Remembering Douglas

Cool Stuff  |  Essays

Remembering Douglas

from Hitchhiker by M.J. Simpson

I met Douglas Adams toward the end of 1983. I had been asked to interview him for Penthouse. I was expecting someone sharp and smart and BBCish, someone who would sound like the voice of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I was met at the door to his Islington flat by a very tall man, with a big smile and a big, slightly crooked, nose, all gawky and coltish, as if, despite his size, he was still growing. He had just returned to the UK from a miserable time in Hollywood, and he was happy to be back. He was kind, he was funny, and he talked. He showed me his things: he was very keen on computers, which barely existed at that point, and on guitars, and on giant inflatable crayons, which he had discovered in America, had shipped to England at enormous expense, before learning that they were, quite cheaply, available in Islington. He was clumsy: he would back into things, or trip over them, or sit down on them very suddenly and break them.

I learned that Douglas had died the morning after it happened, in May 2001, from the Internet (which had not existed in 1983). I was being interviewed on the phone by a journalist (the journalist was in Hong Kong), and something about Douglas Adams dying went across the computer screen. I snorted, unimpressed (only a couple of days before, Lou Reed had gone onto Saturday Night Live to put to rest a round of Internet rumours about his death). Then I clicked on the link. I found myself staring at a BBC news screen, and saw that Douglas was, quite definitely, dead.

"Are you all right?" said the journalist in Hong Kong.

"Douglas Adams is dead," I said, stunned.

"Oh yes," he said. "It's been on the news here all day. Did you know him?"

"Yes," I said. We carried on with the interview, and I don't know what else was said. The journalist got back in touch several weeks later to say that there wasn't anything coherent or at least usable on the tape after I learned that Douglas died, and would I mind doing the interview again.

Douglas was an incredibly kind man, phenomenally articulate and amazingly helpful. In 1986 I found myself knocking around his life an awful lot when I was working on Don't Panic! I'd sit in corners of his office going through old filing cabinets, pulling out draft after draft of Hitchhiker's in its various incarnations, long-forgotten comedy sketches, Dr Who scripts, press-clippings, always willing to answer questions and to explain. He put me in touch with dozens of people I needed to find and interview, people like Geoffrey Perkins and John Lloyd. He liked the finished book, or he said he did, and that helped too.

(A memory from that period: sitting in Douglas's office, drinking tea, and waiting for him to get off the phone, so I could interview him some more. He was enjoying the phone conversation, about a project he was doing for the Comic Relief book. When he got off he apologised, and then explained that he had to take that call because it was John Cleese, in a way that made it clear that this was a delighted name dropping: John Cleese had just phoned him, and they'd talked professionally like grown-ups. Douglas must have known Cleese for nine years at that point, but still, his day had been made, and he wanted me to know. Douglas always had heroes.)

Douglas was unique. Which is true of all of us, of course, but it's also true that people come in types and patterns, and there was only one Douglas Adams. No-one else I've ever encountered could elevate Not Writing to an art form. No-one else has seemed capable of being so cheerfully profoundly miserable. No-one else has had that easy smile and crooked nose, nor the faint aura of embarrassment that seemed like a protective force field.

After he died, I was interviewed a lot, asked about Douglas. I said that I didn't think that he had ever been a novelist, not really, despite having been an internationally best-selling novelist who had written several books which are, a quarter of a century later, becoming seen as classics. Writing novels was a profession he had backed into, or stumbled over, or sat down on very suddenly and broken.

I think that perhaps what Douglas was was probably something we don't even have a word for yet. A Futurologist, or an Explainer, or something. That one day they'll realise that the most important job out there is for someone who can explain the world to itself in ways that the world won't forget. Who can dramatise the plight of endangered species as easily (or at least, as astonishingly well, for nothing Douglas did was ever exactly easy) as he can explain to an analog race what it means to find yourself going digital. Someone whose dreams and ideas, practical or impractical, are always the size of a planet, and who is going to keep going forward, and taking the rest of us with him.

This is a book filled with facts about someone who dealt in dreams.

Neil Gaiman
Bologna May 15, 2003