Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Douglas Adams: His Life, the Universe, and Everything

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Imagine that youre in charge of sending a culture-bearing probe off into space; one

capable of carrying a single example of 20th Century art.

What would you pick to represent us in the cosmos?

Some great novel, perhaps?

Or would you pick a slender volume based on a radio show?

A volume emblazoned with the words DONT PANIC; a volume that contains everything from

the precise reason you should always carry a towel, to how to mix the most-powerful drink

in the universe?

Were talking, of course, about the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, perhaps one of the most-unique

pieces of sci-fi ever written.

And the author behind the book we here at Biographics would send as our emissary to

the stars?

Douglas Adams.

Born in the 1950s, Adams was the product of a post-war Britain exploding with creativity.

It was the era of the Beatles and Pink Floyd, of Monty Python, and Doctor Who.

Yet even in this intensely vibrant age, Adams still managed to dream up a universe so unique

it has arguably never been equalled.

In the video today, were thumbing a ride into the past to explore the life of the man

behind a literary legend.

Mostly Harmless Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the

unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow


It was on a planet orbiting this unregarded sun, in the year 1952, that Douglas Noel Adams

was born.

Later in life, Adams liked to joke that he was the first DNA in Cambridge, having been

born there several months before Watson and Crick discovered the far more famous version.

But aside from raising a smile, that gag may have also served to hide painful memories.

The family Douglas Adams was born into was both deeply eccentric, and deeply fractured.

A lot of this fracturing came courtesy of the boys father, Christopher Douglas Adams.

A bombastic giant of a man with a personality the size of Canada, Christopher was a man

who loved booze, cars, and women.

Youll notice thats women, plural, not woman, singular, which may be why the Adams

household fairly radiated misery.

Before Adams was even five, his parents had divorced, and hed gone to live with his

mothers parents.

Well, make thather parents and their animals.”

Adamss maternal grandmother was an animal lover par excellence, and the house was overrun

with stray dogs, stray cats, stray badgers, and anything else that might conceivably eat

your food and poop everywhere.

Perhaps it was due to the endless clamor in the house, but Adams became so introverted

at school that his teachers thought himmentally subnormal”.

But while the boy may have had a weird, unhappy childhood, he never suffered financially.

Not long after ditching his family, Christopher Adams had managed to seduce an incredibly

wealthy widow who paid for Adams to have a private education.

Thus it was that, aged 11, the boy was dispatched to the elite Brentwood boarding school.

For Adams, Brentwood was the first time he ever felt his oddness was appreciated.

Not yet 12, Adams was already a 6ft giant, and would continue to grow until he hit 6ft5.

On top of that, hed inherited both his fathers gigantic personality and his gigantic

nose, making him both a natural performer and instantly recognizable.

This translated easily into performing in school plays, where Adams became renowned

for his bizarre sense of humor.

Not that it was really his sense of humor.

In 1969, the first season of Monty Pythons Flying Circus had exploded the BBC like a

particularly silly stick of dynamite.

Like everyone else his age, Adams had fallen in love with the troupe.

But while most kids wanted to watch the Pythons, Adams wanted to be them.

As he later commented: "I wanted to be John Cleese.

It took me some time to realise that the job was taken."

But it wasnt just Monty Python that had gripped Adamss imagination.

Britain in 1969 was in the midst of a full-blown cultural explosion.

There was Pythons comedy, the Beatlesmusic, Doctor Whos sci-fi wanderings.

With a talent as distinct as Adamss, its tempting to think he just sprang from nowhere.

But no, his was a sense of humor born from a particular moment in British history.

But while all the ingredients for his greatest work were in the air in the 1960s, they only

coalesced together thanks to pure chance.

In the summer of 1971, Adams was traveling around Europe between finishing at Brentwood

and starting at Cambridge University.

