Getting off a tube train in the not-as-leafy-as-it-sounds North London suburb of Wood Green, I indulge in one of my favourite bad habits and continue to read my book as I walk along the street. In my hand is a dogeared copy of one of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers’ novels, I forget which. Stopping to cross the busy street on my way to the bus stop, I look up to check the traffic and notice, to my delight, that one of the men walking towards me on the crowd is holding the same book. We sort of awkwardly gesture at each other with our paperbacks and exchange a wry smile in a manner typical of a Londoner who feels they have made a connection of sorts with a total stranger.
This probably happened the year that The Da Vinci Code came out. If I had been reading that and glanced up to see a fellow commuter reading it, it would not have been remotely surprising (well, apart from if I had been reading the Da Vinci Code – that would really surprise me!). But to almost walk into someone who was reading the self same book as you, twenty years after it had been published… I like to think that was the kind of strange coincidence that Douglas Adams himself would have loved.
Adams died of a heart attack aged just 49. He was a far from prolific writer as he was, apparently, notoriously difficult to pin down when it came to writing and often had to be put on lockdown to complete assignments. These facts mean that he has left us with a legacy comprising of an array of TV and Radio writing credits, including Monty Python and Doctor Who, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a trilogy in five parts), his Dirk Gently novels and his magnificent ‘The Meaning of Liff’ books written with John Lloyd – he of Blackadder, QI and all the funnies on Radio 4. This precious handful of books have a special place on my shelves; always to hand, they receive a loving re-reading as often I consider necessary.
The Meaning of Liff books contain definitions of conditions and behaviours we all recognise but have never before been able to name, for example:
Plymouth (vb) “To relate an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place”
Thrupp (vb) “To hold a ruler on one end of a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddfbbrrbrrddrr.”
Shoeburyness (abs.n) “The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat which is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.”
A man as gifted as he at neologisms would be doubtless at home in creating, describing and populating an entire universe of his own imagining. And this is what he did.
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I love a dip in and out of Liff, but my real favourites are the Hitchhiker’s books. The plot centres around an unassuming and befuddled West country man, Arthur Dent, whose prize possession is a watch given to him on the occasion of his twenty-second birthday by a particularly neglectful Godparent, inscribed “to Albert on his twenty-first birthday”. To try and tell you all of the things that boggle Arthur’s mind as he unwittingly bumbles through space-time would be to spoil it, but suffice to say, not a lot goes right for him. He shrugs his way through it all, his plans and desires almost completely ignored by everyone around him.
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A Vogon constructor fleet arrives to destroy planet Earth one Thursday, before our hapless hero has even had a chance to get dressed. His utter despair at this revelation is communicated with understated resignation – after all, on top of everything he has a terrible hangover. Whilst, for many, the adventures that follow would be extremely exciting, Arthur calmly tolerates all the intrigue whilst living in the vain hope of a nice cup of tea – something he finds impossible to track down in the vast wastes of space. Well, he does have to spend much of the next few years still wearing his dressing gown and slippers.
Arthur blinked at the screens and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly, he realised what it was.
“Is there any tea on this spaceship?” he asked.
Part of the hoopiness of Douglas Adams was the cracking characters he came up with, their oddball traits excellently reflected in their names. The mellifluous monikers of the depressive Marvin the Paranoid Android, Eccentrica Gallumbits the triple breasted whore of Eroticon 6, dubious philosophers Majikthise and Vroomfondel, and proud fjord sculptor Slartibartfast demonstrate a little of the gorgeousness of his use of language. Hopefully some of the quotes I have included will help to show you the delight he so obviously took in playing with the sounds it could make. This is another reason why it is nigh on impossible to retell one of his funny scenes to a friend – it is the careful placement of each word, the repetition, the long strings of clauses that result in a sudden, unexpected, concise point, make them what they are. And what they are are the sort of books that have you stifling guffaws on the Piccadilly Line.
Dent is not the only one for whom life plays cruel tricks, but he does take it quite remarkably well, if not exactly in his stride. Certainly, compared to Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, a man so ill-equipped to deal with the immortality accidentally bestowed upon him that he sets about on a personal mission to personally insult every being in the entire galaxy. If you ever find yourself feeling so inclined, you can generate your own unique insults here.
The novels are full of hilarious stand-alone events that I could regale in an attempt to make you laugh. But not only would I find myself just outside of Plymouth, taking them out of context would devalue them. To fully appreciate the wonder of these books you will simply have to read them yourself. Don’t be put off by the sci-fi, geeky overtones a story with this setting might give off, it is really just a tale of an astonishingly normal bloke and all of the utterly abnormal things that befall him. To me, it perfectly describes how little control we all have over our lives, in the grand scheme of things. Despite all the interstellar travel and hyper space bypassing, it is really quite relatable!
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It is really hard to do justice in writing to someone so monumentally fantastic at writing. But I hope I have managed to convince you to read some Douglas Adams if you haven’t done before, and if you have, to dust them off and give them another read. .
This is a guest post I wrote on my literary hero – Douglas Adams. It originally appeared on Keeping It Eclectic.
This is a guest post I wrote on my literary hero – Douglas Adams. It originally appeared on http://www.keepingiteclectic.co.uk/