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The meaning of life? 42. Image: Mica Murphy / Penguin

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams’s gloriously funny, inventive and chaotic story about a human fleeing to space with an alien friend to avoid dying on Earth, has had as many reinventions and retellings as the Guide. Originally written as a BBC radio series, Adams then wrote it as a novel, a 1981 TV series, stage play and record, adding and removing details each time, with a computer game following in 1984, and further books rounding out a five-book “trilogy”.

It’s cherished by children and adults alike, as much for its cheering qualities – Adams was clear that one had to write about the future positively, in order to avoid ending up in Blade Runner – as for its author’s boundless inventiveness and wit. The answer to life, the universe and everything might be 42, but have we figured out the question? As we celebrate the 42nd anniversary of his first novel’s publication, here are a selection of facts whipped up by the Guide in celebration. Do you know where your towel is? Then we’ll begin.

1. Adams famously came up with the need for a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk and poor in a field in Innsbruck, Austria, while backpacking around Europe before going to university.

2. In a wonderful twist in keeping with the book’s opening premise of Earth being demolished to make way for a motorway, the Innsbruck field has since been paved over to make way for a stretch of autobahn.

3. There is some disagreement as to the correct writing of the book’s title, notably in the book itself, where it ranges from Hitch-hiker’s to Hitchhiker’s and Hitch Hiker’s, with and without apostrophes, depending on whether you are looking at the cover, the spine, the contents, the radio outline, or the American version.

4. Arthur Dent was to be called Aleric B before a last-minute replacement in the script outline Adams pitched to the BBC. He had originally thought of writing six episodes in which the Earth ended differently each time, but needed a means of explaining the universe at which point he remembered his idea from Innsbruck.

5. Prone to depressive episodes, Adams said that 1976 was his worst year: overdrawn, feeling talentless, and having the sort of crisis that often happens at 24. Hitchhiker’s was a way of “writing myself back out of that,” he said. He told Neil Gaiman, author of the Hitchhiker’s companion Don’t Panic: that he was “surprised and delighted” by the number of letters he received from readers saying how much the radio series and the book had cheered them up.

6. The BBC went on summer break while deciding whether to make the pilot into a full series, so the impoverished Adams sent the pilot script to a script editor at Doctor Who. Unfortunately, this led to both Hitchhiker’s being commissioned, and Adams being asked to write four Doctor Who episodes at the same time.

7. John Lloyd, who went on to produce Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI, co-wrote the final two episodes of the radio series with Adams. Adams then asked him to write the Hitchhiker’s novel with him before deciding to do it on his own. They ended up writing The Meaning of Liff together in 1983 instead, a collection of toponyms including Plymouth: “to relate an amusing story to someone without remembering that it was they who told it to you in the first place.”

8. After giving Lloyd half the £3,000 advance for breaking their book contract, Adams got a £1,500 advance for the first Hitchhiker’s book. His advance for the fourth in the series, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish, topped £600,000.

9. When Douglas Adams died in California in May 2011, of a heart attack following a gym workout, it was affectionately observed by fans that, at the end, he was a man who knew where his towel was. See later facts if you are unsure why towels are significant. 

10. The hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings were originally gerbils, but radio producer Geoffrey Perkins changed the species to mice as Adams’s ex-girlfriend kept gerbils.

11. The slight abruptness of the ending of the book comes from Adams’s publisher calling him up well after he had missed the deadline, telling him to finish the page he was writing and they would send a motorbike round for the manuscript in half an hour. Adams’s famed struggle with deadlines led to one of his best-loved lines published in 2002’s post-humous collection, The Salmon of Doubt: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

12. For the second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, which Adams had delayed until his publisher said they absolutely had to have it in four weeks, Jacqueline Graham rented him a flat to get him away from his flatmate. He didn’t see anyone for a month, but the book was done.

13. Further procrastination meant that Adams had less than three weeks in which to write So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. To get this done, Pan’s Editorial Director, Sonny Mehta, locked Adams and himself in a suite at the Dorchester, allowing Adams out twice a day to go jogging in Hyde Park.

14. Pan Macmillan created each of Adams’s marketing campaigns without having read or seen the book. In 1984, Pan’s sales kit included the line: “Prayers are held every morning in the editorial department along the lines of, 'Please God grant to Douglas Adams the gift of inspiration along with his daily bread so that he can deliver the manuscript in time for us to make publication date.'"

15. In 1979, Adams was offered $50,000 for a film version of the radio series. He turned it down because the director wanted to make “Star Wars with jokes”.

 

16. Terry Jones of Monty Python fame wanted to make a film a few years later, but the pair ultimately decided not to proceed as they were friends first, but had never worked together before and were worried it would ruin their friendship. By this point, Adams had also written five versions of his story, including a stage play, and wanted to write a new version.

17. A computer game of Hitchhiker’s with a new story written by Adams was the number one game in America for a year, selling more than 250,000 copies, and getting ecstatic reviews in The Times.

18. Hitchhiker’s forsaw ebooks, touch screens, gesture control and voice commands – even the specific ways we address Alexa and Siri now

19. In 1999, Adams launched an online version of the Guide. H2G2, as it became known, was later taken over by the BBC and continues to run. It pre-empted Wikipedia, the Guide’s true spiritual incarnation, by three years.

