In order to fly, you must throw yourself at the ground and miss
May 12, 2015 2:48 PM   Subscribe

I like going to cemeteries when I travel ... so when I had a few free hours in London two years ago before leaving to go home, I went to Highgate. It almost didn’t happen; my friends were too bushed to come along, it looked like rain, and when I read the guidebook I realized that if I’d wanted to go to the cemetery’s gorgeous crumbling older half, I should have booked a tour before I even got on the plane. But the newer, eastern side seemed nice enough. Karl Marx was there, the guidebook said. So was George Eliot. And wait—wait. So was Douglas Adams.

This is how I ended up stealing a pen from a dead man.
Jess Zimmerman: I Stole A Pen From Douglas Adams’ Grave
posted by jazon (41 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD
posted by Artw at 2:59 PM on May 12, 2015 [10 favorites]


As a person still struggling to be a writer who once shook and raged and shivered before the monolithic giants of those who came before... this hit me in the gut. I think maybe today, with twenty years distance from that young wannabe, I might have the thick skin to throw myself at the ground repeatedly and just hope to bounce well eventually. Back then, it was fly or die.
posted by envygreen at 3:07 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Falco is dead??!
posted by benzenedream at 3:11 PM on May 12, 2015 [6 favorites]


Huh. I realised just yesterday how his story in HHGTG of the magician who bet his life that he could make a megamountain invisible in a year then, on the last day (having done absolutely nothing all year), turned up with a stellar trucking corporation and carted it away is a transparent metaphor for procrastination.
posted by Sebmojo at 3:30 PM on May 12, 2015 [7 favorites]


a transparent metaphor for procrastination

I "see" what you did there.
posted by Greg_Ace at 3:42 PM on May 12, 2015 [1 favorite]


Douglas Adams is someone I really, really miss. What a loss that he is not with us today :-(

As a reminder, Towel Day is Monday, May 25.
posted by scolbath at 3:50 PM on May 12, 2015 [13 favorites]


Sebmojo: " I realised just yesterday how his story in HHGTG of the magician who bet his life that he could make a megamountain invisible in a year then, on the last day (having done absolutely nothing all year)"

Come now, he didn't do *nothing* all year. He spent most of the year jiggling around with immense Lux-O-Valves and Refracto-Nullifiers and Spectrum-Bypass-O-Matics.
posted by Chrysostom at 4:18 PM on May 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


...probably when he should have been writing instead.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:47 PM on May 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


Across from Adam's grave is the relatively new grave of guitarist Bert Jansch. I left a few coins there. . .
posted by Danf at 4:53 PM on May 12, 2015


One of my early SF memories is finding Restaurant at the End of the Universe in the basement of a long defunct department store and laughing out loud at Ford saying something about "eddies in the time stream" and Arthur saying "oh, he is, is he?"

You're a complete knee biter Mr. Adams, and a perfectly normal beast. You brought joy to many of us.

Me, I'm pretty sure I'm on the B ship with hairdressers and advertising executives.

(And, I'm sure he would have loved the idea of stealing a cheap pen to write fiction, then ... not despite all efforts to the contrary.)
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 5:44 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Eddies in the space-time continuum."

"I see. And, er, who, exactly, is Eddie..."
posted by motty at 6:05 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Stealing deadmans pen bad ju-ju, however.
posted by clavdivs at 6:11 PM on May 12, 2015


Maybe its departure made a small woosh over his head...
posted by Artw at 6:16 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


Pedantry: The eddies joke is actually from Life, the Universe, and Everything, not Restaurant.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:29 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Eddies in the space-time continuum."

"And this is his sofa, is it?"
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:50 PM on May 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


Bet she's not the first.
posted by harrietthespy at 6:53 PM on May 12, 2015


Should I ever get to make the pilgrimage to leave a pen at DNA's grave, I would do so in the expectation that it will eventually leave with someone else.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:57 PM on May 12, 2015 [5 favorites]


Time moves so differently as you get older, and aging works so differently too. When I was a kid it seemed like Douglas Adams was a middle-aged guy, and by the time he died he was gray and rumpled and seemed like he had lived a reasonably long life. He was still a lot of fun to listen to, but it seemed pretty clear his best work was behind him. He was an old guy.

