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Hitchhiker: A Biography Of Douglas Adams
M.J. Simpson
Hodder & Stoughton hardcover £18.99

review by Christopher Geary

With a foreword by TV producer John Lloyd, this meticulously researched but highly anecdotal biography gets started by demolishing - albeit somewhat apologetically - one of the key tales of Douglas Adams' meteoric rise to celebrity status. It's the one about a traffic-stopping queue of eager fans waiting to buy a copy of Adams' first Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy novel from a Forbidden Planet shop in London. The widely reported and often quoted story claimed that nearby streets were so clogged with people lined up outside the shop, blocking easy access to the entrance, that Adams was delayed from reaching the venue - and so was nearly unable to even attend the (virtually unpromoted) event of his first book-signing. Along with the now legendary account of how Adams dreamt up the idea for Hitchhiker's (the famous backpacking tourist yarn which begins 'I was lying in a field in Innsbruck...'), the book-signing incident sits at the heart of ever-personable Adams' career mythology.
   Although exposing a hugely successful genre writer's frequently blatant exaggerations, and inexplicable episodes that could be diagnosed as 'false memory syndrome', while (rather desperately) striving to avoid actually calling a hugely successful author a liar, might seem a fairly laudable approach to biography, this book is disappointing because that's about all it manages to achieve. Simpson just spends too much time and energy clarifying several items of Adams' patented imaginative bluster, subsequent backstory embellishment and general PR hyperbole, that he unwittingly erodes the private dignity and literary merits of Adams as a biographical subject.
   Simpson has adopted an unfortunately condescending air to the expos´┐Ż material here. I say unfortunate because I doubt that many of his fans really believed all of those stories that Adams told and retold in interviews, anyway. He did, after all, write science fiction comedy that was as detached from actual reality as it's possible to get without the author seeming to require psychiatric attention (think of Spike Milligan). Cartoonist and genre filmmaker Terry Gilliam, the American outsider in the Monty Python troupe who were clearly one of Adams' greatest influences and inspirations, has admitted in interviews that he often lies about his work. I would suggest that Adams was only following that peculiar trend, knowing that, faced with a choice between printing a truthful (and probably boring) version of events or printing a wonderful legend, journalists the world over would prefer the latter.
   Having died in May 2001 aged 49; Adams is not available to refute any of the supposed truths revealed here. I doubt (as would the proverbial salmon) that he would care much, anyway. Warts-and-all biography can indeed be a fine ideal to aim for, and there is a lot of detail here concerning Adams' failings as a professional writer, especially when there were deadlines to be met. But in the end, Adams will be remembered for creating one of the most entertaining and joyful sci-fi comedy hits ever broadcast, published or adapted for TV, and I don't believe that any negative commentary about the author, printed here or elsewhere, is very important, really.

Related item:
tZ  The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy - TV review by Steven Hampton

Hitchhiker

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