On Thursday, Sir Terry Pratchett, the illustrious fantasy author, passed away after a long struggle with Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA), a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease. His death was announced through a series of Tweets beginning with a message written entirely in capital letters – the way the character of the Discworld‘s Death speaks – reading: AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
In his forty four-year writing career Sir Terry has written over seventy wildly successful books, which have been translated into over thirty five languages and inspired a huge and devoted fan base worldwide. His book sales have totalled over eighty five million, and he received both an OBE and a knighthood for services to literature. His 2001 young adult novel The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents won the Carnegie Medal, and in 2010 he was awarded the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement. He also holds the honour of being the most shoplifted author in Britain.
Over forty of his books make up the Discworld series, set on a flat world sat on the backs of four giant elephants which in turn stand on the shell of the Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle swimming through space. Using a unique blend of wit, charisma, cutting satire, puns, quantum physics and footnotes, Sir Terry has used the Discworld as a platform to explore, critique and poke fun at an overwhelming number of topics, including history, scientific and industrial development, politics, religion, economics, urbanisation, the nature of death and belief, gender, war, racial intolerance and the sheer power of storytelling. Utilising the fantasy elements available to him (and the fact that reality is ‘thinner’ in the patch of the Universe where the Discworld exists), Sir Terry has taken each idea to its illogical extreme and used it as a way of exploring what really makes us tick as human beings, while also making us laugh until our sides ache. His uncanny ability to combine profound philosophical questions with slick and quirky humour has rightfully earned him the distinction of being one of the nation’s most beloved authors.
In 2007 Sir Terry was diagnosed with PCA, a rare condition which causes areas at the back of the brain to shrink and shrivel. Though his cognitive abilities were untouched, he suffered physical symptoms, including severe damage to his visual perceptive capabilities. His condition eventually led to him no longer being able to use a keyboard; his later works were written through dictation and speech recognition software. During his illness, Sir Terry became a very public and outspoken campaigner for Alzheimer’s and dementia research, participating in a number of documentaries intended to raise awareness and support for the treatment of such conditions. He also became a public campaigner on the subject of assisted suicide (although he personally disliked the term), presenting the award-winning documentary Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die with the BBC in 2011.
The news of his passing has been met with a national sense of loss and sadness, and the reaction amongst Durham’s own Ooook! Productions – named after the orang-utan Librarian of Discworld‘s premier magic University – has been no less emotional. The society was founded in 2009 by Tim Foster, Neb Saunders and Emma Matthews, all now Durham alumni, as a way of bringing the distinctive and quirky humour of Sir Terry’s work to the Durham stage, and the annual production of a Discworld stage adaptation has become the biggest event on the Ooook! calendar. The society is dedicated to donating its profits to charity and has traditionally donated money raised from the Pratchett adaptations to the Orangutan Foundation, although Sir Terry himself requested that profits from the 2013 show, Thief of Time (adapted by Tim Foster), were given to Dignity in Dying (a pro-assisted dying campaign group) instead. Ooook!‘s most recent production, Monstrous Regiment, was performed at the Assembly Rooms in Durham earlier this term, and raised £1000 for the Orangutan Foundation.
“Terry Pratchett has always been a great inspiration to me,” says Tim Foster, co-founder of Ooook! Productions. “It goes without saying that without him Ooook! Productions would never have existed. His insatiable wit and profound wisdom never cease to lift my spirits, helping me to see the humour that is prevalent in all the little details of the world. Contrary to Sir Terry’s final tweet, this is not “The End”. Terry Pratchett will live on through his creations for many many years to come.”
“I didn’t know Pratchett’s work for as long as some other Ooook! members,” says Imo Rolfe, Ooook!‘s current President. “I can’t describe myself as a dedicated a fan, but the things he has inspired us all with, the things he enabled us to do, the good times he provided… He is the reason we do what we do and the impact is tremendous.”
While it is an undeniable fact that the literary world lost one of its brightest and most brilliant minds yesterday, the legacy of Sir Terry’s work will live on for many years to come. In the last twenty four hours Ooook! members, old and new, have changed their Facebook profile images to the publicity images associated with the Discworld adaptations that have meant the most to them, donned their old Ooook! stash and flooded their newsfeeds with heartfelt messages of farewell to an author that has profoundly touched their lives. His books will continue to enrich the lives of thousands of readers worldwide, and Ooook! Productions will continue to introduce new people to his scintillating world through their shows and performances. To quote Sir Terry himself in a passage from Reaper Man (published 1991):
“In the Ramtop village where they dance the real Morris dance, for example, they believe that no one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away—until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”
Photograph: Tim Foster