The Wheeler Centre hosted Sir Terry Pratchett on Tuesday night in a sold-out appearance. There was a reading from an upcoming Discworld book — Snuff, featuring Sam Vimes, still kicking heads and taking names and a little bemused by it all — and the delicious smell of coffee in the foyer and the slightly offputting shades of green in the landscaped ceiling that made me feel I was looking down on some bizarre expressionist landscape, only it was up and I was down. Outside it was raining and inside it was warm and when I left the ‘reserved’ sign taped to my chair – reserved for the embarrassed latecomers, not anyone important — stuck to my back and it was only a kind alarm from the people behind me that saved me from further embarrassment.
Yes, it was a strange old night, sitting there, miles away in the tiered seats, acutely aware that the creative soul on the stage below is having a much more intimate conversation with his old character DEATH than he really ought to be.
It was the elephant in the room, that vile Alzheimer’s announced in 2008, and it roared out from backstage during question time when Pratchett, his trusty hat on his knees, his body thinner than I remember from a previous visit, was asked what we could do to legalise death with dignity.
Tell your government to change the law, he said; point to the countries that are doing it and doing it right; challenge the naysayers to prove their irrational fears of institutionalised malpractice; reject arguments based on God.
Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, the beginning of the Discworld phenomenon, was all the rage at uni — it came out in 1983 and we were playing catch-up, as avid fantasy readers do. I’ve followed along, dipping a toe in here and there, enamoured of any story featuring Death (who talks in FULL CAPITALS), and quite taken with Carpe Jugulum and Guards! Guards! Along the way have been other projects, and Good Omens, written with Neil Gaiman about the apocalypse, is a standout.
The thing I like about Discworld is not only its humour but its satire. In this universe, Pratchett has found a backdrop to write pretty much any story he pleases, and to sink the boot into pretty much any institution he feels warrants it. He was asked if he felt that frequent commentary on the series — Snuff is the 39th Discworld novel — saying it was getting progressively darker was fair, and he said he considered it to be not so much darker as more pragmatic. (Read some great Pratchett quotes here.)
Still sharp, Sir Terry; still able to deploy observation and wit to poke a laugh, even when talking about death and the right to end life that has run its course.
The conversation covered his journalism career and that industry’s inability to relate the whole truth of incidents — the cause and effect, the story behind the story, the ugly truths that society might not like to take responsibility for — and reflections on his writing career and on his relationships with his characters. The hour-long session was sprinkled with his trademark dry humour, and flavoured with poignancy because there was a feeling that this might be the last time we’d hear this stuff first-hand and, quite frankly, we’re not quite ready to lose that, that and the stories yet untold.
And of course, his books have much to say about our society and its mores. There is some comfort that that wisdom will live on, long after the pen has found its rest. I probably never will know know what the colour of magic is, but I do know that this particular shade wears a battered hat, and will leave the world a little darker when it has gone away. Meantime, write on, Sir Terry; ride on, Sir Knight!