Written by Literature

Douglas Adams

12 May 2001 was a big day for me. It was the FA Cup Final, with Arsenal playing Liverpool in Cardiff. And it was also a good friend’s wedding in London. The match didn’t go so well for an Arsenal fan like me (forced to sneak off during the reception to watch the match on a 3″ Casio TV), but the wedding was excellent, and celebrating it ran long into the night.

Sometime around 5.00am, with plans to head home, and possibly having imbibed a little, I found myself in the lobby of the Charlotte Street Hotel (this was a very nice wedding), where they had complimentary copies of the Sunday Times. I picked one up and was completely knocked off my feet to read on their front page that Douglas Adams had died.

This was a massive body blow to me. I couldn’t stop thinking it about it all the way home, and for many days afterwards. When someone notable or famous that I’ve admired usually dies, I tend to feel glad that we have their work to look back at. Perhaps I’ll read a book, or watch a film of theirs. (It is true that I was similarly knocked for six by Iain Banks’ death too).

I loved Douglas Adams’ books, his writing in general, his computer games – I had Starship Titanic, even if I never finished it, and just the man in general. He seemed like someone to aspire to be, even if it felt like a long time between his books. He loved technology (Why can’t I find Adams’ interview on The Kit anywhere online?)

At an event earlier this week in Foyles, discussing Adams and his life, the panel asked the room how they first came across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Like many in the room, I can’t quite remember. I may have caught an episode or two on the radio, but those would have been repeats and on the radio in the kitchen that was solidly tuned to Radio 4. It’s also possible that I’d read the first book. Anything that suggested Science Fiction in a bookshop or library tended to get my vote, and I’d read it.

But I know for certain that I watched the 1981 TV series. What I remember, now I think about it, was that in 1981 I was in my final year of primary school, and one of the end of year traditions was that there was a fancy dress parade.

Age 11, I went as Arthur Dent. For one thing, it was easy – I already owned the pyjamas and a dressing gown which formed the major part of my outfit. The more complicated bit was making a copy of “The Book”.

I’d been given a Texas Instruments calculator by my uncle at Christmas. It was one of those models that had a red LED display. I’d taken it apart on several occasions to see how it worked.

As a result, it no longer worked.

But with use of a tissue box, paint, and the remnants of a non-working calculator, I now had an excellent “book” to go with my costume. I forget whether I took a towel.

What I do know is that few, if any, of my classmates or teachers knew who Arthur Dent was, and someone who’s mum had obviously worked very hard, won the prize for going as Bertie Bassett, of Liquorice Allsort fame. I felt robbed as I’d “made” my own costume and not relied on my mum.

On Tuesday’s panel were Jem Roberts who has a new authorised biography of Adams out, The Frood, and author Marie Philips who has recently had the very excellent The Table of Less Valued Knights published – a somewhat different take on Camelot – and has a blog about Adams on the Foyles website.

There was also a chap from Foyles, who’s name I missed [Update – thanks Marie] Jonathan Ruppin, web editor of Foyles, chairing the event. Given his viciously hard Hitchhiker’s themed quiz – the lack of a follow-up email suggests that I got fewer marks than the guys in the front row wearing “Don’t Panic” T-shirts – and his line of questioning, he is clearly an Adam’s aficionado.

The event started promptly at 6.42pm, and the talk was of Adams as a writer, his influences, his lackadaisical attitude to work, his failure to write female characters (“Write a character, then make them a woman,” said Marie), his agnosticism, his love of technology, and whether he’d have been good on Twitter. On the latter, the feeling of the panel was “probably”, but there was also a fear that we’d have never had another work from him again. Sadly, we’ll never know.

The panel got a little sidetracked on the film version, and all the things that were wrong with. Marie especially hated it. I’ve just re-read my “review” from 2005, and see that I was relatively kind, if not exactly bowled over. I think the fact that they gave me a towel at the screening I attended may have swayed my opinion. I still have the towel. That said, I’ve only ever seen the film that one time. I’ve never felt the need to revisit it when it’s on TV. But I think I’ve taken a more benevolent view of remakes as I’ve got older, if only because the well of original thought seems to keep drying up, and more and more classics are being remade. So yes, it may be true that someone discovers, or is put off from discovering, a fantastic book from a poor film version, but then the first version of Hamlet you see might be poor. Should that detract from Shakespeare’s play? And I can just avoid something if I like. I know that there is a monstrous Nic Cage version of The Wicker Man in existence. But I’ve never seen it, and my memories are not spoiled by that knowledge. I just have to be a little careful flicking around late night TV when looking for something to watch. See also The Ladykillers (love the Coens, but sorry), Edge of Darkness, State of Play, etc.

The new Foyles is rather magnificent incidentally. They’ve moved into premises vacated by Central St Martins when they moved out to their new King’s Cross home. Although I do somehow miss having to go to three tills to make a book purchase. I remember first going to their Charing Cross Road bookshop with a friend and his mother. I’d chosen a book, and the process was then:

– Queue at a teller who would take the book from you and hand you a chit with the price on it.
– Queue at a cashier and pay the value of the chit and get your receipt.
– Queue back at the first teller with your validated receipt and collect your book.

Also, fiction titles were organised by publisher rather than just author, and we all know who publishes what title don’t we? On the other hand, you could find some seriously obscure books and books that wouldn’t be available anywhere else in a pre-internet age.

Once Charing Cross Road was the home of bookshops in London. Sadly the way things are going, Foyles is going to be just about the only bookshop left on the street.

But back to Tuesday night.

It’s traditional at these things that afterwards the writers on stage will sign copies of their books. I already had a copy of Marie’s latest book which I’d read and brought along, but I picked up a copy of Jem’s book and went over to the table to get them signed.

Now here’s the thing, I can never think of anything particularly sensible to say to an author in that situation. Call it social ineptness. I want to make some kind of small-talk. It always feels like everyone else at these events is already a best buddy: Friends coming along because the author is in town; bookshop staff keeping their author happy topping up the wine and rushing to get fresh nibbles. But as I wait in the queue thinking of something sage and witty to say, it can get a little garbled in my head. A few instances:

– Years ago at a signing with John Simpson, I’d just got a job in the marketing department of a small local newspaper. When I said I told him I was interested in journalism and this was the new job I had, he looked at me with a little pity as if to say, “Then why are you working in marketing?”

– At an Iain Banks signing, I was so in awe of the man, it was just, “Make it out to Adam – the usual spelling.” Fortunately Margaret Atwood hadn’t yet published “MaddAddam” – the only way I can think you could misspell my name.

– At a Neil Gaiman signing, the queue was so long behind me that I was scared to engage in any kind of conversation in case he was still signing in the venue post-midnight.

– At a Dave Gorman book-signing, I didn’t mention that we had a mutual friend, and had met in the pub at least twice. That made it all the more awkward the next time we met in the pub with our mutual friend, when he remembered me being (silent) at his last book signing. I picked up Dave’s new book on the way out of Foyles incidentally.

– At a recent very popular signing by Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch, she first of all asked, “Would you like a date?” Huh? Ah. She actually had a plate of dates. I politely declined. Then I explained that my father was a massive fan (he is) and that’s why I wanted one book made out to him. It still made me sound like I was just a bit “meh” over her books though. I’m not.

Anyway, this is all by way of a bit of an apology to Marie, of who’s new book I said I’d “quite liked” – which sounds simply awful. Actually, I greatly enjoyed it, and laughed out loud. To compund things, I then brusquely told her that she had to “Listen to the CDs,” having told us earlier that her experience of Hitchhiker’s had mostly been the books (and the film). Sorry about that. The CDs (or downloads) are worth getting though!