What is a world without Terry Pratchett?

A new BBC documentary, ‘Back In Black’, comforts fans, welcomes newcomers and sheds light on the words and the wizardry


Terry Pratchett received Bollinger Wodehouse award for comic writing with a pig called snuff in 2012. Photo: AP
Terry Pratchett received Bollinger Wodehouse award for comic writing with a pig called snuff in 2012. Photo: AP

“Draw a map to a place that doesn’t exist.”

I can’t quote much of what Terry Pratchett said to us at the University of Warwick many winters ago, save for that lovely line he used to illustrate how fiendishly simple it is to find a starting point—even when what you’re doing is as complicated as creating an entire imaginary universe. The audience was rapt as this man—one I hadn’t then read, but who wore a captivatingly majestic hat—elaborated on world-building, many a lethal line delivered with a straight face. We strained to hear him over our own giggles. Later, I bought him a beer and he made me a dragon. But that, as I said, came later.

Pratchett took Death by the hand and sauntered off two years ago—and what a catastrophic time it has been for the world. “The whole of life is just like watching a film,” he had written in his novel Moving Pictures, a satire on the motion picture industry. “Only it’s as though you always get in 10 minutes after the big picture has started, and no one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it all out yourself from the clues.” Without Pratchett to show us the way, we are all clearly at sea.

Back In Black, a new BBC documentary, provides salve. Directed by acclaimed director Charlie Russell, this hour-long tribute embraces Pratchett’s whimsy and comes dashed close to fulfilling the writer’s wish of being present at his own memorial. It allows him to come back from the dead—via well-disguised actor Paul Kaye, mouthing many of Pratchett’s own words—and pat us on the collective head, telling us that his novels remain, his Discworld is as bustling and vibrant, and that we—terrifyingly enough—are now in charge. It also tells us why streetlights are more important than stars.

Pratchett, through his 41 Discworld novels, created a world of singular, unprecedented detail. A flat disc set on the backs of four elephants carried through space on the back of a humongous turtle, the Discworld has it all—footballers and film-makers, academics and politicians, supermodels and simian librarians. Back In Black provides insight into the mind of this stupendously imaginative writer and his creations. Kaye, imitating Pratchett’s whistle-y voice, speaks about being an only child, about being savagely jeered at by his headmaster, and—his eyes a-twinkle—about the first time he read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows. “It had a toad… and not just any toad, a toad who could drive a car and represent himself in court!”

In an achingly bitter irony, this writer who used to write two-three novels a year, churning out satire at racehorse clip—a writer whose every other sentence is a jewel of wit and wisdom, worthy of being framed under glass or stitched on to a shirt—was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The film opens with the real Terry forgetting the word “mirror”, and later in the film, his assistant Rob Wilkins recollects the day Terry himself declared that it was all over, a couple of months before he died. He had finished seven more novels while suffering from the condition, but one day.... One day he couldn’t find the “S” key on his keyboard and wondered where Rob had put it.

"He let this 22-year-old buy him a beer.... A couple of novels later, in Thud!, there appeared ‘a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour’, and his name was Raja"-

Pratchett believed in parity between his characters, which is why his is a strongly feminist and free world. This jaw-dropping inclusivity makes it fitting that— apart from a couple of friends and collaborators like Neil Gaiman, with whom he wrote the marvellous Good Omens—most of the people talking in the film are fans. A woman describes herself as a little old lady who lives with her daughter “but when I come to Discworld, I am an assassin.” Some made their way into his books, like British artist and Discworld memorabilia creator Bernard Pearson, on whom Pratchett based Monstrous Regiment’s Sergeant Jack Jackrum. “He was one of those people who didn’t have a waist,” chuckles Pearson merrily. “He had an equator.”

I got off easier. After badgering Pratchett with questions, he let this 22-year-old buy him a beer. He took off his hat, smiled at my bright-blue hair, and told me being an only child merely meant more time to write. He said his first few books were “absolute rubbish” but he felt it was okay to write those so long as you worked your way up to the good stuff. It was a special and incredibly warm evening, and a couple of novels later, in Thud!, there appeared “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, and his name was Raja.

As we read and re-read the Discworld novels—of which Mort and Wyrd Sisters are the finest starting points—we must bid goodbye to Pratchett but never to his dazzling world. “There are times in life when people must know when not to let go,” he had written. “Balloons are designed to teach small children this.” As I sobbed in unison with Neil Gaiman on screen, my doorbell rang and a big, shiny, utterly unexpected copy of Gaiman’s new book on myths was delivered. Pratchett might not be writing any more, but he’s certainly still winking. Magic lives.

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