Who wrote this?
“We notice things that don’t work. We don’t notice things that do. We notice computers, we don’t notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don’t notice books.”
It could almost be George Orwell. It’s just about tight and sharp enough and it’s got something of the Orwell sense of balance and lissomness… but Orwell didn’t live to encounter computers, let alone e-book readers, and I can’t quite see him scribbling down ‘pennies’.
It was Douglas Adams.
“In the old Soviet Union they used to say that anything that wasn’t forbidden was compulsory; the trick was to remember which was which.”
Now that could have been Clive James. It’s politically astute, aphoristic and it all turns on the final clause: a neat colloquial noun and the fine consonant resonance of the final three words. It contains at least two little turns that James learned from Orwell (and improved upon) – and I think James would be the first to admit it.
But it was Douglas Adams.
But this is pure Adams:
“DREAM FILM CAST: Sean Connery as God, John Cleese as the Angel Gabriel, and Goldie Hawn as Mother Teresa’s younger sister, Trudie. With a guest appearance by Bob Hoskins as Detective Inspector Phil Makepiece.”
And so is this:
“Every country is like a particular type of person: America is like a belligerent adolescent boy, Canada is like an intelligent thirty-five-year-old woman. Australia is like Jack Nicholson. It comes right up to you and laughs very hard in your face in a highly threatening and engaging manner. In fact it’s not so much a country as such, more a sort of thin crust of semi-demented civilisation caked around the edge of a vast, raw wilderness, full of heat and dust and hopping things.”
A lot of writers die too old.
Actually, what I mean is that they keep on writing long after they should have stopped – and before this train of thought takes over the whole post, I’ll just say Giovanni Guareschi and leave it at that. If you don’t know what I’m getting at, then fall in love with The Little World of Don Camillo, and then read Guareschi’s poisonous introduction to the omnibus edition of his work. You’ll see what I mean.
A lot of writers, however, die too young – i.e.: they die.
Douglas Adams was one such writer. Keats was another one.
Keats dropped off the twig when he was 25, and although a complete edition of his poems generally runs to 400 pages or so, it hurts to think what he might have added to it had he lived for another quarter of a century. I can’t pour a glass of red wine without remembering the lines ‘Oh, for a draught of vintage that hath been/Cool’d for a long age in the deep-delved earth,/Tasting of flora and the country green…’ In fact, I can’t pour a glass without reciting them. But nor can I read about the latest bamboozling trends in physics or biology without remembering the infinite improbability drive, the number 42, or the delicious story of Adams and Mark Carwardine trying to buy a condom in China.
Douglas Adams lived to be almost twice the age of Keats, but he died too soon. Which means, of course, that he died.
It’s not the loss another Hitchhiker novel that makes his death so painful (and, by the way, a murrain on Eoin Colfer for daring, for having the unspeakable temerity and gall to write a soi-disant sixth instalment), and nor is it the loss of more Dirk Gently.
Over the last few days, I’ve been immersed in The Salmon of Doubt, a selection from the 2,579 files found on Adams’ (Apple, of course) computers after his death. It features an unfinished Dirk Gently novel, but brilliant as that is, the real treasures are the articles, the sudden and beautiful thoughts (“Present someone with a questionnaire clipboard, and they lie.”), and the sheer unadulterated enthusiasm that infuses his every line.
The loss I’m feeling is the loss of a particular kind of mind. In the foreword to the UK edition of The Salmon of Doubt Stephen Fry cracked the nutshell and presented us with the kernel we’re after here:
“We never quite knew how conflicting and insane the universe was or how ludicrous and feeble-minded the human race could be until Douglas explained it in the uniquely affable, paradoxical and unforced style that marks him out for greatness.”
Douglas Adams is the first and only person to read on why Wodehouse was so great:
“What Wodehouse writes is pure word music. It matters not one whit that he writes endless variations on a theme of pig kidnappings, lofty butlers, and ludicrous impostures. He is the greatest musician of the English language, and exploring variations of familiar material is what musicians do all day.”
And, speaking of music, he’s not so shabby on Bach, either:
“Some people say that the mathematical complexity of Bach renders it unemotional. I think the opposite is true. As I listen to the interplay of parts in a piece of Bach polyphony, each individual strand of music gathers hold of a different feeling in my mind, and takes them on simultaneous interweaving roller-coasters of emotion. One part may be quietly singing to itself, another on an exhilarating rampage, another is sobbing in the corner, another dancing. Arguments break out, laughter, rage. Peace is restored.”
Or how’s this for a summation of modern corporations: “Lots of people are not in the business you think they’re in. Xerox, for instance, is in the business of selling toner cartridges.”
But I think the finest insight into the mind we’ve lost is contained within the following. I quote it in full because it’s worth it. And do (as I did) forgive Douglas for using the word ‘cookie’. He gave the talk in America: I don’t know if you’ve heard of that country, but they don’t speak English there.
“This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, U.K. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.
Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookie. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know… But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, What am I going to do?
In the end I thought, Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. ‘Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…’ I mean, it doesn’t really work.
We went through the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.
A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.”