Funny is not the opposite of serious
Terry Pratchett’s work and life was powered by a kindly moral anger, writes Eddie Ford
Terry Pratchett: humour used for savage criticism
There can be no doubting the genuine affection for Terry Pratchett among wide layers of British society and throughout the world. Indeed, he was something of a cultural icon. Hence the deluge of tributes and fond reminiscences for the 66-year-old author, who died on March 12 of a rare variant of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease - or “the embuggerance”, as he liked to call it. It was particularly cruel for such a sharp and creative mind to be struck down by a condition such as posterior cortical atrophy, whereby the back of the brain begins to shrivel. Then again, essentially the same thing could be said of an endless number of other people afflicted by various degenerative and other chronic illnesses - Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, motor-neurone disease, etc. At least he died at home surrounded by his family - a dignified death that so many are denied.
Pratchett described himself as an omnivorous reader of books from the local library, making up for his lacklustre years at High Wycombe technical high school. He wrote his first story while still at school, ‘The Hades business’, which was originally published in the school magazine, but later became his first professional sale, when it was picked up by the magazine, Science Fantasy. Pratchett left school at 17 to work on his local paper, the Bucks Free Press, eventually moving to the Western Daily Press and Bath Chronicle. He later remarked that this period gave him a rich opportunity to see humanity in “all its various guises” through the lens of the reporter: the court cases, crimes, lawyers, suspects, coppers, magistrates, and so on.
By the time he died Pratchett had written more than 70 novels that sold almost 80 million copies worldwide, being translated into 37 languages. In 1996 he became the UK’s top-selling and highest-earning author, and in the modern age, only the career of JK Rowling - creator of Harry Potter - is comparable. He recently teamed up with the ‘hard’ science fiction writer, Stephen Baxter, for the ‘Long Earth’ series of novels, the fourth of which - The long utopia - is due out in the summer. Pratchett was knighted in 2008 for “services to literature” and received the World Fantasy award for life achievement in 2010.
Of course, he is best known - and adored - for the phenomenally successful 40-book Discworld series. The first, The colour of magic, was published in 1983 whilst he was working as a publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board in an area which covered three nuclear power stations - a fertile source for satire, one could imagine, given that the Three Mile Island accident was still fresh in the mind. The very last book, Raising steam, came out last year - which he completed using the very latest voice-recognition software.
The Discworld novels, as most Weekly Worker readers will doubtlessly know, are situated on a flat world (well, a slight convex disc) balanced on the backs of four elephants. These, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, which swims incredibly slowly through space. Nobody knows where it goes, or why, and its gender is unknown too - even though a spaceship has been built to go and have a look. This universe is populated by upside-down mountains, slow-witted barbarians, righteous witches who rarely use magic, farcically incompetent wizards like Rincewind1 and, perhaps his most popular creation, the very incarnation of Death - who always carries a clichéd scythe and permanently speaks in a booming and profoundly unamused voice (always in capitals, never in quotation marks), acting as the straight man amidst the comic chaos. Death also likes nothing better than to murder a good curry at the end of a hard day’s work. In fact, quite fittingly, the announcement of Pratchett’s death came on the author’s Twitter feed written in the voice of Death: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”
Essentially beginning as a cheerful parody-cum-homage to authors like JRR Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, the Discworld novels gradually became more satirical and arguably darker in tone. Therefore it is no accident that Pratchett’s heroes are resolutely unheroic and possess an everyday quality, even when they are saving the known cosmos. Naturally, Pratchett had mischievous fun subverting standard fantasy tropes like the orphaned future king, diabolical evil sorcerer, and so on. Possibly the most interesting creation is the actual city of Ankh-Morpork - highly suggestive as it is of Fritz Leiber’s marvellous Lankhmar.2 Ankh-Morpork is an “intricately sleazy metropolis with all the bustle and stench of Victorian London”, as the online Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction puts it,3 that becomes subject to a drawn-out ‘industrial revolution’ under the watchful eye of its ruthless yet strangely likeable dictator, Lord Vetinari the Patrician.
Over time, the city sees the invention of the printing press, steam trains, huge financial scandals involving the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork, the introduction of a huge golem to help police the streets (RoboCop?), an incipient revolution, albeit through the use of a time slip, problems with restive immigrant communities, such as dwarfs and trolls, a fully-fledged space-flight programme powered by dragon combustion and the development of Hex - the fantastically elaborate, Heath Robinson-style, ant-driven computer that is housed in the basement of the High Energy Magic Building at the Unseen University, and which inevitably develops a super-advanced, but extremely idiosyncratic, form of artificial intelligence.4 You could say that Pratchett was not so much dreaming up an alternative fantasy universe, but rather reimagining our very real world in the tradition of Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams.
According to fellow fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, who co-authored Good omens with Pratchett in 1990, his writing was “powered by fury”: anger at the headmaster who declared that the six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough to pass the 11-plus, anger at “pompous critics” and those who think “serious is the opposite of funny”, anger at his early American publishers, who appeared to have little interest in promoting or selling his books. But his anger was always tempered by kindness and compassion, and Granny Weatherwax’s5 definition of sin - “When you treat people as things” - tells all you need to know about his ethics.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of Pratchett’s anger - and humour - shifted in December 2007, when he was first diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy. Though higher intellectual capacity was not immediately affected, he soon learned there was no cure, nor any realistic hope of one within his expected lifetime, and was shocked to find out that funding for Alzheimer’s research was just 3% of that for cancer. In March 2008, Pratchett donated $1 million (about £494,000) to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, subsequently becoming a patron.
