January 29, 2022
Vimes for change: Pratchett character lends name to new food index
by Tom Clayton
Regular readers of this blog will know that we can’t resist a good Sir Terry Pratchett story, most recently bringing you news of the star-studded re-record of his Discworld audiobooks.
Pratchett has long been lauded for the social commentary that permeates the Discworld series, and his status as an acutely perceptive modern philosopher has swelled since his passing, as even more readers begin their journeys through his books. As comic book writer Kieron Gillen wisely puts it, Pratchett “understood Fantasy is a device for emphasising humanity rather than running from it”.
Now, one of Sir Terry’s most brilliant theories, known as “the Sam Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness,” is to be used as the basis for a new, fairer method of categorising food inequality. For those of you unfamiliar with the theory, which first appeared in Pratchett’s 1993 Discworld novel Men At Arms, and espoused by the weather-beaten cynic and Ankh-Morpork City Watch Commander, Sam Vimes, here it is:
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
Food writer, campaigner and excellent human Jack Monroe drew the comparison with Pratchett’s creation while responding to the news that inflation in the UK had risen to 5.4%. As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, Monroe was “infuriated” by the reporting of the stats which, she felt, did not accurately reflect the real cost of living for those most in need. She announced she was beginning her own pricing index of supermarket goods, giving a truer picture of the rising cost of living.
Monroe’s Twitter thread—which used the hashtag #VimesBootsIndex—took off in a big way, with millions viewing or engaging with her idea. Over the course of the week she kept up the pressure for change, and on Wednesday announced she was:
Delighted to be able to tell you that the ONS [Office for National Statistics] have just announced that they are going to be changing the way they collect and report on the cost of food prices and inflation to take into consideration a wider range of income levels and household circumstances.
The Terry Pratchett estate have given their blessing to the naming of the index after Vimes, with Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna telling the Guardian:
Vimes’s musing on how expensive it is to be poor via the cost of boots was a razor-sharp evaluation of socio-economic unfairness. And one that’s all too pertinent today, where our most vulnerable so often bear the brunt of austerity measures and are cast adrift from protection and empathy. Whilst we don’t have Vimes any more, we do have Jack and Dad would be proud to see his work used in such a way.
In other Pratchett news this week, it was announced that Rob Wilkins’ official biography of Sir Terry, A Life With Footnotes, will be published in September by Transworld. Wilkins was Pratchett’s friend and assistant, and now heads up his literary estate. In a press release Wilkins said:
Living a life alongside one of the world’s greatest authors, then reliving every moment for his biography, has been an incredible journey. Terry was one of the most talented, complex, intellectually stimulating people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting — a true genius. The responsibility of documenting his life when I lived so much of it with him has been such an emotive experience. A Life With Footnotes is a book that I hope would have made Terry proud.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.