The first time I read a book by Terry Pratchett, I pretty much set myself up to fail. I was about ten when I cracked open a copy of The Colour of Magic on a long journey in the back of my grandad’s car. It was a hot day, and my grandad wouldn’t let us have the windows open. On top of that – as I only found out after he died – my grandad kept a leaky jerry can of petrol in the boot, right behind my seat. The combination of heat, airlessness, and subtle petrol fumes meant that all I got out of the endeavour was a splitting headache and the (highly logical) belief that it was the book’s fault. Susan would have been very disapproving of my woolly thinking.
After devouring the Bromeliad and Johnny Maxwell books, I had another try at Discworld, with Mort. And that was it. I was hooked. Discworld soon became one of my favourite imaginary places to be, and Terry Pratchett one of my favourite authors. As a teenager, I followed a man with a beard and a distinctive hat around the Reichstag because I was half-convinced it was him. Later, I actually met him, in a slightly less creepy way:
(I’d pretty much lost the power of speech, so we ended up talking about biscuits).
Many, many people have written about Terry Pratchett’s brilliant way with words, or his expert pacing and story construction, or his razor-sharp humour, or the way he held a mirror up to the world so perfectly that it was crystal clear that his stories might be about trolls and wizards and tiny people, but really, under it all, they were about us. And I loved his books for all those reasons. But the thing that really made them special for me was…well, he just got it.
Terry Pratchett could step into your head and tell your story. Fat girl with self-esteem issues? He got it, and wrote Agnes Nitt. Bookworm who feels out-of-step with the world around her? Terry got it, and gave us Tiffany Aching. I looked into Discworld, and things about my own life made sense – and, best of all, it helped me realise that my story was just as worth telling as anyone else’s.
Pratchett’s novels take a sharp sideways look at life as we know it (or rather, life as we take it for granted), but they don’t just poke fun at our world – they inspire us to make it better. The Vimes Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness is, straight up, one of the best summaries of financial inequality that has ever been written. The line “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things” is as true as it is chilling.
Terry Pratchett got it. He got us. He knew people inside and out, and that was the root of his genius.
He faced up to reality in writing and in person. The documentaries and speeches that he made after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis, particularly the brilliant Shaking Hands With Death (delivered by way of Tony Robinson), followed the trend he’d set with Discworld. Here was a problem that many people tried to ignore, or gloss over, in the hope that it would quietly go away – so Pratchett held it up to the light and showed us a new way of looking.
Rest in peace, Sir Terry. I hope you made Alzheimer’s truly sorry it caught you. And thank you for the worlds you showed us.