What would Terry Pratchett have made of 2020?
Hard graft and moral clarity were central to the Discworld author’s success
If you could commission one author, living or dead, to novelise the past four months, who would you pick?
This question was posed to Twitter earlier this month, and while it yielded a broad spectrum of results, one name in particular came up again and again: Terry Pratchett.
A satirical sci-fi/fantasy writer might not seem the obvious choice to dissect the world-changing magnitude of an unforeseen pandemic — or so you might think if you’ve never read any of his books. But anyone familiar with the Pratchett’s oeuvre will know that the scouring wit and the unflinching grasp of humanity at its best and worst found within his pages would be the only true way to understand what has happened to our world since the start of the year.
Alas, we will never know how Sir Terry would have woven the government’s dysfunctional pandemic response, the etiquette of social distancing, mask and anti-mask culture or the mass shift to remote working into the realm of the Discworld (although we can be fairly confident that he would have done). But glimpses can be found in The Magic Of Terry Pratchett, a new biography by writer and comedian Marc Burrows.
This is the first full biography of the great man, from his upbringing in the quintessentially English hamlet of Forty Green, Buckinghamshire, to his battle with Alzheimer’s (which Pratchett dubbed “the Embuggerance”) and ferocious campaign for a law change to allow assisted dying — and featuring a whistle-stop tour of his 60-odd books.
It is, as Burrows admits from the start, the project of a committed fanboy. The author never actually got to speak to his literary hero (“This book is my chance to meet Terry Pratchett. It’s yours as well,” he explains early on), and has instead pieced together his life story through old interviews, archives, and conversations with friends and contemporaries.
The result is an engaging quest to get to know the man that both explores and adds to the mythology surrounding him. Pratchett was, as Burrows makes clear, a storyteller first and foremost, and some of his oft-repeated anecdotes — such as encountering a dead body age 17 on his first day as a junior reporter, or filing his copy from a shed on the roof — may have been based more on fantasy than reality. Where he cannot verify, Burrows sticks to the strategy taken by Tony Wilson in the film 24 Hour Party People: “When you have to choose between the truth and the legend, print the legend”.
As such, while this book will no doubt be of greatest interest to Pratchett fans, even those who have never opened a Discworld novel will find themselves entertained by its numerous detours — encompassing the educational apartheid of the 1950s, a surreal stint doing PR for Britain’s nuclear industry, and the once vibrant, now sadly endangered local journalism ecosystem.
The secret behind Pratchett’s prolific career was an eye for inspiration wherever it could be seized (whether in a nuclear power plant or frenzied newsroom), spun into success through non-stop graft. The portrait Burrows sketches is of a man obsessed with improvement, often with three books on the go at once. The result was a cast of characters developed over multiple decades to the point where Discworld readers feel like they could address the chronically cynical Sam Vimes or blisteringly hard-headed Granny Wetherwax like old friends.
What comes across above all in this biography is the same theme that dominates almost every Pratchett work: the author’s cold, hard fury at injustice. There’s the headmaster who dismissed his obvious potential at the age of six, and the bureaucracy that blocked him from ending his life as he chose. Burrows reveals how Pratchett’s genius was fuelled by a refusal to accept the world on the terms it was presented. Why else invent an entire universe on the back of a giant turtle?
The final chapters recount not only his rage at his diminishing mental capacity but how that rage was channeled onto the page. Remarkably, those efforts led to three posthumous novels. One gets the sense that his characters’ later conversations with Death were modelled on Pratchett’s own dialogues with his imagined Grim Reaper, who had by the end become a familiar companion.
Burrows reports reports that, in 1996, when Boris Johnson interviewed Pratchett for the Telegraph, the now Prime Minister admitted to being “baffled by the scale of his success”. Perhaps if Johnson were to revisit Pratchett’s work today, he might see the appeal of an author whose satirical gaze could strip bare the absurdities not just of fairytales and fantasy, but of the media industry, the psychology of paper money, the birth of the internet and the perils of populist politics.
We all want heroes who can see through unscrupulous politicians and champion what is right rather than what is popular. Pratchett not only wrote them; he was one.
Were he alive today, his cynicism and determination to hold power to account would have made short shrift of the Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic, while his unerring faith in the people would be a comforting reminder of our ability to adapt and endure. His voice in these “interesting times” (to quote his first ever Discworld character) is sorely missed.
And in his absence, The Magic Of Terry Pratchett is a worthy substitute.
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