When I was a teenager, there were two novelists whose work I devoured as much as possible – one was Iain Banks (about whom I’ve written here) and the second was Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away last week.
As far as I remember, the first Pratchett book I read was Guards! Guards!, purchased form a newsagents whilst on a caravan holiday in Anglesey. My interest in his books was piqued enough to buy a copy of The Colour of Magic, the first in the Discworld series, when we had an annual book sale in the school library.
From this point on I read every Discworld book going (as well as Good Omens, his book with Neil Gaiman), my favourite being Mort. At our School Speech Day every year, a number of pupils would be asked to pick a book from the local bookshop as a prize, and I remember one year – it must have been either 1995 or 1996 – when it felt likely everyone going up was coming away with the latest Pratchett book in hardback (apart from one – male – pupil who wasn’t given his prize as he’d picked a book that you could turn into a dolls house –I guess if you’re picking up an award for academic merit you had to find rebellion where you could).
I’m sure that this is just rose-tinted glasses, but it seems like that summer in the assembly hall, Pratchett was the thing apart from the school uniform that united the disparate groups within our year – the geeks and the cool kids, people that liked Britpop or grunge. I’m sure it was this ability to reach out that made him the most successful author of the nineties.
His books were richly evocative and even now I can remember the names of a whole string of wonderfully drawn characters – Granny Weatherwax, the Luggage, Rincewind, the Librarian, the Patrician, and my personal favourite, Death.
Perhaps more importantly for my teenage self, bored by over-analysing William Blake, Seamus Heany, Billy Liar, Silas Marner and Macbeth, they were also supremely funny, stuffed full of parody, satire and puns. One of my favourite bits of his writing is the opening of Wyrd Sisters:
“The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills. The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which Gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an archaic voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?!!”
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well I can do next Tuesday.””
Having finished this post I feel a bit sad that I haven’t read any of his books for about fifteen years, as my tastes changed and broadened. It just stopped occurring to me to pick up his books. But if my reading habits changed it’s because he helped to open my eyes to what stories could achieve, and this is why I felt a bit sad when I heard that he had passed away but also taken an interest in his struggles with Alzheimer’s and views on assisted dying. It’s perhaps through this humour that we can best celebrate Pratchett, and you can find some his best lines here.