THE MODERN MINT BLOG
This week novelist Terry Pratchett passed away. He had been suffering with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease since 2007, a major health issue he called ‘an embuggerance.’
I met Terry Pratchett around 1990, when he came to a school close to ours. Our school were walked over there to sit in the assembly hall and listen to him speak. I had no idea who he was at the time, though I have a peculiar memory of him telling us how much money he made from each book. (It wasn’t a lot, but then he was selling a huge amount of books so it made it worthwhile…)
Whether this meeting led to me reading some of his books or not is hard to say. I think it was probably that I liked the cover of ‘The Carpet People’ that I picked it up from the library as a young boy. Or the sound of the title Johnny and the Bomb that made me take it home to read.
(Hold on a second – what has this got to do with gardening? Why has our gardening blog descended into a nostalgic review of my memories of Terry Pratchett? Because life is a rich and varied experience, and gardening (important as it is) needs a weighty counterpoint occasionally to remind us it is okay if our hostas get nibbled by slugs, or a late frost destroys the peach blossom. Other things happen outside of the borders, and these ideas in turn influence our gardening. This is why we invite you to read a blog about Terry Pratchett, because we need to swim in the river of life…)
The book ‘Good Omens’ came next, written with Neil Gaiman. I don’t remember really enjoying it. It was recently made into a radio series on the BBC and, though amusing, listening to it I can see why I hadn’t enjoyed it as a child – I would never have understood the majority of the references and parodies in the storyline. It also felt a bit… padded out. Jokes and little comedy sequences were thrown in that were not essential, comical yes, but superfluous to the story.
Which brings us to the Discworld series. It was this, of all Terry Pratchett’s works, I enjoyed the most. And this series changed enormously over the 40 (soon to be 41 with a posthumously produced Tiffany Aching story…) books. The first one I read was book 17, ‘Interesting Times’, bought with a voucher from my birthday. With no idea they were a series I ploughed in and got absolutely lost within the first ten pages – what the heck was going on here? But early in the book the main character, a wizard called Rincewind, swore. But he didn’t just swear, he elongated this particular swear word across several lines of the page (Rincewind really must have needed to express how he felt…) My pre-adolescent brain couldn’t believe what it was seeing – a swear word, written so brazenly here in a book, where anybody could just open it up and read it! It felt like the naughtiest, most savage act I had ever come across. I had to look around me to make sure another person’s innocent eyes couldn’t see what I was seeing.
That is probably the biggest fillip a book could ever give its reader… to be engaged in such a reckless activity, alone, yet shared by the author.
After ‘Interesting Times’ I devoured the rest over the next four or five years, into my mid-teens. Then by 16 I didn’t touch them. I had moved on and wanted to read something I felt was sharper. Or maybe just less populist…
I was wrong about them not being sharp enough though. Terry Pratchett’s writing was razor-sharp. I have recently come back to the Discworld novels (only 15 years away!) and seen just how smart they are. They are so smart you don’t even realise it, because you get sucked into the storytelling, which appears so simple but is in fact keenly constructed and many many layered. If we could design a garden that holds so many references, that is so well organised and yet so surprising at the same time… well, that is what we strive for. To be as good as Terry Pratchett with the tale of a garden, as he was telling tales of the Discworld.
We must stress this about the first five or six Discworld books – they feel like a writer warming up to his task. They are fantasy novels, they run all over the place, characters get into holes and you feel Terry Pratchett had fallen in with them, unable to get himself and the story out of trouble without the use of an unsubtle crowbar. And there are, like with Good Omens, lots of jokes. They detract, funny as they are, from what is really happening (or needing to happen.)
Yet the series changes. The engine runs hot and all of a sudden the Discworld feels real, complete, rulebound and yet elastic – elastic enough to be a vehicle for anything he wanted to write about, in any genre. So you get satires, detective dramas, thrillers, childrens stories, clowns, romances, voyages, political dramas, parodies, romances, tragedies and slants on old stories and classics – he really did some brilliant things.
If you want to teach people about the banking system, get them to read ‘Making Money’ – he explores the notion of inherent value, and what would happen if we use something other than gold as a symbol of wealth. It is brilliant. Or get them to read ‘Raising Steam’ to discover how politics as well as economics intertwine when a game-changing industry arrives – how people at the top of the systems react, how the people at the bottom are affected. This stuff matters.
But if I had to start somewhere it would be with the City Watch books, and the first story he wrote about them – ‘Guards! Guards!’
Over a number of books in the Discworld series involving the City Watch, the characters develop enormously. The Captain goes from cynical drunk with a chip on his shoulder to non-drinking Duke and Ambassador for the City (albeit still with a chip on his shoulder.) The City Watch grows too, to become a multi-cultural police force. These books seemed to offer Terry Pratchett a way to explore relationships between different minorities, of how they must find a way to work together and unite under a different banner than race. It afforded the opportunity for humour too, but humour driven by the characters rather than the ‘sticking-on’ of jokes like in his earlier books. A writer matured.
The City Watch also offers an, at times, brutal examination of the bravery required to stand up for the dispossessed. The Captain may have a chip on his shoulder but his personal doggedness to always be doing the right thing, rather than what he was told by his political superiors, gave a thrilling friction to many scenes in the books.
It was only this winter that I came across some of his books for younger readers. (‘Dodger’ was the first one, and I am surprised this is a book in the children’s section. In one scene ‘Dodger’ has to shoot the face off a corpse he is trying to get the police and other ‘interested parties’ to find. I read this late one evening, and this powerful image sent a chill through my dreams that night.) But it is the Tiffany Aching series of books for younger readers, starting with the ‘Wee Free Men’ and a nine year old Tiffany, that I liked the most. They follow her over the next seven years as she changes and grows into her role as a respected part of her pastoral community. There is so much depth to them, so many great shapes to the stories and how the community relate to her as she reshapes herself and her place, it seems a shame to brand them as books for ‘younger readers’. They are not. They are great books.
We hope you will enjoy the books of Terry Pratchett, who passed away this week at the age of 66, as much as we have done throughout the last thirty years.
Buy the ‘Wee Free Men’ here…
Transforming Topiary – a video made for the European Boxwood And Topiary Society by Charlotte Molesworth and I, in her garden. We take a dog topiary and work out how to update it, turning it into a bird. Worth a watch I think, and hopefully useful to you! You can see more of my clipping on the topiary page. Or read my Spring 2021 Topiary Provocation here.
Phillyrea is one of my favourite plants for topiary. I have been using it for quite a few years as a specimen shrub, mostly due to the fact it clips well and has a tough habit – all good characteristics for a topiary plant. It also has a reputation for being an excellent nectar source for bees… Read more about Phillyrea here. Mentioning this to Malcolm Thicke, a market garden historian and writer, he sent me a some photos of topiary and phillyrea mentioned by John Worlidge in Systema Horticulturae from 1682…. incredible! He also mentioned to me that in …
Kites and Strings is a podcast about creativity, hosted by US-based Stephen Ploum and Catherine Chinnock. Back in March they asked me to come onto their podcast and talk about topiary, my past writing plays, the stand-up I did and how creativity can fit into your life. The Kites and Strings podcast was great fun and Stephen and Catherine are fantastic hosts. Listening back today I am surprised by some of the ideas I talked about (somehow I even started to describe a future where I run a ‘School of Creativity’ by the sea…. where did that come from?!) but it …