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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

On Douglas Adams

Have I mentioned that there is a Douglas Adams memorial lecture this week in aid of Save the Rhino?

I did a Pod Delusion interview last week with this year's speaker, Marcus du Sautoy, to publicise it - if you are interested, here is a slightly longer version.

Given it is now nine years since his incredibly sad and early death, and that I wasn't a close personal friend, it would be odd for me to write a  keening lament of the kind Richard Dawkins wrote the day after he died.

However, now that I have a blog, it would feel odd not to write something on what would have been his 58th birthday.

I've said before that I think Adams would have found much in common with the burgeoning skeptical movement, something borne out by Bob Novella from the SGU when I spoke to him (again, this is a longer version of last week's Pod Delusion interview).

However, his legacy means far more to me than just its link to skepticism, and Adams' death was one of only two occasions where I was deeply affected by the loss of a public figure (the other being John Peel). 

His writing has been an ever present feature in my life. I devoured all of it during my geeky teenage years, revealuted it during my geeky twenties and, now, in my thirties (which are contuingly and disappointingly geeky), I return to the books like familiar old friends.

So, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be that there is far more to Adams than simply a few jokes about robots.

Most people I know have read at least the first couple of Hitchhiker books, and the reasons for Adams' popularity are obvious - the endless cascade of ideas, the warm absurdity so unique to Adams' writing, and the dual understanding of science and literature on display throughout

But few people have heard the original the radio series. I listened to until my cassettes literally broke. It still sounds unique to day - at the time it was revolutionary. It will give you an insight into what a good writer Adams was, and provides new insights into why the books are so easy to read - they were written with the spoken word in mind.

Then, there are the later Hitchhiker books, which to my mind are better novels. They retain all the good points of the early books, but Adams had run out of radio scripts to adapt, and so turned his hand to constructing a novel from scratch.

Mostly Harmless may be less popular among fans because it is so dark in tone, but its a masterclass in structure and pace.

The two Dirk Gently novels continue this trend, and Adams never bettered their central character or intricacy of plot. Try Chapter 6 of Holistic Detective Agency or Chapter 9 of The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul to see what I mean.

And finally, if you think there is a reason you won't enjoy his novels, such as you don't like science fiction or laughing out loud, there are the non-fiction books Last Chance To See and Salmon of Doubt, which was published posthumously. These reveal the passion and humanity of Adams, something reflected by everyone who knew him. He was an extraordinarily nice man and you begin to realise how much of himself he put into his novels.

The nearest I ever came to meeting Adams in person was a fleeting glance of his gargantuan frame at was a book signing during the mid-90s

My father and I turned up in glorious naivety expecting to buy tickets on the night, only to find it had sold out weeks before. We watched forlornly as Adams arrived in a car and disappeared inside, although I later received a signed copy of Mostly Harmless for a guilty father.

The awesome memorial lectures have provided some consolation over the years. I remember Robert Swan and Mark Carwardine with particular fondness, and in 2005, at the charity auction, I bought two tickets to the premiere of the long-delayed Hitchhikers film (which was disappointing but is hugely underrated - Mos Def is a wonderful Ford Prefect).

I understand you will be able to listen to the Marcus du Sautoy lecture after the event, and I will link to it as and when I can. If any of you are there, let me know, as some fellow PodDelights and I are going for a drink afterwards.

Until then it only remains to say Happy Birthday and thank you to Douglas Adams, a hoopy frood if ever there was one. You are fondly remembered, and sorely missed.


  1. hullo- i found you via a search for 'englishness' - like you writing style...

    so thought i'd introduce myself... i am NORTH of the river- and um... evidently of little brain if i cant think of anything better to say. ;/ violet.

  2. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Violet - you have a very lovely blog, which I am now following. Would I be right in guessing it isn't the first one you have written?

    I'm still searching for a consistent voice I'm happy with, but will persevere with it.

    Am intrigued you were looking for Englishness.

    To me it's a nebulous and underrated concept which warrants more attention and thought than most people give it.

    It was my pleasure to name this blog after an Angela Carter quote (see top of the page) and I love her take on all things English.

    If you haven't, I would recommend you give her a go. Incidentally, she will also tell you (via Wise Children) that SOUTH of the river is where you can find the geographic and spiritual heart of our city.

  3. interesting book list choice, btw. nice.


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