Terry Pratchett A Slip of the Keyboard:
Collected Non-Fiction Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Corgi 2015 (2014)
I’ve come late to Pratchett’s writings. I had tried some comic fantasy and sci-fi and found it wanting; it mostly seemed to be trying too hard to be funny and witty. I enjoyed Red Dwarf on TV and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio but somehow on the page much of this genre writing seemed to consist of dull, lifeless things, full of their own cleverness. So, despite everyone saying I ought to try Pratchett, that I’d like his stuff, I resisted it. Perhaps it was the cover illustrations that put me off: “This is a wickedly weird funny book!” they seemed to scream at me.
Finally I recently took the plunge. Somehow the Piaf song Je ne regrette rien now rings a little hollow…
Where the fiction of his that I’ve read so far speaks of a man with his heart in the right place, A Slip of the Keyboard confirms that this heart could have been a twin of mine. We share much — the same birth year, a beard (not the same one, obviously), baldness, an irreligious spiritual inclination, anger directed at injustice, a love of words and a sense of the ridiculous — but sadly Pratchett surpassed me in terms of creativity, hard work, more creativity and more hard work. Where he was awesome, I am plain awful. And he suited hats, which I never have.
More than that, he was funny. “I don’t actually believe in magic any more than I believe in astrology, because I’m a Taurean and we don’t go in for all that weirdo occult stuff,” he wrote in 1985. (Even though I’m a Virgoan, I agree with that; the ability to suspend disbelief in magic through one’s writing, which Pratchett displays amply, is one I admire, relish, and envy.) On the page it works; and, as this collection of non-fiction suggests, when he addressed conventions or award ceremonies his spoken words had the same power.
So, this book. Pratchett’s miscellaneous musings range from 1963 (a letter to Vector, the magazine of the British Science Fiction Association) to 2011, four years before his death. The first and largest section is entitled ‘A Scribbling Intruder’ and mostly includes reflections on fantasy writing, wizards, computers and … hats, though there are also pieces on boxing and his friend Neil Gaiman for example. Virtually all are characterised by the wonderful blend of humour, common sense and the ridiculousness of everyday life. Much the same applies to ‘A Twit and a Dreamer’, though the subjects range more widely, from childhood to the existence or not of a Deity.
The tone changes with ‘Days of Rage’. Neil Gaiman’s introduction had already alluded to Pratchett’s anger: “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing […] anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus [secondary school examination]; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think that serious is the opposite of funny, anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully.” And that anger extended to testing in schools, the plight of the orangutans in their shrinking forests in Borneo, the injuries inflicted on the National Health Service in Britain, taxes, his early onset Alzheimer’s Disease (Posterior Cortical Atrophy, since you ask) and the legal sanction against assisted dying.
A history master at my school in the 60s showed us Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal, with its unremitting monochrome view of life and death, and its powerful images stayed with me while the overall storyline faded into obscurity. Pratchett had a similar epiphany when, “playing on the floor of my grandmother’s front room, I glanced up at the television and saw Death, talking to a Knight, […] with a scythe and an amiable manner”. Ever since then the image remained with him, and Death started appearing in his Discworld novels, becoming “one of its most popular characters”. And, of course, Death famously appeared in Sir Terry’s final tweets:
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.
How would the author like to be remembered? Should we harbour morbid thoughts about his passing, focus on the issues that roused his ire, or should we relish his vision of life as something of wonder, sometimes profound but more often ridiculous? I’d like to imagine it’s a bit of everything, characterised by his suggestion of ‘Things to Order Loudly in Restaurants’:
1) Liver with bigger tubes
2) Whitebait with extra eyes
3) Smorgasbord with the tops on
Here it all is encapsulated: dead things; pompous authority that needs to be brought down a peg or two; and a different way of looking at things. I’m grateful for that legacy of around fifty titles that I have yet to explore.