I was heartbroken to learn last week that we had lost one of our most beloved authors to the cruel waste of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Sir Terry Pratchett was just 66 when he shuffled of the old mortal coil last week…it feels like a loss in my family. If you haven’t come across him (where have you been!) he was one of the most prolific British authors of the past few decades. He started writing his brilliant Discworld series in the early 80’s as a satire of the then burgeoning genre of fantasy fiction mostly for his own amusement. At the time he was a mediocre journalist turned PR hack writing press releases for the British Nuclear Fuels industry. Much to his surprise the Discworld saga took off. He was wildly popular, selling over 85 million books in 37 languages….and I came to think of him as a close family friend.
The Discworld is a fantasy land where a flat earth is balanced on the backs of four giant elephants which stand on the back of the great star turtle as it swims through the eternity of space. The disc is a thinly veiled metaphor for our society. It’s a world where magic works (albeit unpredictably) and in the city of Ankh-Morpork (which is roughly the London of Dickens and today smashed together) pretty much anything can and does happen. I’ve read everything he ever wrote, I’m a huge audio book fan and many of his books I have listened to hundreds if not thousands of times. Every night I go to sleep with his marvelous stories narrated by the equally marvelous Stephen Briggs playing in my ear.
If you haven’t come across him he’s tricky to describe. His writing is sharp without being spiteful, insightful but not preechy and always, always funny. His writing is (Lord I guess that’s a ‘was’ now) beautifully observed. He follows in the tradition of Mencken and Wodehouse using dry wit to poke fun at all aspects of our society. His range was tremendous, Hollywood, ancient Egypt, soccer violence, Jingoism, opera, war, death, newspapers, steam trains, politics, diplomacy and economics all fell prey to his relentlessly acerbic humor.
As he matured (he would say only wines mature..men just get old) his writing improved, got richer and more complex. Thud and Snuff are arguably two of the best funny books written this generation. Back in 2007 he announced that he had contracted early onset Alzheimer’s (an Embuggerance as he called it) and yet he continued to write…albeit with coauthors. His last Discworld book (co-written with his wife) showed signs of the disease…it lacked the pith and wisdom of his best books.
As the disease ate into him he became a high profile activist for assisted suicide pushing for legal reform in the UK. At the end we were told he died from natural causes. My lovely wife (who is a nurse very familiar with his disease) suggests that it’s unlikely that someone would die so quickly from a disease which attacks the brain but leaves other critical systems intact. I hope he had the where with all and family support to get hold of the barbiturate overdose he needed to meet death on his own terms.
We are left with a disc shaped hole in out hearts. Life will not be as funny and we will have to move on without the incomparable Sir Terry.