WORDS IN THE HEART CANNOT BE TAKEN

I wrote a quick couple of words about Terry Pratchett earlier, and I couldn’t get any more, partly because I was on a short train ride, and partly because there were tears in my eyes. It’s funny how much you can be affected by the death of someone you’ve never met. I felt the same sense of loss at the passings of Steve Jobs and Roger Ebert.

It’s a peculiarly 21st-century phenomenon that the response to the death of a loved public figure is the outpouring of grief and of stories on social media. The effect is cathartic and community-building.

It’s no surprise that my first memory of Pratchett was uncontrollable laughter, but my first experience of him was bemusement, when in my teens I read his novel Small Gods backwards. I’d always wanted to be a fantasy reader, but after Tolkien I’d never found anything I liked. Paul Kidby’s Discworld covers had always jumped out from the library shelves, chaotic and colourful and more than a little grotesque, and I think I must have looked over the series a few times before I finally chose Small Gods. I’ve got no idea why it was that one that I chose, but it was.

I didn’t get it, then. I think I got about a hundred pages in, and I remember that I enjoyed the plot but not the writing. Wanting to find out what happened, I skipped to the end, didn’t understand anything and skipped back a few pages, and then a few more, and so on until I finished it back to front. I’d never read a book that way before, and I’ve never done it since.

It was only on my second or third Discworld novel that I started to get into the rhythm of his writing, the wonderful linguistic turns that make his humour sing. I’ve often noticed that I’m not alone in that: many people take a couple of books before they start to enjoy his writing, and some give up after the first or second.

I haven’t read all the Discworld novels yet—let alone all of Pratchett’s—but I got through a few of them when I was a teenager, and more when I was in college. His writing is light, but not frivolous, with a clear, direct style that shows his roots in journalism, and his books often served me as palate cleansers between the heavier stuff I was reading for class. His more serious journalism, in particular his recent work campaigning for Alzheimers awareness and for the right to die, still carried that sardonic edge, as light and keen as an assassin’s knife.

Every Discworld fan’s got a favourite character. For me, inevitably, and though the brilliant Machiavellian Lord Vetinari comes a close second, it’s Death. Sardonic, world-weary, and full of dry quips, profound sentiments, and sometimes surprising warmth (especially towards cats), always in all caps, he was both the Grim Reaper and the friend taking everyone home. Pratchett’s Twitter account gave Death the last word:

AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

Some Type of Bloomsday

Jurek Delimeta and Liz O’Carroll entertain outside Sweny’s Chemist, Dublin. “Photographs are a pint each.”

I had a nice surprise on my way home from work last Monday afternoon: outside Sweny’s, the chemist in which Leopold Bloom buys a bar of lemon soap in Ulysses, a small crowd was gathered. It included a James Joyce lookalike, who I initially presumed to be an actor there for the festivities, but who turned out to be Joyce’s grand-nephew Jurek Delimata. He and a volunteer, Liz O’Carroll, were sitting outside of the chemist’s drinking, smoking, and entertaining the gathered group of tourists and Joyce aficionados.

I eventually worked my way into the crowded little chemist’s, to buy my own bar of lemon soap. After a little chat with the volunteers working there, I was shown a rather beautiful old trade book from 1941. It featured lots of information generally useful to chemists, but was also riddled with beautiful ads for items to sell—from children’s vitamins to hair products. The chance to hold and examine the beautiful old advertisements and typography was a rare privilege, and, flicking through the book, I found myself smiling a lot.

I noticed quite a lot of (I think) Futura—not exactly a new typeface in those days (it was invented in 1927), but presumably still futuristic-looking. And an ad for a(nother) bar of soap had a nice block of justified text exactly the size and shape of the bar in the picture.

A beautiful old ad for soap.jpg

Sweny’s is a marvellous institution. Part artefact of fiction, part relic of old Dublin, and part museum, it exists as a vestige of our literary heritage, and of our social history. It’s also in financial trouble. If you live in Dublin, consider popping in for one of their regular Joyce readings, and while you’re there, pick up a bar of lemon soap, or just make a donation. They will certainly appreciate it, and it will help keep a part of Dublin’s literary history alive.