How to be a Good Copper
Oldest and most depraved city on the Disc.
That’s how people describe it; the city. Both those who do and do not live there. The only difference is how they say it. People who don’t live in Ankh-Morpork say “oldest and most depraved” with a definite sense of relief that they live somewhere else, whereas those who do live in Ankh-Morpork say it with a fierce pride.
It’s all a matter of perspective, and even if your perspective is occasionally looking up from the cobblestones as someone kicks your head in, it’s hard not to be impressed by Ankh-Morpork.
Especially when the city was in peril.
Which it was.
No one seemed to know what had started it all this time. It could have been the trolls and the dwarves again, or the vampires and the werewolves, or rival foot-the-ball supporters. Someone who may have known what it was all about was the Patrician, but Lord Havelock Vetinari hadn’t survived for as long as he had atop the precarious power pyramid of Ankh-Morpork without knowing when to leave the city to its own devices. He rarely stuck his neck out for the city – not in ways people noticed, anyway – and he never stuck his nose into things. He had a network of people under him with perfectly good necks and noses. Whether those necks and noses remained attached or intact for the duration of this conflagration remained to be seen, but one thing was for sure: not for the first time, Ankh-Morpork was trying to tear itself apart from the inside out.
That’s precisely why young Colin Spanner had kissed his Mum and Dad goodbye (well, he’d shaken his Dad’s hand, at any rate), bid farewell to the old farmstead and made his way to the big city.
He was going to be a copper.
He was going to be great copper.
At least, that’s what he had hoped.
‘How’s it lookin’, sarge?’ said Corporal “Nobby” Nobbs, as he fished a vile-looking dog-end out from behind his equally vile-looking ear.
Sergeant Frederick Colon turned slowly in his sitting position, looked over his shoulder and sucked his teeth the way a builder does when faced with a particularly tricky job.
‘It don’t look good,’ said Colon, ruefully. ‘It don’t look good at all.’
Colin Spanner chose this moment to pipe up.
‘Then why aren’t we down there in the streets, Sergeant?’
‘You what?’ asked Nobby, incredulously.
‘You know,’ said Colin, with sickening vim and vigour. ‘Maintaining an effective police presence. Securing life and limb. Keeping order!’
‘Blimey,’ chuckled Nobby. ‘He is new.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ said Colin, sounding somewhat offended. Sergeant Colon looked at the latest recruit to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, all five feet one inch of him, with his badly fitting armour and lopsided helmet, and pictured the poor lad strutting confidently into the fray. With all the will in the world he’d be lining the underside of the mob’s boots by suppertime.
‘You always wanted to be a copper, lad?’ asked Colon, carefully.
‘Yes Sergeant. Ever since we found out I was allergic to wool and couldn’t follow in my old Dad’s footsteps.’
‘What, your Dad’s a sheep?’ asked Nobby, his eyebrows rising beneath the ever-present layer of grime that seemingly coated him from head to foot.
‘No Corporal, a shepherd,’ said Colin, proudly. ‘My family’s been in the shepherding game for as long as any of us can remember.’
‘Bit of a jump though, don’t you think?’ asked Colon. ‘Shepherding to coppering.’
‘Well, when we realised I’d be no good as a shepherd, it was agreed that I needed to make something of myself. You know, to make my Mum and Dad proud.’
‘And you chose coppering?’
‘Your... Mum and Dad,’ began Colon, pausing to choose his words carefully. ‘They… love you, I suppose?’
‘Well I am their son.’
‘That don’t exactly answer my question, does it?’
‘Yes, of course they love me!’
‘And it was their idea for you to come here and try your hand at being a copper?’
‘No, it was mine,’ said Colin, as he tried, unsuccessfully, to puff out his chest and strike a manly pose. ‘But they were all for it.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Colon, more to himself than anyone else.
‘Why? What is it?’ Colin had the distinct feeling that the corporal and sergeant to whom he’d been assigned were having some kind of private joke at his expense, and he didn’t much like it.
