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Leigh Turner

Ambassador to Austria and UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna

Part of UK in Austria

31st May 2017 Vienna, Austria

Innsbruck; 42; Towel Day; and the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Where did Douglas Adams get the idea for his improbably brilliant book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”?

The answer is… Innsbruck.

Eagle-eyed colleagues in the Vienna Embassy have brought to my attention a “Guardian” article of 3 February 2011: Douglas Adams and the cult of 42. The article records a letter of thirty years earlier written by Douglas Adams to Ken Walsh, author of “A Hitch-hiker’s Guide to Europe” (a book I used to own).

In the letter, Douglas Adams thanks Walsh for his book and continues: “[one evening in 1971] I got frantically depressed in Innsbruck… When the stars came out I thought that someone ought to write a Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy because it looked a lot more attractive out there than it did around me.”

The good news is that the experience of Douglas Adams in Innsbruck prompted the production of one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time, as well as one of the best jokes (culminating in the revelation that the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is… 42).

The bad news is that, according to the letter, Adams was depressed on the day and thought that the stars looked nicer than Innsbruck itself.

I’ve been to Innsbruck.  It is a delightful place surrounded by terrific mountains and filled with lovely people. My parents went on their honeymoon in nearby Gries im Sellrain.  So I am confident that whatever was depressing Douglas Adams in the spring of 1971 was not Innsbruck itself.

At the same time, the fact that Douglas Adams was in Innsbruck when he first had the idea for The Hitch-hiker’s Guide is a top-notch strand of Austro-British cultural connectivity (or, as Adams might have said “a worm-hole in space”) and should be celebrated.

As for 42… I can reveal that after the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out in 1978, I was such a fan that I used to hitchhike around with a towel over my arm.  This was based on the book’s premise that: “a towel… is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have… you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V… wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal…”

The link in the previous paragraph includes the full quotation from the book – definitely worth a read, if only for the full definition of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal and the words hoopy; frood; and strag; and explaining why the phrase “to really know where your towel is” is the ultimate complimentIt also contains the key information that Towel Day is on 25 May, commemorating two weeks after the death of Douglas Adams on 11 May 2001.  The link includes a picture of Towel Day being commemorated in… Innsbruck.

My own theory about 42 was long that it was linked to the Band “Level 42”.  I refer not the new wave English band, who took their name from the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the fictional band “Level 42” featured at the MELODIA disk-bootick in the cult 1962 Anthony Burgess dystopian sci-fi novel, “A Clockwork Orange”.  Initial Internet research for this blog supported this theory.  I wasn’t sure enough, however, and looked at my copy of the novel.  To my horror, I found no mention of Level 42, but only of  Heaven 17 – a fictional band mentioned at MELODIA from which a different ’80s new wave band took their name.  An understandable slip of my memory, you might think – or, possibly, a chilling example of how fake facts form.

Next time I am in Innsbruck I shall look forward to finding the precise meadow where Douglas Adams’ revelation took place.

About Leigh Turner

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of…

I hope you find this blog interesting and, where appropriate, entertaining. My role in Vienna covers the relationship between Austria and the UK as well as the diverse work of the UN and other organisations; stories here will reflect that.

About me: I arrived in Vienna in August 2016 for my second posting in this wonderful city, having first served here in the mid-1980s. My previous job was as HM Consul-General and Director-General for Trade and Investment for Turkey, Central Asia and South Caucasus based in Istanbul.

Further back: I grew up in Nigeria, Exeter, Lesotho, Swaziland and Manchester before attending Cambridge University 1976-79. I worked in several government departments before joining the Foreign Office in 1983.

Keen to go to Africa and South America, I’ve had postings in Vienna (twice), Moscow, Bonn, Berlin, Kyiv and Istanbul, plus jobs in London ranging from the EU Budget to the British Overseas Territories.

2002-6 I was lucky enough to spend four years in Berlin running the house, looking after the children (born 1992 and 1994) and doing some writing and journalism.

To return to Vienna as ambassador is a privilege and a pleasure. I hope this blog reflects that.