on 25 April 2010
I read the book three or four years ago. Like a lot of other reviewers I found it boring and pedantic and obsessed with finding out the precise number of computers Douglas Adams owned.
I picked it off my shelf a week ago. I wanted to reread it before I decided whether to keep it or get rid of it. I made it to page 30, then I had to give up. It is as boring and pedantic as I remember. What I also recall now is how oddly pointless the book seems. Simpson way of relating facts and anecdotes reminds me of some horrible old aunt telling stories about 'Our Douglas'. "Did you know that our Douglas played in the school play? They mentioned his name in the school paper." "Really, Auntie?" "Yes! Oh, he is such a good boy. Did I ever tell you about the time he had to wear short trousers and he was so embarrassed, you wouldn't believe it." And so on and so on. At no point do I get the feeling that there is a coherent story being told; it's just a bunch of facts piled on top of each other untill the whole thing tips over.
To sum it up, I'm getting rid of this book and I wouldn't recommend anyone getting it in the first place. If you are insanely curious about Douglas Adam's life, then I still recommending saving the money and just borrowing it from a library.
on 5 March 2003
The problem with a book about a brilliant writer is that you expect it to be brilliantly written and this isn’t. What it is however, is a fantastically well researched history of Douglas Adams writing of his books. The last fifty pages are references to sources (including internet forum postings). It’s more of an academic work than a good read.
I really enjoyed it but I’m not sure many people will. This is a book for the real hardcore fan. The kind of person who understands the reference “I just wondered how he knew they were size nine”.
As a result it assumes you’ve read, marked and inwardly digested all the books and radio series, I listened to the radio series from the first transmission and while never enough of a fan to attend a convention or wear a silly suit and make ‘beep beep’ noises, have actively sought out everything Douglas Adams wrote. Yet without having read around the subject I don’t know what made the Kamikaze sketch so funny and I felt a bit left out.
It makes depressing reading, MJ Simpson is too close to the subject and takes Adams’ brilliance as a given and there are few quotes or examples to enjoy, instead it’s a 300 page story of missed deadlines and displacement activity which is an uncomfortable way to learn about a hero.
It’s a cliché to say that you laughed and cried at a book, but with The Salmon of Doubt (Adams posthumous collection) I did both and had to stop to compose myself. It’s a much better tribute to the man.
on 14 September 2004
This book does an admirable job at uncovering the truth behind many Adams legends. I find it odd that so many reviewers perceive this as a negative, as if it ought to be a biographer's job to perpetuate myths instead of to investigate them. I think they fear that Adams or his legacy will be somehow diminished by the revelations. They are wrong. After reading Simpson's "Hitchhiker" I was struck with a renewed admiration for Adams. Here was a human being, saddled, we now realise, with exactly the same vanities and foibles as the rest of us, and yet who, despite this, gave us a new and funny way of looking at the world. It's said that fans of Paul McCartney hear the same anecdotes so many times that they number them and play bingo every time Macca is interviewed. The same could be true of fans of Douglas Adams. It is therefore refreshing to find some serious analysis of the facts behind DNA's life.
Compared to Nick Webb's "Wish You Were Here", Simpson's book comes across as being more for the true fan than the general reader. Webb, having access to Adams's private files, is better on the details of his subject's lovelife, but, despite being a friend of Adams, shows a worrying ignorance about the works that made his name. For instance, Webb thinks the middle-management people repopulating prehistoric Earth are themselves from a future Earth and that this is some wacky Adams paradox. He's got this badly wrong. They're from an entirely different planet (Golgafrincham as anyone who's read the books can tell you) and the fact that Webb doesn't seem to know or care seems at best bizarre and at worst sloppy, and where it is accurate it often retreads ground from the excellent book "Don't Panic" by Gaiman et al. As the Hitchhiker fanclub's archivist, and stickler for accuracy to boot, you know Simpson's facts are going to be checked, and that what he tells you is not going to be some "definitively innacurate" fairytale, but as close to the truth as he can get.
on 20 July 2003
Having already covered the life of works of Douglas Adams TWICE before (with the Pocket Essentials book, and his revision of Neil Gaiman's Don't Panic), Mr Simpson doesn't quite know what to do with this "proper" biography. So he comes to neither bury nor praise Mr Adams, but to instead pick holes in the anecdotes he's already covered in the other two books...! And boy, does he do it often. So much so, that the book ends on a limp disclaimer, of all things, where he says "I'm not saying Douglas Adams was a liar, but...". That's really no way to write a biography.
Elsewhere, he gives us "for the first time ever", the story of what really happened about those early LPs. And guess what, the story is incredibly dull. THAT's why it hadn't been told before!
Still, there's a few details I hadn't known before, like Mr Adams working on a South Bank Show special about his inability to finish the 5th HHGTTG novel, instead of actually finishing the novel!
on 20 January 2004
I'm not actually that big a Douglas Adams fan. Of course, the radio series are truly inspired, but, after that, there is, for the most part, a definite feeling about Adams's life of anti-climax and missed opportunity. Nevertheless, I find his life endlessly fascinating, in part, I think, because it's the kind of lfe I wish I had lived (minus, of course, the dropping dead of a massive MI at 49 aspect).
