A favourite at Burlesque nights. Well, the crowds are mainly female…
Archive for June, 2013
Douglas Adams would have honed this long and flabby blog entry down to about fifty words. This is why he can with relative safety be called a genius, and I can be called something else. Nonetheless…
This is to announce the forthcoming publication of my third book, THE FROOD: A COMEDIC HISTORY OF DOUGLAS ADAMS’ HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. Or at least, this is a displacement activity when I should be writing my third book, THE FROOD: ACHODAHHGTTG. It has the full official blessing of Adams’ family, agent and estate, and will be published by Preface in the autumn of 2014, to coincide with the 35th anniversary of the release of Adams’ first novel in the trilogy of five (or six now, lest we forget, which is one of the issues this book will mull over).
My previous book on Blackadder was composed entirely in secret, not announced until it was ready for publication. This time, I am adamant that I want to do things differently, and let the interested world in on what Preface Books and I are up to, as we go along.
THE FROOD: Original pitch, as cordially okayed by Ed Victor, Polly Adams and the Adams estate.
“It’s all been said!” is of course a perfectly understandable reaction to this announcement – at least, it was the one I made when the idea began to take root, and it was also the initial response of John Lloyd, the comedy Yaweh so intricately bound in to the H2G2 story, who has also been kind enough to help and advise me throughout the travails of constructing my first two books. Since handing over THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE BLACK ADDER in the spring of 2012, I had been labouring to push a number of book ideas off the starting blocks, with a heart-squashing absence of success, until, in one of many wranglings with my wise publisher, the subject of H2G2 arose. Both of my existing books had intersected interestingly with the Adams story, and I have been a huge DNA admirer pretty much all my life, reading all the H2G2 and Dirk Gently books before puberty set in and having a number of well-thumbed Adams biographies and the like on my shelves. I enjoyed attending Adams’ 60th birthday celebrations at the Hammersmith Apollo, and considered myself a definite fan of the man and his works. Indeed, I think the shaken, confused feeling which set in when I first heard the insane news about his early death is one which I will never quite dispel. But while all this is true, I hadn’t ever been a card-carrying, ZZ9-Plural-Z-Alpha-fee-paying H2G2 obsessive, certainly not in the same all-encompassing way that Blackadder was branded indelibly on my soul. Would the view of a non-cultist be a refreshing change to what had already been published about the most remarkable book ever to come out of the great publishing corporation of
Ursa Minor… Pan Books?
I was as surprised as I would really love you to be right now to discover that a new book about H2G2 could definitely be not just justified, but positively required, in 2014. First of all, Douglas Adams is a huge cultural figure. When James Boswell said his piece about Samuel Johnson, did the academics of the world say “well, that about wraps it up for Johnson”? No, they did not, so it’s a testament to Adams’ lasting vision and creation that further books on the subject can be welcomed, and hopefully will continue to be written long after you and I are dust. But what scope is there for further H2G2 study?
At no time will I deny that this book will in part be written by standing on the shoulders of – if not giants, then certainly rather tall people.
First and foremost, I would say that the oracle for Adams and his work is HITCHHIKER: A BIOGRAPHY OF DOUGLAS ADAMS by MJ Simpson, who was a definite contender for Adams’ Boswell. Particularly bearing in mind the schedule I am facing, I cannot try to contend with that book’s sheer density of meticulous research and truth-refining. I owe Mike Simpson a titanic debt, not just for writing that work, but for his kind blessing to forge on ahead with THE FROOD. When I open HITCHHIKER, I recognise the same valiant determination to slip in every single salient and entertaining fact, creating a definitive profile, that I aimed for with THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE BLACK ADDER. I point anyone who wants to take the travels of Arthur Dent with them into the Mastermind chair to engorge themselves on Simpson’s book. Although not a flashy piece of writing, it is, I maintain, the H2G2 bible.
That said, of course Simpson has not been alone in chronicling the H2G2 story. By-passing several titles which are either handy remixes of available sources, like the recent ROUGH GUIDE, or drastically loosely based around the H2G2 theme (42, THE SCIENCE OF H2G2, PHILOSOPHY & H2G2 and so on), Simpson’s HITCHHIKER forms part of a trilogy of three non-fiction books.
