Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Photo by © Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS/VCG via Getty Images)

The meaning of laughs

In praise of Douglas Adams, a comedy legend

Artillery Row Books

Ah, Douglas Adams. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways …

Well, we know what they are going to add up to, at least, don’t we?

Other comic authors are famous for creating immortal characters, archetypes even; for cunning, ingenious plots; for lovable milieus; or for a waspish, curt or lugubrious turn of phrase. Some, for an attitude towards women, foreigners or strong drink, that has not survived into the modern era.

But few are remembered for a single, two-digit number — let alone one that purports to be The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. If brevity is the soul of wit, well, you can’t get much briefer than that.

Perhaps Joseph Heller — though his specific Catch always felt rather arbitrary, and indeed it was changed from the first draft to avoid confusion with another book. Forty Two, on the other hand, is just right. It is not up for debate. It is the answer, and all that remains is to retro-fit the correct phrasing of the question.

42 — The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams is also the title of a new collection of Adams ephemera that has been occupying my time, thoughts and desk for some weeks. It is a large format, hardback compendium, and it contains vastly more than 42 of everything Adams. School essays; college sketches (both abandoned and performed); Polaroids; rejection slips; Earliest Known Sightings of soon to be iconic concepts — including that number; Post-it notes; annotated scripts and speeches; the finally completed, uninterrupted full length version of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan; hymns to Macintosh computers; curses placed on BBC commissioners; testaments to dark nights of the soul and expressions of daytime despair; and letters to and from friends and fan club crushees.

It contains much that is apocryphal, certainly — but not, I think, wildly inaccurate. It might be a little heavy (physically, for the lap) but if you have installed a decent lavatory lectern you could do an awful lot worse. An Englishman’s loo is his study after all, and that’s what this book deserves.

42, I should emphasise, is not an undiscovered masterpiece. It is not the Black album, the tenth symphony or Smile.

It is the comet’s tail, the asteroid belt to the planets that form his legacy. No one should, or will, start here. But anyone who has spent the last two decades missing Adams and his singular talent for tugging on just the right overlooked thread of modern existence, and locating their eternal verities, will not want to miss out.

The sense of familiarity, of half recognising one’s own sub-Footlights endeavours, doodles and dalliances, conflicts and collaborations and other juvenilia is tantalising — before his full and mighty wingspan unfolds, and he begins to soar.

His catalogued debts, especially to Terry Nation (of Doctor Who and Dalek fame) are perhaps the most illuminating elements, outside of the obvious inner circle, the usual seventies suspects.

I walk a slippery rim around a tempting tar-pit of warm, unctuous adoration

If you are a fan, you will want this under the tree this Christmas. For a certain kind of Dad — and, Caitlin Moran assures me, Mum — it is the McCartney lyrics of comedy.

For anyone still with me but in a baffled, Arthur Dent state of mind, never having read the books, I should say that the Adams canon is highly accessible and easily itemised. It comprises: The Meaning of Liff, Last Chance to See, the Dirk Gently books and The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy — a trilogy famously in five parts, initially dramatised on Radio 4 and then with various adaptations, but to me always and forever a slim volume with a cheerfully colourful interference pattern cover, that (with apologies for resorting to Liff) actually changed my life.

This is where it gets tricky, because it requires of me that I walk a somewhat slippery rim, above and around a tempting tar-pit of such warm, unctuous adoration and unseemly devotion that should I slide in, readers may feel Dorothy Parker’s infamous toothache just reading it.

Then again, fuck it. The simple fact is that Douglas Adams took my comedy cherry. He flipped my switch. There is only ever one. It was 1979, and I was fourteen, and if that shocks anyone, so be it. It was long ago and it was far away, and in many ways it was so much worse than it is today — but first love never, ever dies.

Dave Marsh wrote that when Aretha Franklin sings “You make me feel like a natural woman”, what she is hinting at is that having long worried she might be frigid, her man has finally allowed her to relax into accepting the greatest gift that a man can bestow. No, not a city break with cocktails on the fifth floor. Not a puppy. Not even a foot massage. A, you know. A thingy. An (mouths silently, a la Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough) orgasm.

I remember thinking that was all a bit unnecessary at the time, but clearly it has stuck with me. So, yes, that is the metaphor I am going to reach for here.

There is in all reading, that hoped-for sense of reassurance, that we work. We read, as C.S. Lewis says in Shadowlands and as I never tire of repeating, to know that we are not alone. With laughter, especially teenage laughter, that sentiment is turned up to 11 (possibly, the only number funnier in context than 42). Jokes take risks. They reach out across a chasm. When the hook lands, the laugh is riven with unconscious gratitude.