But he was 49, and that means something very different to me now. He didn't even get to crack his fifties. My God, that's way too young. A heart attack at 49 is a real tragedy. He could've had another 20, 30, maybe 40 years of writing in him. Who knows what he may have done with that time?

Admittedly he was a very accomplished, very rumpled 49. He packed a lot into those 49 years, and he looked older than that.

But 49, my God. People should be having mid-life crises then, not keeling over dead in Santa Barbara.

It breaks my heart a bit, to know that he ended the Hitch-Hickers series with Mostly Harmless, on a big, depressing cliffhanger, on the very bleakest possible note, and he knew that ending didn't work and wanted to take one more crack at the series... but he never got the chance. The sequel radio series that Dirk Maggs did often plays like fan-fiction, but for real fans of Adams' work it is truly lovely to hear Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, finally getting a happy ending. It's probably not the ending Adams' would have written, but it's the kind of ending Arthur deserved.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 7:06 PM on May 12, 2015 [12 favorites]


Eh, I find the whole series works better if you pretend the fifth book never happened. Kind of like the star wars prequels or every terminator anything after 2.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:44 PM on May 12, 2015 [4 favorites]


I've always been surprised that people don't like the fifth book. For me it's at least the third-best, maybe even the second-best. It may be a little darker than the others, but the plot is tighter and the quality of the writing is more consistent. And it's got plenty of great bits--the sandwich-loving people, Trillian in New York, the Grebulon ship waking up as told from the computer's POV...

I'd prefer to forget about the third book. The jokes just aren't up to the usual standard and the ending is saccharine.
posted by equalpants at 9:16 PM on May 12, 2015 [2 favorites]


The long multi-paragraph description of the joy of making sandwiches is the single most delightfully calming gathering of words ever written, and I keep it in my notes app on my phone for moments of anxiety.
posted by angeline at 9:37 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Ugh. What I said was:

"Should I ever get to make the pilgrimage to leave a pen at DNA's grave, I would do so in the expectation that it will eventually leave with someone else."

What I should have said was:

"Should I ever get to make the pilgrimage to leave a pen at DNA's grave, I would do so in the expectation that it will eventually leave with someone else.

Like a mathematician with Zaphod Beeblebrox at a party."
posted by Lyn Never at 11:12 PM on May 12, 2015 [3 favorites]


Somewhere in the cosmos, he said, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, fishoids, walking treeoids and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, there was also a planet entirely given over to Biro life forms. And it was to this planet that unattended Biros made their way, slipping quietly through wormholes in Space to a world where they knew they could enjoy a uniquely Biroid lifestyle, responding to highly Biro-oriented stimuli, and generally leading the Biro equivalent of the good life.
The jar is a way station. It's not people leaving them there at all.
posted by Sparx at 1:34 AM on May 13, 2015 [9 favorites]


I haven't read the fifth book in years, but I don't remember hating it. But that ending was SO BLEAK. Not "makes you think" bleak, but just sad and awful. It would work as a particularly shocking cliffhanger, if there was a sixth book. But there's not.

I also really wish the HHGTTG movie had been made when Adams was alive, or at least that we could have heard what he thought of it. I know he had a hand in the production, but the final film sure didn't feel like Adams to me.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:57 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here is a photo someone took of his grave in context. It is a simple slab with only his name on it and always adorned with toys.
posted by vacapinta at 2:05 AM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]


It would work as a particularly shocking cliffhanger, if there was a sixth book. But there's not.

There isn't a sixth book by Adams. But Eoin Colfer wrote a sequel a few years ago. Apparently it was fairly underwhelming, as one might expect.