‘Oh, nothing lad. Nothing,’ said Colon, as he continued to size up the new recruit. Fred Colon had been a copper for so long that he couldn’t really remember a time when he wasn’t a copper. He had vague memories of a childhood, but if he was perfectly honest he’d be hard pressed to remember exactly why he’d joined the Watch in the first place. He imagined he must have been as keen as the lad here, but a lot of years had passed since then, and the city of Ankh-Morpork had made it its mission to beat a healthy dose of realism into him the moment he first stepped on to those cobblestones. It’s not that Colon didn’t like being a copper – his tobacco pouch was never empty, for one thing – he just found it hard, at his time of life, to understand why other people wanted to be coppers. The Ankh-Morpork City Watch had grown from the rag-tag and ramshackle Night Watch to become one of the premier law enforcement establishments on the Disc; at least that’s what Captain Carrot said, and through it all there had been Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs. The game of coppering had changed around them so much that they barely recognised it anymore, and their seemingly endless determination to not change one iota of the way they did things bordered on the impressive, and, sometimes crossed the line to the rampantly frightening. Some people wondered how Colon and Nobby had remained coppers all this time, but they had been with the Watch for so long that the very idea of not having them in the Watch hardly ever factored into people’s thinking. They’d been around so long that they were like furniture: bad-tempered, smelly, slightly speciesist furniture.
An explosion sounded from somewhere within the city.
Colin jumped to his feet, his dinged and battered hand-me-down sword unsheathed and ready for action.
‘Put it down, lad. You’ll have your eye out,’ said Nobby.
‘But Corporal! Shouldn’t we investigate? Lives could be at risk!’
Yeah, ours if we go down there.’ Nobby jerked a grubby looking thumb in the direction of the city centre. Colin sat down with a huff; his armour clanking forlornly about him.
Colon and Nobby exchanged a glance.
‘What’s up, lad?’ asked Colon.
‘Oh I don’t know. This just isn’t what I pictured when I joined the Watch.’
‘What isn’t?’ asked Nobby.
‘This!’ said Colin, gesturing all around him with his skinny arm. ‘I mean look at us! We’re practically hiding!’
‘So?’ Nobby failed to see a problem with this premise.
‘So?’ said Colin, sitting upright so quickly that his helmet fell over his eyes. ‘So? We’re coppers! We’re not supposed to hide from danger! We’re supposed to be there to stop it from happening! Or at the very least stop it when it does happen!’
There was silence for a moment.
Then Colon stood up, slowly.
‘Let me tell you something, lad,’ he said, as kindly as he could. ‘There’s a lot more to coppering than goin’ charging in arresting folk left, right and centre.’
‘A lot more,’ agreed Nobby.
Colon sat down next to Colin with a heavy sigh, got comfortable once again, and continued.
‘If you want to last in this game, lad, you’ve got to learn the rules.’
‘Yeah,’ said Nobby, conspiratorially. ‘So you know how hard you can bend ‘em without ‘em snapping.’
Colin looked affronted.
‘Corporal! You don’t mean…breaking the law, do you?’
‘Nothing’s ever been proved,’ said Nobby, defensively. ‘I was visiting me old Mum at the time. You just ask her.’
‘Shut up, Nobby,’ said Colon. ‘I’m tryin’ to impart wisdom, here.’
‘Now, lad, what Corporal Nobbs means, in his own way,’ he shot Nobby a look that said, under no circumstances was the Corporal to interrupt again. ‘Is that there are two paths a copper can go down: the Right path and the Sensible path. You with me so far?’
‘I think so,’ said Colin, trying his very best to soak up every word.
‘Good. Well, sometimes what’s Right and what’s Sensible can be the same thing, and that’s all fine and good. But, other times, like now, for example, what’s Right and what’s Sensible wouldn’t be able to see each other even with…even with…one of them looking wossnames that lets you see things that are far away.’
‘A telly scope?’ offered Nobby.
‘Yeah, one of them.’
Colon watched Colin mouthing the words telly scope.
‘Now don’t worry too much about that, I’m just tryin’ to make a point. Okay, so, in many people’s minds the Right thing to do in a situation like this would be for us to be, as you said earlier, down in the streets. Can’t fault that for its Rightness, I can’t. But, that ain’t the Sensible thing to do, no sir.’
‘Why not?’ asked Colin.
‘How long you been in Ankh-Morpork, lad?’ asked Nobby.
‘Three days, Corporal,’ said Colin quickly, snapping off a quick salute as he spoke.
‘Well, no wonder you don’t understanding the rules,’ said Nobby. ‘It’s lucky we was charged with looking after you. Otherwise we’d be findin’ bits of you around the city for weeks.’
‘Nobby, do you mind?’ said Colon, perturbed at once again being derailed from his self-important lecture.