As the legend goes, he found himself at some point lying dead drunk in a field in Austria,

contemplating alternately his Hitch-Hikers Guide to Europe and the stars spinning above


Just before he lost consciousness, the drunken teenager had a thought that would change his


He decided that someone should write a hitchhikers guide not to another continent

...but to the galaxy.

The Python Years If it was overindulgence in alcohol that gave

Adams his great idea, it was likely also alcohol that stopped him from doing anything with


By 1974, Adams had graduated Cambridge after student years in which he did heroically little

work and heroically huge amounts of drinking.

Now he was living in London, still drinking heroic amounts, but doing nothing except writing

the odd sketch the BBC would immediately reject.

But while the boozy London life was keeping Adams from his art, it was also gonna give

him his bug break.

That same year, Adams was introduced to Graham Chapman.

If that name sounds familiar, its because Chapman was the fabled straight man of Monty

Python - straight in the comedic sense, as Chapman was openly gay.

He was also a man who liked to drink, and liked others who liked to drink.

And in Adams, he seemed to have finally found the perfect drinking buddy.

Throughout the year, the two met up to imbibe indescribable quantities of alcohol.

The more often they met, the more Chapman became convinced Adams had a talent for sketch


So he gave him a spot on the biggest sketch show on Earth.

On December 5, 1974, Douglas Adams became one of only two non-members to have ever written

for Monty Python.

His sketch, Patient Abuse, features Chapman as a doctor who forces a heavily-bleeding

Terry Jones to fill out endless inane forms before hell give him any treatment.

Its a classic Adams riff on bureaucracy, albeit one tooled to Pythons specific brand

of humor.

It was also successful enough that Chapman asked Adams to keep writing with him after

Python ended.

In 1975, the two made a pilot for a sketch show called Out of the Trees.

We dont need to go into Trees too much.

Only one episode was ever made and, as Adams once said, ithad some good bits, but it

wasnt really that good.”

Still, its worth noting the one big sketch Adams contributed.

At the end of the episode, a young couple pick a flower off a bush.

This causes a chain reaction of events which begins with the police being called out, progresses

to the whole of Europe going to war, and ends with the complete destruction of the world.

From that point on, Armageddon would be a subject that obsessed the young writer.

When Out of the Trees failed, Chapman ditched his new writing partner, drifting back to

Pythons surreal embrace.

Although Adams would contribute a couple of one liners to Monty Python and the Holy Grail,

that was really it for his sketch writing career.

Depressed, Adams returned to his mums house.

Over the next year, 1976, he continued to try his hand at writing and performing, but

it all went nowhere.

There was the sketch show he went on tour with, which ran at two hours, but only contained

one good gag.

There was the pilot series he wrote with a friend, about a pair of astronomers who discover

the world is about to be destroyed to make way for an interstellar advertising sign,

that the BBC refused to touch.

There was even a spec script he sent to the Doctor Who production office, one about the

Doctor becoming trapped on a ship crewed entirely by the useless people of society.

But while the Doctor Who team liked the idea, they didnt pick it up.

Come Christmas, 1976, Adams was trapped at his mums place, his career dead in the

water, and on the verge of giving up.

At that moment, it mustve seen to him like 1977 would bring nothing but more disappointment,

more bad news.

Well, buckle up, because Adams is about to be proven wrong.

The next twelve months were gonna hit the young man like a black ship diving into the

heart of a sun.

Hitchhiking the Galaxy On a dismal February day in 1977, Adams made

a trip to London to have lunch with the BBCs light entertainment producer.

It had been over a month since Adamss depressing Christmas, and paid writing work was still

out of reach.

That all changed that fateful day.

As the two ate, the producer happened to mention that he wanted a sci-fi comedy series for

Radio 4.

He wondered aloud if Adams might like to try his hand at a pilot episode?

And just like that, Adams was a writer again.

Adamsinitial pitch was The Ends of the Earth, a six-part comedy in which every episode

would end with the Earth blowing up.