And I say "apparently" because, despite having read it when it came out, I remember nearly nothing about it. For whatever that's worth.
posted by DiscountDeity at 6:51 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I vaguely recall reading somewhere that he was kind of over the HHGTTG series, and he was deliberately and unequivocally killing off the characters so he'd be permanently free of it and could work on other things without people bugging him more HHG books.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:27 AM on May 13, 2015


(I'm referring to Mostly Harmless, btw)
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:29 AM on May 13, 2015


Eh, I find the whole series works better if you pretend the fifth book never happened.

That's how I feel about 1978.
posted by Mike Mongo at 10:33 AM on May 13, 2015


I could have written so much of this essay. Most of what I write comes from hoping to someday craft a paragraph as smart and funny as this one, or a concept as marvelous as the S.E.P.

I finally wrote a book, and it took me twelve years to write it, mostly because I was paralyzed by writing in Adams' shadow - and it took a lot to get me to the place where I could accept that of course I can't be as good as Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, but if I can be as good as I can be - if I can write something that I think is smart and true and (at least to me) hilarious, then I've still done something worth doing.

But now I think I could do even better if I could just get my hands on one of those pens.
posted by Mchelly at 10:36 AM on May 13, 2015


Do other people NOT go to cemeteries when they travel?

Heck, even when you go to a Disney park, they have nice fake cemeteries there.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:41 AM on May 13, 2015


I'm reading Book 3 to my 7 year old right now, after finishing 1 and 2 a few months ago, and this thread is killing me. We just - just - finished giggling over the SEP field and "Eddies in the space time continuum. Oh, is he? And this is his sofa?"

I don't remember Book 5 being as bleak as everyone says here (not that I doubt y'all - I haven't read it in a very long time) and now I'm worried that I should stop at the end of Book 4 instead of continuing on...
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:45 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


(The SEP field is a particular favorite of mine because in a work context, I read it as Einstein's Strong Equivalence Principle, which says, in hand-wavy terms, that Galileo's experiment with a feather and a bowling ball would work if it was done with a neutron star and a white dwarf. This, in spite of the fact that their gravitational binding energy is a significant component of their apparent mass, through m = E/c^2. We are really beginning to test this conjecture with our observations...)
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:54 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Re: a possible 6th hhgttg book: you should all read Salmon Of Doubt, it has great essays on atheism, music and technology. And it also has bits of a new Dirk Gently book, that Douglas was starting to realise would work better as a hhgttg book.
posted by memebake at 12:59 PM on May 13, 2015


Re: Salmon of Doubt

In one of the interviews reprinted in the book, we learn that Adams did not like the ending he wrote to his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and that he was thinking of continuing the trilogy in the Salmon of Doubt. In the book, Dirk follows around a ginger haired actor. Ford Prefect is described as having ginger colored hair, and his disguise during his stay on Earth includes his being an out of work actor. It is possible that this is him, and that it is the link between the series that Adams promised, but no one will ever know.
posted by memebake at 1:14 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Shada by Gareth Riberts is some pretty fun not-quite-written-by-Adams.

Boy are there a lot of versions of Shada.
posted by Artw at 1:20 PM on May 13, 2015


I felt like it was pretty obvious that Adams was getting pretty tired of the HHGTTG-verse from approximately Life, the Universe and Everything onwards. It's not that the later books are bad; there's plenty of great stuff in there, but you can feel a difference. (Also, Adams was pretty forthcoming about it in interviews of the time. As a fan it was frustrating hearing him gripe about how sick he was of Marvin of Android, but at least Adams was always a very entertaining griper.)

RedorGreen, I don't remember book 5 being an unmitigated bleak-fest, just that it ended on a note like Adams was saying, "And that's it! Everybody dies! Sadly and pointlessly! Go away!" If your kid is OK with a bit of meta, maybe you could preface it for him or her by saying, "This is the last of the books Adams wrote, and it ends on a scary cliffhanger he wanted to finish later but never got a chance to. Do you still want to read it?" Knowing that that balls-kick of an ending wasn't the end of the story in Adams' mind might take some of the sting out of it. I'd also have the Dirk Maggs radio plays all queued up and ready to go. They end just the way I would have wanted things to wrap up when I was 7.

