Non-Fiction Reviews

Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes

(2022) Rob Wilkins, Transworld, £10.99, pbk, 324pp, ISBN 978-1-5291-7690-2


A long time ago, in a branch of L-Space far, far away (the city centre, no less), I was perusing the science fiction shelves (and not for the first time) when I spied a book with a most interesting cover. I had never heard of the author but it promised ‘Jerome K. Jerome meets Lord of the Rings (with a touch of Peter Pan)’ on the front, whilst the back assured me that it was ‘The wackiest and most original fantasy since Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’.  I have learned that great praise on a cover often means that the contents will be disappointing; nonetheless I bought the book as the cover also featured a glorious tumble of cartoon fantasy characters and it screamed FUN. When I opened the pages that evening I found it was FUN, lots of FUN.*  I told everyone I knew (not just the science fiction fans) that, even though they did not know the author, they should buy this book - they would love it! After lots of such extolations and a follow-up novel or two, the author became very popular, indeed, rather famous. Thus I would like to take credit for the success of Terry Pratchett - but the truth, of course, is that the cover of The Colour of Magic appealed to many people and, after that, Terry’s writing did the rest. They say a good cover can sell a book; in this case I think artist Josh Kirby’s cover sold the author.

This book (‘the official biography’) is about the man, the late Sir Terry Pratchett, and tells the story of his life and career and, of course, his success. He always put off writing his biography (there were so many other things to write about) so when his illness was diagnosed it was, perhaps, too late to start. He instructed Rob Wilkins, his personal assistant, to write the book on his behalf, ensured he knew what to put in it, and dictated passages for it. If ever a biography was Official, it is this one.

The book starts off by describing Terry’s life in a generally chronological order, though with many insights into his later life. This covers his birth, early childhood, school days, and career up until he became a fulltime author. After that it gently transitions into covering various aspects of his life and his work, grouped in terms of activities and experiences; it might be chronological whilst following a particular thread but the threads themselves are organised in a more organic way. The change of telling makes sense and works very well; indeed, continuing in a simple chronological string of events would be hard going for the reader. Inevitably, we reach the point where his illness begins to make itself known and the remainder of the book covers this period, again organically as it follows various threads.

Terrance David John was born in 1948 to David (a motor mechanic) and Eileen Pratchett and they lived in a very basic, rented cottage in the Buckinghamshire hamlet of Forty Green. When he was nine the family moved into a newly built council house in nearby Holtspur, on the edge of Beaconsfield, and this afforded them such benefits as running water, an actual bathroom, and a flushing toilet. He was still living there when he proposed to his girlfriend Lyn and they went on to buy their first house in High Wycombe. Later they lived for a short while with Terry’s godfather in the Knowle West part of Bristol but soon bought Gaze Cottage in the Somerset village of Rowberrow, where they were joined by a daughter, Rhianna. Later, now with a substantial income behind him, they moved to a ‘Domesday Manorette’ in the Chalke Valley, near Salisbury - with sixty-seven acres of rolling grounds through which the river Ebble ran, fields of sheep with a shepherds’ hut and a shepherdess, a purpose-built outbuilding for his writing (which he called the Chapel), and a specially-built astronomical observatory (which would have been named the Patrick Moore Memorial Observatory in honour of his friend, had it not been amongst the things that ultimately remained undone). He had certainly risen high from humble beginnings and in 2009 became Sir Terry for his services to literature.

By the time he was six, the head teacher of Holtspur primary school had decided that Terry was not eleven-plus material (11+ being the exam British children took aged 11 or 12 the passing of which enabled entry to the higher quality Grammer Schools) and, along with others so cursed, the school did not go out of its way to ensure it did its best for him. Eileen Pratchett, on the other hand, did all she could and due to her diligent efforts Terry passed the exam and progressed to Wycombe Technical High School. He passed his O-levels (school exams taken aged 16) but did not complete his A levels (exams taken aged 18 the passing of which facilitates entry to university), leaving education at the age of seventeen for the world of employment.

Terry had been a reluctant reader until he came across a story that caught his attention, one where he learned to buy into the story even thought the facts did not quite add up; he had learnt to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. With The Wind in the Willows he knew that a toad was far too small to drive a car, or a car was far too big to be driven by a toad, but once he had got past that minor inconvenience the story opened up for him. He was now a reader - he devoured everything he could get his hands on. I suspect that many SF fans have similar experiences (for me it was The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe).

