A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett, book review: The jolly elf’s angry side

Author Neil Gaiman’s introduction reads like a eulogy for a friend not-quite gone, and a reminder of what the world of literature will lose when Terry Pratchett eventually ceases raging

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The Independent Culture

In the introduction to a piece Terry Pratchett wrote at the end of 2000, looking at how close real life was tacking to the vision of the seminal science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, the author reveals that at that point in his career he was “the guy to talk to about sci-fi”, the author every journalist approached for a 12-second soundbite on everything from the possibility of life on Mars having ever existed to the potential for life on Earth coming to an end.

This, despite the fact that Pratchett isn’t a science-fiction writer, but a fantasy one.

Fast forward 14 years and Pratchett is the go-to guy for an altogether more sobering set of topics: dying, assisted or otherwise. And this, despite the fact that Terry Pratchett is most certainly not dead.

Pratchett was some years ago diagnosed with a vicious form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, which is something he discusses at length in many of the pieces assembled in A Slip of the Keyboard, which is a wonderful collection of his non-fiction.

Pratchett cuts an affable figure both in print and real life – whether he’s turning up for a convention devoted to his phenomenally successful Discworld comic fantasy series, or attending a TV panel debate on dignity in dying, he’s never without his black hat and neatly trimmed white beard.

It’s wrong, though, to mistake his popular image for the be-all and end-all of the man himself, who emerges as, yes, likeable but also complex and angry. Pratchett’s collaborator and friend Neil Gaiman puts it best in his introduction to the book, when he riffs on someone once describing Pratchett as “a jolly elf” to portray his friend instead as a writer fuelled by anger.

Indeed, it is the essays, articles and journalism collected under the heading “Days of Rage” which really open up Pratchett’s character. A vocal proponent for a change in the assisted dying laws, yes, but also commentary on NHS funding (he was refused a £2.50 Alzheimer’s drug because he was too young) and the plight of the orang-utans.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of fun in this book – it includes after-dinner speeches he can’t remember if he actually made, not because of the Alzheimer’s, but because of the late hour and the drink.

But the shadow cast over Pratchett is not only from his prodigious hat-brim now, but also his illness. Gaiman’s introduction reads like a eulogy for a friend not-quite gone, and a reminder of what the world of literature will lose when Terry Pratchett eventually ceases raging.

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