Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Douglas Noel Adams

"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by." Douglas Adams

One of my favourite writers is Douglas Noel Adams (1952 - 2001). He first became famous for a radio serial program he wrote called The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which then became a series of books (a trilogy in five parts) and then a television show. As is so often the case in these media-driven "stuff that dude into a category" time we live in, Adams was first considered to be a science-fiction writer even though this was only one bit of his writing career. Humourist might be a better description, with a healthy chunk of humanity thrown in (ie: he cared about the state of the world and how we primates were treating it). He had the enviable ability to create a turn of phrase that could make you laugh and think at the same time. The Hitchhiker series and his Dirk Gently books are must haves for anybody who enjoys a good chuckle, while Last Chance to See is an interestingly written book on endangered species. His last book, The Salmon of Doubt, is a collection of his writings put together after his death and has both thoughtful and funny bits in it.
The following is one of my favourite stories of his and is in The Salmon of Doubt. He said it was a true story:
"This actually did happen to a real person, that 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 cookies. You know what would have happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would very quickly have 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 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 like this. When I say 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 his 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."
-Douglas Adams - The Salmon of Doubt
Anyway... Humouroceros


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