Everything I have in common with Terry Pratchett


Catherine Robertson rifles through Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins and spots strange and brilliant similarities with her own life.

Beard: no

Black fedora hat: no

Over 100 million books sold: lolololololol, etc

Beaconsfield: a town in the English county of Buckinghamshire, where Terrence David John Pratchett was born in the Magellan Nursing Home in 1948 and spent most of his childhood. There is a plaque to commemorate Terry on the Beaconsfield Public Library, his favourite place. The model for Nanny Ogg was a resident of Beaconsfield Old Town called Mrs Plum, a regular drinking companion of his parents, David and Eileen. Beaconsfield is known for the Bekonscot Model Village and Railway, the scene of at least one Midsomer murder. I took my sons there several times and always enjoyed it more than they did.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927): one of Terry’s first humorous influencers, author of Three Men in a Boat and former resident of Marlow Common. When I was young, my grandfather would read out loud the chapter of Three Men in a Boat entitled “Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture”, which made me cry with laughter. From January-October 2002, me, my husband and our two young sons rented a huge but cruddy house on the crest of the Chiltern Hills above Marlow. To get to it, you drove through Marlow Common, where huge, not-cruddy houses were hidden down leafy driveways. During our time there, Jerome K. Jerome’s house, Monks’ Corner, came up for sale. I did not have two million pounds.

Wycombe Technical College: where Terry started his secondary education in 1959, after scraping through his eleven-plus exam. Located in the town of High Wycombe, the college was upgraded in 1970 and renamed John Hampden Grammar School. In September 2002, my eldest son went to John Hampden after passing his eleven-plus. He’d had three weeks to cram for it whereas most of his classmates had been tutored since age five. The uniform was in the same colours Terry had worn, black and yellow. Terry would read later that these were the colours of Satan, which summed up how both he and my son felt about the school. Satan was also the inspiration for Terry’s first story which he wrote while there. “The Hades Business” was published by Science Fantasy magazine in 1963, when he was only 15.

Leaving school to become a journalist: Instead of completing his A Levels, Terry went to work as a cub reporter at the Bucks Free Press, where he covered all the community news, including novelty fruit and veg. My father left school to work for the Otago Daily Times, where someone made him responsible for the household hints column, even though my father barely knew how to spread butter on toast. 

Marlow: Terry had a succession of terrible motorbikes, and his second, a Mobylette, died on him as he was riding back from a reporting job in Marlow. In Marlow, I made a terrible discovery about Terry Pratchett. My brother gave my sons the Johnny Maxwell trilogy: Johnny and Bomb, Only You Can Save Mankind and Johnny and the Dead. I saw the author’s name and made a scornful remark. “I really think you’d like him,” said my brother. So, I began to read – and realised that I had mixed Terry Pratchett up with Terry Brooks, author of earnest epic fantasies. I had ignored the Discworld series because I had in mind the wrong Terry! I’d been missing out for a whole 16 years!! Good news is that Marlow Library had all of them, and I went on a binge. After that, I had to wait 6 – 12 months like everyone else.

“Do not start at the beginning of Discworld”: Terry became a bit embarrassed about The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic and would order readers not to start with those. I tell everyone to start where I did, with Guards! Guards! Borrowing it from the Marlow Library is optional.

Amersham: Another Bucks town, where Terry and his wife, Lyn, rented a house. And where I sat on a park bench waiting for my car to be fixed, writing my first ever novel. It was un-publishably awful, but it was a start.

Marcus: a byline Terry used when he wrote an anonymous column for the Bucks Free Press, “a place for slices of local life and ‘wry takes’”. As Marcus, Terry interviewed Roald Dahl, who told him that “art was highly overrated in importance, by artists in particular”, words that influenced how Terry conducted himself when he became famous. Marcus was also the name of the love interest in my first published novel. My Marcus had been brought up in a stately home in Buckinghamshire.

Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed Terry that sci-fi could be funny as well as intelligent and determined his course to become a humorous fantasy writer. Douglas Adams had a house round the corner from where my brother lives now, and where you can still see Hotblack Desiato real estate signs. Before we lived in Marlow, we spent two years in Northern California. The year we moved there, Douglas Adams died of a heart attack in a gym in Southern California.

Neil Gaiman: in 1985, a 25-year-old Gaiman interviewed Terry for Space Voyager magazine and they clicked. I am not a lifelong friend and collaborator with Neil Gaiman but I have had breakfast with him, and read his child the book adaptation of Encanto while Neil’s ex-wife sang “We don’t talk about Bruno” from the other room.

Elizabeth Knox: back in New Zealand in 2003 and an obsessive Pratchett fan, I took my eldest son to see him speak at the Lower Hutt Memorial Theatre. Elizabeth Knox introduced him. Until then, I’d known her only as a distantly terrifying literary genius, but that evening, I realised that she was also a very funny terrifying literary genius. Terry read “Where’s My Cow?” from Thud!, and the hippopotamus impression killed me. I died. The hall was packed, and I didn’t want to wait in the signing queue because we had a long drive home. Regrets – that’s a big one. When Making Money came out in 2007, I sent away for a signed copy. It came with a small bag of plastic teeth from the set of the Hogfather movie, starring Michelle Dockery in her best ever role as Susan, granddaughter of Death.

SPEAKI NG OF WHICH: I aten’t dead, and I wish he wasn’t either, dammit.

Photo: Supplied

Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes by Rob Wilkins  (Penguin, $40) can be purchased from Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland


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