Saturday, May 14, 2011

So long, and thanks for all the fish


Ten years ago to the day Douglas Adams died of a heart attack, aged just 49. So it seems an appropriate moment to talk about the impact this author had upon me, particularly as a mid-teenager who hadn't really found her 'thing' at the age of 14 when the TV version of 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' (or H2G2, as we geeks say) burst onto our screens. I say 'our' screens - I think it was largely ignored by my peer group, not really unexpectedly since left-field sci-fi comedy wasn't the staple diet of most of the pupils at Queen Mary's High School for Girls. Such fare would have detracted from the slavish following of Soft Cell and Adam and the Ants: all that backcombing took dedication and time. So I ploughed a lonely furrow in my little corner of the Midlands; but that was OK, because I felt part of something bigger, a world where at any moment I could order a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effects of which were like having your brains smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick), where I could snicker quietly at those girls who still thought that digital watches were a pretty neat idea, and where it was enormously important to really know where your towel was.

H2G2 had it all, as far as I was concerned: ridiculous characters you could believe in, daft approaches to real philosophical problems (why was the answer to the question of life the universe and everything '42'? Because we've never really understood the question), laughably shoddy special effects (in hindsight, yes it was far better on the radio) and a cracking theme toon. But most of all, it had words, funny words, crafted sentences that were laugh-out-loud funny and repaid the reader a hundred times over.

And yes, I probably did read them a hundred times. Once the books came out I devoured them, over and over, until I seriously considered applying to Mastermind as an outlet for all this specialist knowledge. Favourite lines? Oh..."It must be Thursday. I never could get the hang of Thursdays". "'It's unpleasantly like being drunk.' 'What's so unpleasant about being drunk?' 'Ask a glass of water'". "The first ten million years, they were the worst. The second ten million years, they were the worst, too. The third ten million I didn't enjoy at all. After that I went into a bit of a decline". The phrase "He just phoned up to wash his head at us" could leave me helpless with laughter. You probably had to be there.

And then there were the improbable situations. The whale, called into existence and hurtling fast through the atmosphere. The beast that was bred to enjoy being eaten, and could tell you so. The invention of the Babel fish, which provided simultaneous translation of any language when inserted into your ear.

The invention of cricket as Earth's response to a bloody intergalactic battle. The Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a creature so stupid that it thought that if you couldn't see it, it couldn't see you. An early adopter of new tech, Douglas mentally invented both the internet and the iPad in order for his concept of the Book to work. Ah, the Book itself: with the calming voice of Peter Jones, it had the words 'Don't Panic written in large friendly letters on its cover. I wanted to live in a galaxy like that.

I realise I have just outed myself as a total geek, but the point is this: at a time when every teenager needs a hero that has nothing to do with the choices of their parents, I chose Douglas. I pretend that music was a big influence, that I was segueing from The Specials towards The Smiths; but it was words, not so much music, that was my thing. The idea that this clever, witty, prescient man was writing and unwriting sentences, often hitting writer's block and avoiding his desk for days, appealed to me hugely. Waiting for another of his books put one in a special club. They dripped out, slowly, until eventually there were 5 books in the increasingly inaccurately named H2G2 trilogy, plus two in the Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency series (I recommend these to you, particularly if you are like me a Neil Gaimon fan; he owes a huge debt, and knows it). I love the thought, postulated by Adams, that the first Dirk Gently book was written to accommodate the sentence 'High on a rocky promontory sat an electric monk on a bored horse', which popped into his brain and then needed somewhere to live. Adams never claimed to find writing easy; he wrestled with it all his life, partly because he never wanted to produce words that weren't all individually chosen as the right ones for the purpose. I salute that.

H2G2 gave me a sense of belonging at a time when I needed it most, those awkward mid-teens (it gives you a true idea of my geekiness that I haven't looked up any of the quotes - they remain burned onto my brain). It made me yearn for a universe of smug doors, depressed robots and drinks dispensers that analysed my taste-buds then always produced a hot liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. Where Chesterfield sofas materialised, and important people spent three years in the bath. But most of all, where I too could put words together in such a way that made people laugh, think twice, and yearn to inhabit another world - one of my own making. I am still wishing.

It saddens me that I never wrote to Douglas to thank him for the impact he had on my life, and for the continued pleasure his words give to me.

I guess I have now.

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