Tag: weirdness

Fantastically weird: why I’ll always love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Fantastically weird: why I’ll always love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

I never believed in grieving for celebrities. How could you miss someone who’d never truly been present in your life? The belief was, as all beliefs are, inherently flawed.

Presence is more than a physical proximity. It’s more, even, than a direct and personal communication. Presence occurs when your life is influenced, for better or worse, by another being.

But I never truly understood this until the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett.

As I’ve described many times through this blog, I was a strange child. I knew I was strange. I saw the world in weird and colourful ways; I had a habit of looking at situations sideways and that confused my peers. In social constructs where clinging to ‘sameness’ was the method of survival, this left me weak. I was vulnerable for my crime of too much imagination, for my love of learning and stories and for pondering what my beloved cats got up to while I was not around.

I established books as my ‘safe place’ early in life. A book was a whole world you could fall into, cast off the noise of reality and be consumed by a life of adventure and magic. Like Bastian Balthazar Bux in The NeverEnding Story, I escaped to places where I could imagine myself as strong, capable, even heroic. There was a freedom I had between pages that I didn’t have in my primary school life. Stories were a coping mechanism, a joy, a proof that maybe… just maybe there really was a cupboard out there that would turn my toys to life (The Indian in the Cupboard was another key favourite.

Even as indoctrinated in the ordinary magic of books as I was, nothing quite prepared me for my first plunge into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

It happened by accident.

Mum, being the conscientious parent she was, took us to the library as often as possible. I would borrow huge stacks of books to devour, and then return late. We had a strict lights-off time at our house, and after I’d been caught pretending to use the toilet so I would have light to read, I sought a new solution to the ever-increasing problem of so many stories, so little time to read.

Audio books!

I went through dozens before I picked up a brightly coloured cassette cover with the title Interesting Times. I’d never heard of the author. It was read by Tony Robinson, though, who I knew as Baldrick from Blackadder and the Sheriff of Rottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men. I liked his voice, so I borrowed it.

I was eleven years old, I had not long changed schools, and I was truly beginning to feel that I was made in the wrong shape for this world. I was weird. Two schools confirmed it. But just four cassettes later (alas, I began with an abridged reading!) I was on a path to change the shape of the world around me.

Delivered in Tony Robinson’s uniquely expressive voice came ideas so marvellously twisted, yet so logical, I might have thought the same if given time. Here was the world as viewed by someone who also saw magic in the mundane, who also pondered the most bizarre ‘what ifs’. Most importantly:

Here was someone who had committed their weird view to paper, and who was not ashamed of it.

This was the first spark of belief that weird could be wonderful. I wasn’t the wrong shape for this world–the world was any damned shape you like, you only had to look to see it. If the people around me were only able to cling to what was safe and acceptable, this didn’t have to be my problem.

It took many more  years to be solid in that belief, but this was a beginning. This was proof. It wasn’t the same magic of the fantasy novels I consumed by the dozen, it was something more. I would always be enchanted by magical realms far removed from our own, but I didn’t connect with the authors of those in the way I did with Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett offered me the world I saw. A more colourful and curious version of reality, with characters so fantastical and yet so human (or inhuman as the case often was) that if I squinted through my eyelashes they might almost exist on this plane beside me. He took supermarket trolleys, sports, music, libraries, law enforcement and all manner of other ‘normal’, ‘boring’ things and gave them a twist of magic.

I was not the only person to have looked at an abandoned supermarket trolley, and wonder: how do they all get so far from their stores, and why?

I was not the only person to have thought up a bizarre and entirely unrealistic (yet somehow completely logical) answer.

Through his writing I began to realise that there must be others out there too. Yet more people who cherished the quirky and strange, and the way that the most unreal scenarios could explain us in a very real way. I picked up PyramidsGuards! Guards!, and Wyrd Sisters. Most books held me spellbound, testing the limits of my sideways thinking, they were more than stories. Some were mental exercises in themselves as his intricate plots twisted together in the most unexpected ways to form a conclusion.

And I wrote. I mimicked his style. In high school I began to truly find others who valued my quirks, and for them I wrote a series of stories in The Bare-footed Princesses series. Mostly they were terrible, full of in-jokes and my attempts to recreate the balance of warped reality, humor and drama that I found in Pratchett’s work. For all the hack-job writing these stories contained at the time, my friends enjoyed them.

