Death, wizards and hats

brain, old print
… and still the wonder grew that one small head could carry all he knew.

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.

The End.

 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.

The Seventh Seal: Death and the Knight
The Seventh Seal: Death and the Knight
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15 thoughts on “Death, wizards and hats

    1. I would almost say one could do worse than start with this miscellany, Lory — not only do you get a sense of his style and way with words but most of the items come in bite-size chunks! Though there is the inevitable repetition of anecdotes that comes with writing for diverse publications and occasions he does manage to keep much of his material fresh and entertaining (even when he’s covering weighty matters).

  1. Sounds like a must read! I enjoyed the few Pratchetts I’ve read, but I’m not as keen as most of my friends. That said, I think I would love to read his non-fiction.

    1. Do hope you enjoy this when you get round to it, Marisa. I found I was able to read this in short doses in between other stuff, it was really pick-up-put-downable (but in a nice way). It certainly helped in my appreciation of his approach to writing fiction as well as underlining what a nice guy he basically was.

  2. I started reading Pratchett’s novels about 10 years ago. I had started with Small Gods but found some of it confusing so my next attempt was to start from the beginning. Though the books do not have to be read in order, they do build upon each other, and some small stories bleed into a later story. I highly recommend starting with the first.
    Chris, I watched The Seventh Seal a few years ago as part of a Humanities class on death and dying. Oh how well I remember the knight meeting death. Did not make the connection to Pratchett. Now I want to go back and re-watch it, as DEATH is my favorite character.
    I chose to remember my literary hero, not as an angry man, but as a gifted writer who has made me laugh and question society. Thank to Pratchett, I cannot take footnotes serious anymore, and learned to be very nice to my luggage.

    1. Ha! Yes, the footnotes, so often so serious but also so spurious.

      You aren’t the first to note that Pratchett’s stuff has often to be a personal discovery, however much the way to it is signposted by friends who are fans or by press articles or by groaning bookshop shelves. (As an aside, I pause every time I conjoin ‘groaning’ and ‘shelf’; I now suspect TP will have somewhere anthropomorphised tome supports and concocted dialogues where they grumble about the unreasonable weights they have to bear.) Still, previous travellers’ maps such as yours are always helpful, Sari, with START HERE in hi-viz letters usefully illuminated on them!

  3. Pingback: Literally challenged: update | calmgrove

  4. Alyssa

    I also just recently read this, though I haven’t read any of his other works. My friends have been trying to get me to delve into Pratchett, but this is the first time I’ve ever really been interested in his fiction. I think this collection does a good job in giving an overview into who he was as a person and writer, which I appreciated a lot. Your review is lovely, thank you for it.

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Alyssa, and glad you liked the review. I’m engaging with Pratchett bit by bit, having skated around his stuff for far too long. Hope you find him engaging too, though I’m finding I can only take him in short doses.

  5. =Tamar

    Even though I am a long-term fan of Pratchett, I agree that it is better to read something else between Pratchett books. That was easier when they were being published at about six-month intervals and we had to wait. (If you want to get the full experience, read something published by someone else at about the same time.) I advise re-reading as well, to find the things you missed the first time.

    1. Good advice, Tamar, thanks. I suspect I’ll leave the rereading till I’d got a few more TPs under my belt! I’ve lined up the first Tiffany Aching book for my next Discworld read as they’ve been suggested as my kind of thing.

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