Spem in Alium

Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett

A man I loved, a man who had a profound and permanent and life-enhancing impact on me, died yesterday. I just wish I had been privileged enough to meet him.

We are not good, in this country, at being male and acknowledging the often fundamental influence other men have on us. We are awkward at it. We don’t necessarily acknowledge our role models, or our friends or mentors. We mumble something about them being good guys and shuffle on to some other topic of conversation. We inhibit ourselves, and in so doing I think we do ourselves and others a disservice. We should acknowledge, with gratitude, the things done and said for us and to us by those who take the time and make the effort to guide us.

I have been very fortunate in having some good men do this for me. First was and is my father. He is a fundamentally decent man – and if you think that that is damning with faint praise, I invite you to consider fully the overwhelming implications of the phrase. The second is a man called Neil, whose curiosity about and interest in almost everything taught me a whole lot about how to approach the tricky business of living; the third is a man called Archie, who came alongside me when I was horribly unhappy and living in a very particular species of hell, and helped more than he ever knew (and, when I later went to work on the Logos II, gave me as a parting gift the watch that I wear to this day); the fourth is Phil, who in addition to being my modern languages teacher at school became a friend who challenged me to explore whatever potential I possessed.

The fifth died yesterday. His name was Terry Pratchett.

I know that the internet now resounds, and the papers soon will echo, with eulogies for this great literary figure. I know the majority of these will be written either by journalists for whom this is their job, or by friends for whom this is their responsibility and their honour. I am neither journalist nor friend. I stake no claim, and Terry never knew I existed. I was just one of the millions upon millions who bought his books. I was a statistic, a contributor to his bestseller rankings. He had no conscious relationship with me.

And yet…

Stephen King once said that the secret of telepathy was writing. That true meetings of minds happened countless times a day via the printed page. Terry Pratchett did that for me, and there are very real and practical consequences as a result. Terry Pratchett played a significant role in making me who I am.

The beginnings of my story are woolly. This is wholly in keeping with Terry’s philosophy: the start of his book Soul Music is about the difficulty of finding the point at which you can say “We begin here…”. Pterry (as he was known on Usenet, where he was an early and enthusiastic adopter of the forum opportunities of the internet) had been a peripheral figure in my early childhood, where his Bromeliad trilogy and its associated TV series had featured only dimly. (I would later revisit the books, and enjoy them, and wonder why on earth I hadn’t shown more appreciation for them when I was young enough to be of the age for which they were clearly intended). I knew of Terry; he was just one name among dozens that I, always a bookish child, carried with me. But when the life-changing moment eventually came around, it came in a way I am sure Terry would have approved of. It happened in a library.

The Carnegie library in Bangor, where I grew up, was a building of two halves. The front half was the adults’ section, a dark, glowering kind of a room, with forbidding free-standing shelving units built out of angle iron coated with chipped gloss dark-green paint. I have seldom seen a room that announced more clearly that it was Not For Children. The back of the building, however, was different. There was a much lighter, airier room back there, where the shelving was much more friendly and painted a pale yellow. The room stretched off to your left when you went in, while to your right was the librarian’s desk and even – an impossibly exotic device, this, in the days before I ever used any kind of computer – a microfiche machine, where you could happily spend hours pretending you were capable of reading at superhuman speed as text zipped from one side of the scope to the other. Against the wall in which the door was set were yet more bookcases and it was here, one wet afternoon when I was maybe 7 or 8, that I came across the first Discworld book I would ever read.

Discworld is a world and a mirror of worlds. Flat, circular, and carried through space rotating on the backs of four great elephants that themselves balance on the shell of a mighty turtle, the Discworld was a place where stories could happen. And not just any stories – fantasy stories. And not just any fantasy stories – funny fantasy stories.

I learned this when I read the book in the damp library. The book was called Feet of Clay, and it was a murder mystery that featured golems. It was also startlingly, even incandescently, hilarious. I was alone in the room apart from the librarian, and I remember being mortified as I started to giggle. I stuffed the sleeve of my jumper in my mouth as I kept reading. It didn’t help. The book got funnier. My sleeve got wetter and I started making odd noises and turning odd colours. Eventually, of course, I lost my battle and frightened the librarian, because mirth that has been bottled up can, like anger, explode with great violence when it finally finds a release. I laughed until I cried, and then I spent half an hour reading her the funniest bits and making her laugh too.

