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So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

Monday, 14th May, 2001

Not that long ago, geologically speaking, a lady by the name of Diana collided with a Parisian tunnel, thus becoming the most public demise since Genghis Khan.

Millions travelled to London to offer tribute and to be part of an Event. England now had its own public martyr, its own conspiracy theory, its own JFK.

Douglas Adams was an Event throughout his life. His death will affect me in exactly the same deep profound way that Diana's didn't.

I've known the name from youth. He passed through Brentwood School a few years behind my father, who beat him to the grave by a mere six months. I read the books; I memorised the radio series; I joined ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha.

Chronologically, the radio series was first and best; but for me the book was first. 'The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' had sold enough copies that it turned up relatively often on charity shop shelves and I'd picked up a copy of it and a couple of sequels, and laughed my way through them on more than one occasion.

I vividly remember a few incidents at a summer job I held for a couple of years. One was the advent of Colin, a wonderfully quirky mind that I miss. In mild debate with the gentleman who ran the place he suddenly threw in the concept of an SEP field to the conversation. I knew that I liked Colin from that moment on, and learned instantly that it's great fun to insult your opposite number in an argument without their understanding a word you say.

An SEP field by the way is a theoretical field that you can erect around yourself to keep out anything that doesn't fit your particular idea of logic. The initials stand for Someone Else's Problem. It comes from one of the books in the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

Colin also had the radio series, on six cassettes, which I begged to be able to copy. It even looked stunning: each cassette had a different bright metallic coloured spine with the letters that formed the title running across them in bubbles. If I'd loved the books then I wanted to marry the radio series.

All the different versions of the Hitch Hiker's Galaxy, while being inconsistent, follow the same premise. Arthur Dent escapes the destruction of the planet Earth by hitching a lift with the cooks on the spaceships that destroyed it. The reason that he is able to do this is that his friend Ford Prefect, while seeming perfectly normal, turns out to really be an alien who has been sent to the planet to research it for the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

The original entry for the Earth ran to one word: 'Harmless'. Ford Prefect managed to increase the entry, naturally, to 'Mostly Harmless.'

Everything about it fit my sense of humour exactly. Adams came very much out of various traditions, but created a tradition of his own. Nobody else did humour like this; nobody else had a mind that was so anarchically active. His characters were simple, identifiable stereotypes, but they occupied a universe of mind-mangling complexity. I was hooked for life. I memorised the entire series through repeated listening; every conversation, every situation, everything.

Looking back, the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series is responsible, more than anything else, for my particularly curious sense of humour. Every time I jump perspective, I'm tipping my hat to Douglas Adams and his concept of getting drunk.

'It's unpleasantly like being drunk,' points out Ford.

'What's so unpleasant about being drunk?' asks Arthur.

'You ask a glass of water...'

This way of reading situations has stuck with me as the secret of life. It can be summed up easily: there are always different ways of looking at everything. Who's to say which is accurate?

All of these stereotypical characters live inside my head, as different facets of my personality.

There's Arthur Dent, stunningly average Earthman, for whom life is but a series of pratfalls. From the start, when the council demolish his house to make way for a bypass, through the destruction of his entire planet, when the Vogons demolish it to make way for a hyperspace bypass, nothing goes right for Arthur Dent.

'It must be a Thursday', he says. 'I never could get the hang of Thursdays.'

Ford Prefect got his name from misunderstanding which species on Earth was the dominant one. He's the sort who gallivants through life without a care in the world. He's always blindly cheerful and nothing can get him down.

Zaphod Beeblebrox, with two heads and three arms, ex-President of the Galaxy, who eventually finds out that he is potentially the most important man in the entire universe. His ego doesn't recover.

'We have a fleet of battlecruisers on our tail? They just want to be near me, I guess. I can relate to that. I should just turn my charisma down a notch. Maybe they'll get bored and drift away.'

Marvin, the unforgettable paranoid android, a prototype Genuine People Personality robot. the being who has the best grip on reality and is thus the most depressed.

'Life? Don't talk to me about life.'

All of these characters, and others, hurtle through time and space through unwieldy adventure after unwieldy adventure. Life always has another trick up its sleeve and another situation for them to have to survive. Many of these situations have escaped from the series to become part of modern culture.

The translation service at the AltaVista search engine is named Babel Fish, after Adams's concept of universal translation. The babel fish feeds on brainwave patterns, so if you stick one into your ear it will effectively translate any language into yours.

Even if people have never heard of Douglas Adams or the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they've heard about 42. This came about through one race building a gigantic supercomputer to tell them, once and for all, the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. The computer chugged away for a few million years and eventually came up with the answer of 42.

Later on, Adams finally lets his characters discover the Ultimate Question: 'What do you get if you multiply nine by six.'

This explains the fundamental problems of the universe.

Every single situation that Adams fashioned stretches logic to its limits yet simultaneously highlights a problem of life. I think Douglas Adams intended it all to be more than comedy; if anything he wanted to get people thinking.

He certainly got me thinking and he changed my outlook on life, which has to be the greatest tribute possible.

How could life be the same, knowing that the human race is only the third most intelligent species on the planet?

Mankind thinks it is more intelligent than dolphins, for instance, because it's invented so many things: New York, wars, etc, while the dolphins just mucked around in the water and had a good time; whereas dolphins think that they are more intelligent than man for precisely the same reason.

How could life be the same, knowing that a man in a shack with a questionable hold on logic actually runs the universe?

'Are you wet?'

'Doesn't it look like we're wet?'

'It looks like it to me but you might have other ideas about it. If you find warmth makes you dry, you'd better come in.'

How could life be the same, understanding the concept of the Total Perspective Vortex?

It's the most evil torture known to Man. It shows you a map of the infinity of creation with a tiny little sign that says 'You are here', thus demonstrating the futility of having a sense of proportion.

How could life be the same without Douglas Adams?

I never met him, but he taught me so much, not least how to fly. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Rest in peace.


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