Everyone at Discworld Ales (and Ales By Mail) would like to express their sympathy to the family of Terry Pratchett, who passed away on the 12th March 2015.
Rest in Peace Terry.
A few weeks ago I was able to visit Terry at his home in Wiltshire. Following that visit I began to write these words. Today, his death has been announced and I offer my thoughts on my friend.
My friend Terry Pratchett is adrift. Finally snookered by the disease he spent his final years fighting. Valiantly attempting to keep one step ahead. Like the situations facing gunslingers in the westerns he loves, there isn’t a way out of this confrontation.
When Terry Pratchett first met me he didn’t know who I was. The last time I was fortunate to spend time in his company, the same was sadly true. Ravaged by his embuggerance, his brave fight was coming to an end and the vicious bastard that is PCA had finally rendered him silent.
When first we met, I’d been a face at a signing, a 30 second encounter, then a person posting on a newsgroup (alt.fan.pratchett). He didn’t know me from Adam.
Today, as I knelt by his side and gently held his elbow, my friend Terry Pratchett was desperately trying to speak. His arms reached out periodically, as if trying to communicate in another way, and he leaned forward trying to see those around him.
I’d been prepared for what to expect – it helped a little. I needed to hold it together. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done. But I had to do it – I might not get another opportunity to say my goodbyes.
20 years ago a younger version of me wanted Terry Pratchett to be his friend – I believed that would allow me to become part of the Discworld empire. Young and arrogant, I didn’t really understand friendship. The younger me would devour any new Discworld offering in hours. Fantasy – and particularly Pratchett’s work – had given this academic underachiever a different kind of schooling. It had fanned the flames of my creativity.
I’m just a little younger than Terry was when we first met – when he decided not to snuff out an offer to run a Discworld fan convention. Would I feel the same way now if asked to put my faith in an untested, unknown person? Would I put my faith and trust in them? In honour of my friend and his vision, for what remains of my life I will try.
I owe Terry a tremendous debt of gratitude. He gave me a chance to shine – I learned how to run a business. The Convention had some amazing highs and soul-numbing lows. When we hit a snag he stepped in and helped. It lead me to the path I follow today, running a successful business.
I know now that friendship takes many forms. We were a generation apart and his knowledge of what seemed like everything was epic. I could listen to his anecdotes until the sun had long set. He would ask me questions (and was kind enough not to highlight any ignorance in my naive answers) and he listened when I did speak. There would have been booze! He was careful not to pour scorn on my exuberant optimism for an idea, and I began to understand how his mind worked. We had become friends.
Over the years we had our moments – friendships do. We fell out, we disagreed and more than once relations broke down with only essential communication via third parties. During those times I missed being able to seek his counsel. A true friendship survives these trials: his capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation was massive. My temperament when younger didn’t help, for sure. More than once he gave a way back, when frankly he didn’t need to.
The generosity of these actions is what I will remember of him most. He really had no obligation to put his faith in me again and again – looking back now as I reflect on our history I can finally understand just what our friendship was. I know a lot of what he felt for me – and I for him – was unspoken. A very British friendship indeed.
Once, right at the beginning, I got to see behind the professional facade – I’d been upset by someone’s reaction when I enquired as to their well-being at the very first Discworld Convention in 1996. I was close to tears – the emotion, stress and too little sleep tipped me over the edge. Terry heard and saw my distress and, realising my need for privacy, shielded me from the glare of others. We ended up in one of the hotel’s back-of-house areas, where he asked me what had happened.
I tried to explain, but when I broke down again – well, I’ll remember his words forever. “Paul, you’re one of the best blokes I know….” and at that point he too broke down with emotion. More words were said, but have since faded from memory. We hugged, pulled ourselves together and went our separate ways, back into the glare of the Convention.
Shortly afterwards, I received an apology from the person who’d triggered the meltdown. I think Terry, as he would put it, had “prodded some buttock”. He had my back.
In the years I’ve known Terry I’ve been privileged to spend time with him at events and down the pub – he famously condemned me to a custard bath during an evening spent in a Suffolk pub garden. When he was working and on tour we used to follow him from shop to shop distributing leaflets about the Convention – the World Wide Web was in its infancy at the time. I generally tried to be invisible: we were there at the pleasure of the bookstores and didn’t want to push our luck. Terry was working and didn’t need us as a distraction. In Colchester, my home town at the time, Terry was signing in a tiny bookshop, and was down in the basement.
He was on his own at the time, with no publisher’s minder in attendance. For the duration of the signing, I stayed at his side handing out potatoes on pieces of string and chatting – answering fans’ Convention questions if clarification was needed, and at one point moving a couple of rowdy youths out of the way. It was a great few hours, with surprisingly few words. It was like existing in a dream state. We went for dinner afterwards: I gave him some company and it was his way of thanking me for my time. A priceless thanks, that money couldn’t buy.
A generous friend, he was prepared to let me play in his creation and to create ales based on his characters. Others would not have been so overwhelmingly generous. I’ve had so much fun in his world.
Terry, thank you for everything you have given without expectation of return, time you have shared, for the entertainment, the laughs, the joy and the shared tears. Thank you for sticking with me through thick and thin and having my back when I needed it.
I wish there was more I could do for you in this hour of need. Go gently now my friend. I hope Death is on hand to guide you as you begin the next big adventure. Rest well, and I will raise a glass of fine brandy in your honour. Thank you for being my friend.
Photos supplied by Pat Harris, with thanks.