Saturday, 12 March 2016

Thank you Terry for the Joy of Reading


Wherever I live, they live.


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’s grown – hasn’t changed. It looks like a barcode of lush colours. It’s made of paperback books - Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

My memory of my first Terry Pratchett book is as bright as the detail on the cover. In the late 1980s I had the wonder of seeing a book called The Light Fantastic in Leo’s Supermarket in Bangor (1). 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 lurching toward the viewer. The glowing azure sky in the background is what gives the book its colour on the shelf. 

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.


The first book I ever bought by Terry Pratchett. I treasure it still.

Terry is responsible for my leap from children’s books to adult books. It was a window into something hitherto 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! The novels tap into the same childhood wonder but through genius stealth, bring the boy up to the man's speed in literature. Sitting down by yourself and reading a book from cover to cover is a huge rite of passage which only truly special authors make possible. Not to have that escape in my life now is unthinkable.

One particularly fond memory is from a Dorset camping holiday I had with my parents. 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 (2). Gold was the colour of this novel emblazoned with desert sands, camels and sequinned bikinis and gold forms the background colour for the entire holiday when my grey matter rings it back up. I read Pyramids in the oven glow of the tent canvas as the light died outside and continued to strain on until the bulb in the torch dimmed like a glow worm’s last stand.

At a later date, Pyramids went with me to Oxford to the Paperback Shop where it was signed by Terry Pratchett himself. Eric had just been published (3). 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’.


To Alex Alec - 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 them. Terry would 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 use their dark powers to whisk themselves off to another dimension for some peace and an uninterrupted fag.

The science-related books he co-authored with Jack Cohen allude to works by other writers which I then sought out. Those books instilled yet further questions. It was a path that led me to read books by Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, Dava Sobel, Richard Fortey and others. Basically, Terry kick-started my own thirst for the enlightenment - a continuation of the process that started with reading grown up books as a child. It fostered an interest in anthropology, natural history, evolution, archaeology and astronomy. I think of the trade-off – the few coins that have trickled down to him over the years in return not just for the hours immersed in a parallel world, but for my own education. For those few pennies, nothing could be better value. 

It also taught me important lessons like the fact a hedgehog can’t be buggered (5).

I love Terry Pratchett for his footnotes – a process he improved upon from reference books. Throughout his work they appear like seams of precious ore in the text’s bedrock. They give depth to an 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.

Terry has stayed with me my whole life. There may have been dry gaps but with every new 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.

Today is the anniversary of 4 tweets that opened up a chilling void in thousands of readers:



Terry Pratchett
Verified account
@terryandrob
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.


 Terry Pratchett
Verified account
@terryandrob
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.


Terry Pratchett @terryandrob 12 Mar 2015
http://bit.ly/1b4HFM6 


Terry Pratchett @terryandrob 12 Mar 2015

The End.

What we have lost will never be greater than what we gained. He has not just bequeathed to us an entire universe that will outlive us all, but his own struggles put greater focus on Alzheimers. He was also pivotal in charities concerning assisted dying, humanism, children with AIDS and others.

https://www.looktothestars.org/celebrity/terry-pratchett 

And, inspired by the librarian at the unseen university, he left an appreciation and foundation for the plight of orangutans.

http://www.orangutan.org.uk/blog/tag/terry-pratchett/

It is with the passing of Terry that the coloured bar on my bookshelf will stretch no further. In my life 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 one, thumbed it nostalgically and replaced it into its proper slot. That special shelf which has accumulated over 28 years has finally reached its limit

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 for the joy of reading.

Terry Pratchett 
28th April 1948 – 12th March 2015


Illustration from Eric by Josh Kirby

Footnotes:

(1) 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.
(2) 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.
(3) 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 (i).
(4) It’s those damned spines.

Toenotes:

(i) 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 (ii).
(ii) In Eric, artist Josh Kirby 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.