But as he was writing the pilot - in which Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace

bypass - Adams decided he needed to give his alien character, Ford Prefect, a job.

At last, that idea hed had long ago lying drunk in a field in Austria came back to him.

Ford Prefect would be a researcher for the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

From that moment, the concept of Ends of the Earth went out the window, replaced by a series

about Ford Prefect, the Guide he was researching, and his human pal Arthur Dent.

By March, the pilot episode for The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was ready to go.

The BBC gave it the green light.

That June, the cast assembled in London to record the episode.

It didnt take long, and that shouldve been that.

But something had changed in Douglas Adams, a zeal had come over him since hed decided

what his radio show was gonna be about.

No longer did Adams simply want to make a radio comedy.

He wanted to make something unlike anything anyone had ever heard before.

A sci-fi show with production levels Pink Floyd would envy.

For the rest of that summer, Adams and his producer tinkered away in the booth, creating

the sci-fi soundscape for their show.

They spent as long on single sound effects as some radio shows did on an entire series.

But it was worth it.

By fall, the pilot was being circulated around the BBC.

Everyone loved it.

As winter approached, Adams was called in to two very important meetings.

The first was with the Doctor Who team, whod heard his pilot and now wanted him to write

a four-part episode.

The second was with Radio 4.

They wanted to commission a full series of Hitchhikers.

Naturally, Adams said yes to both of them.

This would become a pattern in Adamss life: taking on so much work he became trapped in

permanent panic mode, barely able to finish by the deadline.

In the future, this would become a crippling problem that severely limited his output.

But in 1977, Adams was still young, and still just able to get things done.

Although it was touch and go.

The biggest problem was that, while Adams had a tone and ideas for Hitchhikers, he

didnt have a story.

So inventing a plot on the fly became harder and harder.

Things got so bad that Adams would be forced to finish episodes inside the booth as the

cast were recording around him.

When that didnt work, he had to bring in his friends to finish them for him.

Still, finish them he did.

At 10:30pm on 8 March, 1978, the first episode of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was

broadcast on Radio 4.

As it went out, Adams presumably clutched his towel and hoped it would be successful.

But even in his wildest fantasies, he couldnt have forseen how successful it would become.

Doctor Who and

the Writer of Death Adams would later say of Hitchhikers sudden

success that "It was like being helicoptered to the top of Mount Everest.

Or having an orgasm without the foreplay."

People loved it.

Major newspapers raved about it.

People flooded the Post Office with letters addressed to the Guide itself.

If youre new to the work of Douglas Adams, you may be wondering what made people so obsessed

with Hitchhikers.

Here was a show in which the basic plot was that the Earth was destroyed, and now the

alien guidebook researcher Ford and his human friend Arthur were stuck traipsing around

the galaxy.

But the genius of Hitchhikers doesnt lie in the plot, but in the comic concepts

the show carelessly threw out by the dozens, each clever enough to make a series in its

own right.

Theres the supercomputer Deep Thought, which spends centuries calculating the meaning

oflife, the universe, and everything,” only to solemnly report that the answer is


Theres the android Marvin, who is created with a brain so big he can conceive of the

futility of his existence and so spends the series in a state of terminal depression.

There are time travelling Chesterfield sofas; a bowl of petunias thats last thought before

plummeting out of space and shattering on a planet isoh no, not again”; and a

spaceship crewed entirely by the most useless members of society.

Yep, that last one is the same idea Adams pitched to Doctor Who.

Cannibalizing his own work would soon become a core part of Adamsmethod.

By April, 1978, Hitchhikers was a British sensation.

A book was swiftly commissioned for Adams to write, along with a second radio series.

It was enough work for any aspiring writer.

But Adams wasnt just any aspiring writer.

He was a madman with an attraction to impossible workloads.

Which may be why Adams agreed to also take on the job of script editing Doctor Who.

Although its overshadowed by Hitchhikers, Adamsyear at Doctor Who is semi-legendary.

