Hitchhiker’s Guide revisited

Just slightly more than 42 years since the radio show appeared, a friend of mine and I, on a long journey back to Cambridge from Northumberland, listened to the first six episodes. Such fun to revisit this astonishing programme, one of those high-watermarks that sometimes happens and is never repeated.

A few thoughts

The genius creativity

All this appeared in the first series:

  • Earth demolished for a hyperspace bypass,
  • the Hitchhiker’s Guide as an electronic book (before ebooks were a thing)
  • Vogon poetry
  • The Infinite Improbability drive
  • Appliances with personality
  • A depressed robot
  • Magrathea, site of bespoke planet building
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • The Ultimate Answer and the Ultimate Question
  • Jokes about misunderstandings of scale – -beweaponed battlefleet eaten by small dog
  • A people so unbelievably primitive that they still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea
  • Cosmic hitchhiking
  • The Babel fish
  • A long-awaited saviour turning up late, having got caught up with things
  • A philosophers’ trade union protesting about the arrival of computer-generated certainty.

No wonder (in my view) Douglas Adams never was as good again:he just poured creativity into the first series. Perhaps, in comparison, there wasn’t much left over for later use.

A few things I didn’t notice earlier

  • Adams’ can’t create women characters (only Trillion in Hitchhiker’s Guide). She was redeemed, quite a bit, in the movie but in her original radio script she was insipid and rather useless as a character, sadly.
  • Tech goes wrong. For me, this was the most deeply attractive thing about Hitchhiker’s Guide. In the SF I had consumed till then, tech worked. The doors never jammed in the Star Trek elevator. Arthur Clarke’s often revisited 23rd century had solved many of the world’s problems and its characters looked down on the 20th century. How refreshing in Douglas Adams to find mayhem, marketing and meaninglessness.
  • Earth is English, and the Universe is American. Zaphod is American, the police chasing him are American, as are radio stations ‘broadcasting round the Universe, round the clock’; The Sirius Cybernetics Corporation; Eddie the shipboard computer and his backup personality. A lot of the humour is actually played across the fault lines between English and American. (‘What is your name?’ ‘Dent. Arthur Dent.” ‘Well, Dentarthurdent…’). In this Adams follows other fantasy: Narnia is English, Tolkein’s Shire is England, JK Rowling’s wizarding world is (now with a splash of colour) is traditionally British, a Britain of amateurism, understatement, deference, bullying, cocoa and pyjamas.
  • Jeeves appears. The unflappable waiter in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is a cut-and-pasted Jeeves. Adams was a fan.
  • Douglas Adams had great fun pursuing absurdity to the end. The computer Deep Thought is disgusted when compared to other computers and spends quite a bit of dialogue insulting them. The trigger-happy police spend a lot of dialogue explaining how they are really sensitive and caring individuals. Off-piste, off-plot conversation burrowing down into absurdity while the plot waits in the background, is comic gold.

Longevity and creativity

This whole piece is beyond the scope of the blog in which I’m putting it, but it is interesting to see how people sustain, or don’t, humour and genius. In my erratic and unsystematic reading, I can divide English humourists into two camps, the shooting stars and the planets- the burst of light, and the steady orbit.

The shooting stars Are the people who write one brilliant comic thing and though they may extend it in different ways, are never as good again. Into this go Kingsley Amis (did he ever do better than Lucky Jim?); Sue Townsend; Evelyn Waugh (very arguably, but did he do anything better in comedy and satire than Scoop?). Douglas Adams fits here of course. I found the later series of Hitchikers disappointing, even embarassing.

The planets

These are the humourists who manage to sustain a life of writing comedy. They just go round and round, spinning off books every few months. Think of P G Wodehouse or Terry Pratchett. How did they do it? I wonder if there weren’t several parts:

  1. Comic characters, and even single jokes, that they keep reusing
  2. A plot that usually ends with the stage reset for the next performance, like many successful TV series. Things either don’t progress at all (Wodehouse) or the world develops only slowly (Pratchett). In either case, it doesn’t get very far. Pratchett seemed to learn this lesson not long after writing the first Discworld novel, the Colour of Magic.
  3. They are often retelling the same story, just with minor variations. This does chime perhaps with human nature.


I don’t have one. But what a genius Douglas Adams was, and how much he enriched the lives of so many: not a bad legacy.

