Lit Knit 4: Knitting with Terry. Again

June 20, 2011

At the risk of becoming repetitive, here’s another one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Night Watch (first published 2002), in our Lit Knit series…

Like Jingo, it features Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch as the main protagonist. This time, however, Ankh-Morpork isn’t at war with a foreign superpower but, so to speak, with itself: There’s a revolution sweeping the city’s streets, and as it unfolds into a full-blown civil war, Vimes and his watchmen realize that their allegeance lies with the people rather than with the regime that pays their salaries. Oh, and there’s also a psychopatic killer on the loose…

But among all this chaos and confusion, there’s also yarn and knitting. The first reference occurs on page 145* when Vimes has to arrest a young woman called Miss Battye who claims to be a seamstress. The problem here is that, like in Victorian England, in Ankh-Morpork the term seamstress is generally used as a euphemism for prostitutes. So when Vimes is informed that Miss Battye “also specializes in crochet”, he wants to know what crochet means, assuming it to be code for some sort of sex act. Only when Miss Battye replies, somewhat irritated, “It’s a kind of knitting (…). Fancy you not knowing that”, does Vimes realizes that he’s dealing with a real seamstress.

A second knitting reference comes towards the end of the book. When Vimes and his men are attacked by archers during the street fighting, they seek shelter from the arrows in the nearest shop. What they find in there comes somewhat unexpected for Vimes:

” ‘Can I help any of you gentlemen?’ said a thin, querulous little voice behind him. He turned and saw a very small, almost doll-like old lady, all in black, cowering behind her counter.

He looked desperately at the shelves behind her. They were piled with skeins of wool.” (p. 430)

They’ve ended up in a yarn store! And there’s even a customer in the shop, another eldery lady called Mrs Soupson just about to buy “four ounces of grey two-ply” (p. 431). A few pages later, though, we meet her again, in a much more agitated state, waving a knitting needle among the revolutionary crowd out in the streets (p. 437).

So, as in some of his other books, Pratchett employs knitting in a very stereotypical way by essentially associating it with the realm of the female, especially with elderly ladies. But, of course, employing stereotypes is what Pratchett does, and his use of over-exaggerated clichés is part of what makes his Discworld novels so funny. In Night Watch, too, the yarn store episode has great comic potential, especially if you try to imagine it as a movie with sound and everything: First, there’s the hectic scene of the street fighting, full of noise and movement, with carts dashing by and people running around, shouting and singing revolutionary songs. And then the sudden change of scene as Vimes and his men barge into the store and find themselves immersed in a place of peace and quiet, with two eldery ladies calmly chatting over a counter, and the walls stacked with soft, cosy yarn. It’s like going from this…

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People, 1830, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image © Wikimedia Commons

… to this

Georg Friedrich Kersting, Woman Embroidering (First Version), 1812, Schlossmuseum, Weimar. Image © Wikimedia Commons

… in the blink of an eye. And yes, in terms of clichés the contrast created here by Pratchett is also a contrast between things denoted as male – e.g. fighting, the outside – and things denoted as female – e.g. textiles and needlework, the domestic interior. And, by the way, a similar contrast may even be found in the character of Miss Battye, the seamstress: As it turns out, when she’s not busy crocheting or darning socks, she’s working for the revolutionary forces, smuggling weapons which are neatly hidden underneath all the yarns and threads in her sewing basket. Here, in a manner of speaking, the “manly” arms of war are not only in contrast but even in direct contact with the utensils of “female” needlework.

Ok, I could go on, but I guess I’ll better leave it at that – I’m afraid not all of our readers are as keen on Pratchett as I am myself ;-) Seriously, I almost feel guilty about bringing him up here so often and practically turning our Lit Knit series into Knitting with Terry.** The thing is, however, that among all my favourite writers, Pratchett appears to be by far the most knittophile – I believe that, from our previous Lit Knit entries, you will all have noticed how knitting comes up surprisingly often in his novels. As I found out only recently through Ravelry’s Ankh-Morpork Knitter’s Guild-group, there appears to be a simple explanation for this: Terry Pratchett is a knitter himself and, allegedly, even has his own sheep and spins his own yarn. Sadly, though, I may have to rephrase that last sentence in the past tense and say that Pratchett was a knitter. As you’ll probably have heard, in 2007 Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s and since then his manual dexterity has been severly affected by the disease. By now, he even finds it too impossible to type his own books anymore, so I assume that knitting’s out of the question, too. As for the books, he now dictates them to an assistant, so in spite of his condition, he still keeps them coming. Well what can you say to that? Hats off, Terry, and thanks for all the joy you continue to give us!


* As usual, all page numbers given refer to the Corgi paperback edition of the book.

** Don’t worry, though, the emphasis here really is on “almost”, so I’m far from castigating myself or anything…

6 Responses to “Lit Knit 4: Knitting with Terry. Again”

  1. Annie said

    I’m a huge Pratchett fan, as are both my sons, so I’m not going to tire of your Disc World Knit Lit’s :D Off to join the Ravelry group … I didn’t know it existed !

    • [c] said

      Thanks for the comment, Annie – I’m glad to hear you like the post(s)!
      As for the Ravelry group, I must admit I only found out about it myself through an earlier comment here by indigocraft…

  2. suse said

    I’ve never read Pratchett but that Liberty leading the people artwork has popped up three times in my life this week. Spooky.

    • [c] said

      Oh, I’m sorry to have given you the creeps ;-)
      But maybe you really ought to go and see your local psychic to check if the ghost of Delacroix is trying to get in touch with you…

  3. I love Pratchett so am not minding your series *at all.*

    Have you read the Tiffany Aching ones yet? They aren’t so much about knitting, but shepherding features heavily, which is very interesting given what you’ve said here about Pratchett’s own sheep…

    I love the knit/lit series!

    • [c] said

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Felix!

      And yes, I have read the Tiffany Achings ones but, admittedly, some years ago. They’ve been on my (re-)reading list for quite some time now, though, and who knows maybe the will appear here on our blog one day. But you know how it is: So many books, so little time…

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