The Meaning of Liff is a small black book with gold lettering published in 1983. Vaguely reminiscent of a religious tract, it is in fact a “dictionary of things that there should be words for, but aren’t”. The definitions describe things familiar to everyone; the words themselves are all place names. For example, an Ely is “the first, tiniest inkling that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong”; Kettering is “the marks left on your bottom and thighs after sitting sunbathing on a wickerwork chair”; and Scrabster (a village in Caithness) is “one of those dogs that has it off on your leg during tea”.
Liff sold 300,000 copies in its first year and had great reviews, three of which adorned later editions: “Brilliant” (The Times); “Brilliant” (The Sunday Times); and “Small” (The Cheshunt and Waltham Telegraph).
Douglas Adams shot to fame with Radio 4’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978. He had struggled (as he would do for the rest of his life) to get the job done on time, and after completing four episodes asked me to help him finish it. It was an obvious solution. He was my best friend and I was his. We’d been at university together (at adjacent Cambridge colleges and members of rival comedy troupes), where Douglas read English and I was a lawyer. Neither of us did any work to speak of.
Afterwards, we rented a flat in West Hampstead and then a strange furnished house in Roehampton where Douglas’s bedroom had seven wardrobes. We lived together, went to the pub together, ate an enormous number of hamburgers together and we talked, endlessly, about every subject under the sun – and quite a few beyond it, because we were both fanatical about science fiction. We wrote our own in the evenings – sketches, a Dutch cartoon series, a TV pilot, a movie treatment. Hitchhiker was a natural step. The first four shows had taken Douglas ten months to write; we polished off the last two in three weeks. It was fun. We laughed a lot. When the series aired, it was clear that it had touched some sort of nerve. There were reviews in the papers (unheard of for radio in those days) and within a month six publishers had called up angling for the rights. We went to several swanky lunches before being signed up by Nick Webb of New English Library.
We booked a villa on a hill overlooking Agios Stephanos on the unfashionable north-west corner of Corfu to write the book, and then Douglas changed his mind and decided he’d rather do it on his own. I was shocked, angry and hurt – a reaction Douglas never did understand – but I went and got an agent who secured me my half of the advance (£1,500) in settlement and, as I had spent the money and had nowhere else to go, I went to Corfu with Douglas anyway.
It turned out to be a remote and not very pretty location: a steep dusty track up to the house and a beach heaped with impenetrable black seaweed. There were no shops and not even a village to speak of, but there was a taverna on the seashore, which was destined to become the birthplace of The Meaning of Liff. It belonged to a wonderful eccentric called Manthos. It’s still there, and so is he. An online review of his establishment describes him as “exuberant”, evidently a Greek euphemism for “stark raving mad”. In the mornings, Douglas sat at the top of the hill in a big hat bashing away at his typewriter and I went down to the bar and helped Manthos work his way through his stock of retsina. He repaid me by teaching me all the juiciest Greek swear words.
After a few hours failing to write very much, Douglas would trudge down the hill and join us. We’d open another bottle of ice-cold wine and start playing games, the best of which was some- thing Douglas’s old English teacher had introduced him to as a way of filling free periods at school. “What do you think a York might be,” he would say, “or an Aberystwyth, or a Polperro?” (As Liff fans will know, the last is now immortalised as “the ball or muff of pubic hair clinging to a bath overflow hole.”) We loved this game and by the end of the month I’d noted down about 60 of the best ones.
They lay forgotten in a drawer for three years until, desperate to fill the last pages of a joke-a-day Not the Nine O’Clock News calendar called Not 1982, I bunged some in, attributed to “The Oxted Eglish Dictionary”. When the book came out, my publisher, Matthew Evans at Faber, said, “There’s one idea in here that’s head and shoulders above the others. What about doing it as a spin-off?”
I never wanted to call it The Meaning of Liff. That was Douglas’s idea. He thought we’d lure people into thinking it had something to do with Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, due out the same year. I begged him to call it The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Dictionary by Douglas Adams, with my credit tucked away inside: I knew my name wasn’t box-office, and I’m sure the editors agreed. But no sane publisher of the mega-selling Douglas Adams ever dreamt of disagreeing with him on anything, so The Meaning of Liff it was.
We earmarked the following summer to write it but, when the time came, Douglas rang to say, “I’m so sorry, Johnny, I’m in California trying to close the deal on the Hitchhiker movie. Could you bear to come out to Malibu and do it here? I’ve taken Donna Summer’s beach house...” I said I thought I could probably cope.
Douglas and his then girlfriend Jane often left the house early to go shopping or be lunched by movie moguls. I sat on the deck looking over the Pacific with a pile of atlases. Douglas always said he would be a millionaire by the time he was 33 and a third and he did actually achieve this with a few weeks to spare. We were then only 30, but the storming success of his books had already brought him wealth. He bought guitars and Apple Macs, an apartment in New York and a Porsche 911 that he crashed driving down Park Lane the week he got it. “I forgot there was a roundabout at the end,” he said.
A great man in so many ways, he was famously inept at handling his own enormous body. Writing The Meaning of Liff in Malibu was briefly delayed by two such incidents, first when he slammed the door of our rental car on his own leg (he’d forgotten to bring it inside first) and later when he was laid prone for days after putting his back out “buttering a slice of bread”. But we got the job done and, right up until Douglas’s tragic death at the age of 49, we both agreed it was the most enjoyable thing we’d ever done. I miss you, dear old friend.
The Meaning of Liff at 30 is on Radio 4 today at 11:30am