Terry Pratchett's death hit me hard. Not as hard as it presumably hit his family and friends, of course, but still: I genuinely mourned his passing, which when you think about it is rather extraordinary for somebody I barely knew and who didn't know me from Adam.
A lot has been written in the weeks since his death, confirming (as if there were any doubt) his place as one of the giants of English literature. I don't have anything substantial to add to that. Instead, I thought I could perhaps contribute a few personal anecdotes about my interaction with Pterry over the years.
Personal anecdotes? About a man I've already admitted didn't know me at all? Well, yes. The thing is, he's been a significant part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have read literally every word he has ever published. I've been reading Terry Pratchett for almost as long as I've been reading. As an author, he was exceptional. His work is so layered, so complex, that it's almost impossible to categorise.
The simple truth is this: Terry Pratchett taught me how to think. My emotional and intellectual development is intrinsically linked to the Discworld and to the "stealth philosophy" that Pratchett snuck into every darn page. I honestly believe that a large part of my ability to perform critical thinking is due to my vociferous consumption of Pterry.
I think I must have been 10 or 11 when I first read Pratchett. My initial attraction was because it was fantasy and as a child I loved fantasy (I could write a whole separate blog post about my undying love for the flawed romanticism of JRR Tolkien). Of course, Pratchett was not really a fantasy writer - or rather, he was a fantasy writer (and a very good one) but that categorisation doesn't cover the half of it.
Recent Discworld books have spun on such concerns as the nature of belief, politics and even of journalistic freedom, but put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.
Soon afterwards, when I was perhaps 12 or 13, I started getting some of the jokes. I recognised some of the fantasy motifs being eloquently de-constructed in The Colour Of Magic and The Light Fantastic. I understood some of the witty lines that had totally passed me by on first reading.
Rincewind knew what orgasms were, of course. He'd had a few, sometimes in company.
Shortly after that, I read Wyrd Sisters ... and that was me hooked. I know that, for a lot of my fellow Pterry fans, Mort was the Discworld novel that first got its claws into them, but Wyrd Sisters did it for me in a way that Mort never quite managed. I loved Granny Weatherwax - she'd already made an appearance in Equal Rites of course, but the character wasn't properly fleshed out until Wyrd Sisters - I loved the silliness of the Macbeth parody, and I loved the witches.
"'Tis not right, a woman going into such places by herself." Granny nodded. She thoroughly approved of such sentiments so long as there was, of course, no suggestion that they applied to her.
It was around this time that an extraordinary thing happened. My friends and I found Terry Pratchett's email address.
Anecdote The First
In which Our Hero fails to procure an Orangutan
This was back in the wild, lawless days of the early internet, where rogue <BLINK> tags roamed the wastelands and the nascent Church of Pterry was just beginning to aggregate on alt.fan.pratchett. Terry, always a gleefully-enthusiastic early adopter of new technology, was all over it. He posted to his own newsgroup. He also received sufficiently few emails that he could - and, often, did - reply personally to each one.
We clustered round the tiny monitor, the five of us, arguing over each line and nearly vibrating with excitement. The computer belonged to Jack's dad, and it was the only internet-connected device accessible to any of us. We were writing an email to Terry Pratchett. We were, all five of us, huge Discworld fanboys. We quoted our favourite passages like our peers quoted movies. Terry Pratchett was our god.
In my memory, it took us literally hours to compose those few short lines. We started out by gushingly telling God how much we loved his work, and how funny and brilliant we thought he was. Then, hesitantly, we asked if he could send us an autograph. I think we knew that the answer would be no, so hysteria took over and we asked God to also send us a black fedora each. And a motorbike. And a pet orangutan. I think Paul invited God to his birthday party. Having recently kick-started our nascent school Drama Club, I also asked God if I could put on a production of Wyrd Sisters at school. We signed off the email with a series of stupid nicknames. If memory serves, mine was Johnnie 'big fan of Death' Ingram. Moronic, I know. But we sent it, directly to Terry Pratchett's personal email address (it was email@example.com, if you're interested).
