No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.
I haven’t written anything on this blog for a wee while, it’s been hectic with work and I haven’t had the time; however, I felt compelled to sit down at the computer and, for the first evening in a few months, do something other than work. And that thing is explain just what Terry Pratchett (technically: Sir Terry) and the Discworld novels (in particular) meant to me as a child, a young man and, now, as a man in his 30s.
Undoubtedly you, gentle and not-so gentle reader, know the sad news. Terry Pratchett is dead. His death, announced, in typically irreverent form via his Twitter account, with the final appearance of perhaps his greatest creation, the anthropomorphic (and anthropogenic) Death.
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. — Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015
The End. — Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015
I first read The Colour of Magic when I was about eight or nine. I first stumbled across the landscape of that marvellous world when I sneaked into my brother’s bedroom and pinched his copy. That world was only four or so years old and yet it was already seven books deep. If I remember correctly, I finished – no – I devoured, that first book in the space of one day and night; a habit I would keep up through increasing page numbers and multiplying footnotes until last Christmas with Raising Steam finished before Boxing Day. By the end of the week I was reading the latest in the series, Pyramids which, to this day remains one of my favourites.
Pyramids was the fantasy I wanted to read, the fantasy I wanted to live. I believe it was in Pyramids that the wonderful metropolis of Ankh-Morpork first takes centre stage. As Teppic studies at the Assassin’s Guild and walks the streets, the city springs to life, a life which would reach its adolescence in the still exceptional Guards! Guards! This was not fantasy as I had previously experienced – in the joyless, archaic and downright dull pages of assigned readings of The Hobbit. It was the fantasy of humour, of lives led in difficult times, of the Everyman even when that Everyman is heir to an ancient kingdom. Teppic, as he reaches maturity in that damp, muddy, dirty, smelly, and above all, organic city – so far from the dead mineral land of his birth; Teppic becomes a liminal figure belonging to both and yet, belonging to neither. Simultaneously of both worlds and of none. This fascinated me; not because of any equality of situation; but because thresholds enrapture me because of the possibilities that frontiers imply. When the book finishes with unresolved destinations for Teppic, it did not feel like the end of a story but the beginning of another adventure. Teppic, unlike so many of Pratchett’s characters, never made another appearance in the world and now he never will and that adds to the sadness at the loss of such a fantastic writer.
Pratchett’s works, like the lives of many of his characters – of which Teppic was just an apposite example, occupied the boundaries of fantasy and literature; something he recognised early with the tongue in cheek acknowledgement that he had been “accused of literature.” His works have even inspired philosophical discussions with a volume of essays published examining the epistemological, existential and moral implications of his writings. Indeed such is the ease at which he could move from the ridiculous to the sublime that one has to remember that a particularly stentorian or profound phrase has not been taken from a great work of philosophy or theology but rather had sprung from his remarkable mind. Neil Gaiman, another author with similar prowess, tells us that this extraordinary talent came from Pratchett’s fury. Indeed, with his turn of phrase one can imagine Pratchett as a Old Testament prophet but one that, instead of heralding divine wrath, brought forth exacting morality based upon simple decency and tolerance. One of my favourite of these phrases is one that is inspirational and, again, expresses the wonder of the limen. In Hogfather, Death, that great creation of his, the mirror in which Pratchett reflects our best and worst, explains that the point of Man – if such a thing there is – is to be where the falling angels meets the rising ape; that Man is capable of acts of both intense profanity and sublime reverence and, indeed, such contradictions can exist within the breast of one man. With nine simple syllables, Pratchett captures the existential struggle of humanity.
We are much diminished by his death and what is a personal tragedy for his family is a collective woe. His death is our loss but I shall remember him through his books and his writings and in the one personal anecdote I have of him. Shortly after Carpe Jugulum was released in 1998, Terry Pratchett embarked upon what was, I gather, a regular occurrence: a book signing tour. I suspect it was regular, though this was the only one I went to, because I know he used to joke about unsigned copies being worth more than signed copies because they were the rarer. But in the autumn – I think – of 1998 he came to, what was then, Heffer’s bookshop in the centre of Cambridge. My brother’s birthday was approaching and I decided to get him a signed copy of that, the latest novel. In the queue I met some friends from school and we waited. And we waited. It was a very long queue, snaking out of the heavy shop doors and down, along Trinity Street towards St John’s College. The wait was long and the time at which the signing was due to end fast approaching. As we, ourselves, approached the doors of the shop that time went past. By the time that I stood in front of the man himself, clutching the gloss black hardback book, the scheduled end of the signing had come and gone over two hours earlier and yet, here he was, Sharpie in hand busy signing books and not just signing them, personalising them and including an aphorism on each. As I was whisked away to pay for the book, the line behind continued through the doors and down the street. I do not know how long he stayed, but I would suspect until everyone who wanted a book signed had a book signed. This anecdote is not a humorous one nor a particularly inspiring one, but one I think – I hope – shows the kind of man that I think he must have been; more falling angel than rising ape.
RIP Sir Terence Pratchett. Thanks for everything. You will be missed.