‘Oops, sorry, Sarge.’ The Corporal fell silent and sucked on his dog-end.
‘Anyway, lad, the point is you’ve not seen enough of Ankh-Morpork to know how she works. This kind of thing happens every now and then. It’s necessary.’
‘Necessary?’ spat Colin. ‘Sergeant, the city’s trying to destroy itself! Portions of it are on fire, and those that aren’t are busy looking for a match!’
‘You and your shepherding family… country folk, I assume?’ Colon took out his tobacco pouch as he spoke and started to roll himself a smoke.
‘Yes, Sergeant. Why?’
‘You ever been in a city before coming here?’
‘Well, every month we’d go to market in the next town. That’s almost like a city.’
Colon and Nobby looked at Colin for a withering second.
‘Well, the town does have two pubs,’ said the new recruit, shuffling his feet embarrassedly as he spoke.
‘So,’ said Colon, pausing to expertly lick his roll-up along its length and seal it shut. ‘It’s safe to say that Ankh-Morpork’s the biggest place you’ve ever been to. Yes?’
‘Yes sir,’ said Colin.
‘Well then, and I don’t mean this nastily lad, but you obviously haven’t got a clue how a city works.’
Colin went to speak, and then realised that the sergeant was absolutely correct.
Colon lit his cigarette and continued.
‘That down there,’ he said, pointing towards the melee that was Ankh-Morpork. ‘Is necessary for the city to keep going. If the people of this city didn’t let off some steam every now and then with a good dust-up things would really turn nasty.’
A crash of broken glass and a scream rang out in the distance, making Colin wince.
‘You don’t call that nasty?’ asked Colin, pointing in the general direction of the scream.
‘I’ll grant you, it don’t look good, as I said earlier, but we’ve seen worse.’
‘A lot worse,’ agreed Nobby.’
‘You have?’ asked Colin, awestruck.
‘Of course we have. Be a copper in this town as long as we have and you’ll eventually see everything.’
‘And then some,’ added Nobby.
‘So, why isn’t going down there and trying to help the right thing to do?’ asked Colin.
‘Oh, right, yeah,’ said Colon, mentally backtracking to his earlier point. ‘I agree lad that, to many, the Right thing to do would be for us to be in the thick of it. Makin’ arrests, keepin’ order, all that sort of thing, but it wouldn’t be Sensible.’
‘Simply put: we’d be dead meat down there.’
‘Deader than dead meat,’ added Nobby.
‘So the city’s just going to rip itself to shreds with no police prevention whatsoever?’ Colin sounded crestfallen.
‘Oh no, lad, no,’ said Colon, reassuringly.
‘Don’t be daft,’ said Nobby.
‘No no, there are some of our number down there.’
‘There are?’ Colin perked up at hearing this.
‘Bloody mental, if you ask me,’ said Nobby, not as under his breath as he’d hoped.
‘Corporal!’ said Colon, stiffly.
‘Sorry, Sarge. Didn’t know you was listenin’.’
‘A Sergeant is always listenin’, Nobby. Even if he’s not in the room. Remember that.’
‘Always listening,’ repeated Colin to himself.
‘Now, where was I?’ asked Colon.
‘You were telling me that there are officers down in the city, Sergeant,’ said Colin, helpfully.
‘Oh yes, so I was. Anyway, Commander Vimes and Captain Carrot will have taken a team into the city to see what can be done.’
‘You met old Vimesy yet, lad?’ asked Nobby, as he dug in his ear with his pinkie finger.
‘Yes, Corporal. All new recruits meet the Commander on their first day. That’s what I was told.’
‘Great man, Commander Vimes,’ said Colon.
‘Especially when he smiles,’ said Nobby, grinning.
‘But Corporal, I don’t believe I saw him smile once…’
Colon shot Nobby another look and the Corporal looked down to inspect his toecaps.
‘Corporal Nobbs was just havin’ a little joke, lad,’ said Colon. ‘A very little joke.’
‘You’ll learn, lad, that Commander Vimes is a serious man, and serious men don’t have time to go about smilin’ all the time.’
‘But he’ll be down there, with Carrot, and Angua and Detritus, too, I wouldn’t wonder.’
‘I’ve not met everyone on the Watch yet, Sergeant. Who are Angua and Detritus?’
