I first met Terry Pratchett in 1997, on his book signing tour for Feet of Clay, book number 19 in his Discworld series, in which events take place in a flat world balanced on the backs of four giant elephants which in turn stand atop a giant turtle swimming through space. Aside from this fact, the presence of magic and a proliferation of wizards, witches, trolls, dwarves, werewolves and other creatures, however, the world of the Disc is not so very different from our own. This is because the Discworld books are primarily stories about people – what they’re like, how they think, what they’re afraid of, the kinds of things they believe, the follies they fall into and the things they think they can get away with when no-one is looking.
In this sense, the Discworld can be understood as a enchanted realm in which to stage the dramas of the rather more disenchanted world with which we are all too familiar. Terry’s first rule of fantasy writing may be ‘anywhere but here, anywhen but now’, but one of the major themes of his work is that people are people through and through. Sometimes it takes a journey to the unfamiliar to help us recognise things we already know. If this is so, then Terry is a practitioner of deep magic indeed – not only can he see things that are really there, he can illuminate them for us in sudden flashes of recognition. His writing simmers with the scalding heat of the frustrated idealist, but is always steeped in the warm and faintly amused generosity of spirit of the good-humoured chronicler of human striving and frailty. As Neil Gaiman puts it, ‘anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels’. Or perhaps the orang-utans, he goes on to add, but this is only funny if you have read any of Terry’s books.
I was introduced to the series early in high school by my then best-friend – a similarly brainy and disgruntled young misfit – and fell in love instantly with the sudden and relentless wit and wordplay, the light touch on heavy subjects, the sense of flight and possibility with which great imaginative writing crackles, and, less consciously at the time, with the firm but gentle articulation of a worldview I would now call tragic humanism.
It was exactly what I needed at the time, and I was clearly far from alone – I remember Terry saying once somewhere that his readership consisted overwhelmingly of 15-year-old boys called Kevin. Though my name wasn’t Kevin, a brief glance at my clothes and what we will generously call my hairstyle suggests it may as well have been.
What I have gradually come to appreciate, as a brainy and disgruntled 30-something misfit with degrees in social and political science and philosophy, is just how much my own worldview and way of being is in debt of Discworld and the time I have spent there. This has been much on my mind this year – when Terry was taken from the world I felt like part of me went with him. His passing left a hole that has ached vaguely but continually since. It has been too sore to touch until now, but without a doubt it is what has been driving my discomfort with the path I’ve been on, and my desire to do something different.
What could fill that hole?
Ideas sleet through space all the time, occasionally striking a mind that may or may not be equipped to deal with them. One such idea struck me a few weeks ago that I haven’t been able to dislodge since...
What if I went back to Discworld?
To the very beginning. What would I find? I haven’t read some of these stories in well over a decade – would I fall in love all over again? Would I find flashes of fresh recognition among cherished friends, or would the expedition reveal little more than a frayed and fading nostalgia?
I don’t know. But I’d like to revisit the books, and have a conversation with them. I used to write the occasional email to Terry, to which he would belatedly but unfailingly reply. At his book signings I would ask stupid and inane questions in the flushed and hopelessly tongue-tied manner of the tragic fan. He would always respond with good humour. It makes me terribly terribly sad to think that such purposeless exchanges are no longer possible. He spoke so much to me through his work, and it feels like so much was left unsaid.
I have been looking for an outlet for my writing for a while. Something that knows how to be serious but knows not to take itself too seriously. Something about people – what they’re like, how they think, what they’re afraid of, the kinds of things they believe, the follies they fall into and the things they think they can get away with when no-one is looking. Something that talks about what you get when you throw people together with all their differences and commonalities and see what happens – what I call politics.
These are the things I like to think and talk about. My writing is conversational because more than anything else, I want what I’ve always wanted – someone to think and talk about it with.
I can’t talk to Terry any more, but I can have a conversation with his books. I’m not sure whether it will a conversation that is interesting to anybody else, but I know that Terry’s books were magical to many other people too, and I hope I can rediscover the shape and the colour of that magic and use it to cast a few flashes of recognition of my own.
The publisher has put out a series of beautiful hardback editions, and the first book is called, appropriately enough, The Colour of Magic. It arrived on my desk a few days ago and I am very excited about opening it and jumping in.
Let’s talk soon. Meanwhile, if this sounds interesting to you, do please let me know.