I was thirteen years old when I got my first Terry Pratchett book. Thirteen years to the day, in fact – my godmother Rosie had bought me The Colour of Magic in paperback for my birthday. Pratchett books were one of those things that, as a child, I had noticed in bookshops but had always ignored or even disdained because I didn’t like the look of the covers. They seemed a bit… removed, distanced. Uninviting. A thing for Other People. I have rarely been more wrong.
Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015
The gift of the book broke that mental barrier, and after waiting a month or so until I had finished whatever book I was reading at the time, I began. I don’t remember when I grew past Blyton’s Adventure, Secret Seven or Famous Five series, though it may have been around that time. I was still of an age where I would often wander down to the library and pick up Asterix or Tintin books. I think I came to the Lord of the Rings a couple of years later. I was a pretty voracious reader: the excitement and wonder and passion that could be passed onto me from the mind of some of the wonderful authors whose works enthralled me opened up my mind more than any computer games or music or play.
I remember, after reading the first few pages, being rather disappointed that the opportunities of fantasy fiction had been discarded – non-humanoid dominant life-forms, the creation of strange creatures and unexpected behaviours. Instead, a human Wizzard called Rincewind ate some chicken and ran away. Nonetheless, I persevered.
It turned out that any reservations were so much horse elbows – the Discworld quickly had me hooked. My sister got married the month after I got that present, and I remember being bored, as many children will be at weddings, whilst the photographs were being taken after the service. Leaning against a tree, I read the book that I had put into my suit jacket pocket and escaped into another world, only resurfacing when I was required to stand still and smile at a lens for a short time. I ignored everyone and hungrily absorbed the story until the food arrived.
The adventures of Rincewind, Twoflower, the Luggage, and all the other incredible characters brought me in and held me captive. The delight was of the existence of a fantasy world where magic could make anything possible, yet had to follow rules; where the practical held sway over and above the fantastical, where realism dominated over unhinged invention (though where unhinged invention, in the guise of Bloody Stupid Johnson, could be described so hilariously that you would be giggling and chuckling for hours), where characters were described with a flair and a technique that made you love them. That was as a teenager – there were still more wonders to come. On the Discworld, things worked.
My sister’s wedding is one of my fondest memories of being 13, and one lovely thing I remember is my new brother-in-law’s brother, James, noticing that I was reading TCoM and kindly lending me the next in the series, The Light Fantastic. I unwittingly stole the book, inasmuch as I loved it so much I failed to give it back. That was devoured in a few days as well.
Mostly I read the books in order, though Hogfather jumped into the fray early on, being released that year in hardback – I enjoyed it, but for obvious reasons it made more sense on a re-read after stories introducing many of the key characters, such as Mort and Soul Music. I acquired the books in whatever ways I could – borrowing off friends and family (TLF, Pyramids, Guards Guards), borrowing from the library (Mort, Wyrd Sisters), asking for them for Christmas (many of the later books after Hogfather in hardback) or buying them myself with my limited pocket money. My books, in turn, got lent to other people. I’m not sure where my Colour of Magic has gone, nor several others. Recently, I rescued several Pratchett books not in my collection from the inside of a skip at our local tip, sacrilegiously discarded by someone else. I still have nearly two whole shelves for Pratchett:
Each story came to be a half-yearly treat, a little golden nugget of warmth and beauty and treasure that I could absorb into myself to hold on to over the years. Only rarely did each book last more than three or four days in the reading, though those days would be spent apart from other people. I would be so esconced in the Discworld that it was hard to come back to the Sphereworld to keep my body going with pesky things like food and water, like some odd version of the Matrix.
As I read on into the series, Pratchett’s world firmed up – the Colour of Magic described a brutal proto-Discworld in a way, a chaos of ideas that had not yet solidified in Pratchett’s mind. Only later did he develop it into a satire of our world, rather than a satire of fantasy fiction. This satirical bent – with a keen eye for the absurdities of our lives – reflected and warped threads or ideas on a range of topics including film, opera, football, Australia and music, into hilarious mirror images, teasing out conclusions about their importance and purpose.
Many is the time that the hairs on my neck have stood up and my spine has tingled due to the build-up and release of tension authored so perfectly. I have cried deeply, laughed for hours, and understood so much about the world around me because of the made-up world in Terry Pratchett’s head. Sam Vimes being too angry to punch the wall in Men at Arms, or screaming “WHERE IS MY COW?!” in a frenzied panic at being unable to fulfil his promise to his son in Thud!; Esme Weatherwax defeating the elves or the vampires through “headology”, or shoving her arm into a torch to set fire to the voodoo doll of her being pinned; Magrat Garlick finally uncovering her strength when donning a “magic” hat in Lords and Ladies (spoiler: the hat wasn’t magic, it was just a hat); the magic computer Hex jumping into life in Hogfather, with its Anthill Inside, a mouse and various other parts that just turn up one day but without which the machine refuses to run; the stupidity of war in Jingo.
