It was bitterly cold on the eighth of November 1993. Even so, my then-boyfriend and I were topside on the P&O ferry, the Belgian port of Ostend far behind in the early morning darkness. After many rounds of canasta with another traveling couple, we went up to stay awake in the bracing air.
As our ferry turned southward, I saw in the pre-dusk light a greyish-white chalky wall, on my right. That was when, in a sleep-deprived manic stupor, I shook my companion, exclaiming, “The Cliffs of Dover! That’s the Cliffs of Dover! I see the Cliffs of Dover!”
His head bobbing back and forth like a bobble-head doll from my shaking, he replied in a calm, even voice, “Yes – it’s the Cliffs of Dover.”
I got in control of myself and, in silence, we watched the white cliffs pass by us as the ferry motored towards the Port of Dover.
I was finally in England.
It all started in 1984 when I was eleven-going-on-twelve.
Having exhausted the three Madeleine L’Engle books I had checked out from the school library before I was laid up at home for the next two weeks with chicken pox, I wandered to the living room. I was sick of being confined in my bedroom, sick of being itchy, and just sick of being sick. No one was home, and daytime TV was just maudlin soap operas and cheesy game shows. So, for lack of doing anything else, I took down from the wall-sized cabinet the dark blue heavy tome that was The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Kittridge Players Illustrated Edition for the first time ever, blew off the dust, and sat down on the couch.
Up to that point, I had never read nor studied Shakespeare. After all, I was just a sixth grader, and Shakespeare was only taught in high school. While my family watched plenty of TV and movies, Shakespeare was never on their watch list. So I entered Shakespeare’s world as an absolute newcomer.
It was fortunate for me that the Shakespeare my family had was a particular edition that had black and white photographs from British Shakespearian actors, performing in full stage dress and makeup. The photographs were copyright 1958, so I saw a middle-aged Sir John Gielgud as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, a young Vivien Leigh as Viola in Twelfth Night, a middle-aged Laurence Olivier as Richard III in The Tragedy of King Richard III, a young Claire Bloom as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and a young Richard Burton as Hamlet in Hamlet, among other British actors of the Old Vic Theatre and the Memorial Theatre. Each Shakespeare play had performance photographs that followed the plot and were so heavily annotated – identifying actor names, characters, story line, and Act and Scene – that I didn’t even bother to read the plays that first time. I just studied the photographs and read the annotations, sort of like a high-end picture-book version of Shakespeare to get the gist of the plays.
Also, Olivier could really rock that eye-liner, and Burton was really very pretty. SWOON.
After that first run-through, I went back and read the parts of the plays where the photographs were illustrating. That was my introduction to Shakespeare’s language, in these bite-sized pieces, which – come to think of it – was an ideal method for a preteen newbie like myself tip-toeing into that fantastic yet confusing world of Shakespeare’s wordplay. Surprisingly, the play that I understood the most at the time was The Taming of the Shrew – which came in handy, a couple of years later when my family viewed the Moonlighting episode titled “Atomic Shakespeare” and I grinned like a crazy person, feeling like a Shakespeare insider for the first time in my life.
But Shakespeare did not make me into an Anglophile – I was too young.
Thanks to my dad’s love of all things James Bond (I mean, he even brought the entire family to watch Octopussy when it showed in the theaters in 1983 and had a bootleg VHS copy of A View to a Kill) and my family’s rather embarrassing enjoyment of Benny Hill, I was familiar with English accents and some mannerisms. When my friend Jill became a fan of Remington Steele and got me watching it as well, I enjoyed the show and the sparring between Stephanie Zimbalist’s and Pierce Brosnan’s characters, but I wasn’t particularly drawn to Brosnan (just like I wasn’t particularly drawn to Roger Moore) as a Brit.
Then, one day, I turned on the TV in my room, switched it over to KERA, the local PBS station in North Texas, and saw the program Mystery! present The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I sat at the foot of my bed, I heard the opening notes of string instruments, a montage of upper class and lower class street life in Victorian England, and saw the episode title “A Scandal in Bohemia.”
For the next hour, from Watson chiding Holmes for his drug habit to Irene Adler besting Holmes’ brilliance, to Watson’s voiceover of Holmes’ enduring respect for “the Woman” — I never moved from the foot of my bed.
