The more the need to write this blog intensified, the more the ideas which pinged into my head straightened themselves out as material for the book’s actual introduction. And as I’m duty-bound to steer my course on this pretty concentrated odyssey through the galaxy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, the need to keep on tapping away to have the very best book ready for my spring deadline remains absolutely paramount. Luckily, the procrastinatory reflex to setting myself a blog deadline means that there’s been more actual writing of THE FROOD over the festive period than I usually manage. A kind of reverse procrastination. I must blog more. At the turn of 2014, I find myself on the brink of ‘Mostly Harmless’: the last slab of bona fide Hitchhiker – Anything that happens, happens…
Nonetheless, at this three-quarter point, as the Year That Calls Itself 2014 hoves into existence around us, I feel it’s only decent to let those Hitchhiker fans who are keen to know how this all-new Official Authorised celebration is coming along in on a few things…
Let’s start with this image…
By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge, this.
You see, already the fear that letting too many domestic animals out of the sack at this stage will annoy either somebody lovely from the matrix of care which is the Douglas Adams Estate, or indeed my publishers at Preface, is sounding alarms somewhere in what I call my mind. And I am subsequently aware that on the other hand, there’s a danger of being too vague with what has been discovered hitherto, and just coming across as a rather self-important tease-cum-braggart.
Apologies if that is the case, but then, the best news is that the research carried out for THE FROOD so far has, in my first-hand opinion, justified the decision to try ‘another book about Douglas Adams’ tenfold. And there’s still much more to find.
The easiest thing to do would be to give you a ‘What I Did On My Holidays’ narrative of how construction of THE FROOD (and yes, I am already wearying of those caps) has proceeded since sitting down to write the opening paragraph on my birthday in June. This is overwhelmingly the tale of getting up every morning to go to my desk to try to write the story of a man who got up every morning and went to a desk to try to write… and so on. This Twilight-Zone-Groundhog-Day existence rather sums most of it up. I have managed to contact a large proportion of Adams’ closest collaborators, family and friends, gone for a few pints with Martin Smith and Will Adams, skyped with Andrew Marshall and others, and otherwise alerted folk, from Simon to Terry Jones, that the book is alive, and they have every possible opportunity of getting involved, to make it the very best celebration we can manage. Meeting Douglas’ torch-bearers has, above all, been nothing but joyful. I somehow survived the Kingly scrutiny of the great Ed Victor and received benediction, and my experience of travelling down to sunny Stalbridge, Dorset, for roast lamb with the great man’s Mum, sister Sue, brother James, James’ wife Bryony and family was positively Larkin-esque – Pop, not Philip. Of course, everyone I spoke to glowed with every mention of Polly Adams, who I should hopefully be meeting for tea/liquid next month.
But to return to the above photograph, this October’s research trip to Liverpool and Cambridge, 2013’s ‘holiday’, is the tricky part. What I am sure I can say is that I found many things to excite real Hitchhiker fans, and one or two nifty details which fundamentally show the whole Hitchhiker saga in a new light. This was less true of Liverpool, maybe, as I was there to revisit the mountainous research at the University Library’s Sci-Fi Archive, deposited there by MJ Simpson as he regrettably cast his badge into the dust – which was fascinating to pore over, but short on exclusive material. However, as a member of the Church of The Beatles (no, it’s not a thing, it’s all in the mind), it was after all utterly unacceptable that in 35 years I had never spent any time in that totally un-disappointing city. I arrived there so entirely focused purely on work that I failed to realise until checking into my hotel that Matthew Street and The Cavern were literally 100 yards away, and how could I not indulge in a certain measure of Fabs worship while there? If anyone would understand that, it would be Douglas. I never had time for the full Magical Mystery Tour, but I would say that if you have any fear about the rampant commercialisation of The Beatles (and personally my devotion would be undinted if there were YokoBurgers being sold by scousers in Blue Meanie costumes on every street corner), the very best time to visit The Beatles Quarter would be a drizzly Monday night in October, when there’s nothing much but a quiet street, with booze and music lingering underground. I’ll be heading back as soon as I can, that’s for sure. Maybe with a proper gig next time.
But if the fact that I had never been anywhere near Liverpool (or at least not since I was a baby being driven through the Mersey Tunnel) was outrageous, the admission that I had never set foot in Cambridge in my life is one made with much added gingerliness. I had, after all, already written two books which began right there, the first in 1960, the second in 1973 – but I was an alien to the city’s cobbled streets. It was as conceptual a place to me as Hollywood, or Hogwart’s, but like Liverpool before it, it failed to disappoint, and failed in a big way. This could have something to do with the utterly unexpected honour of actually being allotted a set of rooms within the Shada-inspiring walls of St. John’s College, where the Douglas Adams Archive newly donated by Polly resides. To actually sleep there, in my own Fellow’s quarters, with gnarled shuttered windows opening right onto the Cam and tea and coffee-making facilities complimented by equally complimentary decanters of port? I don’t know if you’ve ever had a theme park open its doors entirely for you alone, but I’m sure it must have felt something like how I felt as I walked the Quads, skipped over the Bridge of Sighs and rubber-necked the ’60s-period filming of the forthcoming Stephen Hawking biopic. Amazing timing was also on my side when I happened to pass by the stairway where Douglas resided during his time living in the college, and a couple of friendly builders just happened to be working there, and invited me to have a look around the distraught remains of the Frood’s living quarters, including rare Elizabethan murals recently uncovered in an upper room. A private museum, just for me to wander through.
Of course, it was the archive itself, as overseen by Kathryn McKee and the wonderfully monikered Mandy Marvin, which made every penny and travel niggle worth the effort. At first I found myself flicking through old radio scripts which I had already seen at the BBC Archive in Reading, but Kathryn’s casual aside that I might be interested in a blue box of notebooks which had been found turned this dream visit into a genuinely revelatory experience for me, as someone who has been a fan of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for as long as I’ve been a fan of almost anything, except perhaps He-Man. Or the Mr Men. I cannot specify anything about the discoveries I made until Ed Victor and the Adams estate has properly cleared it all, of course, just as THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE BLACK ADDER (Caps lock problem again?) only contained ‘Blackadder In Bethlehem’ with the full blessing of Richard Curtis and co. For now, all I will allow myself to say is, if all goes well, THE FROOD will explain…
• What Zaphod’s original mission in life was, and why, without it, he had no idea what was going on.
• Which editor of the Guide was the friend of the boghogs.
• Who faced The TV Dinners of Despond.
• How the Dentrassi came to evolve into the good-time lush of a species we know.
• What The Liver Birds has got to do with it all.
– But above all, of course, the idea is that this book will tell the story of the incredibly coincidence-packed life and career of Douglas Adams with more clarity, narrative fluidity, humour and celebration than ever before. After all, it’s not every comedy non-fiction title which can boast literary bombshells of this magnitude…
By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge, this also.
A very Froody 2014 to you all.