Adams took on the job out of a fondness of the show, and a mistaken belief that it wouldnt

be too demanding.

Instead he found himself working on a show where veteran writers would write a four page

treatment for a four part serial, hand it to the script editor and tell him to turn

it into two hours of television.

This meant Adams doing the work not only of ten people, but also handling rewrites on

top of that.

But it also meant a year of Doctor Who filled with Hitchhikers-style inspiration.

The highlight of this was City of Death, a four part story set in Paris where the Doctor

steals the Mona Lisa, meets Leonardo da Vinci, shares a scene with John Cleese, and accidentally

creates all life on Earth.

Its a fun, joyful, hilarious bit of TV, and it was written in a single, panic-and-alcohol

fueled weekend when the original writer dropped out at the last second, leaving Adams to pick

up the pieces.

Incredible as City of Death was, though, it severely restricted Adamstime for working

on Hitchhikers.

By early 1979, Adams was in a catastrophic state of procrastination on the book adaptation,

with almost nothing written.

Finally, as the deadline swept by, his editor just told him to finish whatever page he was

on and hand the damn thing over.

With a third of the original season still unadapted, Adams meekly complied.

Book one of the Hitchhikers trilogy was published in September, 1979.

It immediately shot to the top of the bestseller lists.

Aged only 27, Adams was now at the head of a bona fide phenomenon.

Now all he needed to do was make sure it didnt go to his head.

God and Nature The 1980s began in a whirlwind of success

for Adams.

As the rest of Britain embraced the Thatcher era - reluctantly or otherwise - Hitchhikers

season two went out on radio, followed by the second book, The Restaurant at the End

of the Universe, and then a BAFTA-winning BBC TV adaptation.

With all this exposure came what every struggling writer always craves.


Lots and lots of money.

By 1981, Adams was a seriously wealthy guy.

He began channeling his fathers spirit, blowing cash on cars, girls, meals, music,

and computers.

Yes, computers.

One of the reasons companies like Google program Hitchhikers easter eggs into their search

engine is because Adams was a hugely influential writer on technology.

He was one of the first to grasp what the coming information age would mean, and toured

the US giving witty, knowledgeable lectures on the subject.

But while this won him legions of fans in Silicon Valley, writing was still his bread

and butter.

And Adams was starting to find it harder and harder.

When the time came to write the third Hitchhikers book, Adams simply cannibalized one of his

old, unproduced scripts for Doctor Who.

And so it was that Doctor Who and the Krikket Men became Life, the Universe and Everything.

By the time the fourth book in the increasingly inaccurately-named trilogy came out, in 1984,

Adams could barely stand to be with his own creation.

To be honest, I really shouldn't have written [it],” he later said, “and I felt that

when I was writing it.

I did the best I could, but it wasn't, you know, really from the heart.”

But even as his chronic procrastination began to turn into fully-fledged writers block,

Adamss luck kept right on going.

At the start of the decade, he met his future wife, Jane Elizabeth Belson.

He also met an absurd number of famous people.

Before long, Adams and Belsonss house in Ilsington was throwing parties where you could

bump into anyone from John Cleese, to Stephen Fry, to Richard Dawkins.

Yes, that Richard Dawkins.

Adams described himself as aradical atheist,” and was naturally besties with the scientist.

But perhaps the coolest people Adams befriended were Pink Floyd.

There are legends that, halfway through his parties, Adams would hand out guitars, and

treat the crowd to an impromptu Pink Floyd gig.

But even as Adamsstar rose, he was beginning to discover just how ephemeral this shiny

world was.

In 1985, Adams was sent alongside zoologist Mark Carwardine to Madagascar to write an

article about endangered animals for the Observer.

The two hit it off and, a couple of years later, did a radio series together about endangered


It was a show that would change Adamslife.

The show and its book Last Chance to See was Adamspersonal wake-up call to the

damage humans were doing to their environment.

