Category: Mysteries of the Universe

Yesterday, 25th May, was International Towel Day.

I’ve been harping on about this on Facebook for a couple of weeks and I’m quite sure no-one knows what the hell is wrong with me anymore, but that’s because many of them have yet to have their minds and hearts delightfully corrupted by the wondrous “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books, by the late great Douglas Adams.

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For other like-minded ladies and gentlemen, here is a profound explanation of the importance of towels, as found in Chapter 3 of Adams’ work The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“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 vapours; 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 hitchhiker 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.)”

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There are five books in Adam’s original Hitchhiker’s series, and a sixth novel written by Artemis Fowl author Eoin Colfer, which I haven’t read and probably never will.  No disrespect to Colfer, but I have such a close relationship with the original books that any semi-official additions seem distinctly sacriligious.

I’m not the only person who feels this way.  These short, humourous science-fiction novels have brought so much joy to readers that they hold them close to their hearts in the way that only a genuinely funny, insightful author could achieve.  The bittersweet tone of the last two books in particular establishes Adams as a writer with great heart.

So what the hell is this Towel Day all about?

It’s a simple commemoration of the author, who was not only a great writer, but a proponent of environmental protection, technological innovation, as well as a respectful (and erudite) atheist.  Adams died suddenly twelve years ago to widespread grief.   The simple towel, as described above, is as good a mascot as any for his commemoration – not to mention that Adams would no doubt love the silliness of knowing that thousands, maybe millions of people around the world are all walking around with towels…

The dedication is huge.  The official Facebook page has some great stories and photos of people across the globe who are celebrating Adam’s life and work in this uniquely peculiar way:

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Thumbing for spacecraft (


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kurdistan iraq

Wearing your towel for protection against solar radiation, in Kurdistan, Iraq (


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texas 2

Texas – With these towels they do wed! (

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This hoopy frood from Texas already has a ride (

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The answer to Life, the Universe and Everything, from Israel (

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This couple has found the Answer (

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star wars

May 25th is also a Star Wars anniversary, so there are plenty of weird franchise-mixes going on … Stormtroopers celebrate (

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Group celebrations in Argentina (

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A towel as a cape in India (

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Get this – astronauts on the International Space Station know where their towels are! (

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Most of these amazing photos are pilfered from the Facebook page, which I expect will keep running each year.  You can also read about the massive support worldwide at the official site.

There are also numerous shots of pets with their towels, so it’s great to see our quadrupedal planetary co-inhabitants joining in the fun (no dolphins yet though).

I also happened to come across this restaurant whilst taking a walk in Leeds yesterday, so I just had to take a photo:

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The 42 restaurant and bar in Leeds, England

A restaurant and bar, prominent at no.42 on a street in Leeds, England

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Why do I care about all this?

Not because I have an interest in towels, or even for the basic pleasures of supporting a much-admired writer and activist.

It’s partly because Adams suffered from crippling low confidence (not to mention writer’s block), as many of us do, but mainly because his books have always managed to make me laught out loud, even on my darkest days.

No other writer else has been able to do that before or since.




End of the world


It is night.  Roving light in red and green filters through the cracks in my bedroom curtains, making me stir.  The colours play over my eyelids; I turn, semi-conscious, onto my side and feel my sweat-soaked hair cool and wet against my forehead.

I open my eyes.

For a long moment my brain works to interpret the play of prismatic light that pierces the humid darkness.  It can’t work it out: what could be green, shining through my curtains, and what could be red, in the middle of the night…?

First my right leg, then my left swings out from under the duvet.  My hypersensitive feet touch the gnarl of the old carpet; I flex my toes.  Then, walking towards the window with rainbow hues dancing an aurora on my bare chest, I breathe deeply with a twitch of anxiety between my lungs.