Neil Gaiman was the first to hang on Adams’ anecdote-spinning, writing DON’T PANIC – the first ever book on the subject, back in the 80s, before Adams had even written his last word for the Guide. However, as is to be expected, DON’T PANIC is a naturally superseded patchwork quilt of a book, which has already been briefly patched up and updated twice by other authors (Simpson included), and though it contains much exclusive material and is a must-see for dedicated fans, it remains light reading. The sadly no-longer-with-us Nick Webb, Adams’ good friend and first publisher at Pan, wrote the excellent and entirely authorised WISH YOU WERE HERE at the Adams family’s request, and that too I would thoroughly recommend to any lover of DNA’s work. Webb’s book is perhaps the most intellectual of the trilogy, with many pages mulling over Adams’ philosophical musings at length, and is therefore perhaps the closest we will get to Adams himself as it digresses regularly into ultimate questions of physics, metaphysics and lunch in a way which gives you more of a feel of meeting the man himself than any other non-fiction title. That said, by being a very personal take on Adams’ life and career, WYWH skirts over a thousand themes which Simpson was to subsequently nail down.
To top all of this, the fanclub ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha has been publishing its fanzine MOSTLY HARMLESS four times a year for three decades, so what chance does any comedy historian stand when it comes to digging up anything new about Life, The Universe and… That?
Well I hope I have the germ of a very worthwhile idea, in THE FROOD. Firstly, science fiction fans tend to pay lip service to the very basic fact that H2G2 was, and remains, COMEDY – but although Simpson writes with genuine knowledge and zeal about Adams’ humour, it’s always apparent that it’s the robots, spaceships and distant galaxies fuelling the passion. THE FROOD will be the first book to fully engage with H2G2 in the intended context. Don’t misconstrue me, I do love science fiction: I’ve read my Wells, I bought every issue of the Red Dwarf smegazine, I watched all the Star Trek the BBC pumped out throughout the 90s (well, until Voyager came along, but… SCHTUM!). Nevertheless, Sci-Fi is not actually top of My List Of Favourite Genres. In my first book I was lucky to get the chance to detail the creation of one solid gold classic of BBC Radio 4 comedy, and this will follow a very similar thread: creating sonic humour.
Secondly, I have had to take the assertion that MJ Simpson admirably covered the H2G2 saga in exquisite detail not as a bar to my book’s worth, but as a ticket to freedom. I can and will point anyone towards Simpson’s work if they want the nitty and/or gritty of how H2G2 happened (although there are numerous elements absent from Simpson’s book which I will investigate), but that done, THE FROOD has the licence to come at the story from an entirely new angle. At the risk of being labelled a pseud, I can only think of what I do as story-telling, whereas none of the existing books on H2G2 allow themselves to tell Adams’ story with any kind of pleasing narrative flow, because there’s simply too much to crowbar in there. I love telling tales about the birth of great comedy, and by focussing on the creation of H2G2 in all its forms, chronologically and in a compelling narrative style, I think THE FROOD could become a great read both for die hard H2G2 fans and those who have barely dipped a toe in Adamsian waters. A true picaresque narrative.
No matter how terrifying the prospect of sieving through all the endless material on Adams and his greatest creation might be, I can definitely see that drawing together all the numerous sources afresh, more than a decade on from the last efforts to chronicle the story, updating it with all the latest developments (The movie, the tribute, the live tour, the Eoin Colfer sequel, the action figures…), is an honourable pursuit worth taking a year of this smoker’s presumably relatively short lifespan.
Not that it was anything but a long dark teatime, coming to the decision to accept this deadly responsibility. Faced with the invitation from Preface Publishing to be the latest H2G2 chronicler (not Adams biographer, by the way, DNA had a few choice words to say about biographers and I refuse to label myself one, my subject is primarily H2G2 itself), it was suddenly as if I had tripped and fallen into a very similar parallel universe where everything was Adamsised. It’s a well-known phenomenon – this preponderance of the number 42, etc.
Douglas Adams’ one lasting virtue could be said to be his ability to make us all look at existence, from the smallest puddle to the end of the universe itself, from a startlingly new and entirely unexpected angle. As I agonised about whether to sign up for the project, it felt like that was the only angle from which I could see. For medical reasons (now thankfully eradicated, thank you) I had been compelled to up my number of baths considerably, and so the first half of this year was largely spent, as a struggling, depressed, un-contracted, Beatles-obsessed writer, sat in the bath in bubbly procrastinating anguish, guitar and towel within reach, listening to H2G2 and Pink Floyd and wrestling with this problem of whether I wanted to mount the podium and paint a target on my forehead for the most rabid science fiction fans to take aim. Just over the road, I could see bulldozers knocking down a rather handsome Victorian cottage (This is all utterly true, the proof is on my Twitter feed for June). Then I sat in my bathrobe in hospital and watched the 42 bus travelling up and down a West Country highway, as I mused about Vogons, mice, dolphins and that damnably daft number, faced with the prospect, thanks to an irksome deadline, of being frustratedly chained to my desk, in a valiant bid to get the manuscript in on time.
