A third anniversary

Attribution below

Today, 12th March, is the third anniversary of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld series, a number of books not set in Discworld, and co-author of three books bringing serious science to the masses (The Science of Discworld). He was only 66. During his life he authored many books. There are 41 in the Discworld series alone. He received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, had a number of honorary doctorates from universities, and won a number of literary awards.

 

 

 

The librarian at Unseen University was turned into an orangutan and has avoided all attempts to turn him back into a human

I am a Terry Pratchett tragic. I have all his books in hardback in a glass-fronted book case to protect them from mould (which is a constant problem here in the sub-tropical north). An orangutan keeps watch over my office from his perch on one bookshelf, a job he shares with Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, and Princess Leia, who preside above the glass-fronted bookcase. (Which probably tells you a few Things About Me.) I’m sure he won’t mind me not using his title, though. I don’t think he was ever that kind of guy. Although apparently he was so disappointed that he didn’t get to keep the sword after he got his knighthood, he made one for himself – literally, right down to digging up the iron ore and making a kiln. You’ll find the details of that story here.

Terry was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and departed arm in arm with Death in 2015 – having written another seven books before he succumbed. Although he was a great advocate of voluntary euthanasia, he died naturally. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease and I would not wish it on anyone but I find it particularly evil that this man of words had words stolen from him at such a young age (58). While Death is the great leveller, disease is a torturer.

A documentary about him, called Back in Black, was made after his death. Here’s the link to the version on Youtube. Actor Paul Kaye did an excellent job of portraying Terry, complete with his unusual accent. Sure, there were talking heads. His great friend, Neil Gaiman, his personal assistant, Rob Wilkins, Discworld’s illustrator, Paul Kidby, his daughter, Rhianna, and others all contribute information about the man they knew. But a lot of the facts were delivered by Pratchett himself (through Paul Kaye). The stand-outs for me were as follows:

  • Terry wasn’t a child prodigy. When he was six years old his headmaster told him he would never amount to anything. That put a fire in his belly that never left him.
  • He left school at age 17 and never attended higher education.
  • He had an accident as a small child which left him with a speech impediment. And he also had a stutter. As a result, he was bullied.
  • He got a voluntary job in the local library where he read everything he could get his hands on. Books were his friends.
  • Over time he collected all those books he would subsequently write into his head. At one stage he was publishing three books a year. And it seems he also worked on as many as three books consecutively. Wow. Just wow.

Terry Pratchett’s Death – a seven-foot skeleton wearing a black robe, carrying a scythe and riding a white horse called Binky – is among Terry’s most popular characters. He stars in several of the Discworld books – Mort, Reaper Man, Hogfather, and Soul Music – and has a cameo appearance in most of the others. Death is fascinated by humans and their foibles. Terry can ask himself questions such as what would happen if Death took an apprentice? What if he decided to be a short-order cook instead of doing the Grim Reaper duty? What I particularly like about Death comes from the little cameos where he turns up to take a life. The recently-departed asks about where they’re going. “Will there be [insert folk belief of choice]” to which Death replies, “Do you want there to be?”

The results are funny, sure. But most of Terry’s books are character-driven. The Discworld is just a nightmare’s distance from our own, but the people are us. He shines a light on prejudice, where trolls and dwarfs substitute for Arabs and Jews or whoever we don’t like at the moment. He talks about women’s rights in Equal Rites, Men at Arms and in fact many other books. He pokes fun at Academia through the (male, celibate) wizards at Unseen University, and contrasts them with the worldly-wise witches, who perform the simple magic of midwifery, medicine and plain common sense.

All that reading Terry did in the little country library stood him in good stead. He often picked up a legend and shook it around to see what fell out. Hogfather, which was made into a terrific little mini-series, is about Christmas – what it used to be, as opposed to what it has become. The Hogfather (Father Christmas) has been kidnapped, so Death (seven-foot skeleton riding a white horse called Binky) assisted by his grand-daughter, Susan, takes on the job of doing the Christmas run, including the obligatory appearance in a department store. Elves are given their treatment in a few books, notably Lords and Ladies. For Terry, they weren’t the noble master race you’ll find in Tolkien. He goes back to earlier times, when they were nasty individuals, prone to playing tricks on people – and not in a nice way.

So today is a day of mourning for me. I’ve read and re-read Terry’s books since that day when I first read the prologue to The Colour of Magic in a newsagency at Perth airport back in the late 1980’s.

I’ve copied this list of his achievements from his Wikipedia page to save you the trouble of looking it up. Not bad for a kid who’d never amount to anything.

Photo by Luigi Novi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org w/index.php?curid=22449958