This week I went to two literary events which could hardly have contrasted from one another more starkly. The first one quiet and concerning the birth of a book. The second one huge, and cacophonous, and mourning the absence of books-to-be.
On Wednesday I saw one of my favourite living novelists, Jon McGregor (If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Even the Dogs, etc) editing a work-in-progress before a crowd of thirteen in Review bookshop, Peckham. I only knew about the event because I happened to be on Twitter at the right time to see McGregor announce it; I was only able to attend because I happen to live in London. I booked a ticket and scurried across town straight after work not knowing much of what to expect, save that we would be hearing some excerpts from McGregor’s just-finished first draft Reservoir 13. The novel comes out next April.
The bookshop was tiny, so thirteen attendees almost packed it out. I think most knew either McGregor himself or Katia, the bookseller, with just a couple of us who’d drifted in from Twitter. We were poured wine from brown cardboard boxes, and told to refill our glasses as we pleased.
The reading was very brave; I won’t post too many details of the nascent novel publicly, but in short McGregor read out not a single excerpt but a non-sequential selection – a ‘slice’ through Reservoir 13. Occasionally he would pause, in the reading or the discussions afterwards, to talk about a minor detail: did we think a spider’s web was spun or span? Does a heron lope?
I wrote my MSc thesis partially about Even the Dogs, which I described (alongside Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing) as successfully frustrating the apparatus of realist convention in order to offer representation to voices – the homeless, the addicted, the dispossessed – who are themselves frustrated by the officious apparatus of conventional language and social frameworks. I got the chance to chat to McGregor for a while; he was gracious enough to let me bore him briefly about this, and also to sign my battered, beloved, over-annotated Master’s Degree copy of Even the Dogs.
This wee event was inspiring in its humility; in a quiet bookshop in a corner of London decorated by elaborately-painted gable ends, I got to meet a writer I hugely admire and hear him reveal some fascinating, tantalising extracts of his latest artwork before it takes flight.
The other event was the official memorial for Sir Terry Pratchett, the next evening. I call McGregor one of my favourite living novelists; that ‘favourite’ position is only open because of Sir Terry’s tragically premature death from Alzheimer’s disease in March last year. I loved his writing, which carried me from age ten or so all the way into adulthood – I’ve written a little bit about this here.
One of the few connections between these very different gatherings of book-lovers was the serendipity of my discovering it on social media – a due reward for spending far too much time on the damn thing, I suppose. In this case it was a post from the ‘Terry Pratchett’ Facebook page inviting people to apply to free tickets for the official memorial; entrants would be entered into a draw. I applied for two tickets, in my name and Róisín’s, and messaged my friend Chris who applied for one also. A few weeks later we both received confirmation by email that we’d been lucky enough to get tickets. One in five applicants got a ticket according to the email; for me and Chris to both get lucky was therefore quite long odds.
Luckily, million-to-one shots come off nine times out of ten.
Róisín couldn’t go in the end, so I brought my extra ticket to the desk at the (aggravatingly hard to locate) Barbican, and went to sit down. When I got to my seat I was delighted to find a black tote bag waiting for me, emblazoned with a silhouette of Sir Terry’s face and iconic ‘Author Hat’. This contained a number of mementoes, many referencing minor in-jokes from the Discworld novels, including a beautiful Lilac pin to be worn on the glorious 25th of May. It was classy in exactly the right, jovial, slightly sniggery way. Just before the event began, someone scurried along and took the empty seat to my left; a dedicated Pratchett fan had travelled up from Cardiff in the vague hope of getting a ticket on the door, and had been given my spare by the Barbican staff. She was exhilarated and I felt delighted to have accidentally improved someone’s night.
The memorial itself? Well we were told over and over again how Sir Terry didn’t suffer fools gladly and wouldn’t bullshit you if he had a criticism to make, so in that spirit I’ll make my criticisms first: it went on too long, and Sir Terry’s assistant, Rob Wilkins, was the wrong choice for the compere. Meaning no disrespect, he’s a very poor public speaker, with a tendency to waffle. He made too much of the night about himself – what Terry Pratchett meant to Rob Wilkins, not what he meant to the world – and lacked the comic timing to pull off the set-piece gags he’d had set up.
But this aside.
It was beautiful in parts, and even though I don’t particularly like the music of Steeleye Span I cried when Steeleye Span came onstage and played ‘The Dark Morris’ because they were the right people, playing the right song. Terry’s daughter Rhianna gave a touching and obviously difficult elegy. Neil Gaiman appeared onstage to gasps and cheers, and read out his own, accurate summation of how the rage which powered Terry’s writing made it into so much more than merely comic writing. When Gaiman had finished, Wilkins presented him with the real Author Hat, a genuinely touching moment. Tony Robinson read out a piece of Tarry’s own, and several former editors and associates spoke, and Lord Vetinari spoke on behalf of Terry’s characters even though he’s made up and not real.
There were some revelations, to end with. Firstly, that Terry’s many unfinished manuscripts will not be released or co-written to completion, which seems fitting. Then some teases on Pratchettian releases which will happen: Gaiman is writing the script for a 6-episode TV series of Good Omens; Terry Rossio of Shrek and Pirates of the Caribbean renown is writing the script for a movie of Mort. Wilkins is writing a licensed biography of Terry. Rhianna Pratchett is scripting The Wee Free Men. There is to be a graphic novel of Small Gods, and there was a very brief, we-can’t-tell-you-too-much tease of an adaptation of the ‘Watch’ series; a 2-second VT of a helmet clanging onto the streets of (presumably) Ankh-Morpork. There will never be another Terry Pratchett novel – and it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a truly vintage one for some years anyway, since the Embuggerance truly strengthened its grip on Sir Terry’s brain. But there will be no shortage of adaptations and remembrances and tributes to keep the memories alive.
‘No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…’
– Reaper Man, Terry Pratchett
But on some levels it didn’t really matter what was said in the memorial, anyway. It was the right place to be. People gather at memorials and scatter flowers for a reason. They mob David Bowie’s mural in Brixton on the night of his death for a reason. Sir Terry made Death into a sympathetic, compassionate (but very, very good at his job) character for a reason. There is sentiment behind these reasons but sentiment is not a dirty word, and a coming-together over death of the beloved (beloved soul, beloved books, beloved words) is right, and I’m glad I was there.
The more I think about it, I’m so glad I was there.
XV. I Could Destroy You Utterly.
“Yes. I am entirely in your power.”
XVI. I Could Crush You Like An Egg!
Then he said: XVII. You Can’t Use Weakness As A Weapon.
“It’s the only one I’ve got.”
[The great god Om speaking to Brutha, Small Gods, Terry Pratchett.]