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The Ankh-Morpork Civil War
A Lesson in Historiography
Some of you might have seen this before:
The Ankh-Morpork Civil War ran from 8.32 p.m., 3 Grune, 432 to 10.45 a.m., 4 Grune, 432 more commonly known as 1688 UC. The origins of the war have always been the subject of heated debate among historians. There are two theories:
1. The common people, having been heavily taxed by a particularly stupid and unpleasant king, decided that enough was enough and that it was time to do away with the out¬ moded concept of monarchy and replace it with, as it turned out, a series of despotic overlords who still taxed heavily but at least had the decency not to pretend the gods had given them the right to do it, which made everyone feel a bit better, or
2. One of the players in a game of Cripple Mister Onion in a tavern accused another of palming more than the usual number of aces, and knives were drawn, and then someone hit someone with a bench, and then someone else stabbed someone, and arrows started to fly, and someone swung on a chandelier, and a carelessly hurled axe hit someone in the street, and then the watch was called in, and someone set fire to the place, and someone hit a lot of people with a table, and then everyone lost their tempers and commenced fighting.
According to the history books, the decisive battle that ended the Ankh-Morpork Civil War was fought between two handfuls of bone-weary men in a swamp early one misty morning and, although one side claimed victory, it ended with a practical score of Humans 0, Ravens 1,000, which is the case with most battles.
The famous fire during the Civil War is noteworthy simply because it was started by both sides at the same time in order to stop the city falling into enemy hands. It was not otherwise impressive; the ANKH had been particularly high that summer, and most of the city was too damp to burn. The later execution of Lorenzo the Kind in the same year marked the final end of any kind of monarchy in the city.
McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957)
Now, we all can tell that this is fiction, of course; the dates make no sense at all, and the narrative is…what? Furthermore, the attribution…Mary McCarthy was a prolific writer, and her Memories of a Catholic Girlhood went all over the place, but…huh?
This particular piece of nonsense came to me from my Muse, who shall remain anonymous, as one of many bits and pieces of interesting stuff that we exchange almost daily. If McCarthy made it up, fine; can live with that. But it does not appear in Memories…
Other stuff does…
In researching this passage, I read/scanned Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, like any good researcher should (and you find it remarkable that I research this stuff?). In reading it, I learned she and her brothers were orphaned at an early age on a train between Seattle and Minneapolis during the 1918 flu epidemic. Her childhood in Minneapolis was almost indescribably abusive; how she and her brothers survived without becoming axe murderers is a wonder…such tales run in the hundreds these days. But by all accounts, they came out of it with some normality—her brother Kevin was a character actor best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Death of a Salesman (1951). While Memories ends with McCarty’s attendance at Vassar—one of the few universities accepting women at the time—McCarthy’s output was quite prodigious before her death in 1989. Not my kind of stuff, but still interesting…and diverting, like all research tends to be, especially for the curious mind.
But I digress…as usual…
So, the Ankh-Morpork Civil War doesn’t appear in McCarthy, and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing she would write. But there’s that spurious reference…OK…then…forget it? Like a seed caught in your gums, there’s no good way for someone like me to forget it. Writers have to know stuff; historians have to know stuff and be able to connect it. So…where…?
Today there’s a thing called the World Wide Web…
And a most marvelous thing it can be, too, because it took me no time at all to find that the Ankh-Morpork Civil War is from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Pratchett, for those of you who don’t know, was an English humor writer, also of prodigious output, who created not only Ankh-Morpork but an entire world populated with people, dwarves, elves, vampires, trolls, wizards, witches, Death and other creatures and characters. Never heard of him? In 2003, his sales in Britain were second only to JK Rowling’s. Over a series of 41 novels in the Discworld series, the great city of Ankh-Morpork featured several supposed civil wars, including this one. I’ve read some of his stuff; didn’t thrill me and I found some predictable. Then, I don’t go in for English humor, or for fantasy, for that matter…and it is distinctly English.
And the lesson is…
I know you’ve been waiting for it with bated breath, so here it is. Information and its attributions are often confused; this one for no doubt nefarious purposes. You see, Muse—and I know you’re reading this—I’m not sure why you would have done this on purpose, or chose Mary McCarthy to attach to this snippet, but I know you did because Pratchett is one of your faves. And in so doing, you have enabled another idea for a Substack essay—like I need more. The study of the making of history and its attributions—historiography—has many aspects. Attribution of spurious sources to spurious information is just one of them.
The Past Not Taken turns on historiography entirely differently: it shows the reader how the record is created, and how it can be distorted.
While the narrator is a professor of history, he knows how the past can be and is almost inevitably wrong for all the right reasons, and some wrong ones. He also tells how it can be right for the wrong reasons, and how personal history is both the least reliable of all…and the most reliable.
For those of you who read or even know anything about World at War Magazine, from the same people who publish Strategy and Tactics Magazine, yours truly has an article in #91, the August/September issue, “The Use of Lumber By The US Military.” The editors not only changed the title, they changed the order of the paragraphs, so that it looks stupid in places. My original submission will be the subject of a Substack in the sweet bye-and-bye, but I’ll get paid for this one. Which makes me wonder when—or if—I’ll ever put this behind a paywall and how many readers I’d lose if I did.
Anyone Remember Trinity?
Historiography In America: An Obituary
On 8 July:
1776: The Liberty Bell tolls to announce the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The State House Bell, cast in the Lester and Pack firm (later called the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in London in 1753. It cracked on its first ring, and was recast at least twice by local artisans. It cracked for a last time in 1846.
1947: The Roswell Daily Record newspaper reported a "flying saucer" crash near Roswell, New Mexico. While the Roswell Incident, as it is now known, is still controversial for commercial reasons, the seal of the City of Roswell now features little green men…so there’s that.
And today is NATIONAL FREEZER POP DAY. Freezer pops, those frozen confections that are really hard on dental work, are a summer favorite for many. I frankly never quite got the point.