Terry Pratchett and a pig at Hay Festival 2012
What can I say about Terry Pratchett that will add to the chorus of voices singing his praises today? A writer and a fantasist, a witty philosopher, an inspiration and an entertainer of millions of people. A wonderful person, an honest and humble man who faced down his premature death sentence with dignity, bravery and an unflappable sense of humour that I doubt many of us could muster. All I can do, as I’m sure so many of us are doing, is share my own memories and experiences.

The first Discworld book I ever read was The Fifth Elephant. This is the fifth book in the City Watch cycle and certainly not an ideal place to start, but as a kid I didn’t know any better. I must have been 11, I suppose, since it came out in 2000; although I borrowed it from the library rather than part with hard-earned pocket money on an author I’d always been dubious about. (Josh Kirby’s bizarre covers, with their crazily muscular heroes and ridiculously buxom women, always looked a bit off-putting; I was too young to realise that the covers themselves were parodies.) Like any memorable book I still recall exactly where I read The Fifth Elephant, in a caravan at the back of my aunt and uncle’s place down in Capel in the middle of winter. I can’t remember what holiday that was or what we were doing there, but I remember being completely enchanted by a cynical and savvy detective, clever political intrigue in a fantasy kingdom, and a thrilling flight from werewolves through a snowy forest.

That was what surprised me: just how much of a serious novel it was. I knew that Pratchett was a humourous writer, but The Fifth Elephant was so much more than a series of jokes and puns and silliness. It was a proper, serious, dramatic story, involving travel to a far-flung land, political conspiracies, murder, subterfuge, love, family. Although I was probably too young to properly appreciate it, Pratchett was making observations about topics ranging from geopolitics to modernisation to the nature of violence, and hundreds of little things in between; the Discworld books, as any reader will tell you, are peppered with sly and witty observations about the human condition. Dealing in fantasy and comedy, two things which are by definition not meant to be taken seriously, Pratchett was crafting some of the most realistic characters I’d yet encountered in my short reading life. And I was delighted, of course, to find that there were another twenty-three marvellous books like this to read. (Now there are forty, and it would appear that Pratchett completed a forty-first before his death.)

These days, what most people know about Terry Pratchett is that he’s a humourous writer; a comic fantasy novelist. But like most funny people, he uses humour because he wants to be taken seriously. And god damn it, I’m still instinctively writing about him in present tense, because for as long as we knew this was coming it still seems wrong that he’s gone. 66 was far too young for a man of this calibre, a titan of English letters and the finest satirist of the modern age, to be taken away from us.

If you’ve never read any Pratchett before and the collective wave of internet sadness over his passing is making you think you should, all I can say is: yes, please do. You won’t regret it. Start with Pratchett’s own suggestion of Guards, Guards, the eighth Discworld novel but the first of the City Watch cycle and the introduction of Sam Vimes, one of the greatest antiheroes of all time – or the most “fully realised decent man in modern literature,” as Andrew Brown puts it in a wonderful piece over at the Guardian.

After having read The Fifth Elephant, I hoovered down the rest of the Discworld series over the course of my early teenage years. I can honestly say that no other artist or writer – with the possible exception of Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes – had such an impact on my understanding of human nature and the messy, complex, funny, terrible, exciting state of the world. He was cynical, but not a cynic; exasperated, but amused. In some immeasurable way, to some degree, Terry Pratchett shaped my personality; certainly more so than any other books I read as a child. Like so many other young readers, I owe him a great debt.

All I can do to repay it is to urge everybody to read his marvellous body of work, which is a fairly pointless edict, since the public doesn’t need my instruction. Pratchett was popular enough as it was (the best-selling author in Britain, in fact, before JK Rowling nudged him out) and I have no doubt that with his passing, his reputation and his legacy will continue to grow. A comparison with Dickens might seem excessive – but only to people who haven’t read him.

In recent years, despite their misgivings, I put both my best friend and my girlfriend on to Pratchett, and watching them enjoy the Discworld series made me want to re-read it. Now, as a sort of Grub Street commemoration, seems like a very appropriate time to revisit the works of an author who had such a great influence on me. I’m already looking forward to it.

No-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away – until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.

– From Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett (1991)

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