The Big Idea: Rob Wilkins
Rob Wilkins was close enough to beloved author Terry Pratchett that the two of them shared the same Twitter account. From that vantage point Wilkins was able to see Pratchett as a friend, as a writer and as a human being – one who had a thing for hats, magical, metaphorical, and material. All of this comes together in today’s Big Idea for Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes.
Terry Pratchett had a magic hat. In fact, he had a collection of them, assiduously acquired over many years from the stores of some of the world’s leading milliners, from London to New York, and from Sydney to Burford, in England’s Cotswolds, where a shop called Elm offers a good selection. In my fifteen years as his personal assistant, I shopped for hats with Terry a lot because he considered it one of life’s reliable axioms: ‘Any day with a new hat in it is a very good day indeed.’
And if it was a magic hat, then even better.
True, his collection included hats that were not magic. For instance, there was the John Rocha-designed mortar board lavishly decked with black feathers, a sensationally gothic headpiece presented to Terry in 2010 on his accession to the post of Honorary Professor at Trinity College, Dublin.
‘Is there any type of hat associated with this position?’ Terry had asked when Trinity first rang him in his office to sound him out about the role. The College indicated that there could well be a hat, thereby clinching Terry’s acceptance.
And then there was the battered old hat in which he would venture out into the grounds of his Wiltshire manor house when the rain was coming down in stair rods but the tortoises still needed feeding. And no doubt somewhere at the back of a cupboard – because Terry threw very little away – there was the peaked leather cap he wore when he worked in the press office of the Central Electricity Generating Board in Bristol. It was a garment which, in tandem with his beard, inspired his co-workers to call him ‘Lenin’ – though only when he was out of earshot.
And then there was the top hat he bought in Manhattan on a whim, and the bowler I bought him for Christmas. There were, as I say, many hats.
But none of those were magic. The magic hats were the black, broad-brimmed Louisianas for which Terry was famous. People would insist on referring to them as ‘fedoras’, but Terry would sigh and, with varying degrees of patience, correct them: it was not a fedora, it was a Louisiana. Such distinctions mattered to the true hat aficionado.
Then came the slightly awkward day when the staff at Lock & Co. in St James’s Street in London explained to Terry that the style of hat he had been favouring was a fedora, and not a Louisiana at all. And Terry had to take their word for it, because those Lock & Co. people really knew hats: they supplied Winston Churchill with his Homburg and Charlie Chaplin with his bowler, and even Admiral Nelson with the tricorn he wore when he came to a sticky end on the deck of HMS Victory. And since 1988, they had been supplying Terry Pratchett with his Louisiana which was in fact a fedora.
Ah well. Terry still favoured it. And it was still magic.
And this was the magic: he only had to put it on his head and he became Terry Pratchett, the author. That hat gave him, with almost absurd ease, an image. In his earliest days on the road, he would team the hat with a black Levi’s jacket – Levi’s made such a thing in those days – black Hugo Boss jeans and a black leather satchel, but it was the fedora that was the key. It instantly turned him into Terry Pratchett, the public figure that he was increasingly required to be.
And, by extension, when he got home he could take off the hat and be all the other Terry Pratchetts that he was, including, incidentally, Terry Pratchett the writer, which, by the way, is a different thing from being ‘an author’ – or ‘a nauthor’, in Terry’s self-mocking coinage. As he discovered when success came his way, the duties contingent upon being ‘a nauthor’ – the tours, the readings, the book-signings, the press interviews – frequently threatened to prevent you from doing the thing that had turned you into ‘a nauthor’ in the first place, i.e. writing books. The hat was a useful way to enforce the distinction. Hat on: nauthor. Hat off: writer. Terry referred to it as ‘an anti-disguise’.
All of which means that when I came to put together Terry’s authorized biography, a task which fell to me after his death at the cruelly early age of sixty-six from a rare variant of Alzheimer’s disease, I knew one thing with absolute clarity from the very outset: that if this book ever made it into print, it would have on its jacket a photograph of Terry Pratchett without a hat on.
That single gesture, it seemed to me, would send the clearest signal about the book that I was in a unique position to write, if I could manage it. Because, yes, of course I would want to write about Terry Pratchett the author, the public figure whom people knew. But I would also want, and even more urgently, to write about the Terry Pratchett who would be less familiar to people: the Terry Pratchett I saw every day, at his desk, without his hat on – Terry Pratchett the writer.
The publishers took a little persuading, because having a hatless Terry Pratchett on the jacket of a book is a little like opening a McDonalds and not using the arches logo on the store-front. We went back and forth on this, amid some frank exchanges of view and with some wide eyes occurring in the marketing department. But I stuck to my guns and I managed somehow to prevail. And that’s why on the jacket of the UK edition of Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, Terry is entirely hatless.
So that was the jacket sorted, exactly as I had imagined it. After that, all I had to do was write a book to go inside it.
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