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The Salmon of Doubt, Page 2

Douglas Adams

  Television viewers who tune into Between the Lions, the daily children’s literacy education program that Michael Frith—another of Douglas’s American friends—and I helped create for PBS, will note that one of the lead lion characters, Lionel, habitually wears a rugby shirt featuring the number 42. This small testament may not be the answer to “life, the universe, and everything” (as the famed “Deep Thought” computer from the Hitchhiker trilogy determined “42” to be), but if it serves to remind people what a brilliant, unique, irreplaceable force Douglas Adams was in the lives of virtually everyone who knew or read him—well, at least it’s a step in the right direction.

  Douglas, I loved you dearly and I’ll miss you terribly. And I’m grateful you left that hard disk behind so we can all share this one last conversation with you . . .

  Christopher Cerf

  New York



  Nicholas Wroe, in The Guardian

  SATURDAY, JUNE 3, 2000

  IN 1979, SOON AFTER The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published, Douglas Adams was invited to sign copies at a small science-fiction bookshop in Soho. As he drove there, some sort of demonstration slowed his progress. “There was a traffic jam and crowds of people were everywhere,” he recalls. It wasn’t until he had pushed his way inside that Adams realised the crowds were there for him. Next day his publisher called to say he was number one in the London Sunday Times best-seller list and his life changed forever. “It was like being helicoptered to the top of Mount Everest,” he says, “or having an orgasm without the foreplay.”

  Hitchhiker had already been a cult radio show, and was made in both television and stage versions. It expanded into four more books that sold over 14 million copies worldwide. There were records and computer games and now, after twenty years of Hollywood prevarication, it is as close as it’s ever been to becoming a movie.

  The story itself begins on earth with mild-mannered suburbanite Arthur Dent trying to stop the local council demolishing his house to build a bypass. It moves into space when his friend, Ford Prefect—some have seen him as Virgil to Dent’s Dante—reveals himself as a representative of a planet near Betelgeuse and informs Arthur that the Earth itself is about to be demolished to make way for a hyperspace express route. They hitch a ride on a Vogon spaceship and begin to use the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself—a usually reliable repository of all knowledge about life, the universe and everything.

  Adams’s creativity and idiosyncratic intergalactic humour have had a pervasive cultural influence. The phrase “hitchhiker’s guide to . . .” quickly became common parlance, and there have been numerous copycat spoof sci-fi books and TV series. His Babel fish—a small fish you can place in your ear to translate any speech into your own language—has been adopted as the name of a translation device on an Internet search engine. He followed up his success with several other novels as well as a television programme, and a book and CD-ROM on endangered species. He has founded a dot-com company, H2G2, that has recently taken the idea of the guide full circle by launching a service that promises real information on life, the universe, and everything via your mobile phone.

  Much of his wealth seems to have been spent fuelling his passion for technology, but he has never really been the nerdy science-fiction type. He is relaxed, gregarious, and a solidly built two meters tall. In fact, he has more the air of those English public-school boys who became rock stars in the 1970s; he once did play guitar on stage at Earls Court with his mates Pink Floyd. In a nicely flash touch, instead of producing a passport-size photo of his daughter out of his wallet, he opens up his impressively powerful laptop, where, after a bit of fiddling about, Polly Adams, aged five, appears in a pop video spoof featuring a cameo appearance by another mate, John Cleese.

  So this is what his life turned into; money, A-list friends, and nice toys. Looking at the bare facts of his CV—boarding school, Cambridge Footlights, and the BBC—it seems at first sight no surprise. But his has not been an entirely straightforward journey along well-worn establishment tracks.

  Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge in 1952. One of his many stock gags is that he was DNA in Cambridge nine months before Crick and Watson made their discovery. His mother, Janet, was a nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, and his father, Christopher, had been a teacher who went on to become a postgraduate theology student, a probation officer, and finally a management consultant, which was “a very, very peculiar move,” claims Adams. “Anyone who knew my father will tell you that management was not something he knew very much about.”

