Lo! Some we loved, the loveliest and best
That time and fate of all their vintage prest,
Have drunk their cup a round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to rest.
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám
Sir Terry Pratchett passed away on March 12th, 2015.
I know I’m kind of late to the game with this piece of news, but there it is. Even though I’m fairly active on the internet I never really said anything about the passing of the Man in the Hat. I added some plugins to my blog, put a few lines of text and links in the footer of my theme… And that was it. Not due to a lack of respect, not even because I didn’t just want to, just because… I didn’t really know what to say. Or how to say it. Or where. I think I commented in the gigantic Reddit thread that exploded when the news came out. I made a lot of visits to sites I’d never heard of before, and read letters and elegies about him, and I didn’t make any kind of record whatsoever of the way I felt when I heard that Sir Terry had, as we all knew he would, gone through the doors and onto the black desert under the endless night.
Perhaps I should set that right.
Terry Pratchett’s death was in many ways a first for me. At the time it happened I was (and still am, come to think of it) twenty years old. Most of my family were and are fairly young and sprightly, and I was surrounded by people I loved and respected without much prospect (beyond the occasional freak attack by a flying shark or similar) of them being whisked unwillingly away. That’s not to say that my family hadn’t experienced its fair share of tragedies and not-so-tragic-because-perhaps-it-was-time passings—I’d attended two funerals in the last couple of years—just that death, or at least the death of people I knew, that would really emotionally affect me, was far from my mind.
By March 2015 I’d been reading Terry Pratchett’s work for at least ten years. I ‘met’ him at about ten years old, when I picked up a copy of The Colour of Magic from a stack of secondhand books. Given my tender age, most of the subtle humour flew straight over my head—inn-sewer-ants gave me trouble, and I didn’t have a hope of puzzling out reflected-sound-of-underground-spirits but it was still hugely entertaining; I didn’t really get why the bartender set fire to the Drum, but I laughed along anyway. My limited grasp of his parody and gentle satire notwithstanding, The Colour of Magic grabbed my attention completely enough that I immediately set off to devour more of the Discworld series.
From The Colour of Magic I progressed through an audiobook of Mort, read by Nigel Planer to a battered old copy of Carpe Jugulum, a school library copy of Small Gods, and onward. I got my friends hooked onto them—I have fond memories of, as a twelve year old, roaring with laughter at the Great God Om’s impassioned curses: “Your sexual organs to sprout wings and fly away!”—and would sit at the breakfast table with a loaded spoon halfway to my mouth, engrossed in Vimes’ efforts to unravel the method by which the Patrician was being poisoned.
Ultimately though, I stopped just chuckling at the Discworld. I couldn’t hope to point to a specific moment in the series that slapped me in the face and made me realise I was really thinking because of these books, but it was definitely there. Somewhere around the age of fourteen I wrote a ‘reading log’ (a pointless time-wasting exercise foisted on high school students by the New Zealand education system) about Night Watch, and the focus of required 250-word ‘response’ wasn’t that Night Watch is a funny book (although it undoubtedly is), or that it is a brilliant, thoughtful satire of the modern notion of ‘freedom’ (it’s that too) or even that it is a deeply moving story (which is beyond question); my focus was that Night Watch is a book that made me think.
That, for me, was always the ‘thing’ about Terry Pratchett. Yes, he has made a lasting reputation for himself as a funny man—and, by god, he was a funny man—but far more importantly he was a man who thought, and who made me think. Whether it was about what it means to be really human, as in Feet of Clay, or about what it means to be ‘holy’, as in Carpe Jugulum, or about the value (or not) of tradition, or death, or justice, or doing the job in front of you, or… or… or anything.Pratchett’s books asked probing questions and challenged my ideas in clever, gentle, inventive ways.
Throughout my late childhood and my teenage years, Terry Pratchett’s books made me think about about things—why did I do this? Why did someone else do that? Why does everyone in the world say things like “Everyone knows…” when everyone knows that what everyone knows is very often mistaken? Was that the right thing to say or do? Do I have worth?—in ways that I would never have thought otherwise. By looking at my world through the lens of the Disc, and the Disc through the lens of Sam Vimes, Granny Weatherwax or Tiffany Aching, I’ve learned a huge amount. Terry Pratchett taught me about morality, about reality, about the importance of doing something yourself instead of waving a magic wand (or a credit card). About the importance of being human. Terry Pratchett taught me that it’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness… And if a candle doesn’t do the job, light a flamethrower.
Yes, I think that’s the best way to put it: Pratchett made me think, Pratchett taught me to think. And in so doing he taught me how to be who I am today.