I had of course laughed before, sometimes even at books. Jennings and Derbyshire. My mum’s Alan Coren. The Beano annual. With the Hitchhiker’s Guide, Douglas Adams didn’t just make me laugh. He made me stare in delight at the perfect tiny footprints on the page. He reassured me and an awful lot of us spotty teenagers that we weren’t weird. Not that weird, anyway. Just weird enough, and OK.

He suggested that it was ok to delight in our own adolescent cleverness. Much of the inherited world really was as arbitrary as it seemed. We really didn’t need to worry, because we were still more than dumb enough to fall flat on our faces, too.

His writing was an ultraviolet light that suddenly illuminated the hidden traces, the long suspected but unseen code, the wires that connected the nodes. An X-ray that revealed the musculo-skeletal structure of the Universe, and the scale of the thing, without which nothing had made any sense. It gave us a thrill that most of us have been searching for ever since.

When you are a stand-up comedian, as I am, at the level that I am at*, local radio hosts who are kind enough to promote your tour with an interview, often ask, “Who was your favourite comedian growing up?” or “Who was your greatest influence?” Again, as with forty two, there is only one correct answer. But I might need to just tweak the question, for it to make sense.

Adams is now often celebrated, like Jules Verne, HG Wells and Leonardo da Vinci, for various prescient innovations that he foresaw, from The Book itself — seen as having prefigured the iPhone/Wikipedia/Google Complex — to the Babel fish real-time translation device, and a virtual reality so immersive you forget that you are in it.

For me, though, Douglas Adams was the greatest science fiction writer of his generation because he wasn’t really interested in science fiction at all. He was interested in humans, in carbon-based lifeforms deluded as to their level of advancement, and their ineradicable, wicked, foolish ways.

This could be read, personalised number plate style, as Simon Evans IS 4D2

Did he have a precursor? He did, indeed he did. But I didn’t know that at the time. This was of course PG Wodehouse, as I later discovered. Amongst the many occasions when I have felt a synaptic spark leap out from my brain across the wastes of time, space and mortality to connect with another intelligence, one was on seeing Adams quote, in a preface he’d written to a Wodehouse book, the exact same phrase that I so cherished in one of the Blandings stories — “I have here in the sack a few simple rats” — as heralding “one of the most sublime moments in all English literature”.

That was a powerful sense of connection. I can get weirder than that, though. For instance, when I lived in Peckham, in the late nineties, I was delighted that my postcode was SE15 4DZ. Because this could be read, personalised number plate style, as Simon Evans IS 4D2.

More? OK. A wild-eyed Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now quotes Col. Kurtz as observing that “The middle word of Life is ‘if’”. To which I instinctively felt the only correct response was that the middle word of Brando, is “and”?

To indulge the scrabble tile i-Ching for a moment: “AND” backwards is DNA — the secret to nature’s ability to “and” itself (and indeed to “and on misery to man”) and also, Douglas Nöel Adams’ initials. He was, reportedly, very proud of that, as it was emblematic of his determination to endorse science and dispel the demon-haunted world, warned of by Carl Sagan.

It was, as it happens, a DNA test in 2018 that allowed me to find the missing piece in the puzzle of my true identity, the hinge on which my life unexpectedly swung. It turns out that I was conceived by artificial insemination — that I share my biological father, my DNA, with dozens, probably hundreds of others … including Douglas’ very good friend, and the inspiration for Dirk Gently, the writer Michael Bywater.

The title of the show that I toured about that — The Work of the Devil — was a paraphrased (well, OK, misremembered) quote from a passage Douglas wrote about the three ages of technology, the third being anything invented after you are past middle age and which thus go against the natural order of things.

The point being, that was how I was feeling about a lot of the world lately, not just technology. Only to discover that I owed my very existence to something — getting pregnant via sperm donor — that a man by the name of Lord Blackford had, in a debate on the issue in the House of Lords, referred to as a “Brainwave of Beelzebub”.

Which I think is close enough, and might even have teased an appreciative chuckle from the big man himself.

I never met Douglas Adams — he died in 2001, on Michael Bywater’s 48th birthday. Barely an app goes by to this day when I don’t wonder what he’d have made of it all. My discovery of that tangible connection is a source of perhaps ridiculous but nonetheless sincere consolation to me. As is the thought that, had we met, the science suggests that I had the necessary DNA to have been his friend.

The Universe is made, not of atoms, says the poet Muriel Rukeyser, but of stories. I endorse this message. So, I would add, is Life — and for that matter, everything, too. Its storyteller, its writer in residence, DNA, is the best friend I never quite met.

* My only ambition has ever been that when I am 73 and am mown down at dawn by a bright red sports car on my way home from an all night party, that the local paper would refer to me as “the comedian Simon Evans”, and not “Simon Evans, who worked as a comedian”.

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