Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes – Rob Wilkins

I was given this book for Christmas and picked it up to read a few chapters at 4pm that day, ten and a half hours, and most of a bottle of wine, later at 2:30am on Boxing Day I finished the last of the 429 pages. I just kept thinking I’ll read another chapter and then by one o’clock in the morning it was a case of, well I may as well finish it then. Yes I knew a lot of the story already but Rob’s writing draws you in, he is surprisingly good with a turn of phrase although I suppose he was taught by a master. Rob Wilkins, for those who don’t know, was Terry’s PA and later business manager from December 2000 until his death. He now runs Narrativia (a production company looking after Terry’s works) and Terry’s literary estate alongside Rhianna Pratchett, Terry’s daughter. It is this that gives him a unique oversight of Terry’s life and works.

Terry had started to compile notes for an autobiography before he died in 2015 but by then had only produced around 24,000 words and reached 1979, still way before he wrote his first Discworld novel. At that point he had had only two novels published, ‘The Carpet People’ and ‘Dark Side of the Sun’ along with a handful of short stories. Rob has used these notes extensively but there needed to be a lot more research, not just to fill in gaps but also to do some fact checking. Not everything was, or even could, be checked and some of these fell into the category, referred to several times in the book as Too Good To Check, invariably abbreviated as TGTC. Terry was diagnosed with Posterior cortical atrophy, a variety of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and as Rob points out, just how reliable were his memories especially near the end so a lot of checking was needed, fortunately Lyn (Terry’s wife for more that forty years) and Rhianna were always available along with numerous other people so the book has to be described as pretty accurate, except possibly where it is TGTC.

The book does indeed cover Terry’s life, rather unlike a lot of biographies which tend to rush to the point at which the person being written about has done something significant that brought them to the public’s attention. As I said at the beginning there are 429 pages and it is only as we approach page 200 that the first book in the Discworld series is being written. Before that we have his schooldays and his initial somewhat ambivalent attitude to reading. His first job, in a library, and leaving school before his A levels to become an apprentice journalist on his local newspaper. Journalism was where Terry learnt to write and love words and especially books. One paragraph in the book really spoke to me and my love of books.

You know how it goes. You start out just borrowing a few books from the library, or your grandmother, and thinking you’ve got it under control and that you can handle it – they’re just loans, after all, so what’s the fuss about? And the next thing you know you’re moving on to the harder stuff -second-hand books from second-hand bookshops, and actually paying for them with your own money and taking them home with you to own, putting them on a shelf in your bedroom, even. And at that point, most likely, it’s all over and you’ll be on to brand new books before you realise it, and almost certainly an addict for the rest of your life.

Chapter three

In June 2011 Terry and Rob appeared in their second TV documentary ‘Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die’, an incredibly difficult programme to watch about assisted suicide which was something Terry was considering for himself as his condition worsened and was actively campaigning for a change in the law in the UK so that people wouldn’t have to go to Switzerland which was the only place in Europe where it was legal. Throughout the programme you can see Terry getting more enthusiastic and Rob getting more and more distressed as the reality of what they were talking about hit hard. The next day after the broadcast I happened to be talking to Rob on the phone about something else and he asked me what I had thought of the programme and I told him that I had cried at times, much as I did nearing the end of this book eleven years later, and that it was his reactions that I had most been drawn to. I wish he had mentioned something that appears in this book as he sat watching the programme himself and was scrolling through the twitter feed to try to gauge peoples reactions to the documentary when he randomly paused his scrolling to read “Terry Pratchett’s Assistant is a Right Knob”. Years later at the 2016 Discworld convention, the first one after Terry’s death, he had clearly embraced this sentiment.

Rob Wilkins on stage at the 2016 Discworld Convention at Kenilworth near Warwick, England on 26th August, photo taken by me.

It was a great read Rob, and no you’re not a Right Knob.

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