My weirdness was appreciated.

His death hit me hard. I woke that morning, readied myself to leave the house–and checked Facebook. After digesting the news, I slowly dressed myself back in my pyjamas, crawled into bed, and resumed sleeping. I suppose part of me hoped that if I started the day again, it wouldn’t be true.

But it was. One of the fundamental building blocks from my childhood and teenage years was gone.

It’s likely I would have found other paths to accepting myself, these things are rarely denied for a lifetime. In this trouser leg, in this timeline, I developed faith in these key parts of myself through the work of Terry Pratchett.

I have most of the books now, and some (one or two) are unread. I may leave them unread for years to come. I rather like the idea that there’s still more pages out there of his that I haven’t consumed. A little bit left for later—whenever later comes.

Grief for an artist is strange, though. I am sad that we’ll never know what other strange and magical ideas he may have had. Perhaps we don’t grieve so much the person, but the impossibility of continued fresh material. What already is, will remain.

What already is, sits in libraries and in book shops. It waits. Not dead, not sleeping. Not even dormant. Each word is still as miraculous as it was the day I first read them, and will be to every reader who sees the world different and feels they are alone for it.

He may be gone, but the words, and his weird, live on.

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Weird Primary Friendships

I used to hide behind trees and watch the other children play. I’d observe friends laughing and skipping, running around the playground and wonder–where could I get one of those? I wanted things to be like in books and on TV, where everyone had that one special friend who knew them inside out.

I’d drift from group to group, looking for a place that had a me-size hole but I never really found anything. When it became painfully obvious I didn’t fit in, I moved on. Sometimes to pester my little brother and his friends, because, he was my brother and he had to play with me.

I have a lot of memories of building sandcastles on my own, wandering the school yard, and being told off for trying to walk and read at the same time. There was a little spot in the library that became my favourite, curled up under the fire extinguisher in a tiny alcove that housed the W-Z books. Authors with surnames starting with W/X/Y/Z became my favourite, they became synonymous with this safe and solitary place I’d made for myself.

Books were a double-edged sword though. The Babysitter’s Club especially (in spite of the first few chapters that were almost identical repetitions of the same information depending on the leading character, and I skipped these pages) hammered hard the importance of friendship groups in life. I wanted one, I wanted it so bad I dreamed about it.

I’d always wanted a close friend. A twin, preferably. For pillow fights and staying up telling stories. It was the driving force behind my demand for a sister (who was a very disappointing lump of screaming flesh when she arrived, not at all what five-year-old me was hoping for). At eight years old, I still hadn’t managed to secure this all-important best friend thing.

Somehow, something was different about me. Something other kids saw and avoided. I was terrible at sport, and too good in class. I got on with adults best. I thought that cats were (still are, fight me) the most majestic creatures and I devoured information on them. I collected hundreds of cat ornaments with the help of family. I could spend hours arranging them across the table by height or colour, or what ones I liked best on a particular day.

Cats were the key, I decided one day. An aunty had given me a packet of cat stickers that I’d been hoarding (I’m always afraid if I use something up, I’ll have a better use for it later and regret it) for a special occasion. I couldn’t think of any better reason. There was a girl in my class who was bright, funny, popular.. and most importantly, she loved cats. There was a starting point here.

So I opened the pack of stickers, and removed one sheet. One for her, one for me. Hers I put into an envelope and wrote her name on it in the best, neatest handwriting I could manage. We were in the same class, and my handwriting was infamously horrible. My pen license had been revoked three times. My sheet of stickers went back into my drawer for safe keeping, where my sister later found them and stuck them all over the wardrobe door.

I’d so cleverly disguised my writing that she didn’t know it was me. I held onto the secret, afraid that if she knew, I’d be ridiculed. I didn’t know why–I never knew why–other kids avoided being around me longer than a lunchtime. I’d put sincere effort into this. I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid that like the older kids, who actively called me names by now, she would reveal a disgust with me that I’d then have to face every day in class.

I don’t remember why I confessed. I just remember doing it. She was surprised. Delighted. We talked about cats, and I was invited to gather with her friends. I thought I’d ‘made it’ finally, and I’m pretty sure my parents and teachers alike breathed a huge sigh of relief when I managed this sort of normality.