Two days later, God sent us an answer.
I can still remember the content of that email, word for word.
No to everything except the play. But, to be serious -- can you? -- you HAVE to write c/o my agent, Colin Smythe, asking permission. On real paper. And almost certainly we'll say yes. But I don't give permission by email -- how could you ever prove it was me that did?
(or maybe not)
O, M, and very much G.
Anecdote The Second
In which Our Hero obtains special dispensation to call the cat a bastard
Thus emboldened by sacred grant, I sent a letter - a real, physical put-it-in-an-envelope-and-whack-a-stamp-on-it letter - to the mysterious Colin Smythe. He replied, and put me in touch with a man in Oxford called Stephen Briggs, who had recently adapted Wyrd Sisters for the stage. Briggs, of course, is now well known as the author of all of the Discworld stage adaptations, as well as sundry other Discworld miscellany, but back then he was just a name at the end of a fax number. He sent me a hand-photocopied script for Wyrd Sisters. It hadn't even been published yet: I think we were one of the first groups (outside Brigg's own Studio Theatre Club) to stage it.
The duke had a mind that ticked like a clock and, like a clock, it regularly went cuckoo.
And stage it we did. None of the cast was older than fifteen. The budget was non-existent. The set, props and costumes were dire. It was the first thing I had ever directed, and I was really bad, but ... but we did it, and we did it all ourselves. Thinking back on that production now, twenty punishing years later, still makes me genuinely emotional. It was a seminal moment in my life. We staged it one evening in the school hall, and sundry parents and relatives dutifully parked their arses onto cold plastic chairs and endured it. All of the signatories to that fateful email were involved: Simon played King Verence, Freddy played Hwel, and Paul played the Fool. The line
Wotcha, Magrat! Pull up a chair and call the cat a bastard!
caused some initial consternation, but Mr Scully the Head Of English eventually gave his explicit permission for us to say it because - his words - "It's important to the text ... and besides, it'll be really funny."
We had the time of our lives. I still remember the electrical sander being wrenched from Simon's grasp and thrown it offstage by Paul as a last-ditch desperate attempt to stop him corpsing. I would go on to direct dozens of plays and musicals, but Wyrd Sisters will always have a special place in my heart.
Anecdote The Third
In which Our Hero has Terry Pratchett's cake and eats it
There's one final story I should share, and it's one that really shows what an extraordinary person Sir Terence David John Pratchett really was. I went to many of his book signings over the years, but there's one in particular that stays in my memory. It was at Waterstones in Leeds. It was 1997, just after the publication of Jingo. I was seventeen or eighteen, and I went along with the very same group of friends. We stood in line. We met Pterry. We spoke a couple of awkward lines. He gave funny and friendly replies. He signed our books. We thanked him, and we left.
A few hours later, we passed by Waterstones again on our way to the train station, and there in the window ... was Terry Sodding Pratchett. He was still there, but the queues of fans had gone. It was just him and a couple of Waterstones staff. We can't, we thought, we can't possibly. Can we?
We did. We opened the door and walked in and said hello to God. We were the most awful, annoying, awkward fanboy geeks. We must have been the last people he wanted to see after a long day of similar nerds, but God was unfailingly incredibly nice to us. He was tired, and hungry, and in pain (he had his autograph-signing hand in a bucket of ice water to fight the cramps and RSI), but he sat us down at his table - he had one of the Waterstones staff find us extra chairs - and he talked affably to us for about half an hour. Just us, and God, shooting the breeze. He had a plate of little cakes that the staff had brought him. God gave me one of his cakes. Eventually, reluctantly but knowing we'd outstayed our already-undeserved welcome, we left. I sat on the train home, tears on my cheeks and huge grin on my face.
The End.— Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob) March 12, 2015
A footnote, in traditional Discworld style
This is my favourite passage, from all the hundreds of thousands of words Terry Pratchett wrote. When I first read this, something in my brain that was very small and very important went 'ping'. I can still hear the echoes today.
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.
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