It was an important day for me. It was the first time I was able to use the power of the written word to make a complete stranger laugh, and I discovered how much I liked it. It started me on the path that eventually led to The Heckler columns in the Gaudie, still by some considerable margin the toughest, funnest job I’ve ever had (if you think that’s exaggeration, consider this: my self-imposed task was to take a thousand words and use them to make 4,000 people laugh, and to do it on a different topic every single week), but more importantly it was the start of what was to become the longest and most important reader/writer relationship in my life.

It did this in two ways. First of all, the Discworld books became the biggest single drain on my limited finances. I got £10 pocket money: each novel cost £6.99. And there were dozens of them, so the books incidentally condemned me to a life of genteel poverty (little did I know the precedent this would set).

Earlier I mentioned being ‘horribly unhappy and living in a particular species of hell’. A debate that has rumbled on for years, and featured such distinguished antagonists as Michael Moorcock, China Mieville and J.R.R. Tolkien, considers the charge that literature, particularly fantasy literature, is inherently ‘escapist’, and then further considers whether this is, if true, a good or a bad thing. I don’t know, but I do know this – the Discworld books made me happy when very little else did, and when I was reading them the ghastliness of my circumstances was held at bay. I will be eternally grateful to Terry for the lifeline he unknowingly provided.

Secondly, in the character Sam Vimes I found someone I recognised but who also provided me with a standard against which I would measure myself. I wouldn’t have said that he was my hero – I was and am allergic to the word – but he was one of two people I desperately wanted to emulate. (The other, if you’re interested, was Leonard Cheshire – there’s nothing like aiming high!). Sam Vimes is a policeman, a copper, who when he first appears (in Guards! Guards!) is a drunk captain in charge of the tiny and discredited Night Watch. He eventually winds up, many books later, as the sober Commander of the City Watch, happily married, a father and a duke.

The version of Sam with which I mostly closely identify is the one we see in Thud!. I understand completely and intimately the idea of a Guarding Dark (read the book if you want to understand the reference – it’s far too involved to go into here). Vimes is allergic to injustice, trusts his judgement, and sympathises (in the fullest meaning of the word) with his fellow man. To this day the compliment of which I am most proud, and which has now come from several people who know or knew me very very well, is “You know who you remind me of? A Discworld character called Vimes…”

There was an article recently that reported a new perspective on Terry Pratchett: not as an author, but as a philosopher. I don’t know that it makes sense to think of him in that way (or, more accurately, that it makes sense to think of him in that way more than it makes sense to think of any other gifted novelist as a philosopher. Tolstoy, for instance, had some pretty deep things to say on human nature, as did Joseph Heller or Ray Bradbury, but I’m not sure the mantle of ‘philosopher’ sits easily on any one of them) but I do know that he is someone who had a very fundamental effect on the way I think about the world. For that reason I think that of the Discworld books his most important is Night Watch, which asks very very important questions about the nature and morality of power and authority. He also questions religion, most pointedly in a book called Small Gods, but he does so sensibly – and as a religious person myself, I can tell you that there is frequently nothing more helpful than someone making very sensible criticisms of the things you believe. The only way to get answers is to ask questions, and Terry asked some really good ones. No doubt he would be amused, rather than appalled (he was no Richard Dawkins), to discover that his atheism strengthened my Christianity. It was because of my love of Pratchett that I was once called a ‘lapsed atheist’, and it was probably because Pratchett’s puckish sense of humour so freakishly perfectly aligned with my own that I considered this a great compliment and was very pleased to receive it.

Terry Pratchett was – how hateful is using that tense! – a kind of literary alchemist, who turned into gold the things we deprecate. His view of the world was one suffused with wonder, and amusement, and kindness. As a fantasist he was peerless, because the internal logic of the outlandish scenarios he concocted remained inviolate and impeccable. As a humorist he was one of the very best the UK has ever produced (imagine! There was a time in this country when Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams were both alive and writing!) and as a moralist he was impassioned about all the right things – about dignity, and justice, and about opposing the abuse of the meek by the powerful, in whatever form that took.

Sir Terry Pratchett was not my friend. He did not know me. But I knew him, was deeply affected by him, and I shall miss him terribly.

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About Gavin

I am a 32-year-old PhD student in Aberdeen, Scotland. I work in QC at an e-learning company. I'm originally Northern Irish, though I've lived here in Aberdeen for several years. I am, essentially, somebody who is very normal, yet to whom very strange things keep happening...
This entry was posted in Beginnings, Hecklericity, Home thoughts from a prod, Tyrannosaurus Lex, Webworld. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Spem in Alium

  1. Ruth W says:

    Thank you, Gavin, for this powerful and moving article.

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