The first breaktime of my first day at secondary school, I was a girl with a mission. The class I had just been in was in a room by the library, and there was investigation to be done.
I went into the library and did a circuit, mapping it out. I found the found the Fantasy section, full of names and titles and pictures of swords and dragons and pirates… and this thinnish green spine with the words “The Wyrd Sisters” on it. The what sisters? I pulled it out to see if the blurb would give me a clue. It sounded a lot like the Macbeth story out of my comic-book Shakespeare and I liked the name Granny Weatherwax, so I opened it to see what it was like. A few minutes later, I hooked a chair towards me with one foot and sat down to read, with a feeling of having come home…
Until secondary school, I found the school library a bit frustrating. At my primary school if you wanted Nancy Drew or Mallory Towers you had a really wide choice, but there was virtually nothing in there for me but a few of Ruth Mannings Sanders’ excellent collections.There wasn’t even any decent adventure stuff and I didn’t see why I should read girl’s books just because I was a girl. I wanted adventure and dragons and swordfights and pirates.Sweet Valley High was never going to cut it. As the teacher pointed out there was baby versions of fairy tales or girls talking about makeup and boys, and that was a pretty clear choice wasn’t it? Of course it was. I went for the fairy tales, or at least the ones with good pictures.
At the time, that was pretty much it for kids. Fantasy wasn’t really very fashionable. However, one of my sisters is ten years older than me and being a horribly precocious reader, I’d raided her bookshelves for interesting-looking titles such as Lord of the Rings and Anne McCaffrey so I knew there were some really good fantasy books – but sadly, they were out there, not in my primary school.
When I hit secondary school (about age ten), I headed straight up to the library. The entire Science Fiction and Fantasy section was two and a half shelves long – but in terms of seedcorn, it was pure magic. There was everything from Azimov to Zelazny and a whole load more. I found there one or two books each by names that would then send me down to the town library, the bookshop and even (when it got to us in the back of beyond) the internet. Anne McCaffrey was there, a couple of Andre Norton’s sci-fi and the first book of the Witch World series, Arthur C Clarke, a whole section of anthologies by then little-known authors such as Julian May and Diana Wynne Jones. Not only were there interesting books, but some stuff by women, which meant that the girls in the stories weren’t all pointless and fluttery and were far more inclined to hit the bad guy with a chair (or sword) when threatened than they were to weep, faint or call helplessly for the hero. The world opened up before me and it was full of dragons, and pirates and sword fighting – heady stuff!This was, moreover, much more the way stories should be. I was hooked.
So I read voraciously, omnivorously, and quite often, all night. The high point of my year was waiting for the new Pratchett to come out, and I read and re-read the others, finding new jokes with each reread, as my knowledge of the rest of the world of literature increased. I loved Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax and have never decided which of the two I identify with more, or wanted to indentify with more. I enjoyed the sillier books and in particular liked Death as a character (and felt a bit affectionately sorry for him). The wizards made me laugh. The Patrician is a particular favourite. So many characters to savour… It took me three books’ worth of accidental all-nighters to work out that Pratchett doesn’t even use chapters so just reading to the end of the chapter is never going to work…
Over and above the firings of his imagination, Pratchett’s attention to phrasing and careful sculpting of words have always been a source of pleasure. In his latter years, I admired the way he could take an issue from the real world and parallel it in his own in such a way that it was gripping and thought-provoking. It left you thinking about the issue without ever feeling preached at, and that’s a skill in itself. Furthermore, his timing was impeccable; not only his comic timing but his feel for when to change direction.
Somewhere about the sixteenth or seventeenth book I started to wonder if Pratchett had “done” humour. I read and enjoyed the book, but it seemed to be missing the exuberance of some of the earlier ones. I was still going to continue reading his stuff of course, but I do remember thinking that it would be sad if he had got bored, because the reader can always tell. And then as if he had read my mind, he brought out Guards! Guards! and the whole tone was different. There was still the city and the world we knew and loved, and the whole architecture of the Discworld, but this was darker and more dangerous. People got killed and things mattered and there were consequences. This was not the “light fantastic” we had grown to expect from Pratchett! Oh no – this was something much more gripping, and it took his writing up to the next level. I loved it.
Of course, Sam Vimes is a character very dear to my heart. He goes through the world trying to do the right thing in a world where almost everything else is trying to make him do what is easy and a little more…grey. But Sam Vimes is bloody-minded enough – and honest enough – to persist in the face of opposition, to keep looking for the truth when it would be so much easier to stop asking questions and accept the facile lies. Sam Vimes, in fact, acknowledges and accepts the darker half of himself, and uses it to power that part of him that struggles towards what is right.
And he wins. Unlike anything in real life, the world parts to let him through. And that is a fiction I very much want to believe.
I have to say, though, I’m impressed and touched by the response to the news of his death. People around the world have written about what his books mean to them, of course, and he has had an immense effect; but what is striking to me as a writer is the sheer number of people who have stories about emailing Terry and getting useful advice back, even when he was incredibly famous. The footprints he left are larger than just his books; as an author he seems to have extended a helping hand to many, many less famous writers, and that is a little legacy in its own right. Such a talented man; such a loss to literature as well as readers across the world. He touched a lot of lives.
So; goodbye and thanks, Terry. Your world-building and characters led me along the path to telling my own stories, and the thought that my book will sit on the same shelf as yours in that little school library is frankly thrilling. We will miss you, but at least you have not left us alone. I for one will be seeking solace in the company of Granny Weatherwax, the Librarian, Sam Vimes and other old friends to whom you introduced me.
Perhaps we’ll have a drink. Perhaps we’ll play Cripple Mr Onion. Almost certainly Nanny Ogg will get up on the table to sing ” The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All”. And although we were not there, I hope you will not mind if we wear the lilac, in memory of a man without whom the world is a slightly poorer place.
Basket of lilac: Copyright serezniy
Single lilac flower:Copyright Oleksii Mikhieienko