I was hooked.
I was hooked the same way that I was with Little House on the Prairie and Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series a few years earlier. In other words, I was utterly and profoundly obsessed.
After viewing that episode, my imagination wanted to dwell in Holmes’ Victorian London beyond what I saw on the screen, and I soon sought out Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of the Great Detective and his Watson. Between the school and public libraries, I found and read all fifty-six short stories and four novels recounting Holmes and Watson’s adventures. I would compare them to what I saw on the small screen and was happy to see the TV adaptions were close to what Conan Doyle wrote, including his descriptions of Holmes himself. Jeremy Brett was absolutely perfect in fitting those descriptions.
I even went so far as to consult a secondary source – W. S. Baring-Gould’s reconstructed, albeit speculative, timeline of Sherlock Holmes’ life, including the dates of his cases, as well as a bibliography of Doyle’s Holmesian works in order of publication. I meticulously wrote all of that down in neat, school-girl cursive on college-ruled loose leaf paper and placed them in a folder for safekeeping. The fact that I still HAVE that folder – nearly thirty years later – is a testimony to the obsession that I had in living in that fictional world that Conan Doyle created. I researched Victorian England in my family’s encyclopedia collection so that I could have an accurate picture in my mind of Conan Doyle’s setting. I would often fall asleep while spinning my own stories of Holmes and Watson solving mysteries within and beyond 221B Baker Street, always with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and Edward Hardwicke as Watson.
It never occurred to me to write any of those imaginative bedtime musings down, and I’m glad I didn’t. I could only imagine what a twelve-year old girl’s Sherlock Holmes fan fiction would’ve been, and considering that I was still learning how to write fiction, I shudder at what could’ve been.
By the time my great obsession with Sherlock Holmes had run its course in high school, I was a full-blown Anglophile. I had read and studied all of C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia in seventh and eighth grade. After an earlier obsession with the Monkees in my freshman year (I even watched Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenzm and Davey Jones in a nostalgia-reunion concert in May 1997 with my friend Tracy, although Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee), I had discovered Led Zeppelin through the local rock station in my sophomore year and read about the band’s origins and dirty laundry details in book-length biographies, both authorized and unauthorized. (The unauthorized ones were more exciting.)
More importantly, however, I had gotten into the habit of spending my evenings watching PBS rebroadcasts of various British television programs such as James Burke’s Connections and The Day the Universe Changed, the TV adaptation of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, the dramedy Butterflies, Rowan Atkinson’s Black Adder, and the quintessential Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I even watched Blake’s 7, even though the series was confusing, the special effects were wretched, and the series finale made me mad.
In spite of that, I kept tuning to KERA, and this habit of watching whatever the folks at KERA threw at me introduced me to programs that would solidify my Anglophilia for the rest of my high school life and well into adulthood: Doctor Who and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Today, Doctor Who is a well-known international phenomenon, having been around since 1963, but this popular recognition wasn’t so in early 1980s America. Seen as niche programming on late night PBS stations, I first heard of Doctor Who in middle school from another of my small circle of book-reading, quirky friends. Cheryl, who will always be “the environmental one” in my memory, would tell me about the Fourth Doctor and then have to explain why he was the fourth. Intrigued, I stayed up well past my bedtime on a particular Saturday in 1983. That was when I saw Tom Baker as the Doctor – with his floppy hat, never-ending scarf, and manic eyes — for the first time.
I don’t recall exactly what episode it was – after some research online, I believe it was “Warrior’s Gate” since I vaguely recall the second Romana and the robot dog K9 in it – but I remember feeling a bit lost as a new viewer. This was no surprise, as Doctor Who back then was heavily serialized in multi-part story arcs, and I was watching in the middle of one of those arcs. I watched the next subsequent episodes until “Logopolis,” when I saw my first regeneration of the Doctor – from the Fourth to the Fifth.
“Oh my God, it’s Tristan Farnon!” I exclaimed.
