Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A Belated Goodbye to Terry Pratchett


There is a shelf in my home that has been there most of my life. My home has moved around but the shelf – though it grows – doesn’t change.  It looks like a barcode of lush colours. It’s made of paperback books. The most ancient are on the left and as you scan to the right, they gradually encroach on our times. Fittingly, your eyes follow them in the same way you’d read a line of prose. Bars one and two are orange and blue and represent genuine magical power - The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic - the first two novels in Terry Pratchett’s  Discworld series. Starting  left, the colours go from primary and full from the illustrations of Josh Kirby and from 2001 onward (1) they  become more sombre and moody from the work of Paul Kidby. Inside, the pages are brown with age, gradually regaining their youthful crisp whiteness the further right you go.
My memory of my first Terry Pratchett book is as bright as the detail on the cover. In the late 1980s, a new supermarket opened in Bangor in Wales called Leo’s (2). Every pupil at my school had an identical plastic Leo’s key ring as they were handed out free to each child shortly after the store opened.  There was a small book and magazine section and in 1987 at the age of nine I recall the wonder of seeing a book called The Light Fantastic for the first time. The cover had a luggage trunk flying through the air with rows of human feet. Depicted clinging onto the trunk were a wizard, a man with four eyes, an amazon woman and two Conan-style barbarians. Below them was a castle strewn landscape with massive axe-wielding trolls coming at the viewer. The glowing azure sky in the background is what gives the book its colour on the shelf. Either from raiding my pocket money or from badgering my mum, the book was bought.  I pored over it in the car home. The Light Fantastic is actually the second book in the series but I read it first and read The Colour of Magic – the first Discworld book - second.  Although I was too young to appreciate a lot of the humour, the spell of that universe bound me.
What drew me to The Light Fantastic
My main author before discovering Mr Pratchett  was Roald Dahl. Years later it would be Stephen King. Each writer has been vital in my upbringing: Roald Dahl is the author of the first novels I ever read in my life. He took me from children’s picture books to reading books like grownups do. Sitting down by yourself and reading a book from cover to cover is a huge rite of passage in life. Only truly special authors can make children want to achieve this. Once that little feat has been accomplished books become pleasure for the rest of your life. We associate reading with relaxation and entertainment. Not to have that escape in my life is unthinkable but I know a lot of adults who never took this quantum leap and have consequently grown up without the joy of literature. The experience just never entered their lives. 
After Roald Dahl, Terry Pratchett was the step into actual adult material - a window into something clandestine and hidden. Reading my first Discworld novel, I could watch the forbidden scene unfold with the security of being an invisible witness to it. The secret had been exposed!  This is what adults watched in their head when they read adult books! Later on Stephen King would let me in on the darker side of human beings – another voyage of discovery as I ploughed through his 1000 page plus tomes as a teenager. Unlike Roald and Stephen however, Terry Pratchett  has stayed with me my whole life. There may have been dry gaps but every government I catch up with Great A’Tuin and the characters that dwell in his unique cargo. Each time I get taken back to the intimate pleasure of having the text and me together - The Light Fantastic all over again.
One particularly fond memory is from a camping holiday I had with my parents. We had gone to Dorset and stayed in a campsite in Langton Matravers. There used to be a tiny bookshop on the quayside in nearby Swanage and that year’s novel – Pyramids – had by chance come out in paperback the same time as our trip(3). It was to be a golden experience in more ways than one: Gold was the colour of this novel emblazoned with desert sands, camels and sequinned bikinis. Gold was the light of that summer holiday. I read Pyramids in the car. I read it in the oven glow of the tent canvas. I read it as the light died outside and continued to strain until the batteries in the torch set too. The name of the camel in the novel was You bastard! and I uttered it under my breath lika a mantra. I would at intervals take my folks hostage and insist they read a passage that had taken a comedic stranglehold on me.  
 
 

At a later date, Pyramids went with me to Oxford to the Paperback Shop on Broad Street where it was signed by Terry Pratchett himself. Eric had just been published (4). I bought it but also took along my copy of Pyramids. We waited hours. The queue to have copies signed trailed right around Broad Street and around the corner towards Carfax. When my turn finally came, he wrote ‘to Alec – may your camels be multiplied’.


"may your camels be multiplied"

I re-read his first ten books when I was a bit older and became privy to fresh layers of comedy. The in-jokes, euphemisms and insinuations beyond my ken when I was younger were now within grabbing range of my older ken. Ken the elder loved it. I loved the fact that he’d take us into the dark places and we’d find that even the elementals, the gods and the Djinn need to consult their own prompt cards in the execution of their duties or need to use their dark power to whisk themselves off for a quiet uninterrupted fag.
It hasn’t just been the Discworld series though. Through the books he co-wrote with biologist Jack Cohen (5) about science, I developed a liking for more factual books. Ultimately, it was a path that led me to read books by Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Richard Fortey and others. It fostered an interest in anthropology, natural history, evolution, archaeology and astronomy. If I think of the trade-off – the few coins that have trickled down to him over the years to buy his books for the privilege of being able to better understand our own period in history. Each book inevitably leads to associated books that allude to works by other writers which I then seek out who will instil yet further questions. Basically, Terry kick started my own wonder for the enlightenment. It’s a continuation of the process that started with reading grown up books as a child. For those few pennies, nothing could be as valuable to me.
I love Terry Pratchett for his footnotes – a process he took from reference books. Throughout his work they appear like seams of precious ore in the text’s bedrock. They add dimension to a completely imagined world, adding a perverse level of legitimacy. They reveal further and as yet unrecorded (un)civilisation in the realm, baking up a thick historic pastry base to build the current novel on. These notes are sometimes longer than the regular text on the same page and even spawn footnotes of their own – stratum upon strata.
That special shelf in my home which has been growing for 28 years has finally reached its limit. It is with the passing of Terry that the coloured bar will stretch no further. It has moved with me eight times.  They are the only books with an “own shelf” privilege. With each move I have lovingly unpacked each novel, thumbed it nostalgically and ensured each goes into its proper chronological slot.

Terry - your presence on my shelf will stay with me on every future move because without you in my home it simply wouldn’t be my home. Thank you Terry for the joy of reading.
Terry Pratchett 
28th April 1948 – 12th March 2015 
Terry Pratchett (in the guise of Eric) by Josh Kirby


(1)2001 was when we lost Josh and his energetic art (i)
(2)It was part of (and was later re-absorbed by) Co-operative Retail Services ltd. The name and brand identity were dropped a long time ago. The other footnotes will be more interesting than this one.
(3)I never bought his books in hardback – something I have maintained right up to the present day. The hardback would always be like the trailer for a coming attraction. A member of staff in Waterstones once told me that “when is Terry Pratchett’s book coming out on paperback?” was her most frequently asked question.
(4) Rincewind the wizard needed to return to the Discworld series so Terry came up with Eric - a Faustian story to act as a mechanism to bring him back(iv).
(5)No relation to Cohen the barbarian as far as I know.
(i)Josh Kirby has actually depicted himself on one cover – on Equal Rites he is seen behind Granny Weatherwax in a wizard’s hat with a shrouded dark green being directly behind him(ii).
(ii)In Eric, Josh also depicted Terry Pratchett. The eponymous hero wears a fake beard which makes him the spitting image of Terry - see above(iii).
(iii)In honour of Terry, I just wanted these footnotes to have footnotes.
(iv)Eric is the stubborn book that never fits properly on the shelf as it’s in A4 format and is more like a graphic novel. It’s always underneath the other books acting like a plinth.