Sunday, August 12, 2018


The last time I met Douglas Adams was on the morning of 26th April 2001, in the mezzanine lobby of the One Aldwych Hotel in London. I had not seen him since he moved to Santa Barbara to adapt a screenplay from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for Disney. American lifestyle had taken its toll, and he attempted to disguise the extra pounds with two-tone attire: white shirt and black trousers. His hair was closely cropped and white. He blended in faultlessly with his surroundings. “How can I help,” he smiled.

“Coltan,” I said, “an entirely new threat to the gorillas. The mining of it in eastern Congo is driving the Eastern lowland gorilla to extinction. Apparently it’s processed into tantalum, which is indispensable to mobile phones and computers.”

“So now the tech industry’s the bad guy,” sighed Douglas. He sat back and crossed his imposing limbs.“Talk to Nokia,” he said, “they’re the industry leaders in mobile phones. And see if you can’t get an article into Wired about it. Ask John Perry Barlow to pen something.”

“I’m writing an appeal,” I said, “to send to all the companies involved.” 

“Not an appeal,” he said, gazing up at a pair of azalea bushes hanging above his head, “write your letter to inform, ask them to take the initiative. And make sure you send me a copy of the draft before you circulate it.”

Following his counsel to the full, I then sent an open letter to the tantalum industry, which sparked an upswell of public support for the gorillas, and launched a campaign led by Arthur C. Clarke and Leonardo DiCaprio that resulted in new legislation in the United States. 

But I never saw Douglas again. Two weeks later, while working out at a gym in Santa Barbara his heart stopped beating and he died instantly. He was only 49. I was in San Francisco when I heard the terrible news. We were scheduled to meet up that week. The loss was too great for words. As well as my friend, my patron, and my mentor, Douglas was the gorillas’ best hope.

Five days later I was with Mike Backes in LA when we heard his funeral was going to be held that afternoon. “Let’s go,” said Mike.

“But we weren’t invited,” I said.

“So what, let’s drive down there anyway.”

“We won’t make it in time. The service starts in less than an hour, in Santa Barbara, which is at least 90 minutes drive away.”
“We’ll take the Porsche,” said Mike. 

We made it in 45 minutes, crept in and stood at the back of chapel. An organist was playing The Rolling Stones, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’ Douglas’s coffin seemed to stretch from wall to wall. How did they find a tree tall enough?

Science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender (he once climbed Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit to raise money to fight the cretinous trade in rhino horn), Apple Computer has lost its most eloquent apologist. And I have lost an irreplaceable intellectual companion and one of the kindest and funniest men I ever met. 
- Richard Dawkins, obituary for Douglas Adams, The Guardian 

“Douglas Noel Adams, 1952-2001” read the invitation I received 4 months later, to the memorial service at St Martin’s in the Field, London. Everyone came to bid a final farewell to DNA. The ushers collected donations for rhinos and gorillas. Following the service, a group of his friends walked through Leicester Square together, to attend his wake at the Groucho Club in Soho. I was proud to walk among them. 

At the Groucho Club I worked the room, Douglas wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, chatted to Peter Gabriel, another AppleMaster whom Douglas had recruited to the cause. It was our first time meeting, though I’d been a fan of his music since high school. “You’re not going to like me,” said Gabriel in a raspy voice. “I’ve had a bonobo in my studio playing keyboards.”

“You’re kidding me,” I laughed.
Peter Gabriel

“No, it’s true. The bonobo speaks sign language and has an extensive vocabulary. So we asked her to come to my studio and play the piano. We had to bribe her with Jell-O, but she played pretty well."

“Can’t wait to hear what that sounds like,” I said.

“What do you think about gorillas communicating with each other using video conferencing?” asked Gabriel. “Putting monitors in their habitat to see if they make contact with each other.”

“The equipment would have to be ruggedized to withstand a hell of a beating,” I said. I then told him about the Media Lab’s idea of making a hologram of a silverback. 

I found Storm Thorgerson talking to his Pink Floyd mates, asked him if he’d design our annual report. “Go on, Storm," said Dave Gilmour, "design their annual report."

Dave Gilmour
"If I did design it," said Storm with bored contempt, "there'll be no fucking gorillas in it."

"No gorillas," I laughed, “I don’t get it.”

“Maybe a hand print or two, but that's all.”


”For the sad fact that there are far too few left in the wild,“ said Storm. 

Bringing to a close this tribute as tall, aged, and deeply fissured as an old-growth Douglas Fir, while Pink Floyd sings, “Wish You Were Here,” I can see Douglas’s congenial full moon face, amused no doubt by some scientific absurdity. So much has happened in the 40 years since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first hit the airwaves, and yet the wit is still fresh. I wonder how, after so long away, such an avowed atheist as Douglas can still make his presence felt. Welcome back, old friend. I’ve missed you. It’s twenty years on, but your plan for a once-and-for-all fund to save the gorillas is no less compelling. $35 million is chump change for today’s tech titans. Surely one of them will read this story and step up with the cash needed to guarantee the survival of a species of great ape. “A bargain at the price!” says Douglas.

In loving memory my friend and mentor, Douglas Adams, the coolest dude in the Universe

No comments:

Post a Comment