  The family were “fairly hard up” and left Cambridge six months after Douglas was born to live in various homes on the fringes of East London. When Adams was five, his parents divorced. “It’s amazing the degree to which children treat their own lives as normal,” he says. “But of course it was difficult. My parents divorced when it wasn’t remotely as common as it is now, and to be honest I have scant memory of anything before I was five. I don’t think it was a great time, one way or another.”

  After the breakup, Douglas and his younger sister went with their mother to Brentwood in Essex, where she ran a hostel for sick animals. He saw his by now comparatively wealthy father at weekends, and these visits became a source of confusion and tension. To add to the complications, several step-siblings emerged as his parents remarried. Adams has said that while he accepted all this as normal on one level, he did “behave oddly as a result,” and remembers himself as a twitchy and somewhat strange child. For a time his teachers thought he was educationally subnormal, but by the time he went to the direct-grant Brentwood Prep School, he was regarded as extremely bright.

  The school boasts a remarkably diverse list of postwar alumni: clothing designer Hardy Amies; the disgraced historian David Irving; TV presenter Noel Edmonds; Home Secretary Jack Straw; and London Times editor Peter Stothard were all there before Adams, while comedians Griff Rhys Jones and Keith Allen were a few years behind him. There are four alumni—two Labour and two Conservative—in the current House of Commons. In a scene that now seems rather incongruous in the light of Keith Allen’s hard-living image, it was Adams who helped the seven-year-old Allen with his piano lessons.

  When Adams was thirteen, his mother remarried and moved to Dorset, and Adams changed from being a “day boy” at the school to a boarder. It appears to have been an entirely beneficial experience. “Whenever I left school at four in the afternoon, I always used to look at what the boarders were doing rather wistfully,” he says. “They seemed to be having a good time, and in fact I thoroughly enjoyed boarding. There is a piece of me that likes to fondly imagine my maverick and rebellious nature. But more accurately I like to have a nice and cosy institution that I can rub up against a little bit. There is nothing better than a few constraints you can comfortably kick against.”

  Adams ascribes the quality of his education to being taught by some “very good, committed, obsessed and charismatic people.” At a recent party in London he confronted Jack Straw on New Labour’s apparent antipathy to direct-grant schools, on the basis that it had done neither of them much harm.

  Frank Halford was a master at the school and remembers Adams as “very tall even then, and popular. He wrote an end-of-term play when Doctor Who had just started on television. He called it ‘Doctor Which.’ ” Many years later, Adams did write scripts for Doctor Who. He describes Halford as an inspirational teacher who is still a support. “He once gave me ten out of ten for a story, which was the only time he did throughout his long school career. And even now, when I have a dark night of the soul as a writer and think that I can’t do this anymore, the thing that I reach for is not the fact that I have had best-sellers or huge advances. It is the fact that Frank Halford once gave me ten out of ten, and at some fundamental level I must be able to do it.”

  It seems that from the beginning Adams had a facility for turning his writing into cash. He sold some short, “almost haiku-length,” stories to
the Eagle comic and received ten shillings. “You could practically buy a yacht for ten shillings then,” he laughs. But his real interest was music. He learned to play the guitar by copying note for note the intricate finger-picking patterns on an early Paul Simon album. He now has a huge collection of left-handed electric guitars, but admits that he’s “really a folkie at heart. Even with Pink Floyd on stage, I played a very simple guitar figure from ‘Brain Damage’ which was in a finger-picking style.”

  Adams grew up in the sixties, and the Beatles “planted a seed in my head that made it explode. Every nine months there’d be a new album which would be an earth-shattering development from where they were before. We were so obsessed by them that when ‘Penny Lane’ came out and we hadn’t heard it on the radio, we beat up this boy who had heard it until he hummed the tune to us. People now ask if Oasis are as good as the Beatles. I don’t think they are as good as the Rutles.”

