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Terry Pratchett's Night Watch – politically inspiring, gloriously funny

Terry Pratchett

Reading group: In this book we see the author maturing along with his storytelling skills, while losing none of his wit

How’s this for a cynical analysis of last week’s general election?

People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness.

Or maybe you blame the people at the top?

… the bastards, the rich bullies, the wheelers and dealers in people’s fates, the leeches, the hangers-on, the brown-nosers and courtiers and smarmy plump devils in expensive clothes, all those people who didn’t know or care about the machine, but stole its grease…”

Whichever view you incline towards, this last week has been a good time to read Night Watch. “He is, of course, writing about us,” said AS Byatt of Terry Pratchett. In spite – or because of – the anger, it sometimes feels as though he’s writing to make us better. There is some wonderful, inspiring material in this novel about the rule of law and the benefits of simple decency. There’s fiery rage at the injustice of society – and yet also gentle delight in the way things keep on moving in spite of that injustice, and a determination that people can do the right thing. At a time when I’ve felt pretty bleak about human nature, it’s been a ray of light. Come the next election, one of the first things I’ll want to know from my candidate is how much Terry Pratchett he or she has read.

That’s not to say that politically I could co-opt Terry Pratchett to my side. He almost certainly wouldn’t want to be on any political podium. The impression you get of politics from Night Watch is that it’s a nasty, brutish business best left to nasty, brutish people. Which is to say, politicians – who are, of course, the very ones who deserve to suffer its cruel consequences.

But what I can say is that I’d want to be on Terry Pratchett’s side. Or at least, the side of Vimes, the leader of the titular Night Watch, who always manages to find not only the most practical solution to a problem, but the solution that does the least harm. As an approach to politics, that takes some beating. He is the hero of the book, in all senses of the word – a true star who lights up the page, as well as a man to admire and follow.

If I sound a little smitten with Vimes it’s just a mark of Pratchett’s magic. Because of course this book is more than sharp political commentary. It is, to quote AS Byatt again,the work of a “master storyteller” who can make you believe in a man who is accidentally transported back in time and has to coach his younger self to become a decent Night Watchman, while fomenting a rebellion in which people just go about their daily lives, and battling a serial killer who also travelled back in time with him. A story set in a crazy city, on a disc-shaped world, carried on the back of four elephants, standing on the back of a giant turtle, travelling through space, to a destination unknown which may involve mating with another turtle.

Set down like that, it seems absurd – but this is a very different book from The Colour of Magic, whose whole point is its absurdity. Here, Pratchett has fun with his daft world, but he also makes it matter intensely. It’s a far cry from Rincewind whizzing around all corners of the Discworld. Here the focus is hard, the plotting is tight, the action wound out carefully. The setting is given substance and texture and it all builds beautifully to a dramatic and urgent conclusion.

I understand why Pratchett fans might have been worried that reading The Colour of Magic here on the Reading group would give the wrong impression of the writer’s talents. But to have read that and then Night Watch has been fascinating, showing a writer with potential come into full mastery.

Meanwhile, although the flippancy and froth of the earlier book have given way to meat and weight, most of the virtues of The Colour of Magic have been retained. Night Watch is heavy – but it’s still gloriously funny.

Many of the jokes rely on context. There’s a hilarious riff on moving time around and keeping food fresh that I couldn’t possibly do justice to here. Some also depend on exquisite timing:

There was a rustle of hessian, and then:
‘Er… it’s half a brick,’ Ned reported.
‘A half brick sir.’
‘I’m saving up for a house,’ said Vimes.”

But others are more simply – and delightfully – quotable:

This garden didn’t get much proper light. Gardens like this never did. You get second-hand light once the richer folk in the taller buildings had finished with it.”

‘When I die,’ said Lawn, inspecting the patient, ‘I’m going to instruct them to put a bell on my tombstone, just so’s I can have the pleasure of not getting up when people ring.’”

I could go on like this for a while – but if you’ve read the book you’ll already know that. And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Dig in. It’s gold. It’s precious. It’s balm. I’ve needed Night Watch during election week. It’s possibly made me a little wiser, and it’s certainly made me feel better. I’m grateful to everyone who nominated it.

Read the full article over on the Guardian website.