But he was more even than that. As I grew older I started to think about the man behind the books, not just the books themselves. I followed his interviews, his statements in the paper, his non-Discworld life. I saw how he championed the Orangutan Foundation, how he dealt with questions of humanism and atheism, and how he stood up in public, under the weight of his Embuggerance, to crusade for the millions of people afflicted by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia all around the globe. Even though he knew that it would never come to fruition in his lifetime, Pratchett raised his voice in support of assisted dying because, as an internationally renowned author and Knight of the Realm he could. Because he had a voice… And because, as Granny Aching tells us:
Them as can has to do for them as can’t. And someone has to speak up for them as has no voices.
Words that resonate, certainly with me. Indeed, I think, words to live by.
It’s fair to say—actually, it’s unquestionably the case—that without Sir Terry Pratchett I would not be the person that I am. I have been reading to his books, listening to his interviews and attempting to dissect his thoughts (and jokes) for at least half of my life, if not more, and I know that most of my values and beliefs are informed, to a greater or lesser extent, by the thinking and the ideas that Sir Terry showed and taught me. I didn’t know the man in person—I wish I had—but I think, and I hope, that he would be quietly proud of that.
Although I was largely silent, I shared in the grief after Sir Terry past. I read every forum thread I could find about it, I commented, on occasion. I tried to think of words to put together to express my thanks, even though they were far too late. I hadn’t realised until then how important he’d been to me—how integral it had become, this idea that somewhere out there on the other side of the world was a man in a black hat and a white beard, tapping away at a keyboard, befriending the goblins in Oblivion, writing books that made me think and question and step outside myself to look at what was really going through my head. And now he was gone. It took about three days for me to really understand that. I wept.
But I’ve thought about him a lot since March, reading over the vast quantity of content, the worldwide outpouring of grief that followed his death…. And I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, cursing the fate he suffered isn’t the right thing to do. He was 66 when complications of his Alzheimer’s disease took him—not an old man, and surely he would otherwise have had many more books in him—and that in itself, the fact that he was lost long before his time, before he could further enthrall us with his ideas; that he was taken despite his achievements, despite his ‘goodness’ (because although I never met him I can’t help but feel that he was certainly a good man), is a sad thing. It’s not fair. It’s not just. But I don’t think he would approve of us bemoaning that. As Death himself says in Mort: THERE’S NO JUSTICE. THERE’S JUST ME.
Sir Terry Pratchett died on March 12th, 2015. I knew within minutes, or at least within minutes of the now-famous tweets appearing on his Twitter feed. And I was sad. A great light—possibly one of the greatest lights in the literary world—had gone out forever. On the other hand, a good man afflicted with a hideous illness was no longer suffering. He died, we are told, in his bed, with his family all around him and his cat sleeping at his side. And I believe that he was at peace:
It was a memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was OK and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world felt at peace.
Terry Pratchett faced death—the prospect, when he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s; the growing reality as time passed and wrote books and made his documentary and his disease worsened and then, finally, the ANTHROPOMORPHIC PERSONIFICATION with dignity, resolve, and—his trademark—incisive intellect. On his own terms.
I vowed that rather than let Alzheimer’s take me, I would take it. I would live my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the “Brompton cocktail” some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with Death.
And, ever a man to do things with style, Sir Terry went out with an eloquent, personal announcement to the entire world. With a string of messages that instantly began winging their way across the globe, threading through our myriad forms of the Clacks, scribbling in the sky, as it were, the message: he is dead.
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
With that he brought home to me the importance of connecting with people, talking to people, valuing people while you can, because I never took a moment to add to the mountains of communication he must have received and it’s my greatest regret. He reminded me of my own mortality and the mortality of those around me, pushing me to do the things that I want to do and to value the people that I should value. To let them know what they mean to me, not just expect them to know. Even in death, Sir Terry has taught me, shaped me, showed me how to grow and be me.
I will mourn him, as an educator, a motivator, an inspirational figure. Terry Pratchett was the first person who truly changed my life. Certainly my family had an influence on me, but that’s just what families do: they make your life; they shape your life. They don’t change it. Without Pratchett and his stories, without my deep and abiding admiration for him, I wouldn’t be who I am today. I owe who I am, how I think and much of what I believe to the man in the black hat. For that I am grateful.
In 1991, Terry Pratchett wrote and published Reaper Man, which deals cleverly and tastefully—as ever—with questions of death, and right, and wrong, and good and bad and meaning. It was a younger man—a much younger man, a man not burdened with the knowledge of his fate—who wrote these words, but they are good words nonetheless.
In the Ramtop village where they dance the real Morris dance they believe that no one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away–until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.
True words. What does it mean, in the webs of significance and connotation, the imaginary world driven by stories and semantics that all of us inhabit, to be truly dead? What, precisely, is our existence?
At any rate, if my experience is anything to judge by—and the experiences of others whom I have spoken to, or whose words I’ve read—the ripples that he caused in our world will not die away for a very, very long time.
GNU TERRY PRATCHETT