There was a pretense of protection there. One of the main antagonists in my life was my new friend’s cousin, and with so many other girls around I believed I was safer and more secure. More accepted. Some days I was.

None of this was miserable for me–not even the periods of loneliness while I tried to find my place, it was my normal. I wanted to fix it, but it wasn’t unpleasant all the time. I had three siblings I could boss about, and older cousins that I considered good friends. Being bullied by older kids was less than fun, but again–it came with a sense of normalcy that bothers me now more than it did then.

The group was large, and there was a pecking order. I was always at the bottom, but I never saw it as a slight. I was happy just to be part of things. When they tied knots in my hair, telling me they were ‘braiding’ it, I believed. When, for the duration of an entire day, they pretended they couldn’t see me, I started to believe I actually was invisible.

What I struggled to believe was that these girls, who I adored and wanted to be like, would betray my trust.

There were upsides and there were good times, too–I stopped focusing as much on classwork and interacted more with my new friends. I spent an entire afternoon ignoring the maths work I was supposed to be doing, and joining with a friend as we telepathically tried to encourage a storm to start. We didn’t want to go out and play sport that afternoon. By fluke, the rain came just in time.

I went to parties and joined netball teams, and agreed with the things they did, disagreed with the things they didn’t. I was always easily swayed by strong opinions. I changed my football team because I didn’t want to be ‘wrong’. Essendon was overrated. I had legitimate fun, and discovered interests I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t regret any of it. I repeated a year of school to ’emotionally and socially catch up’, which changed my world. No longer was I in the same grade as older kids who taunted me, I was now in the same grade as these new friends.

A year or so later, I moved schools just before the start of fourth term. The idea was to get a head start settling in before my final year of primary school, and I knew it would be far more manageable in the mornings and afternoons. The new school was closer. Plus, their Grade 5/6 camp was to Canberra. Canberra!

Two weeks into the new term, I was… as you would expect. Drifting in a sea of new people at school, and desperately calling my old friends when I got home. They tolerated it for a while, until one afternoon I finally got told: ‘Stop calling, we were only friends with you because we felt sorry for you’.

I don’t remember if I ever called again. I do remember crying for hours.

I was awkward and shy at the new school. I talked too much when I should have shut up, I beat a grade six boy out of his prized ‘best at maths’ title. I answered teacher’s questions and read the sorts of books that only ‘good readers’ could read. I was simultaneously a show off and shy, no matter which way I went it didn’t endear me to the others at all.

Children have a sixth sense for oddness. Difference. The older they get, the keener it is, and they can’t put words to it. Just mistrust and avoidance. You’re weird, I don’t like that. I didn’t know how I was weird, and I promised myself every day that I would find out, I would fix it, and then I wouldn’t be a bother. People would like me.

Some people did. Kids who had to sit beside me in class got to know me better. I’ve always been creative, curious, and quirky. Those are fun things! But playground structure meant that, even though one girl swore to the moon and back that we were best friends for life–we weren’t allowed to be seen spending time together. She was strict on that.

So I drifted, and looked forward to after-school visits and sleep overs. Spice Girls and telling each other stories, dropping plastic bottles of water from the treehouse until they split on the concrete. Good, happy memories.

When I graduated primary school, I made myself one promise: I wouldn’t let that happen again. I would have friends I could spend time with in class and at lunch. I would be what I had to be, do what I had to do, and I would be like the others so that I could be part of it all. I would succeed, this time. Changing primary schools hadn’t given me that chance, but twelve-year-old me was determined. High school would be it.

And it was. But in a very different way.

I found friends that not only wanted me around (genuinely!), they still do (suckers). They wanted me to be me. I found people who wanted to bounce ever-increasingly weird hypotheticals off each other, and who didn’t roll their eyes when I got answers right in class. They asked for help. They gave me help.

I don’t hold a grudge against the ones I knew before. Kids are kids, and I was a weak target. I can’t ignore the good that I got out of it. I choose to be thankful for it, and for the lessons I learned the hard way. A good many of those girls are adults that I can now have a great conversation with. They had their own demons to rise above.

This was my story. If I could go back? Sure, I’d like a happier story. But I’d be a different person, without a lot of the things I have now.

And what I have now is pretty awesome indeed.