‘Captain Angua and Sergeant Detritus, a werewolf and a troll respectively, are very good for this kind of work.’
‘How so?’ asked Colin, wonderstruck that the Watch kept such a diverse staff.
‘Because,’ said Nobby. ‘Everyone in the city knows they’re a werewolf and a troll.’
‘Yes, lad. Trouble does tend to strap on its running shoes when Angua and Detritus are on the beat.’
‘’Ere Sarge. You reckon Bluejohn’s with ‘em, an’ all?’
‘I’d say it’s highly likely, Corporal. Highly likely indeed.’
‘Who’s Bluejohn?’ asked Colin, desperate to know as much as could about his colleagues.
‘Constable Bluejohn is another of our troll officers,’ said Colon.
‘I’m not sure I’ve met him,’ said Colin.
‘You’d know if you had,’ said Colon.
‘Yeah. Big lad.’
‘To be fair,’ said Nobby, cutting in. ‘You might have walked past him and mistook him for a part of the station house. It’s easily done.’
Colin’s eyes widened in amazement.
‘Like I said, big lad.’
‘So why hasn’t Commander Vimes taken a larger team into what clearly looks and sounds like such a large civil disturbance?’
‘Because, lad, that wouldn’t be the Sensible thing to do.’
‘Why wouldn’t it?’ Colin felt like he was owed some answers.
‘This city’s a tricky animal to tame, lad. If the entire Watch went stormin’ in every time something like this happened we’d be having to hire new recruits every other week. It’s not about sending in all the coppers, it’s about sending the right coppers to the right places at the right time.’
‘So what are we doing here then?’ asked Colin, desperately; indicating the well-removed position that they had been occupying since the city erupted into chaos.
‘That’s a bit philosophical for the time of day, ain’t it?’ asked Nobby.
‘I think the lad means what are the three of us doing up here instead of down there,’ said Colon, sagely. ‘Am I right?’
‘Yes, Sergeant.’ Colin saluted again, but it was a little half-hearted. He was beginning to lose spirit.
‘We’re here, lad, because this is where we’re supposed to be.’
‘Orders is orders, lad.’
‘We were ordered up here?’
‘By Commander Vimes himself.’
‘It’s not our job to question orders, lad,’ said Colon, sagely. ‘It’s our job to take ‘em.’
Colin continued to look crestfallen. He sat, slumped, with his chin resting in both his hands. He looked thoroughly fed up.
‘What’s the matter, lad?’
‘Seargent, I came to Ankh-Morpork to be a copper. I want to be a copper. Some day I want to be a great copper.’
The word “great” hung in the air for a moment while Colon and Nobby looked at Colin. The expression on their faces looked as if the Constable had just sprouted another head.
‘What?’ asked Colin, as he began to feel rather self-conscious. ‘What is it?’
‘Did he just say “a great copper”, Sarge?’ asked Nobby, cautiously.
‘I think he did, Nobby.’
‘What?’ asked Colin again.
‘Oh dear,’ said Colon.
‘Oh dear oh dear,’ said Nobby.
‘WHAT?’ Colin realised that he was not only shouting, but he was shouting at two superior officers. ‘Sorry, Sergeant. Corporal. But what’s the matter, please? All I said was that one day I wanted to be a great copper.’
‘Yeah, we heard,’ said Nobby, darkly.
‘So, what’s wrong with that? Doesn’t every copper want to be great?’
‘In a word, lad, no,’ said Colon, flatly.
‘Dangerous game, chasin’ greatness,’ said Nobby.
‘It is?’ Colin’s inner notebook was filling up as fast as his mental pencil could keep up.
‘Well lad,’ said Colon, taking charge of the instruction of the new recruit once again. ‘As I said earlier, Ankh-Morpork can be a harsh mistress, and one thing this city don’t tolerate is people gettin’ ideas above their station.’
‘Risky business, that,’ agreed Nobby.
Colin was sitting up more alert now, lapping up every bit of knowledge he could from his two comrades.
‘Yes, you’re not the first recruit we’ve had with big ideas,’ said Colon, as he leaned back and got a little more comfortable.
‘Oh no. Not by a long-shot. And I’ll tell you this for nothing, for almost every one of ‘em who’s told me they wanted to be great, that’s one more copper’s funeral I’ve had to attend.’
‘Oh.’ Colin felt his throat constrict a little. He certainly hadn’t come all the way to the big city to die. ‘So, Sergeant? Are you telling me that no one who wants to join the Watch can ever be a great copper?’