Simo has certainly done his research, which is exactly what a biographer should do (Nick Webb please take note). He debunks many of Adams's tall tales. For instance, it is now clear that there was no field in Innsbruck. His lack of access to Adams's family and private papers is a pity, particularly given how little Nick Webb managed to do with it. Because of this, there is no doubt that the definitive biography of Adams still remains to be written. Indeed, Simo doesn't repeat material from Neil Gaiman's "Don't Panic", fairly much compelling one to view the two books as parts of a single work. Simo isn't as good a writer as Gaiman, but that's hardly a crime. The prose is workman-like enough.
For me, the book's one great lack is a chronology. I would have liked a table showing exactly what Adams was doing and when. OK, OK, that might be a little obsessive, but there you go. Also, Simo doesn't attempt a critical analysis of Adams's work. This can be found in his Pocket Essentials work on Hitchhiker. Nevertheless, for anyone who is interested in Douglas Adams or indeed the worlds of British comedy and media from the 1970s, this is a more than worthwhile read. I do hope that Simo eventually gets the chance to produce a second edition that incorporates material from Adams's personal archives and also contains more critical material plus, of course, details of the fascinating afterlife of Adams's creations.
on 2 September 2003
I love Douglas Adams's work. I read & re-read & enjoy myself immensely every time. I believe that would make me a fan.
So as a fan I bought M J Simpson's book with the intention of softening the blow of Adams's death by reading all about his life and enjoying myself at the same time. I was so very, very wrong.
Simpson's effort reads like a text book. It's an overly pedantic time line of events and anecdotes that have been entirely stripped of their warmth and humour. I am aware that Simpson was endeavouring to be as honest as possible and he certainly knows his facts.The reader is positively gagging on honest facts by the end of the book.
What really perplexes me is this; Simpson is an emormously loyal fan of Douglas Adams, yet he fails to capture any of the spirit of the man he admired so much. Douglas Adams was not accurate. He was intelligent and creative and funny. This book reflects none of thoses characteristics. It manages to make the story of the life of an extremely interesting man, dull. That is some acomplishment.
I cannot fault Simpson's astounding knowledge of facts, figures and dates but after being pelted with them for 340 pages I finished this book unsatisfied, bored and irritated.
We never met, drat the bad luck. In our first encounter, Douglas was flashing his bum at me as he ran naked into the sea, shucking fistfuls of money in all directions. After that, being bowled over by the genius of his humour and struggling to grasp the breadth of his imagination was continuous enjoyment. Who was this man who piqued our minds, asking questions that challenged every norm? Douglas Adams wasn't just a writer or a gadfly prodding various Established Truths, he was a phenomenon. M. J. Simpson makes a worthy effort to impart something meaningful about Adams. He provides a wealth of information about Adams' activities, his struggle to meet deadlines, his circle of friends. In the end, however, Simpson's portrayal lacks the scope Adams worked within and the spark of "life" that would grant this book a place as a true biography.
Although Simpson is compelled to limit his view of Adams' childhood, apart from his "prep" school years, the author fails to establish the environment surrounding his subject. Nothing of the Britain of the year of Adams birth, 1952 is offered as background. His later schooling years, which was also the era of "Beatlemania", aren't reflected in the dynamics of that time. Instead, we learn of Adams aversion to sports and his crashing embarrassment at being forced to retain short pants after moving to more senior levels. Later, at Cambridge, Adams' involvement with the performing club "Footlights" certainly allowed him to begin his comedy career. His desire to become a "writer-performer" was manifested, but the gawky, clumsy lad was often a physical threat to others on stage.
Simpson traces well the path of Adams' career as a script-writer. An avid admirer of John Cleese, Adams emulated him in many ways. He would have made a great "Python", but by the time Adams was beginning to make his mark, "Monty Python" was winding down. Douglas wrote for "Doctor Who" at the same time he was developing "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". It was an indication of how hectic his life would become. In one segment, Simpson relates how Adams and a co-author sequestered themselves in a villa in southern France to complete "Last Chance to See", but spent the entire time at long lunches and interesting discussions. Words on paper failed to emerge. That never bothered Adams, who loved "to hear deadlines whoosh by". Missed deadlines, for which Adams' reputation seems to tower over all others, seem to pale in comparison to the delays incurred when his work was to be transferred to the film screen. The dissension, Simpson shows, was continuous and unending. There was a point when Adams was forced to buy back rights to his own work!
In a small but necessary concession to the world around Adams, Simpson explains how the release of the first "Star Wars" opened doors of opportunity for Adams' work to move to visual presentation. All the hesitation over putting "sci-fi" on BBC television was swept away and HHGG was produced as a result. Simpson notes that the timing led some to believe HHGG was a "send-up" of science fiction, but he dismisses that readily. HHGG was original thinking, demonstrating that Adams was well ahead in his view of putting science into interesting stories. His characters and events went far beyond Hollywood's interpretation of sci-fi. More importantly, the innovative graphics were supplemental to the story line and characters. The graphics only enhanced the narrative without dominating the themes, in the way Hollywood dealt with them.
