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21 November 2017

Why does every home I stay in have a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy?

Once again, I don’t know where I’ll be spending the night.

By Nicholas Lezard

I’m counting up the different homes I’ve been staying in over the past couple of months. It’s like counting ex-girlfriends, but without the glowing memories, or occasional sighs of regret: easy to lose track, or forget a key episode. Anyway, I think it’s about six. Homes, that is, not ex-girlfriends. That number is far larger, especially if we stretch the concept of “girlfriend” to include one-off encounters. (It is the height of rudeness, the cartoonist Mark Boxer once said, to sleep with anyone fewer than three times. Must remember that.)

But the interesting thing about these six places is that in each of them I have found at least one of the books in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. Until now. I’ve had a good look through Laurie Penny’s shelves – I’m still staying at her place – and can’t find any of them, which is odd, because she got back yesterday evening, and we stayed up till all hours catching up on Star Trek: Discovery. She can get her geek on with the best of them.

The perceived lack of Adams is OK by me. I was beginning to wonder whether the cosmos was playing a joke on me. It’s a phenomenally successful series, the Guide, but do you find them in every home, as if they’ve been handed out by the state?

I know I am living under a curse, a particularly finely detailed curse, whose banes run all the way from “you will lose your main source of income” to “you will lick the ungummed side of the Rizla far more often than you used to”, but having the various volumes of Adams’s space-hopping series pop up around me was getting a little tiresome; and making me jumpy.

The reason for this is not because I dislike Adams’s work. On the contrary; although I do find that its finest iteration was the original radio series (and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES watch the film). No, it is the premise – that of the hapless Earthman  Arthur Dent, condemned to wander, homeless, his own planet destroyed, through the galaxy in his dressing gown – that resonates, a little too loudly for my liking. Here are a couple of quotes that have been nagging away at me since I first noticed the phenomenon:

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In moments of great stress, every life form that exists gives out a tiny subliminal signal. This signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far that being is from the place of his birth.

OK, Brighton isn’t that far from Hammersmith, and Adams makes the point that, for those born on Earth and bound to it, this signal never gets strong enough for it to become meaningfully noticeable, but the notion stuck when I first heard it, because it answered to my tropophobia (fear of change, or moving), and yes, I now know that there is, about and within me, an all-pervading sense of rootlessness that seems almost palpable in its intensity.

Here’s the other quote:

“Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.’ (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)”

Well, no one is sassing me, except in the non-interesting senses; I feel neither like a hoopy nor a frood, and, crucially, I do not know where my towel is. Well, I do – it’s in a bedroom in East Finchley (irreversibly stained, I recall, from a hair-dying episode conducted by L. Penny when we last shared living quarters). But that is not where I am now, and besides, towels are bulky and one avoids carrying them in one’s luggage whenever possible. It was one of Adams’s jauntier jeux d’esprit.

So once again, I don’t know where I’m going to be staying this evening. I write these words on the stroke of four o’clock, at which point the horses of my off-peak return to London revert to mice, until at least seven, and I find travelling on trains in the dark mildly depressing, unless I am already in a really good mood, or going somewhere I really want to go, or not travelling on Southern, and none of those conditions obtain at the moment.

Maybe Laurie will let me stay on her sofa again this evening, and marvel at how much wine I can drink without falling over, although I suspect the charge on that particular battery – her marvelling, that is – began to run low a long time ago. (Not for me, though. For me it is a never-ending source of delight, if a little heavy on the pocket.)

I mention to Laurie that I was mildly surprised not to find any Adams on her shelves. She looks at me pityingly, and shows me her phone, whose wallpaper says, in large, friendly letters, “DON’T PANIC”. 

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit