If my employer is reading this, I’ll probably get fired, but, oh well.
Today Google reminded those of us who love internet searches that it’s the anniversary of the untimely death of Douglas Adams. Seeing their celebratory doodle reminded me of my one-time encounter with the author. I say encounter loosely, since the famous author had already passed on from this world and I was standing above his interred ashes in London’s Highgate Cemetery, wondering why I just paid a fee to see dead people and marvelling at how an entire city can shut down due to an inch of snow.
Before you cry foul and say I can’t call this an encounter, I will first say that you may have a point. But I will also say that I once stood in the middle of Tiananmen Square, well after the renowned 1989 protests, and still felt the power of the history of that place (adjacent to Tiananmen Square is the Forbidden City, which only adds to the moment). I think that when you understand and believe in the importance and history of a person or place, that you can have an experience with those people and places just by being there — where they were.
So there I was in London, on what was supposed to be a business trip, sitting at a table in the Railway Pub on Liverpool Street and downing some kind of beer I’d never heard of (it was too early in the afternoon for a scotch). I’d only just eaten lunch at Dirty Dicks, and, while I still hear about that from my co-workers, I didn’t think I’d be back in a pub so soon. But London had just experienced the storm of the century the previous night and the one inch of snow this crazy storm had dropped on the land virtually shut down several of the train lines from the outlying boroughs, along with Gatwick airport and who knows what else. This meant that my afternoon appointment never showed up, which meant that I had some free time, which, to my mind, meant I should find the nearest pub and be as American as possible by wondering aloud about the point of “football” and other funny English things, such as “elevenses”. But it also gave me time to wonder what I would do the next day since, as you might guess, I had the foresight to schedule absolutely no appointments (but I told the boss I was leaving it open “just in case”). My co-worker, who was there attending to technical matters at our data center, wanted to visit Highgate Cemetery. Since I had a free day on the company dime I thought, why not.
The following morning, we started our journey to Highgate Cemetery. Along the way we accidentally wandered into the British Museum, where we spent an hour or so looking at the Rosetta Stone and other old Egyptian things while we wondered if they would get mad at us for not donating any money at the door. Then we ended up at the British Library where the Magna Carta is on display and which I found to be remarkably small and illegible. Finally, we remembered Highgate Cemetery and started on our way.
Highgate Cemetery is located in North London. If you’re on foot you have to take a circuitous route to get there, but once you arrive you will be rewarded with having to pay several pounds for entry. On this day there were no other visitors we could see, probably due to the snow. We paid our pounds and walked in.
Highgate Cemetery is old, not ancient, but old, and divided into east and west. We were in the East Cemetery. As we walked the snow-covered path, past giant monuments and small gravestones alike, we searched for the marker for Douglas Adams’ burial plot. Even with a map it was harder to locate than we thought. We ended up at the grave of Karl Marx, where I commented on his enormous size, given the representation of his head on the tomb. I was told it was something called a “bust” and that he was not actually that large. I’m not entirely convinced. Finally, as we worked our way back, we found it.
The gravestone was small and hidden in a back row. I got as close as possible and read the engraving. It said:
“Douglas Adams. Writer.” — followed by his dates of birth and death.
Here were the ashes of a man who made countless others laugh and even think a little bit. He probably annoyed Christians (of which I am one) and certainly emboldened atheists (such as Richard Dawkins). He was beloved by sci-fi geeks and aspiring writers and humorists. Artists are constantly interpreting his work, whether in films, books, or t-shirts (we’re looking at you Woot!). It will be a long time before his is forgotten. Longer still because I’ve already introduced my son to the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (the most recent film version).
All these things and his gravestone says only “Douglas Adams. Writer.”
Well, it’s true. He was a writer.
I think he would appreciate the economy of words.