Sunday, 15 March 2015

Terry Pratchett : 1948 - 2015

I was updating our company's twitter feed on Thursday afternoon, saw retweets of posts from Terry Pratchett's account and realised, after some frantic googling, that it was true, that PTerry, Sir Terry Pratchett, had died.

I kept googling, hoping against hope that I'd find the site, the news story, that said it was a lie, or a malicious hoax, or that Terry's family had checked, and discovered that he was actually clasping a little sign saying "I aten't' dead" but of course I couldn't find one, because it wasn't.

Later, when I got home from work, I was able to turn on the news, and there could be no more doubt, (or hope). The story was a leading headline on the national news , and as Terry lived here in the West Country, it was also the lead on the local news, with soundbites from the Doctors at RICE, in Bath, where Terry's embuggerance was researched and treated. 

And it feels like losing an old friend.

I first encountered Terry over 25 years ago, in an English Literature lesson. Of course, they were not teaching us his work. We were supposed to be studying Oliver Twist, but were in fact not studying it, so much as reading it aloud, V.E.R.Y.     V.E.R.Y.    S.L.O.W.L.Y. and with absolutely no expression. I was very bored (and lost all interest in Dickens for a decade or so). And a friend offered to lend me a paperback book, small enough to read discreetly inside my copy of Oliver Twist (It is easier to get away with this stuff when you have the reputation of being quiet and studious). 

I wasn't immediately taken by the book. The cover was a bit garish, and had wizards, and big muscly men with double-headed axes, which made me think it was likely to be a sub-Tolkien swords-and-sorcery story - not my favourite thing. But  still, anything seemed better than slow motion Dickens, so I started to read The Colour of Magic... And realised that it was not, after all, quite what I expected. And that I wanted more.

I think I borrowed the next two or three books over the following weeks, and then (because this was 1988 or '89, and there were only 5 or 6 paperbacks) I ran out, and the wait for each new book began.

I think Wyrd Sisters was the first Discworld book I bought rather than borrowing, when it first came out in paperback, and I spent the next 10 years buying each new novel as it came out in paperback (I could not afford the hardcovers). Good Omens  is how I found out about Neil Gaiman, so I have Terry to thank for that, as well.

I got to meet Terry in 1999. I was newly qualified, and living in Manchester, and not terribly happy. I had been in Manchester city centre, for a court hearing, and decided to go and spend a little whole browsing in Waterstones, and perhaps having a coffee in their cafe, to avoid having to drive home in heavy traffic, as there had been a road closure on my route home. 

I got to the cafe, and discovered that all of the seating had been rearranged in neat rows, and learned that this was because Terry Pratchett would be coming, for a signing of his new book, The Fifth Elephant. 

So of course, I had to stay. I bought a copy of The Fifth Elephant  (my first hardback Pratchett) and a copy of Eric as mine had filed to return from a loan to a friend. And over the next hour or so, I started to read, the room filled up, and the Terry arrived, and spoke briefly, and signed. And signed, and signed. I am pretty sure that his minder had brought a packet of frozen peas along for him to rest his wrist on, knowing how much signing would be necessary.

I told Terry why I was buying a new copy of Eric, so he wrote 'Give it Back' in the new copy. (Of course, I didn't lend out *that* copy, after that!)  And he he was kind, and friendly, when I babbled about how much I enjoyed his books, just as if he hadn't heard exactly the same thing from hundreds of other people.

I had been near the front of the queue, and as I left I realised that the queue was not simply the 150 or so people sitting in the cafe, nor those winding their way around the whole of the 3rd floor. The queue continued down the stairs, around the 2nd floor, down a second flight of stairs, around the 1st floor, down another flight of stairs, and around the ground floor. It did not stretch out of the door into the street, but only because they had closed the doors. . . 

It was the first time I had ever been to a signing, for anyone. It was around the same time, I think, that I discovered that that 'Neil Gaiman' bloke, who Terry had written Good Omens with had also written some other stuff, ensuring that I found The Sandman and was properly hooked by the time American Gods came out.

The second time I met Terry was nearly 10 years later, in 2008. Terry was to be featured on a BBC Radio 4 program, 'With Great Pleasure', which was broadcast on Christmas Day 2008. The program featured him talking about books and writers which were important to him, and was recorded at the Forum, in Bath. 

I wrote about it at the time - it was a fascinating evening in which Terry talked about pieces of writing which had interested or inspired him.

This was, of course, about a year  after Terry had gone public about his Embuggarance, and the script from the evening was auctioned off for Alzheimer's, and Terry himself explained, at the end of the evening, that while he would be happy to sign things for people, he would not be able to personalise them, as while he could sign his name, adding other details 'derailed' his hand/eye coordination, and slowed him down.

I continued to buy and read Terry's books (buying them in hardback on publication day, by this time: one of a very small number of authors I will do that for) and continued to be frequently moved to laughter, and to tears (and sometimes to tears of laughter) by his work.

It is almost impossible to pick a favourite Pratchett book - I have a very soft spot for Reaper Man, for all of the Sam Vimes books, perhaps particularly the later ones as Sam deals with marriage and fatherhood. Nation stands as perhaps one of the most thoughtful, and The Unadulterated Cat is, of course, unmatched as a truthful reflection of life with cats. 

I can think of only one or two other authors who have been such close and constant companions to me in my reading life. 

I didn't know Terry in person. I loved the stories he lived, as well as those he wrote. It is deeply satisfying to know that he chose to mine the ore for, and help to forge, his own sword when he was knighted, for instance. And I suspect that many of his thousands of fans will, like me, be smiling through our tears as we re-read he work, and remember.

R.I.P. Terry. 
Thank you for everything

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