I’ve always loved reading.
When I was a kid I was always fascinated by the power stories had to so completely take me there, to take me by the imagination and lead me off to new worlds and different times, each hungrily devoured book evoking a unique set of sensations and emotions, each new scene, character and location lovingly crafted by the resident director and set designer in my head, until I could instantly bring to mind’s eye any one of the hundreds of protagonists created by my favourite authors.
Because when you’re there, when you are in the story, nothing is more real than that moment, nothing matters more than what happens next.
Do the forces of good triumph over the evil villain?
Do the plucky kids escape the clutches of the terrifying monster?
Is there, when all is said and done, a Happy Ending for every Once Upon A Time?
That love of the written story, the appreciation of movies that are more cerebral than celluloid, has stayed with me ever since, so it was with immense sadness that I read of the loss this week of England’s most successful, widely loved and accessible author of recent times, Sir Terry Pratchett.
I’m sure I came to Terry’s work in much the same way that innumerable other soon-to-be-fans did, by having one of his satirical comic fantasy Discworld novels thrust upon me by an enthusiastic friend who had already been bitten by the Pratchett bug (in my case it was the fifth book Sourcery, introducing me to one of the many recurring characters in the series, the cowardly, accident prone but seemingly indestructible wizard, Rincewind) and I’m ashamed to admit that I experienced a touch of skepticism at first.
I had been a massive, possibly even annoyingly evangelical fan of the late, great Douglas Adams for many years and loved the witty and humorous spin he had put on the sometimes po-faced and oh-so-serious world of science fiction, but the more traditional sort of fantasy had always been a genre I’d had a problem getting into (I’ve never understood the attraction of the likes of Tolkien) so the thought of a comedy about wizards, witches, trolls and dwarves didn’t sound promising.
It just so happened that I was travelling to a family get together with my parents that weekend, so I took Sourcery with me in case I got tired of winding up my sister on the journey.
I read the whole thing, cover to cover without once looking up from the page, frequently laughing out loud and grinning with the simple delight of how he wrangled language into such hilarious contortions, instantly etching images of a totally new universe into whichever part of my brain is responsible for absorbing literature.
From that moment I was hooked.
Rarely has an author brought such a fully formed, completely original universe into existence, especially one filled with as many instantly relatable and likeable characters and situations as the Discworld.
You see the thing about the Discworld, other than it being an intrinsically magical place of course, a place where pretty much anything can happen, is that it’s here.
It’s our world.
Our society, our myths and legends, our bigotry and prejudice, our fears and paranoia, all transposed onto a flat disc that spins through the depths of space on the backs of four gigantic elephants, balancing on the even more gigantic shell of a ponderously swimming turtle, heading who-knows-where on its eternal journey across the cosmos.
That’s what makes the humour and observations on Ankh-Morpork society so immediate, so easily identifiable, because all of life is here, in all its everyday familiarity.
Because we all know someone like Fred Colon, we’ve all met a Nobby Nobbs or two and if we’re lucky we’ve got an elderly relative like Nanny Ogg.
And who hasn’t exchanged a few quid for the questionable wares of a local version of Cut-me-own-throat Dibbler after a night out drinking has sufficiently deadened the tastebuds?
Terry Pratchett tackled contentious issues like politics, racism and religious intolerance with razor sharp wit and biting satire, yet he didn’t preach.
He had a love of language unequal to almost any other writer I can think of, the joy of storytelling coming through in every word.
His ability to bring characters to life with the briefest phrase or nuance was second to none and his natural narrative style makes every one of his books nearly impossible to put down.
If writing was the only thing that made Terry special, then we’d still have lost a great man, but at the root of his popularity was his personality. His support for young writers and his willingness to engage with his audience, young and old, made him all the more likable, and that in itself somehow makes the books an even greater pleasure to read.
It leads to the feeling that Terry himself is nudging you and chuckling as you read one of the many hilarious footnotes that appear throughout the Discworld books, nesting jokes within jokes as though he just can’t resist having as much fun as he can with the words he weaves his world from.
For the last few years he has tirelessly campaigned for more research into and awareness of Alzheimer’s disease, and for the law governing medically-assisted suicide to be changed, to decriminalize the relatives of those who wish to assist their loved ones in ending lives of misery and indignity, and free them from the possibility of prosecution.
I once saw an interview with Terry, during which he said an old lady had written to tell him that when she died, she hoped that it was “your Death who comes to meet me”, referring to the strangely sympathetic and dryly humorous character of Death from the Discworld books.
I’ve also heard him talk very passionately about evolution and atheism, so I doubt very much whether he was expecting much more than fading peacefully away with his family gathered around him, which was the case when he passed away in bed on Thursday.
But it would be nice to think that, as the final scene faded to black, just for a few seconds the Shade of Terry Pratchett could look up into that oddly empty, black and starless sky, feel that gritty black sand beneath his rapidly fading feet, turn to the ice blue eyes burning from deep within those bony sockets and hear that tombstone voice;
“TIME TO GO SIR TERRY. WERE YOU RIGHT?”
Goodbye Terry and thanks for everything.
28 April 1948 – 12 March 2015.