  The other key influence was Monty Python. Having listened to mainstream British radio comedy of the fifties he describes it as an “epiphanous” moment when he discovered that being funny could be a way in which intelligent people expressed themselves—“and be very, very silly at the same time.”

  The logical next step was to go to Cambridge University, “because I wanted to join Footlights,” he says. “I wanted to be a writer-performer like the Pythons. In fact I wanted to be John Cleese and it took me some time to realise that the job was in fact taken.”

  At university he quickly abandoned performing—“I just wasn’t reliable”—and began to write self-confessed Pythonesque sketches. He recalls one about a railway worker who was reprimanded for leaving all the switches open on the southern region to prove a point about existentialism; and another about the difficulties in staging the Crawley Paranoid Society annual general meeting.

  The arts administrator Mary Allen, formerly of the Arts Council and the Royal Opera, was a contemporary at Cam-bridge and has remained a friend ever since. She performed his material and remembers him as “always noticed even amongst a very talented group of people. Douglas’s material was very quirky and individualistic. You had to suit it, and it had to suit you. Even in short sketches he created a weird world.”

  Adams says, “I did have something of a guilt thing about reading English. I thought I should have done something useful and challenging. But while I was whingeing, I also relished the chance not to do very much.” Even his essays were full of jokes. “If I had known then what I know now, I would have done biology or zoology. At the time I had no idea that was an interesting subject, but now I think it is the most interesting subject in the world.”

  Other contemporaries included the lawyer and TV present-er Clive Anderson. The culture secretary Chris Smith was president of the union. Adams used to do warm-up routines for debates, but not because of any political interest: “I was just looking for anywhere I could do gags. It is very strange seeing these people dotted around the public landscape now. My contemporaries are starting to win lifetime achievement awards, which obviously makes one feel nervous.”

  After university, Adams got the chance to work with one of his heroes. Python member Graham Chapman had been impressed by some Footlights sketches and had made contact. When Adams went to see him, he was asked, much to his delight, to help out with a script Chapman had to finish that afternoon. “We ended up working together for about a year. Mostly on a prospective TV series which never made it beyond the pilot.” Chapman at this time was “sucking down a couple of bottles of gin every day, which obviously gets in the way a bit.” But Adams believes he was enormously talented. “He was naturally part of a team and needed other people’s discipline to enable his brilliance to work. His strength was flinging something into the mix that would turn it all upside down.”

  After he split up with Chapman, Adams’s career stalled badly. He continued to write sketches but was not making anything like a living. “It turned out I wasn’t terribly good at writing sketches. I could never write to order, and couldn’t really do topical stuff. But occasionally I’d come out with something terrific from left field.”

  Geoffrey Perkins, head of comedy at BBC television, was the producer of the radio version of Hitchhiker. He remembers first coming across Adams when he directed a Footlights show. “He was being heckled by a cast member, and then he fell into a chair. I next came across him when he was trying to write sketches for the radio show Weekending, then regarded as the big training ground for writers. Douglas was one of those writers who honourably failed to get anywhere with Weekending. It put a premium on people who could write things that lasted thirty seconds, and Douglas was incapable of writing a single sentence that lasted less than thirty seconds.”

  With his dreams of being a writer crumbling around him, Adams took a series of bizarre jobs, including working as a chicken-shed cleaner and as a bodyguard to the ruling family of Qatar. “I think the security firm must have been desperate. I got the job from an ad in the Evening Standard.” Griff Rhys Jones did the same job for a while on Adams’s recommendation. Adams recalls becoming increasingly depressed as he endured night shifts of sitting outside hotel bedrooms: “I kept thinking this wasn’t how it was supposed to have worked out.” At Christmas he went to visit his mother and stayed there for the next year.

