You’re probably wondering how this ties in to politics. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…
I first met Terry Pratchett at Forever People on Park Street, Bristol, on the afternoon of September 20, 1986 (if I recall correctly). It was the day of the big fire at the Fowler’s Motorcycles outlet on the Bath Bridge, which makes it an easy date to check. My recollection is that the blaze had not really got started as my brother (the blogger Beastrabban) and I on our way into town, so ‘that Discworld guy’ was much more interesting.
We arrived early, which meant nobody else had arrived by the time Terry did. This was 1986, remember – he was only just getting started. This meant we had him all to ourselves for a good few minutes before anybody else appeared to hesitantly proffer a copy of The Light Fantastic for his squiggle – and nothing’s going to make as great an impression on an impressionable adolescent trying to work out how to make it in the world as a few minutes with the undivided attention of someone who has literally just worked it out.
This was before Terry evolved into the personality he became – the bald beardie with the big black hat and the weakness for banana daiquiri. Obviously he was bald (genetics) and he was bearded (aesthetics) but the rest was yet to reveal itself (unless the memory cheats).
We talked about ideas, work ethics, how to keep people interested (basically, it has to interest you first). By the time we – reluctantly – left, the motorbike place was blazing like Ankh-Morpork in the very first Discworld story (The Colour of Magic) and we had to take a detour to avoid it. My brain had already taken a somewhat longer diversion that would lead to amateur journalism, professional newspaper reporting, and eventually this blog.In the years that followed, Terry and I ran into each other too many times to recall, let alone mention. Equal Rites probably saved my sanity when it came out in paperback the following year. I was studying European Literature at Reading and the first novel on the list was Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; it’s an epistolary novel (written as a series of letters) in which the title character takes his own life at the end (where else?) – and by the time I got there I was ready to do the same. Fortunately, the endeavours of Esk, Discworld’s first female wizard, provided the panacea. Impossible obstacles can be overcome, with good humour and a twinkle in the eye.
At the Mort signing, Terry introduced the ‘Tel’-shirt – a T-shirt featuring his character the Death of the Discworld, with the words “Die Laughing” inscribed across the blade of his scythe. I think I was the first person who asked him to sign it; what a shame the ink wasn’t permanent – now the signature says something like “Try ratchet. I’ve still got that shirt somewhere…
Further meetings would take place, most often at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, which the Beast had discovered after going to college there – including one memorable occasion when Terry explained patiently to us all that the victory at the end of Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings is nothing to celebrate as the good guys had just destroyed the entire industrial base of their continent. Good point!
By this time, my own life was progressing in distorted-mirror similarity to Terry’s. After drifting post-college, I wandered into Bristol’s careers advice centre, fiddled its computerised test so it said I should become a writer, and embarked on a career in journalism – much as Terry had, years before (he came to novels after a career and newspapers and as a press officer for nuclear power stations in the South West, including Hinkley Point). But where he took his training while on the job, I got mine at another college.
Reading A Slip of the Keyboard, Terry’s collection of non-fiction, the similarities are striking – for example the joyless experience of covering inquests (I was lucky; my late uncle was Coroner’s Officer) and magistrates’ courts (happily I never had the ‘directoire knickers’ experience). Terry was proud of his Pitmans shorthand; I am proud of my Teeline. He claimed that his response to people claiming to be journalists was, “Good, tell me the six defences for defamation of character?” This made me want to contact him so I could say, proudly and clearly: “Justification, fair comment, absolute privilege, qualified privilege, accord and satisfaction – sorting out a mutually satisfactory resolution – and, oh… the other one. Yes! Unintentional defamation!” (I often forget that last one.)
There are differences; Terry was an inspiration, no more than that. He started at the Bucks Free Press before moving to work in Bristol; I started in Bristol and, although I interviewed at the Bucks Free Press, I didn’t take a job there.
I left the newspapers a few years ago to become a carer for Mrs Mike; Terry famously contracted Posterior Cortical Atrophy himself. Neither of us stopped writing, although his became even more markedly more profitable than mine. My own progression to blogging, writing more now than ever I did for other people, perhaps reflects Terry’s advice to me in a letter of 1992: “If you want to be a writer, the trick is never to stop writing. Always look for something interesting to write about, try to find interesting ways to write about it, and eventually somebody might actually pay you for it” – or words to that effect (I can’t find the letter at the moment).
I have no reason to believe that I am the only person to have been inspired by the writings and work of this rather unassuming genius. In fact, I hope that he sent similar comments to many thousands of us over the nearly-three-decades he spent at the top of the bestseller lists, and I hope many of them have gone on to successful careers of their own. That will be the best way to remember and celebrate him.
Terry passed on, we’re told, as he always said he wanted – at home, surrounded by his family. Very few of us are lucky enough to have our final wish come true.
For myself, thanks to people like Terry, I hope to die – if not laughing, then at least with a smile on my face…
… and that ‘Tel’-shirt on my chest.
Hmm. It didn’t turn out to be a very political article after all. Fortunately, we can always rely on the quotable Terry Pratchett for help. At a time when This Writer is under attack for taking a stand over the Work Capability Assessment for incapacity/disability benefits (I want Labour to commit to abolishing it; certain members of the Labour hierarchy are threatening me over the way I’ve demanded it), it’s good to remember Terry’s words: “It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it.”
Against those who are desperate for me to stop, let’s set this: “There are times in life when people must know when not to let go.”
(…Although it is probably right to add the rest of the line: “Balloons are designed to teach small children this.)
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