Financial Times Review of Biography of Douglas Adams

Adams Hitchhiker Photo

Adams on the set of the BBC’s TV series of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Going through a pile of old newspaper clippings, I came across a review by David Honigmann of M.J. Simpson’s Hitchhiker: A Biography of Douglas Adams, published by Hodder & Stoughton, from the Saturday edition of the Financial Times for 22nd/23rd March 2003. Here it is.

The psychologist Meredith Belbin distinguished between a range of roles that individuals could play on a team. There are the co-ordinators who keep things moving, the resource investigators who grub around for materials and cut deals, the shaper/finishers who make sure projects get completed and the plants who throw out ideas. Douglas, it is fair to say, was a plant. In a casual conversation, he could throw out enough ideas for a lifetime’s writing. It was just the actual writing that came hard to him. He was ambitious enough to live in poverty on odd jobs while waiting for his big break, with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but not ambitious enough to keep working at the same rate once fame arrived.

M.J. Simpson’s biography of Adams is surprisingly tart, coming from a fan whose obsession with his subject seems to fall just this side of stalkerhood. The charges against Adams are four-fold: he procrastinated, he was starstruck, he exaggerated, his knowledge of science fiction was shallow. That Adams procrastinated is not in doubt. He learned the habit at the feet of a master, working with Graham Chapman during Chapman’s alcoholic post-Python years. After the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, all his books were delivered late – in many cases they were only begun after the deadline had passed. But he was, in general, so reliable as a cash-cow that editors and publishers were prepared to wait for milking-time. Nonetheless, at the time of his death, Adams had not completed a book for eight years, and his last project, Starship Titanic, had received only a lukewarm reception.

Starstruck, Adams certainly seems to have been. He went to Cambridge to ingratiate himself with the Footlights crowd: he wanted to be John Cleese and worked his way into at least an outer ring of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His parties were studded with musicians from Procol Harum, Pink Floyd and Wings, and Islington media glitterati.

“The audience were more famous than the band,” recalls one of the latter ruefully. For his 42nd birthday, he was given a certificate entitling him to appear on stage with Pink Floyd. His school chaplain suspects that his atheism was caused by his hero-worship of Richard Dawkins. At best, this tendency in Adams meant that he exposed himself to a wide range of ideas, many of which he developed in his own work; at its worst, this star-spotting was mostly harmless. That Adams played up his anecdotes seems likely. Simpson patiently debunks some of the myths: the first book did not go straight to number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list; Adams did not have to fight his way through crowds to get to his first book signing; the original idea for Hitchhiker did not (probably) come to him as he lay drunk in a field outside Innsbruck. The myths became part of Adams’ brand. He told the stories well, as can be heard on Douglas Adams’s Guide to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an audiocassette from BBC Worldwide. In essence, they fulfilled his desire to be a performer, not just a writer.

They may have served a function as self-defence in the face of a world with almost limitless tempting distractions. And they seem to have fulfilled his need for external validation: as someone who cherished throughout his life the time when a hard-to-please English teacher gave him 10 out of 10 for a story, he succumbed to the temptation to make his career a little more successful, a little more lucky.

The final suggestion is that Adams’s knowledge of science fiction was shallow. This is probably correct: one of the characteristics of science fiction fandom is that someone, somewhere, always knows more than you do. But as a science fiction writer, Adams had the mastertouch of being able to put names on concepts that no one previously knew they needed. The number of Hitchhiker concepts now embedded in the internet (such as the Babel Fish as a universal translator) is a tribute to this. There is one strikingly sad moment in Douglas Adams’s Guide, when Adams notes, “when you pass 40 – and I’m well past 40 – you suddenly become aware that all the things on your agenda … you’re not going to do them all.”

Had he lived longer, it is doubtful whether he would have produced much more, unless driven to it by economic necessity. Simpson considers this a waste of his talent. More charitably, one might conclude that most of his ambitions had been fulfilled and a few decades of intellectual puttering about and indulging his hobbies was a fair reward.

Despite Simpson’s general diligence, there is one striking lacuna. For the last decade or so of his life, Adams had been working on a novel to be called The Salmon of Doubt. What was to be in it changed periodically but the title remained – surprising, given Adams’s general indifference to titles. Simpson dismisses it as “a meaningless phrase”, but it is nothing of the sort. The Salmon of Doubt is a riff on the Irish legend of the Salmon of Certainty, which grants whoever eats it all the knowledge in the world. The seer Fionn labours for seven years to catch it, but when he does he leaves someone else to cook it while he gathers firewood. The other man – who turns out to be Fionn, son Uail, son of Baiscne – consumes three drops of oil from the fish, and he gets the knowledge, not Fionn the seer.

In other words, what turned out to be Adams’s last project was named for the story of someone who procrastinates for seven years over a project to gain the secrets of life, the universe and everything, only to have the prize snatched away from him at the last minute. He would have appreciated the irony.

And here’s the opening titles from the BBC TV version:

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.