Friday, 20 March 2015

The Embuggerance of Mortality

It’s funny, but even if you think you’re braced for someone dying, it’s no easier than if it comes out of the blue.  The difference is only in the initial shock, the process of adapting to the hole left in our lives remains one of life’s harsh realities for those left behind.  This applies whether it’s close family or idols we’ve never met.  I remember spending much of  the afternoon of 26th October 2004 reading the BBC announcement of John Peel’s death, closing it and reloading it as if to make sure it was true, as if there’d be a big ‘MERKED!’ there instead, that it’d be a dark joke.  Of course it wasn’t. Of course it was true. And we had to readjust to a world without Peel, without the man who’d somehow managed to last 37 years on an explicitly youth focused radio station.  Radio One paid tribute and adjusted, we who’d known him paid tribute and adjusted, perhaps even noting real life lacked a notion of dramatic subtlety by having him die at a point when arguably his primary role of introducing new music to a wide audience was being made redundant by the rise of the internet.  Or maybe it robbed us of the ideal curator for all these opportunities at exactly the wrong time.  It was the same when Douglas Adams went, when (at a younger age) Kurt Cobain died. On a grander scale the same was true of Princess Diana’s death, the country at large seemingly being dazed and confused and not knowing quite how to react.

I had the same reaction last Thursday, when I came back from lunch to find out that Terry Pratchett had died.  Pratchett’s death wasn’t as sudden or unexpected as those already mentioned, his early onset Alzheimers had rendered him increasingly and ever more noticeably frail. Death is, of course, an inevitability of the human condition but it’s a very different thing to know of your own mortality and being confronted with it, knowing that your personal end is near. For many that’d be an excuse to turn in on yourself, become maudlin and turn away from the world.  It’s a natural reaction.  Pratchett’s reaction was phenomenal.  In keeping with his books it was a reaction born of a peculiarly British strain of rage, one which eschews tantrums about the unfairness of life for keeping buggering on.  Pratchett dismissed the degenerative brain disease as an ‘embuggerance’ and went about raising the debate of the profile about assisted dying, making a memorable BBC documentary about it. Typically for Pratchett it confronted awkward questions about the subject, about the general societal belief in life imposing a painful, undignified existence on some.  It’s the sort of question his novels asked so well, the ones no-one really wants to confront.* Pratchett confronted it and refused any attempt at comfort or sugar coating. Like the best of his work it led us to a dark place, the evil witch’s cottage at the heart of the forest, but unlike the fiction it didn’t see the need to lead us out again.  It was a one-sided argument, a dark polemic. Unlike his books it didn’t lead us out again, it simply confronted the arguments about quality of life and the reality of assisted death head on.  As with his books, it left us wiser for hearing the argument.  Neil Gaiman pointed out, in a Guardian article about a collection of hisnon-fiction, that for all the imagery of Pratchett being a grandfatherly looking old chap writing fantasy the reality is he’s a tremendously angry writer. And he quite happily lets us know why he’s angry.  The difference with his anger and the venting that fills much of the internet is that Pratchett could weave this anger and darkness into beautifully told stories with wit to spare.  There was no incoherent ranting, more a calmly angry facing up to the realities and how they might be dealt with.  This ranged from how the most trivial ‘embuggerances’ are the ones we pay most attention to even though, in the long run, they don’t matter to a practical philosophy of how to cope with what we do doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.  It’s the act that separates the great storytellers from the merely good ones, the willingness to push a question beyond logical limits, no matter how absurd.

Of course, with his chosen settings tending toward the fantastic, Pratchett had plenty of latitude to be absurd and get away with it.  The main gift Pratchett gave to literature was a rediscovery of the principles of Jonathan Swift, of what could be slipped past the reader’s conscious mind if they’re laughing about daft tales of witches, wizards and sentient luggage. The reader has already bought into the inherent absurdity of the world so it’s quite simple to make the apparently sane seem equally as absurd by introducing it here.  It’s a trick that science-fiction had been using for decades, one prevalent around the time of the early Discworld books (the best relevant examples of the British strain of this tend to come in the long running comic 2000AD). Many writers have followed the template of absurd ideas in an absurd world, the trick most of them missed was grounding the characters as well as Pratchett did.  No matter what their exterior – male, female, orang-utang, troll, dog, god, anthropomorphic personality – they were all recognisable to us in their reactions.  Human is simultaneously the right and the wrong word for it.  Characters we could believe in, whose reactions weren’t illogical in any way but the very human way we’re all illogical, were what kept the Discworld spinning. Characters were more than a simple set of reactions – Rincewind more than a coward, Granny Weatherwax more than the hardened wise woman, Sam Vimes more than the cynical old cop. They were more complicated than that whilst actually being that simple.

After a random encounter with Equal Rites in the local library I eagerly devoured Pratchett for the next twenty years or so, snapping the books up as they came out.  Naturally I even met him once, popping into the Worcester branch of Waterstones after watching the 1995 FA Cup final.  I’m sure he’d heard it a million times but I still got to say thank you, which perhaps matters as much to the fan as to the writer. My wife could go one better, having run the Concussion convention in Cardiff with Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and having plenty of anecdotes about it (minor one: that convention apparently inspired Soul Music, certainly one of my wife’s very good friends is the inspiration for Death’s daughter Susan).  In the social media age the death of the author** has become a mass wake, the modern equivalent of sitting round the campfire and retelling our stories and I spent much of Friday reading through and listening to tributes.  And virtually all of them had some little nugget of truth in, some insight what made Pratchett so popular.  My favourite was a simple one, and one in the relatively quiet corner of the internet that’s my Facebook page.  It came from an old schoolmate of mine, who reminded me that decades ago I’d  pressed a copy of The Colour of Magic on him and insisted he read it.  On the Friday he said that this was what had properly got him into reading, something he hadn’t enjoyed doing before.  Obviously this was a grand and glorious compliment to my good taste, equally obviously it was also a bigger compliment to the quality of Pratchett’s books. By opening up the vistas of literature, a gateway to stories, he made my friend a little wiser and more joyful.  And ultimately that’s his finest legacy.  No-one’s ever been made stupider by reading a Pratchett book and Pratchett never lied to his readers, even when it might have been of comfort. 
Ultimately he knew that life always went on, even when individual lives didn’t.  And in this case his books will always be there, sentient missives from Pratchett’s mind, as alive and dangerous as any in the Unseen University library.  They’ll always be there ready to take the unwary mind through the deep dark forest, but crucially always ready to lead them out again, to remind us that if you know what it looks like, and you look hard enough, you can find light.*** Somewhere, in the corner of millions of mind, there’s a little Pratchett amused at our failing and railing against our stupidity.

And for that little Pratchett in the corner of my mind, I’m profoundly grateful.

* This is where he differs from fellow Wodehousian descendant Douglas Adams.  Adams provides the same sort of absurd angles as Pratchett but, until Last Chance To See converts him to the cause of conservationism, restricts himself to pointing out humanity’s foolishness.  Pratchett tells you why foolishness, stupidity and ignorance are bad and dangerous things and why they need stamping out.

** Actual death rather than amusing conceptual corner of postmodernism   

*** Assuming you’re not stuck down a mine without a lamp.

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