Slices of bread – 9 – The missing something

Can you smell bread being baked somewhere? Go find the loaf.

You deserve some sort of medal for sticking with these extracts over the past few weeks.Thank you. Suffering refocuses us (I have argued); ‘belonging’ and ‘making something beautiful’ show where we should refocus. The final part of the book tries to fit these ideas into a wider, and Christian, framework.


My search for what really matters – 9

The missing something

A lot of us know we are missing something. Are you missing something? Even in all the good things about you that your loved ones will mention at your funeral, are you missing something?

My testimony is that there are loose threads in our lives that if we trace them to their source, lead to God. This is unsurprising to the Christian, since we are inheritors of a shared story that humanity’s biggest problem is a ruptured relationship with our Creator. No wonder, then, there are loose threads; no wonder there are missing somethings.

I have met people who find one end of a thread of transcendence in their lives but haven’t found the other end. They seek it in music or in nature, for example. Some just get misty-eyed and sentimental. The writer Terry Pratchett had a transcendent encounter with an orang utan once[1]—I am not joking, they stood, unblinking looking at each other—and when dying of Alzheimer’s, he went all the way back to East Asia in a doomed attempt to find the orang again. Terry Pratchett is a hero of mine, a writer’s writer. But you can do better than locking eyes with an orang utan across a crowded jungle. I hope he did.

Others tug at loose threads in their lives by seeking harmony, or peace, or mathematical elegance, or love. Science, I have often thought, is driven by a love of beauty as much as by curiosity or by a desire to serve the common good. The Cavendish Laboratory in my hometown of Cambridge, whose toiling inmates have earned thirty Nobel Prizes as of 2019, has a text written on the old front door, put there by James Clerk Maxwell: ‘The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all of them that have pleasure therein.’ Open the doors to the Cavendish, he was saying, and through physics, seek pleasure, and seek God.

In the previous century, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was a famous atheist, even writing a book entitled Why I am not a Christian. But there are other sides to his story. Russell’s daughter, Katherine Tait, said of him: ‘Somewhere at the back of my father’s mind, at the bottom of his heart, in the depths of his soul, there was an empty space that had once been filled by God, and he never found anything else to put in it.’ Russell was now haunted by a ‘ghost-like feeling of not belonging in this world.’

Russell himself wrote in a private letter, ‘The centre of me is always and eternally a terrible pain . . . a searching for something beyond what the world contains, something transfigured and infinite – the beatific vision, God – I do not find it, I do not think it is to be found – but the love of it is my life . . . it is the actual spring of life within me.’[2] Look again at the main theme of the book, how suffering turns to rubble much of what we thought was good and reveals the main themes of life as networking and vocation, belonging and making. I have come to believe that these can only be fully worked out in relationship with God and his purposes. Their appearance in our lives without God is more like us hearing a melody on the wind, rather than getting the full symphony. They are the smell of baking bread, and they should put us on the hunt for the full loaf.

[1] The orang’s name was Kusasi, and diligent searching on the Internet might reveal more of this story. Pratchett’s Discworld character of the Unseen University’s Librarian is the greatest orang utan in fiction (in my opinion, but it’s a thin field).

[2] Both these Russell quotes were dug out by Prof. Alister McGrath and referenced in his Gresham College lecture Why God Won’t Go Away. Gresham College lectures can be accessed from their website. ‘Three brains’ McGrath has doctorates in biophysics, divinity, and intellectual history.

Slices of bread – 8 – doing something beautiful

Being an extract from my new book

If you’ve been with me over the summer, you’ll have seen that this book is about how adversity and suffering can change your life for the better. Better still, you can change your life for the better without the adversity and suffering (by reading the book). Suffering makes you realistic about you are — strips you down, perhaps. But two things can then build you up. Belonging — the art of belonging — is one (see last week). The second is vocation — doing something beautiful. Which is what this extract is all about.


My search for what really matters (8)

Don’t die with your music inside you

Vocation is about intentionally not dying with your music still inside you.

I was very ill when I first came across this thought and it was galvanizing. Since ‘galvanizing’ means ‘using electricity to coat something with zinc’, it wasn’t literally galvanizing, but it was a lifeline in the forever-January experience of convalescence. Then, and since, the idea of vocation has lit something in me that helped me fight to be well and stay well.

