Boots – the world according to Sam Vimes

New boots - I hope they last!

New boots – I hope they last!

Now I know that quite a few of you are Terry Pratchett fans like me (well, perhaps not like me, because you probably don’t name your chickens after characters out of his books), but for those of you who aren’t, I want to recommend that you take a look at his writing. He is generally considered to be a writer of comic fantasy and that is certainly true at the most superficial level. However, in my opinion, he is a remarkably astute social commentator, as well as having what appears to be a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, science and literature. Well, maybe he is just good at research, but he certainly draws on it very elegantly in his writing.

Anyway, I was thinking the other day about the economics of poverty… at least the economics of being poor in an affluent society and remembered the best explanation of this that I have ever read. I should explain that Sam Vimes, the character in this excerpt, is from a very poor background, but  finally marries a very rich woman.

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.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

― Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

And that does seem to be it… over the years I have been lucky enough to be able to afford to buy some good quality items and I can attest to the money that this has saved. In addition, if you can pay for them, it’s possible to choose things that are designed to be repaired… our bamboo flooring in the kitchen can be sanded down and refinished, meaning it will last for many years; on the other hand, cheap laminate flooring has to be replaced once worn because it just can’t be repaired or rejuvenated.

As things stand, this is a difficult cycle to break.Leonard Cohen was right when he wrote

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That’s how it goes
Everybody knows

– Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

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26 Comments

  1. It was always John Seymour’s refrain as well, buy only good quality, from an artisan, don’t by tat. It’s heartbreaking when you don’t have those choices. To us at least, it feels as if every day it gets harder just to stay afloat, and what would once have been the good boot money, gets robbed to buy essentials, leaving the cheap boot money at risk of being robbed for the next lot, and the very real fear of the even cheaper boots, which barely last a season, and then leave you embittered. And with wet feet.
    But hey. There are worse things than wet feet.

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    • It so awful to end up in that sort of downward spiral… and so difficult to get out of it.
      Wet feet are ok so long as you have a fire to warm them by when you get home. The real problems begin when you start having to burn the furniture!

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  2. Linda

     /  November 20, 2013

    Bring on more micro-credit and credit unions!

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  3. I’m sure Sam Vimes would have favoured credit unions but only if they weren’t in The Shades.He’s quite the philosopher.Of course, marriage to a rich woman was rather thrust upon him and I doubt he’ll ever get used to it as he doesn’t to his titles. But like most wives, she’s an excellent woman who knows what’s good for him before he does.God boots included.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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    • Well, as we discover in Night watch, he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable about it all:
      “But the helmet had gold decoration, and the bespoke armorers had made a new gleaming breastplate with useless gold ornamentation on it. Sam Vimes felt like a class traitor every time he wore it. He hated being thought of as one of those people that wore stupid ornamental armor. It was gilt by association.”

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  4. I’m pretty sure Granny Weatherwax didn’t believe in throw-aways either. And I agree. Always buy the best quality you can afford at the time. John Seymour would probably have made his own boots from leather he tanned himself from a pig he raised himself, fed on scraps of food he grew himself… Most of us cannot aspire to such heights of self sufficiency, competence and general know-it-all-ness… By the way, your hens… Is Gytha’s full name Gytha Egg?

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  5. A bit like the broom belonging to Granny Weatherwax which has been fixed so many times and still doesn’t work properly. If only she bought a new one it wouldn’t have to be push started all the time.
    Of course the only ones affected by socioeconomic unfairness in that situation are the dwarves who fix it but are never paid…. 😉

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    • Which reminds me of the ever-lasting axe:
      “This, milord, is my family’s axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation . . . but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y’know. Pretty good.” (The Fifth Elephant)

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  6. Gary Finch

     /  November 20, 2013

    Katechiconi raises the issue of ‘quality’ which isn’t always indicated by a high price – also consideration should be paid to the cost/benefit as long as the ethics are also applied – a t shirt from ‘primarni’ may seem like a good deal….but where are the ‘fair shares’? for me practicality will always come higher than asthetics – Vimes also liked his ‘thin’ soles as they kept him grounded in more ways than one – he could tell where he was by the feel of the road beneath him

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    • And in these days of ‘designer labels’ price is not always equated with quality and certainly not with ethics. The answer, I guess, is small producers who make their production transparent, allowing you to determine both quality and ethics.
      Still, if all you can afford is the cheapest of anything all choices disappear… which is really my point.

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  7. Very true . We have a good quality bath and so got it re enameled at a fraction of the cost of a new one . The secret is to save for things.

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  8. Coming from a very large family, with not much money coming in, my mum taught us all the value of quality. Even if we only got a new set of clothing once a year, mum would always do her best to buy the best quality she could afford – which meant that things lasted long enough to become hand-me-downs (just as well, as there were 5 girls!). The only thing she never stinted on were our shoes – it was always Clarks, when she could have bought 3 or 4 cheaper pairs for us with the same money but, like the good quality clothes, the shoes could also become hand-me downs, and so she managed to clothe and shod us for a fraction of the price that she would have paid if buying cheap, and often.
    It taught me a great lesson in economics, which was later confirmed when reading the Discworld books 🙂
    When I married, I had a pair of sheets she gave me that she’d used since she first married – and my mum-in-law taught me how to turn them outside-to-middle, to get another 20 years use out of them. She also taught me how to turn a collar, which gave hubby’s shirts a lot longer life, which also saved us money 🙂
    I think Sam Vimes, and Esme Weatherwax would have greatly approved of them both, and the lessons they both taught me! 🙂

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  9. I think I need to read Terry Pratchett.

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    • Oh you do… the early ones are very much comic fantasy, but the later ones contain much more social commentary. Trying to think where I would start – ‘Going Postal’ has a lot to say about corruption and monopolies and ‘Monstrous Regiment’ is about equality, but my favourite is Night Watch, which is about revolutions, quantum and family.

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  10. Hee Hee seeing the flood gates are open I think teaching people the old hand skills of mending, sewing, repair, reuse, recycle, empowers them and gives them more choice over what to do with their “hard earned”. That way there will always (hopefully) chocolates in the chocolate boxes.(Leonard Cohen)

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  11. Well now! That excerpt has just turned me into a Terry Pratchett fan. I must now lay hands on a book and start reading! I completely understand about the boots. In 1988 I was in Italy and bought myself a pair of boots. They were calf high, fur lined, stoutly heeled and with a most fetching array of crisscrossed leather ties going down the outer side of each boot. They were strong, well made and comfortable. I lived in them throughout my sojourn in the UK and throughout Autumn and Winters back home. I finally tossed them in 2005, not because they were worn out, but because at that time I had serious oedema in my legs and thought they would be forever after the size of an elephants. Had I kept them I would be able to wear them today.

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  1. November round-up | The Snail of Happiness
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