It’s not evident when you meet Terry Pratchett that he’s suffering from Alzheimers: he’s mentally sharp and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with his memory. He’s also just completed one book and is writing two more.
But he says he can feel it advancing, making him a little worse month by month. And one of the problems is that he can’t now use a keyboard, so he has an array of computer screens on his desk that magically convert his voice to printed words.
One of his jokes when I went to see him recently was trying to get this prudish machine to reproduce a word that it would only render as “our soul.” Combative humour is Terry’s speciality, and we had an entertaining hour with him in his home near Salisbury.
My visit with our cameraman Tas was to record him receiving his award as Celebrity Charity Champion in Third Sector‘s Britain’s Most Admired Charity Awards: he wasn’t able to come to the awards night because he was doing An Evening with Terry Pratchett in the theatre that night.
It wasn’t my first meeting with him: in the seventies, four young journalists including him and me did the 40-mile Lyke Wake Walk across the North York Moors together. As we slogged for seventeen hours across the boggy expanses of Fylingdales and Goathland, Terry moaned a lot. So did the rest of us.
At the finish at Ravenscar, as we leaned wearily on the village sign, Terry puffed up his chest and struck a pose like an Arctic explorer (I still have the photo.) Since then he has created Discworld, written fifty books, acquired millions of readers, made several millions and given some of them to charities.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about him now is the way he faces his predicament. He recalled coming back from his diagnosis four years ago wondering “who shall I tell?” and deciding “everyone.” He mused about whether it takes greater courage to be open about your illness or to keep it to yourself, but, either way, he has chosen not to shy away from it.
He said he plays a game of sorts with interviewers: he knows they want at some stage to talk about Alzheimers, and watches them circling round it. And sometimes he puts them out of their misery by raising the subject himself.
Terry works in an office with a hint of gothic in the design – high ceilings, oak bookcases, a stone fireplace with a tapering chimney breast. His assistant Rob sits invisible in a sort of mezzanine, calling
disembodied answers to questions. I couldn’t help thinking Terry would have made a fine character is Mervyn Peake’s novel Gormenghast.
What came over strongly were his humour, his irony, and his eye for contradiction and hypocrisy in the world around us. And there was something liberating in his willingness to talk about illness and mortality in a way that most people don’t.
He’s planning to set up a charitable trust to receive most of his wealth when he dies. But he admitted he’s finding it hard to decide exactly when to set it up: he wants to die poor, he said, but he also wants to go on being a millionaire for just a bit longer.