Today is Towel Day. I am standing next to a headstone and not really sure how I’m feeling. Maybe I never could get the hang of Thursdays, either.
Today is Towel Day, an annual celebration of the life and writing of Douglas Adams. The author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy died in 2001, and every year since fans have observed the occasion by carrying around with them a towel (that most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have). In London, where Adams lived for a good part of his life, people organize comedy nights and walking tours of Adamsy places of interest. Quotes about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything flood social media.
Today is Towel Day, and I’m thinking about what that’s come to mean.
We had a play scheduled this evening so I wasn’t able to attend any of the official celebrations, which brings me back to the start of this post, hanging out in Highgate Cemetery in the middle of the afternoon. I decided to make this pilgrimage in place of a party. Now that I’m here, though, I realize I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. Adams’ grave is small and spartan; the only marks on his headstone are his name, the dates of his birth and death, and a one-word biography: Writer. There are no passages to be read, no audio guides to follow, no other visitors to the cemetery today. Just me and a bunch of dead people, the advice on their epitaphs not particularly pertinent to my situation.
On our first Urban Field Studies class with Brian, he posed us a question. What does it mean to walk? I wish I remembered his exact answer (first week feels like a lifetime ago) but the gist of it was this – walking is like reading, except the text is a place. I’m thinking about that now. If places are texts, there’s meaning to be gleaned from them, and that meaning is open to interpretation.
So there isn’t something I’m meant to be doing here in Highgate. No one can tell me how to commemorate the author who inspired me to start writing at thirteen, whose environmental activism, high-tech geekiness, and passing acquaintance with the concept of deadlines all left their mark as I was growing up. No one can, because that’s not true in the same way for anyone else. It’s nice to see the tokens other visitors left behind at some point – coins, pens, a tiny dolphin, a vintage photo of a Ford Prefect – residue of personal connections made across miles and years. I recognize the relevance of these things, all of them winked references to the Hitchhiker books. But I have no way of knowing what these tributes truly meant to the people who left them there, and why they did it. Each of us inhabits a sector of a fandom that we’ve made our own. Adams was a tea fan so I leave a Chatime loyalty card, and who knows what the next pilgrim will make of that?
There’s another side to this meaning-making business. Even as I bring my own context to a place, backwash is inevitable. Standing next to the ashes of one of my favorite writers is going to change the way I read him from this day on. And, on a more valedictory note I suppose, this is what the last ten weeks of living in London has done to me. London has become a real place, but more than that it’s become one of my places. I’m never going to be able to read a headline about the UK without remembering its people and streets, or see a touristy Big Ben postcard without retracing our weekly route past it to the National Theatre, or eat a digestive cookie and not be transported back to the aisles of the Sainsbury’s Local opposite Holborn station where two packs sold for £1. If I read Great Expectations now, and pretending for the moment that Great Expectations is a coloring book, it’d be as if I’d colored my experience in the pages and doodled inside jokes in the margins and was admiring the collaboration between Dickens and myself, except the images are in my head and also I’m color blind so realistically this wouldn’t be impressive but it’s still relatable, you know?
Maybe you don’t. Whatever. Meaning is up for grabs; go make your own analogies.
So long and thanks for all the fish,
~ Nathaniel Chew, ’19