DNA – The Source of Life, the Universe and Everything
By Simon Hope
It’s like a Freemason’s handshake to fans of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Forty-two. The answer to life, the universe and everything. Just one of a series of clever in-jokes that bind millions of Hitchhiker fans around the globe.
In 1979, soon after publication of the Hitchhiker’s Guide, author Douglas Adams was invited to a book signing at a small science fiction shop in Soho. As he drove he was held up by what he assumed to be a demonstration. It was only on arrival that he realised the massive crowds were there to meet him. Rarely has a book, particularly a sci-fi comedy novel, created a following of such scale. The Hitchhiker’s Guide had morphed from a cult radio series into a publishing success overnight. A phenomenon was born.
Douglas Noel Adams was born in Cambridge on 11 March 1952 (one of his favourite gags being that he preceded Crick and Watson’s own discovery of DNA in Cambridge by some nine months). After a strange start to life – Adams claimed to have made a habit of walking into lamp-posts as a child – he quickly found his vocation. By the age of eleven his first piece of writing had been accepted into print – a short story for Eagle annual. Despite the many detours he would take along the way, it appears the writing bug was unshakeable from that early age.
An essay on the revival of religious poetry earned him a scholarship to study English at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the chance to join the infamous Footlights comedy revue that he had heard so much about. Finding Footlights members to be “aloof and rather pleased with themselves”, Douglas, in his own inimitable style, formed a guerrilla revue group – Adams-Smith-Adams. They hired a theatre for a week and with them, Douglas scored his first considerable hit.
It was during his time at University that the first idea for the Hitchhiker series began to emerge. There was no moment of epiphany, no blinding light to signal the arrival of a publishing phenomenon. No, it was a much more agreeable turn of events. Whilst hitchhiking through Europe Douglas found himself lying on his back in a field outside Innsbruck, drunk, gazing at the stars and pondering that somebody should write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. As ideas go it turned out to be a highly profitable one.
Post-Cambridge, Douglas threw himself into a writing career with mixed success. Not one to produce a thirty-second sketch when a thirty-minute version was available, Douglas found himself failing his first posting at The Weekending – a training ground for comedy writers. His uncompromising view of his work led to lean spells in his early professional career and he was reduced to living with his mother and taking jobs such as bodyguard to the ruling family of Qatar. It was around this time that Douglas began to suffer the first of recurring crises of confidence that would blight his later life. Despite subsequent global success and plenty of evidence to the contrary, Douglas suffered long periods of low confidence, believing that he just wasn’t capable of writing successfully.
Hitchhiker was effectively his last throw of the dice. Following nine months of solid work the Hitchhiker radio series aired in March 1978. The storyline involved a middle-class Englishman, Arthur Dent, escaping the planet Earth seconds before its destruction to make an intergalactic bypass. With his friend Ford Prefect – revealed to be an inhabitant of another planet – they travel through space with the aim of researching and updating the Hitchhiker’s Guide. Laced with humour, the timing was impeccable. Riding high on the back of the Star Wars-inspired science fiction revival, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a huge success. Having taken a producing job at the BBC to make ends meet Douglas suddenly found himself trying to simultaneously write the second radio series, the first novel, the television series and several episodes of Doctor Who. After only six months at the BBC, he quit. The world of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy became his full-time occupation.
In September of 1979, some six months after the radio series had aired, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was published as a novel. The response was instantaneous and immense. It appeared at number one in the Sunday Times best-seller list and didn’t bother moving.
It is difficult to discuss the work of Douglas Adams, however, without mentioning his legendary ability to not write. He took prevarication to a whole new galaxy, spawning the wonderful quote: “I love deadlines…I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
Unfortunately, his success only strengthened the ability to postpone writing. When faced with writing the second book, after passing numerous deadlines the publisher demanded a book within four weeks. Having failed to even start it, his then-girlfriend rented a house and locked him away to write the book. This became a common theme with every book from then on being written post-deadline in a state of panic, usually with Douglas locked away in secluded, rented accommodation.
The process of avoidance continued and worsened throughout his career. When deadlines loomed for the fourth book, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, Douglas took the initiative to book himself into a tiny Devon hotel in order to get away from life’s distractions. Of course, being Douglas he then spent all of his time at the hotel drinking wine with the proprietors and eating fried breakfasts. With a final publication date looming the publisher booked him into a Hyde Park hotel and typed whilst Douglas glowered and angrily dictated to him.
With the fourth Hitchhiker book out of his system and the memory of producing it fresh in his mind, Douglas took a break and began writing the Dirk Gently series – the tale of a holistic private detective – to familiar popular acclaim. Branching out into new areas Douglas developed a passion for environmental issues and in 1990 he travelled to Madagascar in search of rare lemurs. It was a complete revelation to him and he subsequently wrote Last Chance to See, ironically his least successful book, but the thing he was most proud of in his professional life. His interest in wildlife conservation would also drive him to walk to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in a prosthetic Rhino costume…to raise money for Save the Rhino International, of course.
Refreshed and having ignored several deadlines, Douglas wrote the fifth and final book in the Hitchhiker series, Mostly Harmless. The book was written in three weeks whilst under house arrest…some three years past its original deadline. It was, of course, published to critical acclaim.
The Hitchhiker universe had exploded to include five books, three radio series, a television series, several stage plays, a CD-Rom and a massively popular website that brings together fans from across the globe. The books alone had sold 14 million copies globally. But unfortunately, despite his persistence and dogged determination, Douglas just couldn’t get the movie project off the ground. It was a hit waiting to happen, but inexplicably it just couldn’t get started. There were several false starts and a few moments when a cinematic appearance looked inevitable, however ultimately it came to nothing.
In 1999 Douglas moved his family out to California in order to work on the long delayed Hitchhiker movie that had continued to languish in development hell. In the same year he launched the H2G2 website where fans of the series could come together in a cyber community and post articles on any subject they wished. It was his dream realised – an actual guide to the galaxy where one could find reference to topics as diverse as “how to make a purse from Sellotape” to “20th century politics”.
On the morning of 11 May 2001, Douglas Adams was visiting his gym where, after laying down on a weights bench, he suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was 49-years old. Douglas left his daughter, 6-year old Polly, his wife, Jane, and millions of fans globally in shock and mourning. In a bizarre twist of fate the Minor Planet Centre Space Agency had coincidentally named an asteroid ArthurDent on the very day Douglas died.
Almost four years after his death the movie adaptation of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy finally made it to the big screen (via many directorial appointments and script changes). Fans everywhere agreed that Douglas would have been immensely proud of the end product. The journey was finally complete.
On 11 March 2007, Douglas Adams would have been 55-years old. Who knows what more he would have achieved. The movie? It was only a matter of time. More books? Perhaps, but not until a good few deadlines had passed by unnoticed.
So long Douglas and thanks for all the fish.