The Great Mr Adams

As one or two of you may be aware, my very first post on this blog extolled the virtues of one man- a certain Dr M von Vogelhausen of Amazon, internet, and his truly legendary reviews. He’s still a legend, check  his stuff out. However, since then I haven’t done a one-man profile again, but today that is about to change, as I review a man once described as ‘a possible fragment of the humour singularity’. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Mr Douglas Adams.

Now, I am quite aware that Adams, being a bestselling novelist and general public figure, is quite more well known than Dr M is, and probably doesn’t need me to add to the chorus of voices who have extolled his virtues over the years. But bring him up I nonetheless do, for three reasons- firstly, there are STILL some new people I meet who have never heard of him, despite the fact that his earliest work is now 34 years old, secondly because I would like to reintroduce those who have been put off by his odd writing style and inability to tell a straight-faced joke and labelled him ‘unfunny’ to his world, and thirdly because I had something of a Hitchiker’s refreshment course yesterday evening. It was awesome.

So, Douglas Adams: born in Cambridge in 1952, his story really comes to be of interest in 1971, whilst hitch-hiking around Europe. Lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, with his copy of ‘The Hitchiker’s Guide to Europe’ beside him and staring up at the Milky Way above him, he thought that somebody really ought to make a Hitchiker’s guide to the Galaxy as well, showing the sparks of offbeat, eccentric genius that would typify his later work. After graduating from Cambridge University he headed to London to try and break into radio & TV as a writer, following his English degree and a passion for creative writing. Despite working with Monty Python’s Graham Chapman for a while and even appearing in a couple of sketches, he struggled to fit in with writing for his chosen media, and work was slow for much of the seventies. Then, in 1978, he began working on a six-part radio series called ‘The Ends of the Earth’, the idea being that each episode would end with the world being destroyed in a different way. Working on the first episode, Adams realised he had a problem. To make his story work, he needed there to be an alien of some sort on Earth, and more importantly a reason for him to be there. Eventually, his piece of 7 year-old inspiration came back to him, and his character became a roving researcher for a wholly remarkable book: The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The character became Ford Prefect (so named because, having not done his research properly, he thought that the name would be nicely inconspicuous) and, along with the tea-obsessed, dressing gown-wearing and very English main character Arthur Dent, would become a central feature of both that episode and, as Adams quickly changed tack to follow this new story instead of writing 5 new ones, the rest of the series of The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy.

That radio series was broadcast in 1978, and catapulted Adams to fame. It was something of a love/hate thing- some thought Adams quirky, offbeat sense of humour was weird and unfunny, whilst others declared him a comic genius for the invention of, say, the Babel fish:

The Babel Fish is small, yellow, leech like, and possibly the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brainwave energy, absorbing unconscious frequencies and then excreting a complex matrix formed from the concious frequencies picked up from the speech centres of the brain- the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear you can instantly understand everything said to you in any form of language. The speech you here decodes the brainwave matrix.

Now, it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could evolve purely by chance that many races have chosen to use it as final clinching proof of the nonexistence of God*. The argument goes something like this:

“I refuse to prove that I exist” says God, “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”

“BUT” says man “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway isn’t it? It proves you exist and so therefore you don’t, QED”

“Oh dear” says God “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

“Oh that was easy” says man, and for an encore he goes on to prove that black is white and get’s killed on the next zebra crossing.

Meanwhile the poor Babel fish, having effectively removed all barriers of communication between species, has caused more and bloodier wars than any race in the history of the galaxy.

*It is worth mentioning that Adams was a staunch atheist

So… yeah, that’s Douglas Adams humour- my unfortunate friends have to put up with me spouting that kind of stuff a lot. That’s hardly an isolated example either, for Adams has proposed, explained or made mention of the concepts of spaceships powered by improbability (and, indirectly, tea), restaurant mathematics and bad news, exactly how to throw oneself at the ground and miss, custom-made luxury planet building, a restaurant at the end of the universe that works by being impossible in at least 6 ways, the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (the effect of which is like having your brain smashed out by a slice of lemon wrapped round a large gold brick) the unimaginable usefulness of a towel, the Somebody Else’s Problem field, Vogon Poetry (and that of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, a corruption of the name of someone Adams went to university with) and the Ultimate Answer to Life, The Universe, And Everything (42, in case you’re interested- they just keep having problems finding the Ultimate Question). To name but a few. You get the general picture.

After the success of the first radio series, the BBC commissioned a second. Between and after this, Adams turned his attention to novel writing, and began a tradition of substantially rewriting the storyline with each new incarnation of it to, among other things, ‘annoy the fans’. The first part of what would later become his famous ‘trilogy in five parts’ was published in 1979, and was later followed by The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless (all of which are references to parts of the first book). He also produced a 1981 TV adaptation, and a few other projects including the novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, the little joke dictionary The Meaning of Liff, and a radio series and book entitled Last Chance to See, about endangered species.