  He recalls a lot of family worry about what he was going to do, and while he still sent in the occasional sketch to radio shows, he acknowledges that his confidence was extremely low. Despite his subsequent success and wealth, this propensity for a lack of confidence has continued. “I have terrible periods of lack of confidence,” he explains. “I just don’t believe I can do it and no evidence to the contrary will sway me from that view. I briefly did therapy, but after a while I realised it is just like a farmer complaining about the weather. You can’t fix the weather—you just have to get on with it.” So has that approach helped him? “Not necessarily,” he shrugs.

  Hitchhiker was the last throw of the dice, but in retrospect the timing was absolutely right. Star Wars had made science fiction voguish, and the aftermath of Monty Python meant that while a sketch show was out of the question, there was scope to appeal to the same comic sensibility.

  Python Terry Jones heard the tapes before transmission and remembers being struck by Adams’s “intellectual approach and strong conceptual ideas. You feel the stuff he is writing has come from a criticism of life, as Matthew Arnold might say. It has a moral basis and a critical basis that has a strong mind behind it. For instance, John Cleese has a powerful mind, but he is more logical and analytical. Douglas is more quirky and analytical.” Geoffrey Perkins agrees, but remembers there was little grand plan behind the project.

  “Douglas went into it with a whole load of ideas but very little notion of what the story would be. He was writing it in an almost Dickensian mode of episodic weekly installments without quite knowing how it would end.”

  By the time the series aired in 1978, Adams says, he had put about nine months’ solid work into it and had been paid one thousand pounds. “There seemed to be quite a long way to go before I broke even,” so he accepted a producer’s job at the BBC but quit six months later when he found himself simultaneously writing a second radio series, the novel, the television series, and episodes of Doctor Who. Despite this remarkable workload, he was already building a legendary reputation for not writing. “I love deadlines,” he has said. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

  Success only added to his ability to prevaricate. His publishing editor, Sue Freestone, quickly realised that he treated writing as performance art, and so she set up her office in his dining room. “He needs an instant audience to bounce things off, but sometimes this can weirdly backfire.

  “There was a scene early in one book when he talked about some plates with, very definitely, one banana on each. This was obviously significant, so I asked him to explain. But he liked to tease his audience and he said he’d tell me later. We eventually got to the end of the
book and I asked him again, ‘Okay, Douglas, what’s with the bananas?’ He looked at me completely blankly. He had forgotten all about the bananas. I still occasionally ask him if he has remembered yet, but apparently he hasn’t.”

  Writer and producer John Lloyd has been a friend and collaborator with Adams since before Hitchhiker. He remembers the “agonies of indecision and panic” Adams got into when writing. “We were on holiday in Corfu with three friends when he was finishing a book, and he ended up taking over the whole house. He had a room to write in, a room to sleep in, a room to go to when he couldn’t sleep, and so on. It didn’t occur to him that other people might want a good night’s sleep as well. He goes through life with a brain the size of a planet, and often seems to be living on a different one. He is absolutely not a malicious person, but when he is in the throes of panic and terror and unable to finish a book, everything else pales into insignificance.”

  However the work was dragged out, it was extremely popular. The books all became bestsellers, and Adams was given an advance of over $2 million by his American publishers. He wrote a hilarious spoof dictionary with John Lloyd, The Meaning of Liff, in which easily recognised concepts, such as the feeling you get at four in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done, were given the names of towns—Farnham being the perfect choice for this low-grade depression. In the late eighties he completed two spoof detective novels featuring Dirk Gently.

  For all his facility with humour, Freestone says she has been touched by how profoundly Adams’s work has connected with some readers. “In Hitchhiker, all you have to do to be safe is have your towel with you,” she explains. “I heard about this woman who was dying in a hospice who felt she would be fine because she had her towel with her. She had taken Douglas’s universe and incorporated it into her own. It embarrassed the hell out of Douglas when he heard about it. But for her it was literally a symbol of safety when embarking on an unknown journey.”