(As an aside, do you even read the sexy stuff in the books? It's not like they get porn-y or anything, and reading HHGTG to your kid is pretty awesome. But there's some stuff in there that I'd feel awkward reading to a kid. Arthur's sex-flying with Fenchurch comes to mind.)

I knew about the Eoin Colfer sequel, but... nope. If Adams plotted a HHGTTG book and somebody else wrote it, I'd consider reading it. But somebody else making up the whole thing themselves is basically fan-fiction, and I'd only have time for that if we were talking about Neil Gaiman or somebody else I'm already interested in reading.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:04 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Shada by Gareth Riberts is some pretty fun not-quite-written-by-Adams.

I'm not suggesting Shada is a bad book (haven't read it); but it's nearly a guarantee that "not quite written by X" or "in the style of X" writing will be almost, but not quite, entirely unlike X.
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:32 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am particularly sad, among many sadnesses for his not being here, that DNA isn't around to see what we're doing. From redorgreen's link - which is about observations of a triple-star system some 4200 light years away (remember this: four thousand two hundred actual light years):

“We have made some of the most accurate measurements of masses in astrophysics. Some of our measurements of the relative positions of the stars in the system are accurate to hundreds of meters,” added study co-author Dr Anne Archibald of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy

(I am also sad that, despite being a couple of hours' walking distance from Highgate, and being a graveyard junkie of some standing, I have never visited his grave. I shall remedy this soon. I shall be sure to take a pen. And I shall be sure to take a pen.)
posted by Devonian at 3:40 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Devonian: I am particularly sad ... that DNA isn't around to see what we're doing.

I know, right? We've gone from 9 planets around the Sun to several thousand planets all over the place - and as far as we understand it now, pretty much any star you point to has a better than 50-50 shot at having one or more planets. We have robots wandering around on Mars - maybe complaining about the terrible pain in their diodes up and down their left side? "Mars is the only known planet inhabited entirely by robots" - come on, DNA would have thought it was cool, and worked it into a solid joke.

Ursula Hitler: do you even read the sexy stuff in the books? [...] there's some stuff in there that I'd feel awkward reading to a kid. Arthur's sex-flying with Fenchurch comes to mind.

We haven't got there yet, but I did already edit out the references to Eccentrica Gallumbits being the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon Six, ugh. Not sure what we'll do when we get to Fenchurch.

Yeah, some of those books get awkward, or worse, tedious. (I have bad memories of Book 3 in particular, although we haven't got to that yet.) But when they are good, they are just *glorious*.
posted by RedOrGreen at 4:46 PM on May 13, 2015


We've all gone on so much about Adams, I feel like the original essay that inspired this post has kind of gotten lost.

I have to confess, it was hard for me to click with the idea of being too intimidated by a great author to write your own stuff. I don't know if I have an unhealthy ego or something, but my brain just doesn't work like that. Maybe it's from absorbing bits of the punk rock ethos when I was young and impressionable. In my mind, you just make your stuff as good as you can right now, and you put it out there. When I get writer's or artist's block, it's usually because I'm competing with an idea of the great thing I know this could be. I'm competing with my own ego, in a way. I get angry at myself for not being my best self.

But I don't ever feel like I'm competing with Douglas Adams, for example. Adams was great, I adore the guy. But I'm not him. No matter what I write, great or awful or mediocre, it will never be what Douglas Adams would have written. I can only write what I would write.

Is there anything helpful in all that, for anybody? I hope so. There's another way to think of this stuff. You're not Douglas Adams. You're you. Just be the best you you can be! You'll never make up the babel fish, but the babel fish has already been made up by somebody else. Make up your own awesome stuff!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:09 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


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