‘Not at all, lad. The Watch currently boasts more great coppers at once than I’ve ever seen before, or am likely to see again.’
‘Really? Who are they?’
‘Vimes, Carrot and Angua, of course,’ said the Sergeant.
‘Wow!’ Colin sat, star-struck, for a moment; unable to believe his luck that he’d joined a force with not one but three great coppers amongst their ranks.
‘Yeah, it’s the canniest thing,’ said Colon. ‘Proof that you never know what the city will allow.’
Colin looked at the sergeant, puzzled.
‘Basically, lad, the city will allow a certain amount of greatness to exist inside it, but usually only in small amounts and for limited periods of time. It knows what’s good for it and it has ways of stopping things that are bad for it from getting out of hand.
Colin’s mouth moved soundlessly as he worked something out.
‘You mean…like what’s going on at the moment?’
‘Exactly! Now you’re catching on.’
‘So take it from me, lad. There’s all kinds of greatness in this world. Some of it’s more obvious than others, like in the cases of Commander Vimes and Captains Carrot and Angua. Other kinds…well,’ Colon looked at Nobby for a moment. ‘Other kinds are more…below the surface.’
Nobby, oblivious that his Sergeant was possibly talking about him, was absentmindedly scratching an itch on the underside of his arm.
‘And it’s up to you, lad, as to whether you scratch below that surface.’
The Sergeant finished talking and took a satisfied pull on his cigarette; confident that he had passed on, in his opinion, at least, a great amount of wisdom that day. Colin sat silent for a moment before his commanding officers realised he hadn’t asked yet another question.
‘You alright, lad?’ asked Colon.
‘I suppose so,’ said Colin.
‘But?’ said Colon, sensing the word in the air.
‘But it makes me wonder what’s going to happen to me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I came to Ankh-Morpork wanting to be a great copper, and now you tell me that the very city might very well beat me down if a try.’
‘Now the lad’s gettin’ it,’ said Nobby, cheerily, clearly assuming that Colin felt okay with this. Sergeant Colon, on the other hand, had just enough presence of mind to know that the boy was not speaking positively.
‘Hush up, Nobby.’
‘Ever since I realised I’d never make a shepherd I’ve wanted to be a copper,’ said Colin, to himself as much to Colon and Nobby. ‘I dreamed about becoming a great copper. Of taking down criminals and being known throughout the city as someone to look up to. Someone to trust.’
Colin looked up at his Sergeant with a pleading look in his eye.
‘Now that I know all of this, what do I do?’
Sergeant Colon blew out a long stream of smoke and clapped his fat hand on the Constable’s skinny shoulder.
‘The best you can, lad. The best you can.’
‘At least until no one’s looking,’ said Nobby, slyly. ‘And then you can nip round the corner for a smoke break.’
‘Nobby, if I have to tell you again you’ll be reportin’ for duty tomorrow with a fat lip. Is that understood?’
‘Yes, Sarge. Sorry, Sarge.’
‘The best any copper can hope for, lad,’ said Colon, as he looked out at the city of Ankh-Morpork. ‘Is to die an old man in his bed with all his limbs still attached. Anything on top of that is just gravy.’
Colin instinctively mouthed the word “gravy”.
‘So plod your beat, lad,’ continued Colon. ‘Get to know the city. Learn how to deal with its people. In time you’ll know how and when to keep your eyes and ears open and when to keep your mouth shut. This city can be very good to you, but it can turn on you like that. So don’t strive for greatness, lad. If greatness finds you then the very best of luck. If not, don’t spend your life frettin’ that you’re not a great copper. Just concentrate on being a good copper.’
* * *
Thirty years later.
A crime is committed in Ankh-Morpork, as crimes are wont to do.
A plump young man in a Watch uniform sprang to his feet, unsheathing a sword that looked like it not only wouldn’t cut butter, but the butter would laugh and tell all its mates.
‘Sergeant!’ said the shiny-faced Constable. ‘Did you hear that? It sounded like trouble!’ The young man bounded for the mouth of the alley that he had been standing in, but his path was quietly and carefully blocked by an older man with a Sergeant’s insignia on his chest.
‘Simmer down, lad,’ said Sergeant Colin Spanner. ‘And put that sword away, you’ll have someone’s eye out.’
- June 2015