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Weekend reads: Douglas Adams' bio in The Frood, The Bone Clocks and Harry Partch, Hobo Composer

Don't forget your towel, readers

The Frood, The Authorised and Very Official History Of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Jem Roberts is what you might call a historian of comedy, having previously written books about Blackadder and BBC Radio 4’s antidote to panel games I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. To quote the author, The Frood is: “A celebration of comedy and not an exploitative real life tragedy.”

Will Adams, Martin Smith and Douglas Adams, Cambridge Station 1973

Will Adams, Martin Smith and Douglas Adams, Cambridge Station 1973
Publicity pic for Several Poor Players Strutting and Fretting – pic courtesy of Will Adams

For Hitchhiker’s fans, this book is a veritable goldmine of outtakes, anecdotes and trivia. For those wishing to get under the skin of Douglas Adams, it offers only tantalising glimpses, which is a pity, as the man and his work are often inseparable, and the few glimpses we are allowed of Adams the man outweigh the detailed analysis of his whole fictional saga.

This is a broken-hearted Adams explaining the flight of an ex-girlfriend: “She went off with this bloke on, to me, the spurious grounds that he was her husband.” Arthur Dent couldn’t have put it better.

Warning: strobing effect - Babel fish animation

The weird and wonderful Babel Fish

The introduction to this book is underwhelming. It seems Roberts is out to prove his comedy credentials at any cost. At first he uses as a prologue, a justly unpublished ”posthumous" interview with himself which Adams wrote as an introduction to a book of radio scripts. He then attempts to emulate Adams’ elliptical style to begin the story, the result is overblown bombast and not at all funny.

Fortunately he gives up about page 15 and settles down to a straightforward narrative. Douglas Adams’ formative years are described in detail: broken home, public school, Cambridge. From the very outset, Adams’ life gives the impression of a hapless individual, tripping through random circumstance.

The Frood, The Authorised and Very Official History Of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Unsurprisingly in retrospect, creative writing is Adams' speciality and he graduates from school plays and Cambridge footlights shows to contributing a few lines to the later Monty Python. His hitchhiking adventures around Europe in the mid-'70s are recalled, including the drunken moment in a field near Innsbruck, where he had the inspiration: “Wouldn’t it be fun to hitchhike around the galaxy?”

Back home, his writing seems to be going nowhere. A failed collaboration with ex-Python Graham Chapman is described. Jem Roberts is less sensitive about exploiting the weaknesses of Chapman for this book and we learn almost as much about his human foibles in The Frood as we do about Adams.

After many struggles and false starts, the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy rapidly grows from a cult phenomenon to a global hit, followed by the novels and the TV series.

All this presents a whole new set of problems for Adams, as the pre-Bridget Jones writer Helen Fielding observed of a character based on Adams: “Never had a man been more debilitated by wealth.”

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster after effects

Another Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster takes its toll

From that point, it would seem that Douglas Adams drank, smoked and lunched himself slowly to death, but Roberts is too polite to go into detail.

Deadlines are never met and publishers have to lock him into hotel rooms to get copy, as he said to Clive Anderson: “I have this strange relationship with publishers, whereby they give me a whole lot of money to write a book and I don’t.” This rather tame interview that promotes another book is on YouTube.

And yet the HGTTG series maintains its quality and popularity despite Adams’ love/hate relationship with it, his endless procrastinations and his less successful diversions into the detective genre with Dirk Gently.

Slartibartday 81: Mark Wing-Davey, Simon Jones and Douglas Adams – pic courtesy Kevon J. Davies

Slartibartday 81: Mark Wing-Davey (Zaphod Beeblebrox), Simon Jones (Arthur Dent) and Douglas Adams
Pic courtesy Kevon J. Davies

After Adams’ untimely death, Jem Roberts analyses the posthumous versions of the HGTTG books. All the rewritten inserts are noticeably inferior to the original Douglas Adams sections. The only writer who comes out with any credit is Eoin Colfer who, to judge by the excerpts from the Hitchhiker’s sequel: And Another Thing, seems to add to the legend rather than pander to it.

As a history of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in its various forms, The Frood is an excellent and well-researched work. As a biography of Douglas Adams, it is ultimately unsuccessful. Jem Roberts can’t do tragedy, exploitative or otherwise. Yet Adams’ ability to exploit his own tragicomedy is what makes The Hitchhiker’s stories so poignant and popular.

Jem Roberts The Frood, The Authorised and Very Official History Of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy book coverAuthor Jem Roberts
Title The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Publisher Preface Publishing
Price £20 (Hardback), £10 (ebook)
More info Publication web site

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