In the aftermath, he would become one of the earliest, loudest voices on conservation and

the dangers posed by habitat destruction.

Still, the 1980s ended on a relatively good note.

Adams managed to get over his writers block long enough to write two Dirk Gently detective

stories (one of which, again, cannibalized his old Doctor Who scripts) and, in 1991,

finally married Jane Elizabeth Belson.

At the start of the 90s, Adams was in his late thirties, world famous, rich, and married

to the woman of his dreams.

If this kept up, who knew what the rest of his life would be like?

Unfortunately, we here in the future already know the tragic answer.

Douglas Adams may have not yet been forty… …but he was already entering the final decade

of his life.

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish The last ten years of Adamslife dawned

with the writer in a bleak place.

After nearly seven years, hed agreed to write the fifth Hitchhikers book, on the

understanding that it would be the last.

Even so, his writers block crippled him.

There would be nothing, for weeks on end.

Nothing but Adams locked away in hotels by his grim-faced editor, staring at the ceiling.

Weve heard tales that the publisher hired a fleet of writers to sit downstairs, churning

out chapters based on Adamsoutline, until Adams was finally roused to work by the thought

of all these other writers doing his book wrong.

Mostly Harmless was released in 1992.

It was, without a doubt, the bleakest thing Adams ever wrote, with a downer ending that

leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Much later, Adams would claim hed been seriously depressed while writing it.

It really shows.

Still, life moves fast and, within a couple of years of the gloomy conclusion of Hitchhikers,

Adams seemed to be living life to the full again.

For his 42nd birthday in 1994, for example, he was invited onstage by Pink Floyd to play

a gig with them.

Later that same year, his daughter, Polly Jane Rocket Adams, was born.

By the 21st Century, Adams was lecturing in Silicon Valley, developing video games with

his production company, and working on turning Hitchhikers into a Hollywood movie.

Hed even started writing again, tentatively putting together ten chapters of a third Dirk

Gently book that he thought might even become the sixth Hitchhikers book.

And then it happened.

The moment.

The moment as shocking to his fandom as the sight of a Vogon Constructor Fleet hanging

in the air in much the same way that bricks don't.

On May 11, 2001, Douglas Adams suffered a massive heart attack at his local gym.

At the time he died, he wasnt even 50.

In the wake of Adamsdeath, tributes poured in from around the world.

This wasnt just the regular sadness we feel when someone passes away.

This was a keenly felt pain, almost personal - like that felt when John Lennon or David

Bowie died.

As Stephen Fry later noted, Hitchhikers had been sci-fi on a human scale.

It resonated with people, made it feel like Adams was talking to them and them alone.

And that may be why his death devastated so many people.

But what should we today make of Douglas Adams?

What should we make of the man who wrote a handful of slim, comic volumes before vanishing

into the abyss?

Well, it depends on your perspective.

Right now, its still too early to tell what Adamss long term impact on fiction

will be.

While he has endless admirers, theres a sense that his work was maybe too unique,

a dead end for any writer who doesnt happen to be a comic genius.

On the other hand, Adamsinfluence is already everywhere.

We mentioned earlier that Adams was an early adopter - of environmentalism, of computers,

of ideas - and part of his charm was his ability to take those ideas and explain them simply,

in ways that still impact the ways his readers think.

As Neil Gaiman said in 2015: “I think perhaps what Douglas was, was a

futurologist, or an explainer.

One day maybe well realise that the most important job there is, is someone who can

explain the world to itself in ways the world cant forget.”

The continents may grow old and die, the world may be demolished to make way for a hyperspace

bypass, but somewhere, out there in the cosmos, some lifeform will always be sat in a restaurant

at the end of the universe, reading in wide-eyed wonder as Douglas Adams explains the world

to it.

And that lifeform will be smiling.

The Description of Douglas Adams: His Life, the Universe, and Everything