All of this should sound rather familiar to any Adams aficionado.
Douglas Adams’ life was liberally peppered with astonishing coincidences, but of course, no rational human ever for one second draws any real meaning from the seemingly spooky incidents that life pukes up – yet still, for me, the Adamsian angle never seemed to dissipate. An at least penultimate straw came on a jolly day out with a number of fellow comedy lovers to BBC TV Centre, to see Vic & Bob’s (incidentally, utterly superb) new sitcom being piloted, one of the very last recordings at the legendary lynchpin of our National Heritage. This was the epicentre of my anguish about taking on the FROOD job, life was pushing me to come to a decision. As our crowd milled along in a random line, a BBC employee was coming up the untidy queue, handing out numbered badges for the recording audience. Guess what number they gave me.
Me, far left, that is – and a number of clever gentlemen who may not want to be named on my site. Although the photo is ©Susannah & Louis Barfe.
Yes, as I say, it’s steaming bunk, all this 42 conspiracy business, I know, but I did feel that the best way to stop it seeming like the universe was frankly taking the piss was to take on the mammoth job, and begin dutifully amassing quotes from Douglas Adams’ fourteen trillion chat show appearances. I’ve often said that I need a book project to scare me if it’s worth doing at all, and there’s nothing more scary than this.
However, where once the fear came from the difficulty of tracking down material, this time it comes from there just being too much out there. I often bash my head against the wall with regret that I never managed to interview Sir David Hatch in more detail before he died, and I mourn the rich comedy knowledge which went with him. With Adams, it sometimes seems as if the poor chap did little from 1978 to 2001 but be interviewed about every last element of H2G2, so where does that leave me when it comes to finding NEW material for THE FROOD? What old scripts will I uncover? What fresh insight can be gained? Not least considering the fact that all of Adams’ surviving friends and collaborators tend to be understandably sick to every last tooth about being asked about what they were up to three decades ago.
It’s been a hard puzzle to wrap my monkey brain around, but aiming for such things will not help this project one iota, I simply have to revisit all existing research, and hope that time may have allowed some exciting forgotten baubles to surface, or that some character in this story is now prepared to share stories which seemed untimely when MJ Simpson was asking the questions over a decade ago.
However, if anything in this blog post concerns you, don’t panic, you can actually help. Whether you’re in the Douglas Adams fanclub, or just a casual admirer, I would be deeply grateful for any insight, archive pointer or general froody tip which might come to mind – you can send them to email@example.com, and I hope there will be plentymuch constructive advice, suggestions of what appendixes you feel are needed, and so forth, and ideally a minimum of “YOU’RE TRAMPLING ON THIS THING THAT I LIKE A LOT” abuse. I know what it’s like to be a fan of something and worry that some author is pulling it apart behind closed doors; I’d like THE FROOD to have some kind of open source approach. The provider of any idea or lead which helps make this the best Adams guide it can be, will of course be fully acknowledged in print.
Similarly, I will be contacting some of Adams’ closest living friends and collaborators, to explain the project to them, and invite them (rather than the begging which is the norm) to kindly have a ponder and see if any fresh info comes to mind now, for this first attempt to re-tell the story, such a long time after the devastating loss of the man at the centre of it. There’s no point asking any of these great and busy people to just sighingly remix an anecdote already harvested by Gaiman, Simpson or Webb. But it may well be that somebody out there is ready to share new insight without the meek cajoling which usually takes up so much of a comedy historian’s waking hours. In September I’ll also be visiting the Science Fiction library at Liverpool University, and, of course, Cambridge – St. John’s, to be precise.
Then, it’s ultimately my job to sift through everything, and arrange the ingredients as truthfully, honourably, and entertainingly as I possibly can, for this time next year. I do not wish to be proprietorial about this project, I would like all H2G2 fans to feel that they can get involved and help it become the best possible book on the subject for this period in history, a worthwhile and loving celebration of the universe which was so painfully squeezed out of Douglas Adams’ brain three decades ago.
I hope you’ll not post too much anthrax to me for cutely crowbarring in the phrase, but it does seem to sum up this approach quite neatly: Share And Enjoy.
Be a Frood. Hitch a ride. You stick your thumb out, and I’ll pull out mine.