Today is International Towel Day, or simply “Towel Day” to its friends (mainly flannels, extraneous lint and lost socks; those little drawstring nets are just hangers-on), the annual tribute to the life and works of Douglas Noel Adams (11 March 1952 – 11 May 2001), and all the other little bits in between.
Every year, two weeks after the never-ending sadness brought by each anniversary of his cruelly premature death (this time a poignant 10 years to us decimal-oriented types, but less so for the 42-fingered pillaging virtuosi of Tweeënveertig VII, known across the galaxy for their remarkable axe-wielding piano playing, but alas not their sentimentality), fans celebrate this seemingly innocuous bathroom-based item that Adams elevated to intergalactic significance and utility from the pages of his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a.k.a., H2G2). That book-within-a-book “has a few things to says on the subject of towels.”
A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. 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, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; 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 (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)
Most of us earthlings will of course know of the towel’s primary terrestrial application, namely hand-to-hand combat. After all, this is why we called them towels in the first place isn’t it (the early 18th Century Old French verb “toaille” meant to “beat” or “thrash”). However, for future reference in the interests of personal hygiene (from Greek “hugieinē”, the “art of health”) and in the disinterest of personal mould (probably from obsolete late Middle English “mould”), it is also worth noting their absorptive potential.
Douglas Adams’ enduring popularity is undeniably perpetuated by the cultism of H2G2, no self-respecting geek will leave home without a couple of handy over-the-pub-table quotes tucked securely into their back pocket. But, although his minimalist tombstone simply says, “Writer”, Adams offered, and continues to offer, so much more, and endearments from his fan base are almost as eclectic as the multifaceted man: Cambridge Footlights, Monty Python, various radio and television comedies, hospital porter, barn builder, chicken shed cleaner, bodyguard to an oil dynasty, Dr Who, Doctor Snuggles, The Meaning of Liff, the 5 books that comprise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, the Dirk Gently series, Save the Rhino, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Starship Titanic, Bureaucracy, Hyperland, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Future, as well as estimable associations with Richard Dawkins, John Lloyd, Graham Chapman, Stephen Fry, Pink Floyd and Procol Harum.
One consolidating quality running throughout Adams’ canon is the forward thinkingness, and how alarmingly fast we are approaching many of his ideas. From the quantum mechanics that underpin “Holistic Detective” Dirk Gently’s “fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, to The Guide in H2G2 which is essentially Wikipedia plus Peter Jones’ voice and a cool graphical interface on an iPad. You can almost sense the likelihood of one of his most famous literary inventions, the Infinite Improbability Drive, growing with every boson lap of the Large Hadron Collider. In modern speak, he was way ahead of the curve.
Similarly, my own fondness and respect for Douglas Adams grew out of his conservational zeal, the elegiac beauty of his Last Chance To See with Mark Carwardine, now a tragic obituary to at least one of the species that they documented, and particularly their inceptive involvement with The Great Ape Project, an argument for extending legal rights to our fellow great apes based on higher animal sentience, (to which they contributed a chapter, Meeting a Gorilla). Again, recent developments have proved Adams right in this, with further evidence of consciousness in all great apes, most having an IQ akin to human infants, and orangutans outperforming 5 year old children in cognitive tasks. Treating such intelligence with due respect should be a no-brainer.
Douglas Adams was so far ahead, he even managed to die before his time. I know why I love him, and you will have your own reasons, but remember, DON’T PANIC, and wear your towel with pride, in celebration of a true prophet of our age.
Writer. Darwin, science & more. 4 books: Piospheres, Darwin in Scotland, Serial Killers. Current project is THE DISSENT OF MAN. Born near London, raised near Primrose Hill and in Lincolnshire, and studied at the Universities of Bangor, York and Edinburgh for degrees in Biochemistry, Bioelectronics and Biological Computation, and a PhD in African Ecology. Mainly working in British and African universities, but also in Spain, Brussels, Mongolia and Australia, to date, publication history is mostly in academic journals, on aspects of computational biology, pastoralism and on Charles Darwin and evolution. However, also written for several national newspapers, various governments, several major record labels and independent book publishers. Fiction has appeared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and poetry is at the Human Genre Project. Lives in Edinburgh, with partner and their two daughters.