I was lucky enough to meet the then plain old Terry Pratchett, a couple of times at Con-Spiracy the 1987 world Science Fiction Convention, and naturally have his signature on the hard backed program of the event to prove it. I remember thinking that he was just a really nice man, though compared to most of the other ’names’ at the event a little shy. I had also read the colour of Magic, the Light fantastic, and Dark Side of the Sun. And it must have been around this time that I first read Equal Rites, which introduced my favourite Discworld character, Granny Weatherwax. I don’t think I nor anyone else really would have expected the Discworld books to become the huge success that they are today, least of all Sir Terry, to his eternal credit.
I don’t think there is a single published story of his that I have not read at least once, though naturally some stick in my mind more than others. I was introduced to the Discworld by a friend, who’s main advice was to read every footnote. At the time I didn’t really understand what she meant, but now I do. There sometimes seems as if there is enough inspiration in just one of Sir Terry’s footnotes to write an entire new novel.
Naturally a writers work evolves and it has been interesting to see the Discworld books develop from a sequence of hilarious gags tied to a strong narrative, into even stronger narratives, including a sequence of hilarious gags.
As I have read the Discworld books in particular, it has dawned on me that behind the narratives and the humour there are some incredibly profound and significant themes. That the most obvious and (for Sir Terry) superficial of these is equality as demonstrated by the hiring policy of the Ankh-Morpork city Watch, is testament to the underlying depth of his ideas.
My personal favourite Discworld book is ’Small Gods’ because of the ruthless examination of not just the nature of belief, but also of power, and the power of self deception in pursuit of power exhibited by Vorbis. The book also has my third favourite character, after Granny and Rincewind, the History Monk Lu Tze, (though he sometimes switches places with Leonard of Quirm depending on my mood). Which introduces a whole new set of ideas about the nature of history, Bonsai Mountains not withstanding.
Naturally there has been speculation of big screen movies of the Discworld books for many years, (The only better selling British author is JK Rowling, and there are echo’s of the discworld in Harry Potter.) though only a few animated, and ’live action’ (CGI makes that definition a bit difficult don’t you think.) TV versions have ever been made.
My favourite stories concerning Sir Terry and the movie industry include the commissioning of an adaptation of Truckers in 2001 by DreamWorks involving Andrew Adamson and Joe Stillman, but that Pratchett believes that it will not be made until after “Shrek 17″.
The most outrageous one concerns a proposed adaptation of ’Mort’ in which Death takes on an apprentice. The story goes that the American producers were enthusiastic, until they did some audience research in the American midwest and called Sir Terry back for a meeting to discuss some proposed changes. Sir Terry duly met with them only to discover that the ’changes’ included writing out a character that they thought American audiences might struggle with. The one with the voice like paving stones falling on gravel, cowled in black with bony fingers and carrying a scythe so sharp that can slice chunks out of the air.
Reportedly Sir Terry got up and walked out at this point.
Of course in more recent years Sir Terry’s name has been in the news for very much more sombre reasons, in 2007 he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and this has in many ways come to dominate, certainly the media representation of his life. I hope sincerely that it has not overwhelmed his day to day life to the same extent, though from experiences in my own family I know all to well the shadow that can be cast in these circumstances.
That Sir Terry has approached this directly, firmly and with what appears to be immense courage can only be regarded with awe. The most notable example of this has concerned the issue of Assisted dying. Which was the subject of Sir Terry’s 2010 Richard Dimbleby Lecture (also known as the Dimbleby Lecture) titled: Shaking Hands With Death. By this time however, his ability to present himself in public had deteriorated somewhat and although he delivered the introduction, the remainder of the Lecture was read by the Actor/presenter Tony Robinson. In typical Pratchett style he takes on the subject head on, with consideration and inevitably humour.
The full lecture appears to be available online at the time of writing on the following link.
And an edited extract of the transcript here,
The following extract demonstrates how Sir Terry can present what can only be called Serious Humour.
“I have no clear recollection of the death of my grandparents, but my paternal grandfather died in the ambulance on the way to hospital after just having cooked and eaten his own dinner at the age of 96. He had felt very odd, got a neighbour to ring for the doctor and stepped tidily into the ambulance and out of the world. A good death if ever there was one. Except that, according to my father, he did complain to the ambulance men that he hadn’t had time to finish his pudding. I am not at all sure about the truth of this, because my father had a finely tuned sense of humour that he was good enough to bequeath to me, presumably to make up for the weak bladder, short stature and male pattern baldness which regrettably came with the package.”
Most recently Sir Terry led/participated in a BBC ‘Panorama’ documentary on BBC2 in which he followed people seeking assisted death at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. The program is discussed in a lot of places the following are just samples.
I don’t intend to discuss assisted dying in this piece, though I might in a later article, suffice to say Sir Terry appears to have concluded some things that I had decided myself a long time ago.
I mention it here mostly because of the Newsnight program which followed in which Sir Terry was interviewed by the eternally grumpy, wonderfully direct and ultimately himself very impressive, Jeremy Paxman. For someone who has enjoyed Sir Terrys books for a long time, and eagerly awaits each new book, and who has spent time with people suffering with Alzheimer’s, in my own family and in work settings, it was a painful interview to watch.
All credit to the BBC, the recorded interview did not make obvious the failings Sir terry was experienceing, however it was clear Sir Terry was struggling. I suspect the interview was possibly much longer, but was littered with moments where Sir Terry forgot who he was talking to, what he was talking about, and in various places the point the was trying to make. The general presentation was I think rescued by good editing.
I write this not to expose the fact, but more to express how sad the interview made me feel, much more sad than the documentary. I had the painful feeling that Sir Terry was himself approaching the point of no return, that his capacity to choose what to do next was slipping away from him, almost before his eyes. This demonstrates the most awful aspect of Alzheimers, not just for the person suffering with the illness, but for those for whom they are an important person.
It is an illness where the opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ properly is taken away, a death of a thousand cuts, with each cut taking away memories and a part of the person, so that one day they are just not there to say goodbye to anymore, and the moment they were truly gone slipped by unnoticed. And most cruelly, occasionally, unpredictably, just for a brief moment, they return, and such joy at their return can be felt that, when they inevitably slip away again it is yet another moment of grief, another death to bare.
I will miss Sir Terry, I will read his books in memory of him, I doubt he will read this, but just in case.
Goodbye Sir Terry, I will miss you, I hope you get to make choices you will be happy with.