‘Heartbeats in the Night’ by Douglas Adams

A bit of a cheat, this one – it’s a chapter from a book, not a standalone story. But it does stand alone. And it’s Douglas Adams, so there.

The book is Last Chance to See, his 1989 expedition with zoologist Mark Carwardine to find animals on the brink of extinction. It is, incidentally, the book of which he was most proud.

There is Adams’ trademark turn of phrase (“If you took the whole of Norway, scrunched it up a bit, shook out all the moose and reindeer, hurled it ten thousand miles round the world and filled it with birds then you’d be wasting your time, because it looks very much as if someone has already done it”), there is a nice description of their guide, Don Merton (“a benign man with the air of a vicar apologising for something”), and there is, at the heart of it, a dumpy flightless parrot on the brink of extinction.

Evolving flightlessness on islands free of predators, the kākāpō got quite the shock when we turned up. We – along with the dogs, cats and rats we take with us wherever we go – very nearly did for it. Its pickiness in the areas of diet and mating haven’t helped, but mostly its problems have stemmed from its inability to recognise a predator as a predator.

Adams looks at the natural world with a sense of wonder, without descending either into wordy excess or over-reverent gushing. He acknowledges its ridiculousness as well as its beauty. “The kākāpō is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know that it probably will not be.”

And he shines a light on human behaviour, especially the ravages we have wrought on the natural world, with a sense of resigned exasperation. “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”

Adams has been a hero of mine for more than 40 years, a status not even remotely dented by his sheepish admission that he’s not that keen on birds (“I think I find other birds rather irritating for the cocky ease with which they flit through the air as if it was nothing.”) After all, nobody’s perfect. And while I have a deep and abiding love for all his work, it’s to this book that I find myself turning if I want a hit of DNA.

PS The kākāpō is doing better now. There were 40 when Adams wrote Last Chance To See; today there are 252. It’s taken an awful lot of sustained work, of course, and 252 is still distressingly few.

From Last Chance to See, William Heinemann 1990

‘The Great Circling Poets of Arium’ by Douglas Adams

There is an obvious correspondence between Monty James spinning a plausible yarn in his rooms at King’s and the anecdotal digressions of ‘the Book’ in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Cambridge graduate Douglas Adams, especially as voiced by Peter Jones in the original radio series.

The tale of the Great Circling Poets of Arium is presented as part of the mysterious history of the planet of Golgafrincham and Adams does various characteristic things with it – it is a parody of medieval bardic song, it has its own internal logic and structure, and as a narrative, it is a Russian doll: the legend is related by Adams in the voice of ‘the Book’ reporting the words of some travellers who are recounting an ancient story sung to them by the Great Circling Poets of Arium.

More to the point, it smuggles a magnificent joke past any reader who is not paying careful attention, a joke which has delighted me for forty years and which I shall now spoil:

The first part of each song would tell how there once went forth from the City of Vassillian a party of five sage princes with four horses. The princes, who are of course brave, noble and wise, travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished.

The second, and much longer, part of each song would then tell of all their bickerings about which one of them is going to have to walk back.

First broadcast in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ‘Fit the Sixth’, BBC Radio 4, April 12th 1978 and published in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Pan Books Ltd, 1980