May 25th is World Towel Day, a chance to celebrate the life and work of Douglas Adams. Some time ago I took up a challenge to write a letter to someone I admired, so it seems apt to pop it on my blog today.
On the face of it, this seems like a ridiculous letter. Primarily because you’re dead. But also because we’re both bloody-minded atheists, so if by some actual miracle you’re sitting on a cloud looking down at me writing this I hope you’ve had a strong word with whoever’s in charge up there, about the cliché if nothing else.
It’s funny how often the themes of God and belief occur in your books and I have to hold my hand up and confess that my current project is smack bang in that territory too (a couple of Greek sailors causing grief to Zeus and assorted Olympians). Perhaps it’s because there’s so much fun to be had mocking and parodying subjects which up until relatively recently would have had us stoned to death (and still could in some less enlightened parts of the world). In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency you introduced us to a couple of disembodied spirits and an Electric Monk that believed any old nonsense on the owner’s behalf, saving time and inconvenience (one would hope that it also had a setting for believing politicians). But it was in the Hitch-Hikers books that the deity bit really came to the fore; the Babel Fish Argument about God accidentally proving his own non-existence (“proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”) became the first thing that I was able to quote, word for word, from a book.
I was twelve when I became aware of a pair of garishly beguiling paperback book covers, spotted when visiting the old WHSmith store in Coventry. Tramping up the stairs from ground-floor stationery to the high hoard of books, the treasure trove slowly revealed itself with every step up. The first shelf that rose into view was the ‘A’ section of general paperback fiction. ‘A’ for Adams. I’d previously glanced at Hitch-Hikers and Restaurant but found the premise a bit mind-boggling so put them down again. Christmas 1980 bestowed on me the joyful bounty of WHSmith vouchers and this time I was determined to give those weird books with ‘galaxy’ and ‘universe’ in their title a proper go. I was a science-fiction geek, absolutely besotted with Star Wars and anything remotely spacey or futuristic. I still had no idea what I was getting into.
Probably the first indication that this was a Big Thing happened later that same day when, arriving home clutching my two books, I discovered that a TV adaptation of Hitch-Hikers was starting the following Monday on BBC2. Simple coincidence? Or fate playing silly buggers? Who knows.
In retrospect, I realised that somebody had told me about Hitch-Hikers before, probably a year or so earlier. I had just started secondary school and our endearingly batty English teacher had set us homework to write a story. About anything. I wrote what could only be called a humorous science-fiction information piece entitled “Black Holes Are A Nuisance”. It covered the problems of interstellar travel, a spaceship that ran on orange juice and kept to a daft narrative all the way through. It could have been lifted straight out of a certain wildly popular publication with ‘Don’t Panic!’ on the cover. I got an ‘A’ for it along with a comment that it was “worthy of publication in the school magazine”. I was chuffed and so was my mum, although I don’t think she quite got it. She showed it to our neighbour who commented that it was like the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I looked at her blankly. “It’s a programme on Radio Four,” she explained.
My mind tried to process this information. There’s a Radio Four? We were very much a Radio One household, although I knew that Radio Two existed for old people. Beyond that, I was completely unaware of what lurked in the radio waves and to be honest didn’t really care. I saw the radio as a thing that played music. The idea that you could have documentary, drama or even comedy programmes on the radio was completely alien to me. Definitely more alien than aliens.
My sci-fi story disappeared into an English department black hole (ironically) and was never seen again. In some ways I’m glad because memories are so much better than reality. A few years ago I dug out a poem I wrote for the school mag in, and on the subject of, 1984 and posted it on my blog under the heading “Embarrassing Teenage Poetry”. It was almost as bad as the Vogon stuff.
As for Hitch-Hikers, I was completely hooked. Devoured the books, watched the TV adaptation, saw a theatrical version, read the radio scripts, enjoyed the film and played the computer game (I still can’t catch a Babel fish, though). You have embedded your soul into mine. And that’s what brings me to why I’m writing to you. Who of us knew that May 2001 was going to be, to quote the title of your environmental best-seller, the Last Chance to See you in the flesh before your untimely passing. The past, they say, is a foreign country and I sincerely wish that you could jump on a plane and come home. Bring the 49 year old Douglas Adams back to England in 2020 because Zarquon knows we need you. Despite being born sixteen years after you I recently realised that I’m now older than you ever were, which is a shocking introduction to mortality.
I started writing again a few years ago and am now halfway through a humorous epic that is developing in much the same chaotic way as those first radio episodes. You may no longer walk the earth, you’re probably not some kind of heavenly angel, nor a disembodied ghost. But your spirit stays with me and thousands of others. I hope that I can help bring to readers just a fraction of the fun that you gave me while I have the chance. So long, and thanks for… well, you know the rest.