In the meagre offerings Simpson attempts to reveal Adams' interests and what led him along certain tracks, we learn of the association with the Beatles. The focus, it seems, was on parties and name-dropping. Adams made one production involving Ringo Starr, but that went nowhere. As Adams matured, he lost a sense of the Christianity he was raised in. Simpson provides a flimsy chapter, "Interlude - God", in which Adams describes himself as waffling about deities. It provides nothing of the roots of his shift from religiosity. Although there is mention of his relation to Richard Dawkins, who married "Doctor Who's" Lalla Ward, there is nothing related about Adams' growing interest in science. When he realised his initials were "DNA", Adams later made much of the connection. None of that appears here. It took Richard Dawkins to extol Adams' "amalgamated knowledge of literature and science" in his "Lament for Douglas" to provide the proper assessment. It's almost astonishing that Simpson incorporates none of the accolades voiced at Adams' death.
Simpson has provided fans with much detail on Adams' career - collaborators, agents, and BBC officialdom. There are many legends and corrections of legends supplied. The chronicler deserves full credit for the immense task he has accomplished. As you close the final page, however, you realise the job is incomplete. The detail obscures the greater picture, which Simpson fails to encapsulate. Perhaps that is indicative of the immensity of coping with the subject. Adams was a big man in many ways and it's to be hoped that a full depiction of his life will be the next step. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 31 January 2007
Simpson says at the beginning of this book and towards the end that he doesn't think Douglas Adams was a liar. But the vast bulk of the book doesn't support this qualification. Perhaps Adams refused to grant Simpson an interview at some point. Perhaps Simpson just didn't like him, or felt envious that he was an accomplished writer. But why bother writing a biography in that case? I suppose having a petty score to settle would be one reason.
(Since posting my original review, I've learned that Simpson was disgruntled about not having any of his little sci-fi conventions attended by Douglas. This is a good reason for a nasty book? I think not.)
Trying to provide a balanced account and not taking everything one's subject has said as gospel is one thing. But going to great lengths, using wholly faulty logic, quotes from people barely on the fringes of the subject's life, and constant correlation without causation to make quotes look like contradictions in spite of the fact that they can actually happily coexist (and even often support each other, even though Simpson does all he can to explain why they might be at odds), is quite another. And believing the hazy memories of someone tangential rather than words from the horse's mouth doesn't reveal much sympathy for the subject.
Basically, Simpson makes Adams look like, depending on the page, a complete liar or a bumbling idiot (neither of which he was) -- throughout the entire book. It reeks of some kind of childish revenge, which would explain why Simpson waited until after Adams' death to write it; and tedious trivia and statistics are spewed to this end without any insight into the man or his life whatsoever, as other reviewers have pointed out.
Simpson also makes snide remarks about Douglas at every possible opportunity, such as "It wasn't an interview. It was a Douglas Adams monologue, and not a terribly interesting one." Someone reading the biography of an author would in fact be extremely interested in hearing an account of how one of that author's novels got published. Why the haughtiness? Simpson's thesis near the end is the heinous and unqualified opinion that Adams didn't write good books unless an editor or coauthor helped him.
Simpson even invents some new and intriguing words, such as "themself."
Don't waste your money on this. Don't Panic and Wish You Were Here are much, much, much, much, much better.
This book provides a fascinating insight into the man whose success was almost a precursor to J. K. Rowling - a writer of a cult book series (in this case originally a radio series) that made the big time in an enormous way.
The sadly missed Mr Adams was one of the strangest writers around - most authors might moan and groan in the process, but on the whole they enjoy it. Douglas Adams seems to have loved coming up with ideas, but hated the actual writing process. As has been well documented, many of his books were written after a year or more's prevarication, often with someone looking over his shoulder to make sure he did it, and in an amazingly short period (typically two to four weeks) .
But Simpson's book doesn't just trot out the old legends about Douglas Adams, it does its best to get beneath them, digging away at stories Adams told and retold until they developed a mythical quality of their own. Those who are interested in the creative process, just as much as those who are interested in Adams, will find this a great book.
on 26 April 2004
M J Simpson's unauthorised biography would appear to be thorough - atleast, anyone who has read Simpson's previous writings on the same subjectwill find the usual shopping list of facts and figures. What is new is astrange sense of betrayal from the writer. As I read this book, I feltmore and more that Simpson's obsession for forensic analysis of DouglasAdams' many anecdotes had crossed the line from geeky completeness tobitter point-scoring. He mentions several times that Adams neverparticipated in the fan events that Simpson presumably had a hand inorganising. And this, ultimately, feels like the crux of the book: A sad,disillusioned fan, transmuting his grief at the death of his idol into abitter succession of pedantic snipes at anecdotes which, I suspect, Adamshimself would have happily admitted had 'grown in the telling'.