Do you ever have that sudden sense of shock that comes not so much from a thing itself, but from the degree to which it unexpectedly affects you?
When I learned today that Terry Pratchett had died, I was startled not so much by his death - like most people, I was aware of his health problems after he was diagnosed with an early-onset form of the 'embuggerance' of Alzheimer's disease - but by the sudden lurch I felt in my stomach when I heard the inevitable sad news. While I'd kept an eye on what he'd been doing, and closely followed his campaign for the legalisation of assisted dying, I hadn't actually read his books for a fair few years. Why, then, did I find myself so genuinely and deeply upset in a way I rarely am when a famous person passes away?
Probably because I was a huge fan of Terry Pratchett during a time in my life when being a fan of anything is a particularly big deal - and throughout the years when I was at my most painfully awkward, and desperately in need of some assurance that there were other awkward nerds out there who liked the same things I did and found the same things funny. I took the first three Discworld novels - The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites - during summer 1988, when I was 12, I think because the library were promoting them as an 'If you like Douglas Adams, you'll also like...' suggestion. I read them all one after the other, and as soon as I'd read them, I went back to the library to look for more. After that, I decided I had to own them too, and when I had to save up pocket money or wait for Christmas and birthdays if I wanted to own new books, actually owning a book instead of borrowing it from the library was a big decision. For years, a Pratchett paperback or two, all with the original, highly distinctive Josh Kirby cover art, appeared in every little pile of presents I received.
The thing that blew me away about the Discworld series was that, while the books were extremely funny in a way that chimed perfectly with my sense of humour at the time, they were also damn good fantasy novels in their own right. They poked fun at the tropes of fantasy fiction, yes, but they were never parodies, never pastiche. The plots were clever and complex, the concepts dizzyingly imaginative, and the pace of each book built steadily to proper, exhilarating, pacey adventure. The characters were almost Dickensian in all their larger-than-life glory, but also oddly believable. At the heart of every Discworld book there was also a tremendous warmth and charm.
Good Omens, the non-Discworld novel that Pratchett co-wrote with Neil Gaiman, probably remains in my top ten reads to this day. As well as being an entertaining satire and a fantastically affectionate homage to countless horror films, and really quite dark on many levels, it is still a strangely life-affirming, comforting read, and soon became my go-to reading matter during the toughest times of my teens. It was the only book I could bring myself to pick up the day I found out that my mum had breast cancer, and the only one I wanted to read after my grandad died. All Pratchett's books gave me a focus and brought me comfort during bouts of what I now understand wasn't adolescent angst but clinical depression. When I wrote to him to ask him some questions about his books, he sent me a charming, personal and characteristically funny letter in response.
There are thousands of people - many of them my friends - who will be feeling bereft today upon hearing that Terry Pratchett is no longer with us, and who will feel bereft all over again when suddenly Christmas comes around and there is no sign of a new Discworld book in their stocking, full of the adventures of all the memorable characters he created. No more Rincewind, no more Captain Vimes, no more Granny Weatherwax - no more The Luggage, even.
There will, of course, still be Death. There's always Death. But thanks to Terry Pratchett we might not fear him quite as much as we used to.
1948 - 2015
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