Up to that point, I knew the actor Peter Davison in his role as the funny, often whiny, but always mischievous younger brother Tristan Farnon in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. So when I saw the end of “Logopolis” I knew I just had to see what this version of the Doctor would be like. (On a side note – I would always consider the Fifth Doctor as “my” Doctor, that is, the Doctor that really hooked me into becoming a Doctor Who fan.) Through my middle and then early high school years, I followed Davison into the Sixth Doctor (played by an irritating Colin Baker). By the time I was watching Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor, with his companion Ace, I was driving myself to Century Books to get the most recent issues of Doctor Who magazine, along with issues of Omni.
When Doctor Who was abruptly cancelled in 1989, one would think I would be upset, especially since there was no closure in the Seventh Doctor’s run.
However, one program had supplanted my Anglophilia by then: The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
We’ll have to travel back in time for a bit.
In 1985, I didn’t know of the radio series. I didn’t know of the books. I had no idea who Douglas Adams was. So, just like the blank slate I was when I first read Shakespeare’s plays and saw Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock, I turned on the TV, switched over to KERA, heard the beginning banjo-strains of The Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorcerer,” and saw the opening credits of The Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Galaxy.
Thanks to the British absurdity of Monty Python, the quirky analytics of Sherlock Holmes, and the expansive and unpredictable science fiction universe of Doctor Who, I received the Hitchhiker’s series as if it were a continuation of old friends. I adored Arthur Dent’s befuddled yet endearing Everyman, as he became a hero, literally – and I do mean literally — kicking and screaming. The graphics of the Guide itself – I wouldn’t know until much later that it wasn’t computer graphics but entirely hand-drawn animation – was engaging and actually made me a faster reader, as I tried to read the entries that would scroll on the Guide’s screen before they disappeared in a cinematic fade-out to the next scene.
KERA would lazily play out the episodes over the next months, and I would watch, in addition to the other TV shows I was watching. In reading the end credits of an episode, I discovered that 1) the TV series was based on the book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 2) the author of all of this wonderful madness was Douglas Adams. However, I didn’t seek out the books at that time. From 1984 to 1986, I was too occupied with C. S. Lewis, Conan Doyle, other British programming, raiding the school library’s stacks, and writing my second attempt at a novel. From 1986 to early 1987, I was again too occupied, this time with the added tasks of reading my dad’s books, adjusting to the insane increased workload of high school, helping out my parents with errand-running and afterschool childcare and homework, and spending any available social time with my friend Tracy (whom I met over our mutual frustration with Spanish I class) to obsess over the Monkees.
Around my fifteenth birthday, my dad bought me Infocom’s text-based The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game for our Apple IIe. It seemed so simple at first but was head-banging-against-the-wall tricky. The gameplay was different enough from the TV series that re-watching it didn’t help. So, after waiting for my mom’s next shopping trip to the mall, I went to Century Books and discovered that Douglas Adams didn’t just write one book – he wrote four, in a series: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe and Everything; and So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
“Ohhhhh,” I said.
Luckily, I had enough birthday money from my parents, so I bought all four paperbacks. On the drive home, I immediately started reading the first book:
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.
This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.
And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.”
The book was a little different from the TV series. It was utterly useless in helping me puzzle out the computer game (it took me ages and ages to figure out how to get that damnable babelfish into my ear, for instance). The writing was quirky, verbose, and at times absurdly morose.
I loved it – and I loved it enough to actually make my fandom PUBLIC.
Tracy was moving away after freshman year, so as a farewell celebration, we were going to a concert in Dallas’ open-air venue, Starplex. The opening act was Weird Al Yankovic, the headliner was The Monkees, and I knew exactly what I was going to wear. Copying the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy computer game box with colored pencils, crayons, and markers on stout computer paper, I brought the finished mini-poster to the local T-shirt making shop at Forum 303.
“Cool,” the T-shirt shop guy said, when he saw the picture.
“Yeah,” I replied, smiling.
When I came back the next day, he handed me a small white T-shirt with my hand-drawn picture transferred on it and my original picture. When Tracy and her mom came to pick me up, I was wearing my new T-shirt, acid-washed pegged jeans, and white Reeboks.
“Wow,” Tracy said. “Did you make that?”
“Awesome!” she replied. “You’re a great drawer!” And then she said, “I can NOT believe I’ll be seeing Peter Tork!” (Peter Tork was Tracy’s favorite Monkee.)