Beaconsfield library became almost a second home for him and, thanks to a kindly librarian, he had far more library tickets than allowed (again, that must ring many fannish bells). By the age of twelve he had become a Saturday boy, doing odd jobs around the library. Much later Rhianna said ‘Dad was born in Beaconsfield but Terry Pratchett the author was born in Beaconsfield library’.

For some, reading inevitably leads to writing and at the age of fourteen he wrote ‘Business Rivals’, a short story for the school magazine, which published it in December 1962. This was his first printed work and shortly afterwards he submitted it to Science Fantasy magazine; with a little editing on his part, following advice from the editor, they printed it as ‘The Hades Business’ in August 1963. (Should you wish to read it, you will find it in At The Blink Of A Screen, a collection of his shorter writing.)

Terry was now fifteen and a published author. As such, he attended his first science fiction convention over the Easter weekend of 1964, the UK National Science Fiction Convention (known as the Eastercon), held that year in Peterborough. There would be many more conventions!

Aged seventeen, Terry decided he had had enough of education and became an apprentice reporter with the local paper, the Bucks Free Press, progressing to staff reporter. Whilst he was there he took his turn at being ‘Uncle Jim’, writer of short stories for the paper’s ‘Children’s Circle’, a task he soon came to enjoy. In 1968 he was sent to do an author interview and met publisher Colin Smythe, who later became his agent and published his first novel, The Carpet People.

In 1970, now a reporter with five years experience, Terry joined the Western Daily Press in Bristol. This was to prove a much tougher job and its extremely onerous nature caused him to leave after just eight months, taking a sabbatical and revitalising himself. In 1972 he rejoined the Bucks Free Press, this time as a sub-editor, and, to save an extremely long commute, the Pratchetts rented a flat in High Wycombe. They had retained Gaze Cottage, using it frequently, and the following year returned to it fulltime when Terry became a sub-editor at the Bath and Wilts Evening Chronicle.

Feeling the need for a change, in 1979 Terry approached the Central Electricity Generating Board and joined their regional press office in Bristol, a job he enjoyed. However, in 1987, as he was approaching the age of forty, he decided that, what with a few books already published and contracts for more, it was time to become a fulltime author. And so he commuted no further than to his desk in Gaze Cottage. He would later say that perhaps he could have turned to fulltime writing ten years earlier - think of it, another twenty Pratchetts for the bookshelves!

He remained a fulltime author until the end of his days. Apart from his copious writing, there were book signing tours and all the other things ‘a nauthor’ has to do, the making of film versions (both animations and live action), charitable activities, astronomy, and following his many interests. He even helped smelt the iron ore for his sword (something he felt a knight of the realm should actually possess). In 2007 he was diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy (a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease), or the ‘Embuggerance’ as he called it. Slowly life became more difficult for him and those around him but writing continued to keep him going, to somehow at least in part ensure he was still Terry Pratchett. But such a disease cannot be defeated and he left us in 2015.

I do not know if Rob Wilkins was originally a writer but all those of years of working with Terry must have rubbed off on him. In later years, Terry would dictate his stories and Rob would type them straight into the computer. He was thus directly exposed to the writing process, along with Terry’s hallmark way of looking at the ridiculousness of everyday things, and his writing carries the same hallmarks. What with Terry having been involved in the book early on and provided quotes for it, and the writer having been soaked in Terryness for a number of year, this biography has a very Terry feel to it.

Like so many fans, I had met Terry at conventions, sat round in groups at convention bars in his company, and very much liked him. In such circumstances, one could be guaranteed an interesting and worthwhile conversation covering almost any subject. Although I never knew Terry well enough to call him a friend, in this book I can see the man whose company I had enjoyed on such occasions, and that is a good measure of Rob Wilkins’ writing.

I found it informative and entertaining. Indeed, as biographies go, this is excellent. There were so many tales, so much of Terry’s history, so much happiness but also the inevitable sadness at the end. It has a lightness of touch yet is meaningful in what it says. It is worth reading just as a study of a life and a career, even if you did not read Terry’s works. It is my personal favourite of all the books I read in 2023 and I am not the only one to be so enamoured - at that year’s Worldcon (in Chengdu) it received the Hugo Award for Related Work. Some of that might be because for many it was a memory of Terry… but you do not get a Hugo with sloppy writing, you have to earn it. And this book has earned such an award.

Peter Tyers

* Perhaps I ought not to use the word FUN. To quote a footnote from the book: ‘The other banned term around Terry: fun. Fun was no fun at all, as far as Terry was concerned.’

[Note to Editor - Please keep the footnote as a footnote - this is about Terry and he loved footnotes]


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