I read in the paper that today is Towel Day – Douglas Adams’s birthday. He would have been 61. It’s called Towel Day because, as the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy teaches us, all a man (specifically an interstellar freebooter and stowaway) needs is a towel.
Douglas Adams has always meant a great deal to me. I was nine when I first read the Guide, and it changed my life.
It must have been in my first term at middle school. I had never really understood why nothing in Doncaster in the early 80s was the way it was on TV or in books. Everything confused me. I particularly didn’t understand school, which seemed to have been deliberately constructed to make me miserable. How else to explain swimming and maths? Then there was assembly and picking teams in PE. And the few friends I’d had in my first school seemed to have met new people and disappeared, leaving me alone.
Douglas Adams told me that I wasn’t alone. He said, with amused certainty, that the world – the Universe, in fact – is absurd and makes no sense at all. That was a deeply, deeply comforting thing for the nine-year-old me to hear. It might seem a bit of a bleak message, but it allowed me to feel that I might not be the problem. And it was conveyed in a tone of voice that instantly appealed to me.
I can’t for the moment find my copy of the Guide, but I can quote a bit from the opening pages from memory. Ford Prefect – the towel-carrying interstellar freebooter who takes boring dressing-gown-and-tea obsessive Arthur Dent under his wing – is convincing a man from the council’s planning department to lie in front of some bulldozers.
‘You want me to lie in front of these bulldozers?’ (Says the council planner.)
’In the mud?’
’In, as you say, the mud.’
There was something about that interjected ‘as you say’ that I loved. It was a bit like putting food in my mouth and finding that it stimulated a taste bud that I’d never previously known I had. And then there was a flight of fancy about the council planner being a direct male descendent of Genghis Khan, and this meaning that in times of stress he had the sudden uneasy feeling that a crowd of bearded men with spears were all shouting at him.
Pretty much all of Douglas Adams’s books contained things that pleased me just as much, and they have all stayed with me. Even today, when I have flying dreams they happen in the Adams way – I have to distract myself as I’m falling, so that I forget to hit the ground. When I re-read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency a couple of years ago, I was amazed at how familiar it all was – how thoroughly it had soaked in.
I can only say that Douglas Adams helped me considerably to deal with the world around me. Or perhaps he helped me to not deal with the world around me, but in a new and rather more satisfying way.
Whatever the case, I – and several million other lonely nine-year-olds – am very grateful to Douglas Adams. And I’m sad he is gone.