We had tickets to lawn seating (just over-glorified blankets on the grass), but a couple decided to give up their lawn seats that were closer to the stage because the woman felt sick and wanted to be closer to the restrooms. So Tracy and I swapped tickets with them, and we found ourselves sitting on lawn chairs within throwing distance to the stage. Sitting next to us was a family – parents, a couple of small kids, and an awkward teenage guy who (for the life of me) I cannot remember what he looked like.
My first (and only) Weird Al concert was a riot of color, roller-skates, and accordions. It was AWESOME. When three members of the Monkees arrived on stage (by this time, any Monkees’ fan knew Mike Nesmith – who was my favorite Monkee — refrained from the nostalgia tour, having moved on with his own creative projects), Starplex went nuts. Tracy bounced around, her eyes bugging out like an apoplectic owl, seeing Peter Tork live.
It was during the middle of The Monkees’ set list (I think it was during Davey Jones’ slow singing – maybe “Daydream Believer”) that I heard to the right of me a voice somewhat straining to be heard over the Monkees’ fans, “Hey, is that from the Hitchhiker’s game?”
It was the teenage guy.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Where’d you get the T-shirt?”
“I made it.”
He nodded, impressed. “Have you read the books?”
“Just the first one. I’ve seen the TV show, though.”
He nodded again. “The books are better.”
“Don’t spoil it for me!”
He started laughing.
So while Tracy slathered and jibbered over Peter Tork, I geeked with a guy about the inner details of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Afterwards, when I told Tracy what happened in the car ride home, she asked, “Did he ask for your phone number?”
“Did you ask for his?”
“Oh, Rufel.” Tracy shook her head.
In the driver’s seat, Tracy’s mom chuckled.
Yes, in retrospect, Tracy was right. I should’ve asked for his number, or he mine. But we were two awkward teenagers at a Monkees concert geeking over Douglas Adams – what did we know about dating?
What was great about discovering Douglas Adams’ books during the mid-1980s was that I didn’t have to wait years for the next book. Over the summer, I read all four (at the time) Hitchhiker’s books and re-read them, bringing them wherever I went. When my family went for a road trip to spend two weeks at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the Hitchhiker’s books went with me. When a priest’s sermon at Sunday Mass got particularly boring, I’d peek at a few pages of a Hitchhiker’s book (although, if Mom caught me, I’d get a sharp whack on my hand with a missalette). I even became a bit of a hermit during Filipino parties, preferring to retreat to a quiet room somewhere to read instead of being swallowed up by the sights and sounds of loud singing, dancing, talking, and eating.
“Where’s Rufel?” someone would ask.
“Oh, she’s somewhere – reading,” someone else would invariably answer.
I must admit, my Hitchhiker’s reading habit probably did look a bit pathologic. But doing so, especially at school, helped to sort out those who would be my friends and those who wouldn’t. For example, just like at the Monkees concert, I became friends with Don in sophomore Honors English because he saw me reading Life, the Universe and Everything before class began.
Tapping in my shoulder behind me, Don asked, “Hey, you like Douglas Adams, too?”
I turned around, seeing a Vietnamese guy with glasses who looked uncannily like me. “Yeah,” I said. I held up my book. “This is the third time I’ve read this.”
“So you now understand the game cricket, right?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I have no idea.”
“Me, too! What’s up with those wickets, anyways?”
Thanks to Douglas Adams, our shared confusion of British professional sports was the start to a great friendship that lasted all through the craziness of high school.
Once I finished re-reading So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, I fell into a bit of a Hitchhiker’s withdrawal – that weird grief of a book’s world and an author’s voice ending. So I was delighted when Adams published another book, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, in 1987, even though it wasn’t a Hitchhiker’s book. Not wanting to wait until the school or public libraries adopted a copy and until it came out in paperback, I bought the first hardback edition (having saved up some babysitting money) and read it in one, sleep-deprived night. When Neil Gaiman was still primarily a journalist, he published in 1988 a biography of Douglas Adams titled The Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. Fortunately for my pocketbook, it was in paperback, so I immediately bought that, too.