But… what is it that makes him so special? Why the cult following? Why national towel day? Why do I know that Babel Fish quote above by heart? Well… I really don’t know. I can’t quantify the quirkiness, the jokes, the flashes of abstract genius that none bar perhaps Terry Pratchett have ever emulated, the way that every successive adaptation is sufficiently different that every fan’s experience is a little difference. I was indoctrinated through the radio series, think the TV adaptation is rubbish and that the books can’t quite capture the humour as well- but other people I know insist that the literary form is the greatest piece of writing in the universe. As for the film, I think it’s… different and not quite as amazing, but for some of my friends it’s their only dip in the ocean of Adams, and they loved every minute. Others thought it was terrible. It’s a funny old thing.

Adams died in 2002, long before his time. As Richard Dawkins said, in his passing “science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender”. But his stories will never die, so long as there are people willing to enjoy and remember them. They are not stories for everyone, but they’re something everyone should try, just in case they’re perfect for you. And remember, on May 25th: everyone should know where his towel is.

Some things are just unforgettable

What makes an amazing moment? What it is that turns an ordinary or mundane event into something special, something great, something memorable, something that will stick in the mind long after countless other memories have faded, and which will be able to conjure up emotions that, for years and years to come, will send thrills of excitement shivering down your spine? What, precisely, is it that makes something unforgettable.

Is it the event itself? Sometimes, yes, that could be enough. Every so often there are moments so amazing, so surprising, so out of this world and different, that it is burned into one’s soul for evermore. The feat of athletic ability and genius, the trick or feat of skill that just seems completely impossible, the speech or book whose mere words can force themselves through the rigid exterior of the mind and imprint themselves permanently into the soft, pliable core of the soul itself. But… are these moments truly unforgettable? At the time, they may seem so, and for a while afterwards they may become something of a mini-obsession- telling all your mates about it, linking it on Facebook or Twitter, but will these moments continue to inspire and delight however many years from now? On their own… I don’t think so.

Is it the context? To take a favourite example, Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal to win the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England. The clock was in the final seconds of the second half of extra time, Jonny was the nation’s golden boy, beloved by all, it was against old rivals Australia, in Australia, with the home media having slaughtered England in the previous few weeks. England had been building and building for this moment for four long, hard years, and it all came down to one kick (his speciality), by one man, with the hopes and fears of the entire rugby world on his shoulders… if that context wasn’t special, then I don’t know what was. This is but one example of a moment made by context- there are countless others. The young Chinese man who stood up to the tank in Tienanmen Square is one, the Live Aid concert another. But… is it everything? Is a moment being poignant on its own enough to make a moment affix itself in your memory? Or, to come at it from another direction, is a moment excluded from being special simply by virtue of not being worth anything major? Just because something is done for its own sake, does that mean it can’t be special? Once again, I don’t think so.

So… what is it then, this magic ingredient, what is needed to make a moment shine? For an answer, I am going to resort to a case study (aka, an anecdote). A few of my mates are in a band (genre-wise somewhere near the heavy end of Muse), and there is one particular gig that they have now done two years in a row. I should know- I was at both of them. Both times, the crowd was small (around 70 people), and the venue was the same. Last year, the event as a whole was a great laugh- a few of the bands were received a bit coolly, but several others had the crowd going mental- joke-moshing, pressing against the barrier, and generally getting really into the music. My mates’ band was one of the well-received ones, and their set would have been one of the highlights of the night, if the headline act hadn’t blown everyone else completely out of the water.
This year, however, things were a little different. I can personally attest that, in the intervening 12 months, they had improved massively as a band- singing was better and more coherent, music itself was flawless, and they had even gained in confidence and charisma on stage. The music itself was infinitely better, but the actual set… lacked something. Through no fault of the band, that moment just wasn’t as special as it had been a year ago, and the evening as a whole was actually pretty forgettable. And the difference between the two events? In a word: atmosphere.

The previous year, the headline act had been a… well I don’t know enough about music to genre them but suffice it to say it was on the heavier end of the spectrum, and as such the crowd were fairly wired up generally, and especially for anything involving heavy guitar-playing. This year however, the headliners were acoustic in nature- while their music was far from bad, it didn’t exactly inspire surges of emotion, especially to such a small crowd, and this was reflected in the crowd and their preferences. Thus, the whole night just did not have the same atmosphere to it, and just didn’t feel as special (there were other reasons as well, but the point still stands- the lack of atmosphere prevented the moment being special).

This, to me, is evidence of my point- that, to make a moment special, all that is required is for the atmosphere surrounding it, wherever you are experiencing it, to be special, because it is the atmosphere of a moment that enables it to bypass the mind and hit home straight at the emotional core. There are countless ways of giving a moment the required atmosphere- appropriate music can often do the trick, as can the context of the build-up to it (hence why context itself can have such a big impact), or simply the stakes and tension that the moment inspires. However it is inspired though, what it means is simple- to make the most out of a moment, go out of one’s way to make sure the atmosphere you experience it in is the best it possibly can be.