Celebrity deaths don’t really get to me. I normally think that grieving should be done by the family and friends, that I never really knew the person outside of their public persona, and that the amount of media coverage must be difficult for those who really knew them. Robin Williams was incredibly sad, as was Gary Moore, and I resolved to watch Williams’ films and listen to Moore’s albums for a afterwards, but I’ve never felt like I lost someone truly close to me until I learned about Terry Pratchett’s death about an hour ago.
Terry Pratchett wrote more than 70 books in his lifetime and if I would estimate that I’ve read around 50 of those. My first, The Colour of Magic, I read when I was about twelve. I remember being fascinated by the cover, with its instantly recognisable art by Josh Kirby, and the deep and eclectic world it portrayed. It was weird, threatening, graphic, violent and silly all at the same time. A cohort of violent and serious looking people all trying to decide whether they should run towards or from a chest with hundreds of little legs, it’s perfect Pratchett.
After the Colour of Magic I devoured the rest of the Discworld. Magic, sex, death, rock n’ roll, Hollywood, crime, war and the Post Office; he wrote about them all and he put his own spin on their histories, reflecting them wonderfully and sometimes rewriting them. His extreme fantasy and limitless imagination sucked you in, but the stories were always tied in to real life, and the more I’ve learned the more I’ve realised that I already knew it from Pratchett. You can probably trace most of political values to Sam Vimes, my ideas gender towards gender equality to Granny Weatherwax and Tiffancy Aching, and my ideas of social equality and acceptance to his numerous and varied Discworld species and their development through the series.
He dealt with serious issues and deep stories, never shirking away from dark eras of human history, but he dealt with them with an air of silliness and enjoyment that made him unique. Bounding forwards with an unrelenting optimism, no matter what the subject matter or difficulties he personally faced in his final years, he always knew when to turn a phrase or make you laugh. He taught me that you can write about dark things with a light tone, that some of the most serious issues in our history are so ridiculous that you have to laugh at them, and in doing so you not only educate, but you can also take away their power.
Outside of the Discworld is varied and impressive. His children’s novels are rich and engaging, varying from the wonderful fantasy of The Carpet People and Truckers, to the more realistic and modern Johnny Maxwell trilogy. In recent years his Long Earth series, written with Stephen Baxter, have created a vast and wonderful universe and prove his skill as both a storyteller and creator of worlds. I am currently reading A Blink of the Screen, his collected works of short fiction. The first story in this collection was written when he was thirteen; it’s about a human advertising firm trying to make Hell a popular tourist destination and in the process making it unbearable for The Devil. The fact he could write something so creative, aware and humorously dark at that age is just phenomenal, and a true testament to his talent.
In his final years he campaigned heavily for euthanasia and did much to further the discussion in the UK. He also resolved to continue working and writing despite his encroaching Alzheimer’s, increasing his already impressive workload to release multiple books a year. His latter Discworld works are characterised by an understandably darker and more realistic tone. The jokes are a bit more subtle and they seem vastly different books from The Colour of Magic, released over thirty years ago, but they are still Discworld, and they are still wonderful.
This isn’t as good a piece of writing as Pratchett deserves and the fact I keep having to edit myself to stop referring to him in the present tense is making me incredibly sad, but I really feel like I needed to write something. I take a lot of identity from popular culture; I have lyrics inked into my skin and I watch hours of needlessly niche television and film every week, but I honestly can’t think of many things that have shaped me as much as the writings of Terry Pratchett. So for those of you who knew and loved him, I hope you’ll join me in reading your favourite Discworld novel this weekend, and for this that didn’t, I hope that this inspires you to discover him.
Rest in Piece Sir Terry Pratchett, you will be sorely missed.
Photo credit: Myrmi