He became increasingly furious at a country that would not permit him and others in a similarly intolerable situation to choose the manner and the time of their passing - becoming an eloquent campaigner for euthanasia, or “assisted death”, as he preferred to call it. In May 2008 Pratchett appeared on the BBC’s The one show, openly talking about his condition - something unusual for a light entertainment programme on prime-time television. Then in February 2009 Pratchett made a two-part documentary for the BBC entitled Living with Alzheimer’s, which attracted 4.3 million viewers. The show won a Bafta award in the ‘factual series’ category.
More unusually still, Pratchett became the first ever novelist to deliver the prestigious Dimbleby lecture - a slot normally reserved for bastions of the establishment like prince Charles, Stella Rimington, Dr Rowan Williams, Bill Clinton, etc. Entitled Shaking hands with death, the programme was broadcast on February 1 2010 and was an impassioned plea for the right to die. The lecture had to be read for him by the actor, Tony Robinson.
The 45-minute lecture made the case for “euthanasia tribunals” - for the “good of society”, as well as that of the applicant. These would allow people to end their lives “at a time of their choosing”. Obviously, argued Pratchett, the tribunal would “ensure” that anyone before them was of “sound and informed mind”, “firm of purpose”, suffered from a “life-threatening and incurable disease” and was not “under the influence” of a third party. Crucially, the tribunal would also offer “protection” to the medical profession, suggesting that very many GPs would publicly come out in support of the “right to die” if they knew they were legally protected. For Pratchett, “we should aim for a good and rich life” - meaning one that is “well lived” - and at the end of it, to pass away in the “comfort of our own home” and in the “company of those who love us”: to have a “death worth dying for”. After all, he declared at the end of programme, “If I knew that I could die at any time I wanted, then suddenly every day would be as precious as a million pounds. If I knew that I could die, I would live. My life, my death, my choice.”
Pratchett’s Dimbleby lecture drew 2.1 million viewers (about 15% of the total share) and attracted more viewers than any other programme shown in the same BBC1 time slot, not to mention pulling the biggest ever TV audience for that august annual event. The following year Pratchett presented a one-off BBC television documentary called Choosing to die, detailing the journey of 71-year-old Peter Smedley - a millionaire hotelier - to the renowned Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. Suffering from motor-neurone disease, he took a lethal dose of barbiturates under carefully supervised conditions - with the documentary featuring footage of the man’s actual death.
By any measurement, whether viewing ratings or opinion polls, majority public opinion is highly supportive of the ‘right to die’. We in the CPGB fully share this healthy, pro-human sentiment: we have absolutely no problem with someone wanting to avoid a long and cruel process of humiliating (maybe even dehumanising) physical and mental suffering. Of course, we acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns about euthanasia - we would not immediately dismiss those with reservations as mere religious bigots, and nothing more.
Yes, it could be argued by extension that if people like Pratchett with various degenerative conditions are granted the ‘right to die’, then so should the chronically disabled or mentally ill - even if someone else might be making the decisions for them. It is virtually impossible to banish the foul memory of eugenics, an ideological phenomenon that - whether we like it or not - was intimately linked ‘programmatically’ to euthanasia, and which in its most extreme form in Nazi Germany culminated in the systematic murder of those deemed ‘undesirable’. There is also the worry that the legalisation of assisted dying would enable greedy and ruthless relatives to persuade granny, who keeps forgetting where she put her glasses or keys, to book a visit to the newly opened and very nice looking Dignitas clinic in London or Glasgow so that they can inherit her estate.
But in the end we must reject the status quo, which takes the real - suffering - individual out of the equation and gives primacy instead to the state or God. Communists support the right of anyone who wants to take control of their life and hence the circumstances of their death as well. The current situation, whereby British people have to drag themselves off to Switzerland if they want to be treated with any sort of dignity, is unacceptable. Nobody should be forced to live in a way they find insufferable, or feel compelled to throw themselves under a tube train or buy cheap heroin from the local dealer (hoping it does the job). This is a simple recognition that the quality of life is just as important as its duration. If someone thinks this is ‘Nazism’ then you can only feel sorry for them.
Indeed, we would go a bit further and say that suicide - assisted or otherwise - is a perfectly honourable option: to finish your life as a fully sentient human being. For example, from our own tradition we have the supremely dignified example of Laura Marx (second daughter of Karl) and her husband, Paul Lafargue, who died as part of a suicide pact in 1911. The elderly couple decided they had nothing left to give the movement, to which they had devoted their entire lives. In his suicide note, Lafargue wrote that he wanted to end his life “before pitiless old age, which has taken from me my pleasures and joys one after another and which has been stripping me of my physical and mental powers, can paralyse my energy and break my will, making me a burden to myself and to others” - but taking comfort from the “supreme joy of knowing that at some future time the cause to which I have been devoted for 45 years will triumph. Long live communism! Long live the Second International!” Years later, Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, recounted how he had said to her: “If one cannot work for the party any longer, one must be able to look truth in the face and die like the Lafargues.”
Here is our communist vision of how life should be led and death treated. In this sprit, we pay tribute to Terry Pratchett - for the fact that he fought for dignity and brought so much pleasure to millions through his writings, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
5. Granny Weatherwax is a powerful witch and member of the Lancre coven, found in the Ramtop mountains and about 500 miles hubwards of Ankh-Morpork. She is the self-appointed guardian of her small country and is one of the Discworld series’ main protagonists, having a major role in several of the novels.