I’m always a little agnostic when it comes to exhibitions about writers. What is there to show? There was a little confusion when I was writing a critical book about an author as to whether I was writing a biography, and his agent contacted me with the reasonable objection that I hadn’t talked to anyone he knew. I corrected the confusion, but not before the author asserted that he wouldn’t object to a biography.
I was excited for ten minutes, before I realised (a) the day job and (b) what had the author done since 1983 but type? Type lots. I mean, great novels, bestselling novels, but how would that make three hundred pages of bio?
And so how would you make an exhibition of his life and work?
Think of the sf and gothic exhibitions at the British Library or the sf one at the Barbican, the literary parts, anyway. All those books in vitrines, like stuffed animals in a municipal museum. There’s a fetishisation of the object, yes, the buzz of seeing an edition you own in an actual museum. But that’s the covers, not the work.
So how can you have an exhibition of Terry Pratchett?
How do you fill, if not those three hundred pages, then an hour or more of browsing.
Curiously, there are few books here. I think the only ones by Pratchett on display are first editions of The Carpet People, with the hand-coloured illustrations. One is signed to Colin Smythe, his agent “may my book make lots of money”. It didn’t, of course, but a decade or so later the paperback of The Colour of Magic did. More interesting is Pratchett’s copy — I suspect one of several — of Brewer’s Book of Phrase and Fable, stuffed to the gills with bookmarks of torn manuscript. And then there’s Return of the King, close to a fan letter to Tolkien, praising Smith of Wootton Major and looking forward to The Silmarillion, along with Tolkien’s reply, dated two days later. There’s a man who could keep up with his fan mail, albeit in a letter a couple of sentences long.
There are no endless copies of Discworld novels in thirty or forty languages, no multiple versions of Truckers. To some extent it is a shame — and it is notable that in the simulation of Pratchett’s office, the only fiction is Douglas Adams’s, the rest being reference books and books of trivia and lists. What we do have, is lots of cover art, some from the artists Josh Kirby and Paul Kidby, others from Colin Smythe, a few from Pratchett’s estate.
Let’s get it in the open. I think Pratchett was a better artist than Kirby or Kidby.
But I guess I can see why the publishers ran with Kidby after Kirby’s death. Pratchett’s art for The Carpet People is charming, reminding me of Peter Firmin’s style, with a hint of Moomin, but Pratchett acknowledges the influence of Arthur Thomson, better known (if not in the exhibition) as Atom. Later illustrations by Pratchett of Rincewind and Granny Weatherwax for merchandising show a fine handling of line. There are, however, a whole series of Kirby and Kidby originals, including the latter’s Discworld Gothic, that inadvertently reveals how much of a genius Grant Wood was. But if I’m honest, the Tim White covers for those NEL editions of Dark Side of the Sun and Strata hold up better. But the paintings are accompanied with judicious quotations from Pratchett, presumably from interviews or articles. One about Reaper Man struck me forcibly — it is two novels in one. Yes, but what a novel. Comedy is all about laminating distinct ideas together.
There is a buzz in seeing the Imperial 58 typewriter he bought with the money from the sale of “The Hades Business” to John Carnell at Science Fantasy (an issue that includes Michael Moorcock on Mervyn Peake) and Tom Boardman’s The Unfriendly Future, which collected it in book form. In another room is an Olivetti Quaderno, his first truly portable computer. There are copies of Technical Cygnet, the school magazine where he was first published and early cartoons for Smythe’s psychical explorer magazine, in the form of “Warlock Hall” (1972).
Whilst we can see his apprenticeship leading up to Discworld, aside from a nod to Strata, his success springs from nowhere. There is the note of a headmaster saying that he would never amount to anything — as if the career was a chip on his shoulder proving a teacher wrong — and a variant on the line about where authors get their crazy ideas from — “a warehouse in Croydon”. In a sense, of course, this is no surprise: if we knew, we all would all be doing it. But there is no exam paper with “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit” written on it.
There is the shrine of his office from his house near Salisbury — a simulation of his bookcases, already mentioned, a model of the Luggage, the clock from the Thief of Time launch, reproductions of Lego kits and a ZX Spectrum, a Victorian desk with a hole cut for a cat bed, the six monitors he worked with… There’s a note about the bookcases he had built after he (presumably belatedly) realised he didn’t have to put up with planks that sagged under the weight: “The bookcases you build must be strong enough to hold this [the Encyclopedia Britannica] on every shelf and strong enough to allow me to climb it”.
There is Pratchett’s hat, leather jacket, cane and a tshirt, worn at conventions and signings as an “antidisguise” to allow him to become Terry Pratchett.
And then things get darker. Somewhere to the left of the office is a device used to stimulate Pratchett as part of the Alzheimer’s treatment. There are copies of the PCA tests to see where his brain function was; three images for him to copy. He did badly. The curator was offered the brain scans too, but perhaps wisely declined.
Lump in throat.
If that was the point I was considering a biography, then I’d have had something to write about. Trying to save the orangutan was obviously laudable, but Alzheimer’s (and dignity in dying, I don’t think dealt with here, again perhaps wisely) gave him one last cause.
There are the covers from the Tiffany Aching novels, one last flourish, with the admittance that The Shepherd’s Crown was not yet really finished. Personally, I’d say that those later Discworld novels (Making Money onwards) were not as strong as strong — but whilst they emerged in the period leading up to the diagnosis, I was Pratchetted out from writing An Unofficial Companion to the Novels of Terry Pratchett by then. But as series fiction having many books that were good or great is a unique achievement.
The Discworld goes on, the ten incomplete manuscripts allegedly being destroyed. The hard drive was crushed by a steam roller. I confess I am sceptical — didn’t he email out drafts to beta readers? Was the hard drive the only copy? I recall the Guardian claiming to have destroyed a computer full of wikileak type materials. The word is not destroyed that easily these days. And the novels live on.
I suspect one of the quotations used in the exhibition is from Reaper Man: “No-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.” Those ripples still remain.
There is a shooting script for the television adaptation of Good Omens, with a telling quote from Neil Gaiman: “he [Pratchett] doesn’t believe they’re [film adaptations] going to happen until he’s sitting in his seat eating popcorn, and I don’t believe they’re going to happen.” I recall being scoffed at for doubting the Good Omens film by Terry Gilliam would happen.
Pratchett seems the most human and humane of writers, powered by residual anger at the education system that clearly did its damnedest to drum a love of learning out of him (and clearly failed) and at an establishment that refused to see him as Literature and a thousand madnesses of the world. At the same time, he could write — boy, could that man write — this kind of benediction: “Please, go out into this world and experience its wonders. We live in interesting times and so it is best to enjoy the ride. I find the occasional brandy helps.”
This is not the first exhibition to move me to tears, but it’s the first one for a writer. He was such a writer.