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A dive into the personal archives of Douglas Adams

BY Alice Gawthrop

4th Sep 2023 Books

5 min read

A dive into the personal archives of Douglas Adams
Through diary entries, letters and early script drafts, Kevin Jon Davies crafts an intimate portrait of cult writer Douglas Adams
He may have just put together a comprehensive archive of original scripts, diary entries and notebook musings of Douglas Adams, but Kevin Jon Davies reckons he never would have met the man behind cult hit The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had he not owned a tape recorder in 1978.
An ardent member of a Doctor Who appreciation society at the time, Kevin recalls a friend asking him, “Have you still got that tape recorder?” The pair had previously bonded over a shared appreciation of a Doctor Who episode called “Pirate Planet”, and Kevin was invited to join his friend in interviewing the man who wrote it for a Doctor Who fan magazine. That man was Douglas Adams.
Kevin Jon Davies with Douglas Adams, 1980. Photo by David Beasley.
“Our paths have criss crossed a lot since then,” Davies says. The evidence is all over his CV, which includes working on the BAFTA award-winning animations for the live-action Hitchhiker TV show and directing the documentary The Making of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In the last 30 years he has also worked on other archive documentaries, which he credits as invaluable experience for working on his new book, 42: The Wildly Improbable Ideas of Douglas Adams.

Working on the book

Davies first delved into the extensive collection of Adams’ various written materials at the library at St John’s College (Adams’ alma mater) in Cambridge in 2016. A final radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was in the works, based on a book by Irish writer Eoin Colfer, and producer Dirk Maggs enlisted Davies to hunt down any unseen Hitchhiker material to add a touch of Adams’ original magic to the series. 
“It’s quite emotional to look at the handwriting and typing of someone you knew personally and thinking they’re now long gone,” Davies says. “But here were his actual words. I thought, there’s a book in this.” He didn’t know then that he would be the one to write it. 
Kevin Jon Davies
In 2020, Unbound Books approached Davies and said that he had been suggested as the person to put together Douglas Adams’ archive. Although Davies had experience writing magazine articles, the thought of writing a whole book was daunting. 
“I mentioned that there had been biographies by other people, but they said, ‘No, we want you. The agent and the family have said you.’ I was very grateful to have been asked.”
"There’s a scrapbook quality to the book, which presents you with Adams’ unseen written work in its original glory"
The book is a meticulously-crafted collection of written materials from Adams’ life, ranging from school reports to diary entries to script drafts. There’s a scrapbook quality to the book, which presents you with Adams’ unseen written work in its original glory; wrinkled pages, coffee stains, doodles and all. The material is organised approximately in chronological order, tracing Adams’ life through his writings: his early collaborations at Cambridge, his time working on Doctor Who, and Hitchhiker and beyond. 
It’s a lengthy book, although if Davies had his way it would be even longer. Preparations for the book involved taking around 10,000 photos of archival materials for potential use. “I’m a completist,” he says. “I wanted to put everything in the book.” An editor was enlisted to help narrow the material down, resulting in a final count of around 300 pages.

Douglas Adams, in his own handwriting

The book presents a remarkable portrait of a man known for his intelligence and his humour. Captured in his own handwriting are jokes, scribbles and harsh notes to self. Adams, it seems, didn’t always love writing. In one note, he complains that he hasn’t written for two days and derides Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent and the whole Hitchhiker book as a “burk”. Davies remarks, “Douglas used to say, ‘I hate writing but I like having written.’”
Some of his notes were more encouraging: “Writing isn’t so bad really when you get through the worry. Forget about the worry, just press on,” reads one. And press on he did. The archives include over a dozen hard copies of variants to the opening of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, but his perseverance on the novel created the 9th highest-selling hardback in the UK of 1987. 
"Douglas used to say, 'I hate writing but I like having written'"
“You can see he puts so much into his writing,” Davies says. “He thought about it a lot, and would craft these beautiful sentences that were really long with parentheses and sub clauses and a good punch line at the end. You know, he'd whip the rug from under you at the end of the sentence with a laugh.”
It is a rare opportunity to be granted insight into the earliest machinations of a beloved artwork, but that is what Davies offers us with this meticulous archive. A page from Adams’ notebook dating around 1974–75 holds a story idea recognisable as a seed for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—“Man goes to friend; reveals that he is in fact an alien (they have known each other many years), he must now leave the Earth which is threatened with extinction and offers to take his friend with him.”
Image of Radio Times cover, shared with permission of © Immediate Media Company.
Throughout the book, the number 42 crops up in early sketches and drafts, years before it would become the answer to life, the universe and everything.
A lifelong interest in science and technology is also apparent through the archives. A section dedicated to these fascinations traces his involvement in tech conferences later in his career, and private musings on the future of electronic books (well ahead of the dawn of Kindles). 
"It is a rare opportunity to be granted insight into the earliest machinations of a beloved artwork"
One of his less well-known works but a personal favourite, Last Chance to See, was in fact scientific in nature. The book took him on a journey around the world search of animals on the brink of extinction. This work, while non-fiction, is still underpinned by his trademark sense of humour.
“I think it’s one of his funniest books, even though it’s factual,” Davies says. “It’s his only factual book.” 
Page 11_Douglas Cold on Landrover Bonnet - by Mike Cotton copy
The fans really loved Hitchhiker and wanted more and more of that, but at a certain point Adams’ interests moved on. Had he lived longer, we might have seen actual science books from him. “But we’ll never know because unfortunately he’s been dead 22 years for tax reasons,” Davies jokes.
There’s so much we can’t know about Adams: What would he think of Twitter? What would he have made of AI? But Davies’ compilation of diary entries, school reports and letters from loved ones illuminate Douglas Adams not just as a beloved writer, but as a person with rich and varied interests, and a warm personality. A letter from Scottish singer-songwriter Margo Buchanan notes, “There are many people who will write about your brilliant brain and incredible sense of humour. I want your readers to know about your brilliant heart, too.”
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