diverse cast of characters in the Watch around the central problems of the book: how is Vetinari being poisoned and what is going on with the Golems, to generate a series of choices and insights that make these issues personal and real.

“Feet Of Clay” kept me curious, made me laugh and invited me to think. That’s what Terry Pratchett does.

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