20. The instruction “Okay Google” is taken from how Zaphod addresses Eddie, his onboard ship computer (“Ok, computer, take us in to land,”). It’s also where Hitchhiker’s fans Radiohead got the title of their 1997 album, OK Computer

21. The last page of the book carried an advert for a record featuring edited down episodes of the radio series. Rather amazingly, for a record only available via mail order, it made the music charts and sold more than 120,000 copies in its first year.

22. When Hitchhiker’s went to number one, Adams bought himself a Porsche, which he later said was a huge mistake: “Driving it around in London was like taking a Ming vase to a football match”. He traded it in for a Golf GTI after skidding into a wall by the Hard Rock Café.

23. Hitchhiker’s conspiracy theorists cite Lewis Carroll as an influence in Adams using 42 as the answer to life, the universe and everything. However, Adams found Alice in Wonderland utterly terrifying when it was read to him as a child, hated the book as a result, and issued a definitive no.

24. When Superman won the 1979 Hugo award for best dramatic presentation over the Hitchhiker’s radio series, the audience hissed. Christopher Reeve, accepting the award in Brighton, suggested that the awards had been fixed which resulted in cheers.

25. The series’ obsession with towels stems from a holiday in Greece with friends. Adams said, “every morning they'd have to sit around and wait for me because I couldn't find my blessed towel ... I came to feel that someone really together, one who was well organised, would always know where his towel was.”

26. Marks and Spencer was going to market a “companion towel” to the book, but it came to nothing.

27. The publicists for the Hitchhiker’s computer game thought a towel was a great idea, and marketed them in several colours in the back pages of Private Eye, and sending off free ones to writers as a marketing device.

28. Shortly after Adams’s death on May 11 2001, fans set up Towel Day. On May 25 each year, readers carry a towel around with them. Innsbruck, where Adams originated the title, has proudly celebrated the day each year since its launch.

Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams. Image: Getty

29. Towel Day reached space in 2015 when the astronaut Samantha Crisoforetti read from Hitchhiker’s from aboard the International Space Station (ISS), and wrung out towels in the book’s honour.

30. In 2016, the British astronaut Tim Peake celebrated Towel Day, again from the ISS, with a special towel given to him by the Royal Institute. It was emblazoned with DON’T PANIC in embroidery.

31. Arthur Dent wasn’t supposed to be wearing a dressing gown all the time – Adams had written him a change of outfit once he got on board the Heart of Gold in the TV series, but the scene was cut. As a result, Arthur’s outfit isn’t mentioned at all until book three, Life, The Universe and Everything.

32. Richard Dawkins used Arthur Dent’s criticism about Zaphod in his book The God Delusion,  which he also dedicated to Adams: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Dawkins and Adams had become friends after Dawkins sent him a fan letter. Dawkins would later meet his future wife, the Doctor Who actress Lalla Ward, at Adams’s 40th birthday party.

33. The long-running fan site ZZ9 sells Beeblebears – adorable teddybears with two heads and three arms, modelled after Zaphod Beeblebrox – to their members.

34. The Babel fish was created as a reaction to watching Star Trek and Doctor Who and seeing that, wherever you were in the galaxy, aliens always spoke English. Rather than cheat it, this was his solution.

35. The internet service provider Yahoo! launched a free translation site named Babel Fish in its honour, which ran from 1997 to 2012.

36. Simon Jones, who played Arthur Dent in the TV adaptation, stores his character’s famous dressing gown in a moth-proof bag to be brought out only on special occasions. In 2018, The Times diary page reported that, when asked to open a hospital ward in Swindon, Jones decided to do so in character, wearing the dressing gown, in the belief that Dent was how most people would know him. He later overheard two ladies wondering why they had asked a patient to open the ward.

 

37. Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings, the worst poet in the universe, was originally named Paul Neil Milne Johnson in the radio broadcast. The name was changed after Johnson, a schoolfriend of Adams, asked for it to be changed so he wasn’t endlessly teased.

38. Slartibartfast’s name came about because Adams “was just being mean to Geoffrey’s secretary” who was taking his dictation.

39. While Adams put much of his own experiences with depression into Marvin the Paranoid Android, his mother was convinced he’d got it all from Eeyore. The character was originally named Marshall after another comedy writer, Andrew Marshall, creator of 2.4 Children., who shared some of Marvin’s less cheerful personality traits.

40. Hotblack Desiato, a filthy rich Rockstar first seen in the TV series and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, was named after a north London estate agents. Adams rang them and begged to use it, saying he couldn’t think up anything nearly as good.

41. When readers wrote letters asking where he got his inspiration, Adams used to reply, “from a small mail order firm in [American town].”

42. The answer to life,  the universe and everything – but without the question. Adams pooh-poohed the endless theories about 42 being to do with Tibetan monks or binary codes: he said it was just a number that sounded funny. In Neil Gaiman’s excellent companion book, to which I am indebted for this piece, page 42 is blank apart from two words: DON’T PANIC.

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