Don’t die with your music still inside you. Ask yourself. Other things being equal, feet still roughly on the floor, need for realism acknowledged, what would you love to do? I love asking this question of people. What gives you energy? What is fulfilling? What do you love? What would frustrate you if it were never let out? A famous theologian[1] described vocation as the meeting point between ‘your deep gladness’ and ‘the world’s deep need’. Where does that sit for you?

I hesitate to give it an upmarket name like ‘vocation’ because for some people it means cheerfully and faithfully doing ordinary things. For others, though, it might seem a long way from what they are now and you would never guess it. A person with a career in software wants to turn wood. A researcher would like to be a receptionist in a hospice. Others have found a love of counselling. I know a couple of people who find sanity and happiness through making time to paint. I know that in horrible places of infirmity I have been buoyed by the thought of writing something original, creative and quirky. This is vocation knocking: the chance to take something that belongs to you, and to give it out. Breathe deeply of it, and you oxygenate your soul.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people. And when we live out our vocation we furnish our lives with satisfaction and happiness. Vocation is bread for the hungry soul, a satisfying meal.

Vocation has designed cathedrals that will last a thousand years and spun melodies that the world will sing forever. It has squeezed goodness and grace out of places where only the banal should exist. Vocation is God’s fingertips brushing the earth through the actions of people.

I love watching people in their vocation. Someone came to our home to do some carpentry. His first love was restoring antique furniture. His eyes lit on our dining chairs, things that had tumbled to us down through our family as heirlooms. He knew which 19th century decade they were built in and named the style. He told us what he could do to them if he had them in his workshop for few days.

My son and I both have physics degrees. My physics degree helped me to ascend a few small hills and look across at mountain peaks of human thought. My son, though, climbs these peaks for fun. He knows how partial differential equations work, for example. He understands Maxwell’s equations, beautiful things that describe all of classical electromagnetism. I see him in a team experimenting on lone atomic particles that are in near-perfect vacuum and nearly at absolute zero. Even as a child he loved maths problems.


You stumble into vocation all the time. You wander into an office and find people who have time for you and all the resources you need. Someone bakes you a wonderful cake. You see a mum organizing her children or a teacher with her class interested and working hard and happy or arguing furiously with each other about finer points of maths.

Fine, you may say, but a vocation is a bit of a luxury if you’re a single parent just holding everything together or someone already buckling under the strain of just earning enough, or you are battling pain and depression, or you are in a toxic workplace, or you are retired. I am not so sure that you are right. For these reasons:

  • Thinking about vocation at least enables you to set a direction for where you’d like to go and what you’d like to be.
  • It probably also points to something you’re quite good at.
  • It points you to a higher ambition for your work than just as a vehicle to being solvent or (worse) rich, respected or lauded. These false gods shrivel your soul. Vocation nourishes it.
  • Even if you don’t change career, thinking about the work you love may change how you spend some of the odd scraps of time you already have. If you can’t be a professional musician or artist or footballer, be an amateur one. It still will feed your soul. Who knows where these small beginnings will lead? Take a step.
  • Change to your current circumstances might not be as impossible as you think. If, God forbid, you got a serious illness, or a divorce, you would change things around fast enough. Emails and schedules that tower above you now wouldn’t look that way then. They don’t matter so much really. The world won’t stop even if you stop. If you died tomorrow, someone would fix all the emails or finish the jobs. But that thing which is you, that thing you can give to the world, no-one else can do that like you do it.
  • Negotiate a compromise between vocation and career. This is why artists become graphic designers or would-be session musicians become tutors, or novelists get paid as journalists. Wiggle a little. 
  • Remember life has seasons. The pages turn. Kids grow up. Debts get paid down. The rush to complete qualifications passes. Workplaces change. If your life is a busy river, abuzz with boats and criss-crossed with bridges, so hooting with shipping that you can’t take it all in, it may not stay that way. This river will probably evolve into something fat and lazy as it nears the sea, weaving slowly through the bulrushes like a jazz solo. Maybe your vocation awaits a new season.  But start it now.

Your vocation is your chance to be big, beautiful you.  Do you really want to miss this?  So take some steps. Do something. Do something. Don’t die without giving us a song.

[1] Frederick Buechner