“Terry Pratchett’s died.”
That’s not the sort of thing you just walk into a room and say to someone. It simply isn’t cricket. That’s the sort of thing you break to someone gently, over a cup of tea, something you take your time over and think about. It’s not an everyday sort of announcement, nor an everyday sort of news.
When just a wee lad, left to my own devices in the library as often as not, I was interested King Arthur and dragons and all that malarkey, but not in what you could call fantasy as such. Not original fiction about that sort of thing, written by people who’d lived within the twentieth century. Not, until the day when my bleary little eyes alighted on this gaudy-looking paperback with a dragon on the front and some startlingly-drawn chaps in dodgy-looking armour attempting to do harm upon it. Guards! Guards! was where it started.
The first fantasy novel led to a lifelong fascination with the genre, fed into an interest in fantasy play and fantasy games, and into a fascination with writing. When I came to write my own material – prose and resources for games and, to the chagrin of a dozen hard-working pedagogues, essays – and to frame my own characters and worlds and perceptions, they were invariably formed by this body of work that I’d read upside down and inside out over the years. Before Pratchett I’d wanted to do all sorts of things when I grew up; after Pratchett I wanted to be A Writer. More than that, I wanted to be a particular kind of Writer – the kind who uses words like ’embuggerance’ and still manages to make a point.
It feels trite and selfish to say “well, the subject of this tribute was a huge influence on me” and then talk about oneself line after line, so allow me to scrabble for redemption and say that I’m not the only one. A generation of young readers cut their teeth on Discworld, watched Johnny and the Dead on the telly, played spot-the-author with a worn copy of Good Omens – you get the idea. Not until a former teacher from Gloucestershire wrote a Bildungsroman about a speccy kid at magical boarding school did anyone come close to Pratchett’s stature as the genre-defining figure in British young adult fantasy.
Pratchett defined fantasy and comedy and bloody good prose to the boy who would be Von and to thousands like him, but he defined activism too – at least, a particular kind of critical activism. His novels are hysterically funny, of course, but there isn’t a single Discworld that doesn’t have a steely grey eyebrow raised at something foolish or barbarous. Pratchett’s books lay the absurdity of the world bare – and absurdity isn’t just funny, it’s also dangerous and stupid and demands to be pointed out, ridiculed, understood and prevented. Look at something like Wyrd Sisters, which is a funny story about witches and the excesses of theatre, with a rather serious point about the upbringing of children and about the arts as propaganda. Look at something like Making Money – you have to sell a lot of snake oil just to get people believing in currency and exchange, never mind reinventing them and getting people to accept that this piece of paper is innately valuable – and yet ideas like used stamps being worth what it says on the front and pins being highly collectible take off without your trying.
You can’t go around saying things like “Pratchett holds a mirror up to life” because that’s simply not enough; Pratchett lays life out on the slab, slices it open with a flash of stainless razor wit, and has a good poke around inside, showing us where the cankers are, making daft remarks about sausages, laughing at words like ‘spleen’ and ‘pancreas’ – and then the blade twists again and there’s a lump of something black and rotten on the end of it. A-haaa, you say, in your finest Tom Baker tones: there it is. And he does it all without being righteous or bland or preachy, without ever telling you that you can’t say or think or do a given thing – Pratchett can call you an idiot to your face and have you laughing as he does it. What Pratchett really does… did… is excise and excite human nature. Everything else is ironmongery – but it’s brilliant, ornate, detailed, charming ironmongery, with sniggering orang-outangs peeking out of the pattern, done by someone with a name like Calumny Jones.
I would be delighted if my children and grandchildren are taught to talk about Pratchett in the same breath as Dickens, and with the same reverence for wit and whimsy and the same phrase for What It’s All About – the Condition of England. I would be even more delighted if they enjoy him as much as I have.
Rest in peace.