One of the joys of the Discworld I only really came to much later was the allusions and hints. The detail of the Discworld is absolutely littered with hilarious vignettes, ridiculous names and silly allusions to the real world. The L-Space website attempts to document these. The musical genius Imp Y Celyn (Bud of the Holly) from Llamedos (read that backwards) in Soul Music is described as looking a “bit Elvish”, and plays “music with rocks in” – he ends up working in a chip shop; Vimes is carefully stone-faced when his new dwarf recruit to the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in Feet of Clay turns out to be called Cheery Littlebottom; Mrs Palm (with her daughters) is a “very respectable lady” in Ankh-Morpork whom Nanny Ogg is shocked to discover Granny Weatherwax is friends with; meanwhile the “Seamstresses Guild” of Ankh-Morpork is a carefully euphemistic establishment which does, on occasion, have to cater for those poor souls who have mistaken it for a Guild of Seamstresses. Probably my favourite one of these was the moment that I realised who the little fairy folk called the Nac Mac Feegle, with their blue tattooed skin, tiny homes and rare females were parodying. I have only read Equal Rites once, and before I read LotR – lines such as ‘Hmm. Granpone the White. He’s going to be Granpone the Grey if he doesn’t take better care of his laundry.’ make me chuckle with understanding now.
This level of detail is something that can get you going back to the books again and again and again. As I see more movies, read more books, understand more of history and see more of life, I can enjoy more and more of the little peppercorns of brilliance that Pratchett packed into his writing.
Pratchett has also been the source of some wonderful friendships. At university, in the first year of my doctorate, I met a friend of a housemate, who was nice and lovely to sit in whilst her and my housemate chatted. A few days later, passing her house, I decided to knock and see if she was in. The front room was her bedroom, and seeing the Discworld Mapp on her wall (I had it merely in jigsaw form) and her collection of Pratchett books, I knew that we would become friends, and eleven years later, we still are. Every time I meet someone who is a Pratchett fan, I know that I am on safe ground with them, that I can trust them. His fans are a wonderful array of weirdos and nerds, people who may have felt on the fringes of life prior to his writing, but who, thanks to him, discovered others of a similar bent, who came to feel less alone, who gained the confidence to feel comfortable being odd.
I still haven’t read all of his books – many of the earlier ones or non-Discworld ones have passed me by, though I shall now make an effort to read them. I also haven’t read Raising Steam, the last full Discworld novel published before his death. Whilst it is remarkable that he was able to write so far into his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, his later books lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, a certain punch, that was so important to the earlier ones. I shall certainly give it a go though – one thing I have learnt from him is to relax a bit more about these things, not to deify people or forget the context. Each one of those later books, whether punchy or not, was a miracle that we should be deeply grateful for.
I am devastated by his death. I have read again and again and again from fans of his who, despite the diagnosis and Pratchett’s openness about it, despite knowing that it was coming, still didn’t really think he would go, still hoped in spite of themselves that he might somehow just keep on. I feel the same way. It has stunned me. I have cried lots of times, sometimes in inappropriate places, about his passing (in some ways this makes up a bit from the many times of laughing heartily in inappropriate places). I have spoken to friends about it who are similarly reduced. For me, it is only the second time I have grieved the passing of a celebrity (the other was Robin Williams), but it is the deepest and most difficult.
The thing is, I mentioned getting the Colour of Magic for my thirteenth birthday. It came less than four months after the death of my father from a heart attack. It is only now, on reflection, that I can see how much Pratchett has embedded into his work his deep anger, his deep sense of politeness and ethics, his hatred of sexism and racism, his love of culture in all its myriad forms. These have been thus passed onto me. The spirit of generosity that weaves its way through his books, his understanding of the importance of the institutions that he reinstated in Ankh-Morpork, his disgust for evil, or “treating people as things”, have taught me so much and stood me straight in the world. I never met the man, but he was like a father to me. Had I ever met him, I would’ve been treated with time and dignity – he felt it very important to connect with his fans. He spoke about the importance of listening to them – though perhaps not necessarily heeding them.
I have read no author’s works as much as Pratchett. No author has had more impact on my life, or got me more excited about a forthcoming book. No author has taught me more, made me respond as strongly to a book. It now feels as if the door to his world has closed, as if our knowledge of its future will never now develop. We shall know no more of the Witches or the Watch or the Wizards (unless, as Pratchett is said to want, his daughter Rhianna takes up the mantle – but one could forgive her for leaving it well alone), but we can go back again and again to his works and remember good times. I cannot, though, describe the pain of losing contact with those friends like Vimes and Nanny that I had come to love. Their ship has passed over the horizon.
Goodbye, Terry. Thank you for everything. I hope you knew how much your fans loved you, how truly sad we all are that you have gone, and how deeply we will miss you.
To finish, my favourite quote of his:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.”
― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather