(Photo copyright Rob Wilkins)
It was a genuine shock when I turned on my phone to check the news and saw that Sir Terry Pratchett had passed away. Even though the diagnosis of a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease was widely known, his passing was completely unexpected and he was taken from us too soon. It’s taken me a few days to absorb the knowledge and to contemplate these words, but I knew I had to write something about the man and his work.
I have written about his books only once – a review of The Unseen Academicals, in which I commented on the fact that it was a surprise that I’d never written about his work before. I adored his Discworld series, ever since I discovered them in the early 1990s. It was an enthusiastic endorsement from a good university friend that pointed me towards the books, and I remember the joy I felt at reading books about fantasy that were genuinely funny and so well written. I have a vivid memory of getting up on a Sunday morning to visit a large car boot sale because I’d been told there was someone there who sold the Pratchett books at half price, and picking up the entirety of the series to that point (although Pratchett had first been published in 1971, with The Carpet People, it wasn’t until 1983 that the first Discworld novel, The Colour Of Magic, was published; however, Pratchett was a prolific writer and had written a dozen Discworld books by the time I started buying them).
There are many reasons to admire and enjoy Pratchett’s work – his excellent prose, his wide-ranging knowledge, his pop culture references, his humanism, his intelligence – but his warm humour was the stand-out reason for me. It’s incredibly difficult to tell a good story well and still be funny with it, and Pratchett was consistently laugh-out-loud funny. From his blurb (he liked writing ‘because it was indoor work with no heavy lifting’) and turns of phrase in his prose, to the many funny quotes (I’m not going to list them – see the Pratchett Quote File at the L-Space site) and his wonderful use of footnotes (my personal favourite, which has stuck with me for many years, is referring to Detritus the troll as a ‘splatter’, the footnote to which was ‘Like a bouncer but trolls use more force’), Pratchett always made me smile, titter, laugh or guffaw.
His Discworld novels started out parodying many aspects of fantasy (such as Cohen the Barbarian), but they developed into a series of satirical novels that happened to exist in a medieval world which was a disc balanced on four elephants who were stood on the back of the giant turtle, Great A’Tuin. The stories were allowed to develop into a broader canvas by the many great recurring characters, who were either the centre of the story or peripheral characters in other books. Rincewind the cowardly and unsuccessful wizard of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork was the first protagonist, followed by the witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and then the best human character, Sam Vimes, introduced along with the City Watch in Guards! Guards! There were lots of recurring characters who would pop up, such as Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler and the Librarian (accidentally transformed into an orangutan but who remained as such because it made swinging through the stacks easier, only saying ‘Ook’), and all manner of werewolves, vampires, zombies, Igors, trolls, dwarfs, gnomes and golems. But the greatest of all was Death, an anthropomorphic representation who spoke in capital letters, and is perhaps Pratchett’s greatest creation. It was fitting that the tweet that announced Terry’s passing on his Twitter account was from Death.
Another aspect that made Terry so loved was his interaction with his fans. An early adopter of the internet, he was a frequent poster on the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.pratchett, something we take for granted in the accessible world we live in but was such a treat back then. He also did extensive signing tours – I was fortunate to attend one of his talks/signing tours in Canterbury in 1993 (or 1994, I’m not completely sure of the year), and he was a genial presence even if he was by nature a shy person (like most writers), coming across as wise and warm and funny as he does in his books. The Discworld convention has been going since the mid-1990s, and Terry would often appear as a guest of honour.
It is a shame that we have lost so brilliant an author before his time, but I take heart in the fact that he knew that people loved him and his work, that he was able to make a good living from his writing, that he enjoyed writing so much, and that he left behind a wonderful series of books that will stand the test of time. I took out my collection of Discworld paperbacks to look at the lovely covers by Josh Kirby for the first 20 books, making sure not to affect L-space too much while doing so, and it made me feel better to know that we will always have a small part of Terry with us. Time for me to re-read them, I think. Thank you, Terry, and enjoy your walk with Death under the endless night.