Reading Gaiman’s book was a revelation about Adams’ writing process. In short, Adams loathed writing. He found it incredibly difficult and procrastinated so much and so often in everything that he wrote that he may as well as made procrastination into a form of performance art. Gaiman quoted Adams, who said, “Writing comes easy. All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until your forehead bleeds.”
When I read that, the writer in me gave a loud and profound sigh of relief. After my second attempt at a novel – which barely got beyond one-hundred pages, double-spaced, so not even a proper novel at all – I was blocked. I couldn’t think of anything to expand my draft, so I had set it aside and started what I thought was another novel. After ten pages of that, I got blocked again. So I set THAT aside and started on another idea for a novel. After thirty pages of THAT one, I got blocked again. I gave up writing after writing fifty pages of yet ANOTHER new project and couldn’t think of a way to rescue my heroes who were stuck in an air ventilating shaft while surrounded by security cameras, laser detectors, alarm bells, and bad-guy security guards looking for them.
I had a folder filled with the carcasses of discarded non-novels, and I was in deep despair that I had lost whatever it was that I thought I had as a writer.
But reading of Adams’ struggles as a professional writer made me realize that all writers – amateur or professional, it didn’t matter – felt this way. Adams, a writer whose works I admired and aspired to be like someday, felt this way. It was the first time that I really saw the flesh-and-blood person behind those words and (as it turned out when I read Gaiman’s book), I literally did see Adams’ flesh (if not blood): he played the naked guy in the first episode of the TV Hitchhiker’s, who threw his previous suited life away and wandered into the sea.
Douglas Adams was very tall and very pale.
Adams also collaborated here and there with Monty Python and co-wrote a story for Doctor Who, so discovering Hitchhiker’s really did feel like a culmination of my earlier Anglophilia. When the Dirk Gently sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, also came out in 1988, of course I bought it. And when I lent it out in 1990 to someone that I don’t remember anymore and never got it back, of course I replaced it – along with his animal conservation travelogue (co-written with Mark Carwardine), Last Chance to See.
In 1990, I was eighteen, so I suppose I should end this chapter at that date – since I had pretty much established my Anglophilic credentials. However, I started this chapter in 1993, so I’ll go on a little bit because Douglas Adams died in May 11, 2001 (so he never got to see technology like the iPad, which he – an Apple fan — would’ve loved, and never got to witness The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s 2005 theatrical release).
And part of me still misses him terribly.
When it comes to Douglas Adams, I have one big regret.
In late 1990, Adams came to Dallas, Texas, for a book signing at a local BookStop bookstore. That particular BookStop was far enough away from the college where I was a freshman student that I had to get a ride (I didn’t have a car with me on-campus). His book tour was promoting Last Chance to See, which I had bought, but I also brought along my hardback Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.
The line, as one would imagine, was very long, snaking back and forth from the Adam’s signing table, through the bookstore, and out the door. I was in line for a long time but was just enough in the store to see Adams himself. Even though he was sitting down, he was so tall that I could easily see him – dark hair (slightly receding) that needed a bit of a trim, big chin, impish smile, open collared shirt, no tie, and a sports coat.
Then my at-the-time-boyfriend – whose car I had hitched a ride – said, “We gotta go; I have a class in ten minutes.”
“We gotta go.”
“It’s been an hour already.” He waved at the line. “I’ll be late for class, and so will you – I know you have a class in a half hour, and this line will take another hour, at least.”
I looked at my then-boyfriend, thinking really hard. I had no way of getting back on campus, and I didn’t know how to get back on campus anyway as I was unfamiliar with that part of Dallas. Then I looked at Adams, sighed, “Okay,” and left with my ride.
I still kick myself over that.
A frigid three years, I was with a different guy as we blearily got off the train that transported us from the relative darkness of Port of Dover to the cheery, wide-open brightness of Victoria Station, London. Feeling punch-drunk tired, we exchanged our money, bought a pastry and coffee, and wandered over to the nearby W. H. Smith’s. There, while my companion bought a new, “unexpurgated” version of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, I saw that Douglas Adams had published a new book.
It was the newest and (as it would turn out) last Hitchhiker’s book titled Mostly Harmless.
I bought it, of course.