I met him in 1992 and he signed my copy of his new novel, Mostly Harmless. An abridged version of his unfinished Doctor Who story Shada has just come out on video that week and I asked him about it. He said he “didn’t think it was any good” and had decided to donate all profits from it to charity. I told him I’d enjoyed it and he seemed genuinely surprised.
Last weekend would have been his 60th birthday. He died way too early, in 2001.
For me, Douglas Adams is just about as cool as you can get. Writer, environmentalist, part time Python, Mac Master, Beatles and Pink Floyd fan and philosophical observational genius. We all know that he wrote the multimedia storyscape that is The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. But there are other things, subtle little things that make him a hero for me.
It was said he was the first person in Europe to have an Apple Mac (Stephen Fry being the second). He was script editor of Doctor Who from 1978 to 1979 during Tom Baker’s craziest period (the two of them hit it off so well they encouraged the most ludicrous behavior in each other). He wrote three Doctor Who stories, including one of the best ever, ever, ever, ‘City of Death’, set in Paris, about an alien who steals the Mona Lisa and gets Leonardo to knock up a few copies in the past so he can sell them to private buyers in the present to fund his experiments. Genius! His fingerprints are all over the other stories of that era of the programme.
Since Adam’s untimely death in 2001, Shada has been made into a cartoon and a novel out this month. Adams himself re-tooled the story into Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Hitch Hikers too was a spin off from Doctor Who, especially the third installment, originally titled Doctor Who and the Krikkit Men which proved too expensive and over the top for Doctor Who so became Life the Universe and Everything with Slartibartfast taking the role of the Doctor.
How did you first come across Hitch Hikers? For me I was a little too young to hear the original radio series on first broadcast so it was a couple of years later when I read the novel. Then the radio was repeated just in time for the television series. A friend had the LP too so we could listen to an abridged version over and over again.
There was something about it that just spoke to us. It was as if he’d written it knowing the questions we would ask had we thought of them. He knew what we’d find funny even though we’d never heard anything like it before. It was the unexpected twist in language such as saying a drink was like, “being hit over the head by a slice of lemon, wrapped round a large gold brick”.
Adams found the inspiration for his stories all around in everyday things. When working as a security guard he noticed that the lifts would start operating on their own, going up and down. It made him think that they had some form of intelligence and were getting bored just sat there waiting for passengers. What if they had the foresight to be able to anticipate that someone needed the lift and be there ready before the person realised it?
The underlying theme in his work as I see it, especially Hitch Hikers is that everyone is insane. Everyone is out of order, with their own chaotic agendas, their own insecurities and their own erroneous beliefs that they follow. Arthur Dent represents us, everyman, an ordinary person swept up in something bigger and stranger than he can imagine and yet he’s fundamentally a part of the weirdness. There’s something compelling about this proposal because deep down we know it to be true.
That the intergalactic review for planet Earth in the Hitch Hiker encyclopedic guide reads just ‘harmless’ (“Well, they had to edit it down a bit” says Ford Prefect, the journalist who sent in his report of Earth after 20 years of study). Then the Earth is destroyed to make was for a hyperspacial bypass. It’s shocking. All that we have known. All the animals and plants, all the culture, the achievements, the struggles, all wiped out in seconds for no real reason. It’s funny because we know it’s a metaphor for something else, something very real and pernicious.
What Adams achieved with Hitch Hikers is the highest form of art: it entertains and informs and yet points to a greater, hidden reality. There’s a message put across in the strongest way possible and yet it’s never preaching or patronising.
There’s a freedom that comes from having a Hitch Hiker attitude. You’ll have seen it before (and since) in a few similar comedy worlds such The Goons, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Vic Reeves Big Night Out. In their worlds, ordinary things become intensely interesting. And funny. Even with all the pessimism and hopelessness there’s an optimism that shines through from being flippant in the face of seriousness, boredom or totalitarian authority.
To me, this is Douglas Adams’ legacy. Things aren’t always easy. They don’t always go to plan. No matter what we think, or how important we think we are, there’s always a bigger picture that doesn’t have us in it. And yet, amongst all the chaos, uncertainty, the salmon of doubt and irrelevance there’s always something, however tiny, that’s funny, beautiful, hopeful and our job, or rather the key to our happiness and fulfillment, is to find and focus on that.
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