Today I Read…Dodger

Today I read Dodger by Terry Pratchett. dodger

Dodger is a tosher–he makes his living by searching the sewers of London for the small things that the more respectable folk up above misplace. Then one stormy night he comes across what may be the most dangerous and most valuable treasure of his life–Miss Simplicity, a beautiful girl being beaten to death in the streets. With the help of Mister Charlie (some newspaper man named Dickens), Dodger begins his transformation from a gutter snipe into a slightly better-dressed gutter snipe who somehow manages to defeat the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (only he wasn’t really that bad, he was just a tad confused, he didn’t really mean  to cut all those men’s throats), prevent international incidents (hang them, they’re not from London), and strangest of all, get the girl (not Simplicity of course, everyone knows she’s dead, but have you met Miss Serendipity? amazing resemblance, total coincidence, swear to the Lady). What’s a tosher to do, other than slip a few valuables in his pocket when nobody’s looking?

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As always, Terry Pratchett creates an unforgettable character who reacts to the world in the most logical way possible, which is of course completely unlike a normal person would. Dodger never sets out to have an adventure–things just happen to him, and he does what he thinks is best. And somehow rescuing a girl from being killed leads to preventing international incidents and being knighted by Queen Victoria. Dodger is a very honest man, since he has too few brains to lie–it’s just that truth is very much a matter of perception, such as in the case of Miss Simplicity and Miss Serendipity. Dodger is very much in the style of Pratchett’s Discworld series, only without the magic and set in something that might have been our world once. Unfortunately Victorian London doesn’t handle Dodger any better than Ankh-Morpok handled Dodger’s spiritual brother Moist von Lipwig.

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The housekeeper came in, casting a look of pure hatred at Dodger and, he was happy to see, one that was not much better towards Charlie. She had the makings of a moustache, from below which came a grumble. ‘I don’t wanna speak out of turn, sir. I don’t mind keeping an eye on another “author of the storm”, as it were, but I can’t be responsible for the doings of this young guttersnipe, saving your honour’s presence. I hope no one will blame me if he murders you all in your beds tonight. No offence meant, you understand?’

Dodger was used to this sort of thing; people like this silly woman thought that every kid who lived on the streets was very likely a thief and a pickpocket who would steal the laces out of your boots in a fraction of a second and then sell them back to you. He sighed inwardly. Of course, he thought, that was true of most of them – nearly all of them really – but that was no reason to make blanket statements. Dodger wasn’t a thief; not at all. He was . . . well, he was good at finding things. After all, sometimes things fell off carts and carriages, didn’t they? He had never stuck his hand into somebody else’s pocket. Well, apart from one or two occasions when it was so blatantly open that something was bound to fall out, in which case Dodger would nimbly grab it before it hit the ground. That wasn’t stealing: that was keeping the place tidy, and after all, it only happened . . . what? Once or twice a week? It was a kind of tidiness, after all, but nevertheless some short-sighted people might hang you just because of a misunderstanding. But they never had a chance of misunderstanding Dodger, oh dear no, because he was quick, and slick, and certainly brighter than the stupid old woman who got her words wrong (after all, what was an ‘author of the storm’? That was barmy! Somebody who wrote down storms for a living?). Nice work if you could get it, although strictly speaking Dodger always avoided anything that might be considered as being work. Of course, there was the toshing; oh, how he loved that. Toshing wasn’t work: toshing was living, toshing was coming alive. If he wasn’t being so bloody stupid he would be down in the sewers now, waiting for the storm to stop and a new world of opportunity to open. He treasured those times on the tosh, but right now Charlie had his hand firmly on Dodger’s shoulder.

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Sometime after, Dodger was seated at the long table in the editor’s office of the Chronicle, wishing he could be on his way to see Simplicity. Opposite him was Charlie, who was somewhat less angry now since, being a man of means, he had acquired another pair of trousers and sent the other ones to be cleaned. The inner wall of the office was one of those half-height affairs so that people passing by in the newsroom could see what was happening, and now, how they did pass by. And linger too, with every writer, journalist and printer finding an excuse to see the young man who, according to the magical telegraph of the streets, had wrestled to the ground the terrible Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Dodger was getting rather annoyed about this. ‘I hardly touched ’im! I just pushed ’im gently down and took the wretched razor off ’im, that’s all! Honest! It was as if he had been taking opium or something, ’cos he was seeing dead soldiers – dead men coming towards him, I swear it, and he was talking to them, like he was ashamed that he couldn’t save them. God’s truth, Mister Charlie, I swear I was seeing them too, come the finish! Men blown all to pieces! And worse, like men half blown to pieces and screaming! He wasn’t a demon, mister, although I reckon he may have seen Hell, and I ain’t a hero, sir, I really ain’t. He wasn’t bad, he was mad, and sad, and lost in his ’ead. That’s all of it, sir, the up and the down of it, sir. An’ that’s the truth you should write down. I mean, I ain’t no hero, ’cos I don’t think he was a villain, sir, if you get my drift.’

Then there was silence, somehow filled by Charlie’s gaze, in this polished little room. A clock ticked and, without looking, Dodger could feel the employees still taking every opportunity to look at him, the unassuming and reluctant hero of the hour. Charlie was staring at him, occasionally playing with his pen, and at last the man said, with a sigh, ‘Dear Mister Dodger, the truth, rather than being a simple thing, is constructed, you need to know, rather like Heaven itself. We journalists, as mere wielders of the pen, have to distil out of it such truths that mankind, not being god-like, can understand. In that sense, all men are writers, journalists scribbling within their skulls the narrative of what they see and hear, notwithstanding that a man sitting opposite them might very well brew an entirely different view as to the nature of the occurrence. That is the salvation and the demon of journalism, the knowledge that there is almost always a different perspective from which to see the conundrum.’

Charlie played with his pen some more, looking uncomfortable, and went on, ‘After all, my young Dodger, what exactly are you? A stalwart young man, plucky and brave and apparently without fear? Or possibly, I suggest, a street urchin with a surfeit of animal cunning and the luck of Beelzebub himself. I put it to you, my friend, that you are both of these, and every shade in between. And Mister Todd? Is he truly a demon – those six men in the cellar would say so! If they could but speak, of course. Or is he the victim, as you would like to think of him? What is the truth? you might ask, if I was giving you a chance to speak, which at the moment I am not. My answer to you would be that the truth is a fog, in which one man sees the heavenly host and the other one sees a flying elephant.’

Dodger began to protest. He hadn’t seen no heavenly host; no elephant neither – he didn’t actually know what one of those was – though he’d put a shilling on the fact that Solomon had probably seen both on his travels.

But Charlie was still talking. ‘The peelers saw a young man face down a killer with a dreadful weapon, and for now that is the truth that we should print and celebrate. However, I shall add a little tincture of – shall we say – a slightly different nature, reporting that the hero of the hour nevertheless took pity on the wretched man, understanding that he had lost his wits due to the terrible things he had witnessed in the recent wars. I will write that you spoke very eloquently to me about how Mister Todd himself was a casualty of those wars, just as were the men in his cellar. I will make your views known to the authorities. War is a terrible thing, and many return with wounds invisible to the eye.’

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