When I was around 14 years old, part of my English class involved quiet reading. We all had a book from the school library, and read it for maybe 10 or 15 minutes. The book I was reading made me laugh so hard I couldn’t contain it. The mirth just forced its way out as stifled giggles, snorts, and teary silent shaking. The people near by kept looking at me like I was having some kind of fit.
That book was Witches Abroad, by Terry (later, and most deservedly, Sir Terry) Pratchett, who died this week aged 66.
It wasn’t the first Discworld book I’d read. I was introduced to Discworld via Audiobooks, which back then were books on cassette. Tony Robinson read abridged versions that were about 3 hours long. I laughed my way through these, then later bought the books and realised there was so much more – more story, more description of the Discworld, and so much more humour. I think that was about the time Interesting Times had just come out (what a book that was!). It was great, as I had a whole bunch of novels to go back and read. Pratchett kept putting new ones out as well, sometimes two or three a year. My family have maintained a tradition of buying me the latest one when a birthday or a Christmas rolls around. Luckily, there are still a few for me to catch up on, so that doesn’t have to stop any time yet.
I like all the books. There’s definitely a change in tone as they go on. There’s less of the sheer nonsense in the later ones, and more humanist feeling. I have to say I love the nonsense of the earlier ones. I hadn’t discovered Monty Python at that point, but I knew Blackadder and Red Dwarf, and the Pratchett humour that I was able to get played right into it, as well as blowing open whole new doors. I was already a fantasy reader – Tolkien, the Shannara series, just moving into Stephen Donaldson territory – plus I was a D&D player and a Games Workshop tabletop battle gamer. I was as steeped in fantasy as if my mother had dipped me Achilles-like, into an epic fantasy River Styx when I was about six years old.
Then I read Pratchett. He took all those tropes and had fun with them. I say ‘had fun’ because I never thought what he was doing was ‘making fun’ of them.
“Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can. Of course, I could be wrong.” – T.P.
Pratchett was so much more than just a writer of funny stories. He did great mystery, police-procedural stories with the Ankh-Morpork Watch. He wrote about science, religion, cultures, and people. A lot about people. The stories are incredible, page-turners one and all. I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a new book faster than a brand-new Pratchett. His (mostly) no-chapters approach had something to do with that, I suspect, but you just wanted to keep going. There are characters that I’d give an awful lot to play on stage (Rincewind, Corporal Nobbs, Death, Cohen the Barbarian, Duke Felmet from Wyrd Sisters, Nijel the Destroyer from Sourcery, and probably Moist von Lipwig. Vimes is a great role too, but not one I think I could do justice to). If I have one regret about moving to Taiwan, it’s that it came just when my drama group at home started performing Discworld plays.
But all my favourite memories are about the humour. There’s word-play and silly names. There are visual gags and verbal gags and stuff that was just ridiculous. Characters like Nanny Ogg and Corporal Nobbs are gifted with dialogue that still has me in stitches. There were references that I got then, and more that I get now, sly or loving allusions to movies and history and literature and more besides. There hasn’t been a single one of his books that hasn’t made me laugh out loud and re-read the passage just to enjoy the joke again. There’s imagination that left me struggling to catch up.
There is this as well: “You can’t build a plot out of jokes. You need tragic relief. And you need to let people know that when a lot of frightened people are running around with edged weaponry, there are deaths. Stupid deaths, usually. I’m not writing ‘The A-Team’ – if there’s a fight going on, people will get hurt. Not letting this happen would be a betrayal.”
He also said: “If you are going to write, say, fantasy – stop reading fantasy. You’ve already read too much. Read other things; read westerns, read history, read anything that seems interesting, because if you only read fantasy and then you start to write fantasy, all you’re going to do is recycle the same old stuff and move it around a bit.”
It’s a lesson I don’t think I’ve ever truly taken to heart, as I’ve never stopped reading fantasy. But when I read that quote as a teenager I remembered to read other stuff too.
But what I’ll remember most is how much I laughed while reading Discworld. I laughed until it hurt. Now I know there won’t be any more, it may hurt for a different reason.
But I’ll still laugh.