I open the curtains.  I feel my eyes strain in their sockets.  On the other side of the grimy glass the back garden is illuminated like a surrealist’s mixing palette: a low forest of herbs, the rough corners of a boundary hedge, and a garden shed with windows reflecting the celestial drama high above:

The sky is full of light and colour.  Where usually I would see only a smattering of pale, twinkling stars, I see now an immense array of pinks and greens, swirling across the heavens in thick gaseous swathes.  A centrepiece is the moon, but it is broken: shattered into a genuine crescent with splinters of pale rock still lingering in the primary orb’s diminished gravity. 

Dominating the sky is a half-risen planet, its diameter spanning the width of the horizon, a purplish-brown bloated monster.  It looms, surrounded by wisps of galactic mist and those meteoroids unfortunate enough to get caught in its massive fields yet lucky enough to survive, locked in endless complicated orbits.  Diaphanous swipes of frozen space-ice form broken rings around this fearsome dome, with stars shining through the thinner ribbons from behind.   This planet seems close enough to reach out and touch.

All around, broken pieces of shattered asteroids and distant moons plummet through the atmosphere.  They burn with low, scraping rumbles, the sound of massive engines.  As the scorched segments break up in the intense crucible of light and heat they flare up suddenly in blinding displays of orange and white.

It is the end of the world.  The universe has slipped into a jumbled chaos, drawn into itself, and the effects of this cataclysm are evident in the unravelling atmosphere of Earth that disappears from the stratosphere into cold space, letting in the biting teeth of frozen vacuum.   

I see all this from my bedroom window, and observe the microscopic fragments of human civilization rushing upward through the sucking tear in the atmosphere. 

The devastation sweeps closer, and the gargantuan planet grows larger as though on a collision course with our barely significant planet, and all is dwarfed by its relentless approach: heat and colour and the bass trembling of objects much larger than I colliding in boundless space.

I am typing this with glitter-coated hands.

This as a result of wrapping birthday presents for a loved one.  It’s messy business.

I look like the catalogue model for Robert Pattinson’s new range of teen fingerwear.

The baffling thing is, the wrapping paper isn’t even glittery.  Nor are the ribbon, the bows, the tags or the gifts.

Why does this always happen when I wrap presents?  Christmas, bithdays, that February holiday – whatever.  Always the same.

Glittery hands.  Glitter in my clothes.  In my eyebrows.  Around my nose and mouth, as though I’ve developed a crystalline crack habit.

Maybe it’s just all the Clintons faff.  I only have to walk into one of those shops and I’m coated head to toe in sparkles.  There are really enthusiastic Elvis impersonators with less glitz than me, and I only went in to see if they sold those gift bags for booze.

It’s as though it hangs in the air, in those places.  It’s just floating there and I walk through it, oblivious that I’m about to emerge looking like a young Elton John.

Enough – I wash my hands of this stuff.


A pigeon hit me in the face today.

I don’t mean with a bit of greenish-white poop from twenty feet.  I don’t mean a pigeon that is anything than the actual feathered avian kind.

I mean an actual pigeon flew directly into my face today as though shot from a cannon.


You think, ‘Fuck, I didn’t think that ever happened.’

You think, ‘Or is that bats?’

You are embarassed at the sheer blinding-white shit-your-pants-sudden pain that this small fluffy thing inflicted upon you.

You can’t quite believe it happened.

That’s what you think when a pigeon just flies up and, apparently not seeing you, apparently not having the good sense to watch where it’s fucking flying, or the decency to throw a polite ‘coooo’ your way before striking you, with all its velocity-amplified weight, on your left temple.

The sagacity of the thing.  Dirty little sky-rat.



I was actually dazed.  Have you ever been hit in the face by a football?  You know that all-your-face-at-once sudden crush and WHAP of being hit in the face by a football?

Exactly like that.

I got hit in the face by a cricket ball once.  It wasn’t nice.  It hurt a lot.

I’ve also been swimming with goggles and did that thing where you think the bottom of the tiled pool is a bit further away than it actually is.  That deep impression of hard rubber goggles around your eyes and the bridge of our bloody nose.

One time in the playground were we kicking a can of Coke around.  I think the idea was to distress the fizzy soda so badly that when we finally open the can, it would explode.  We kicked it around idly whilst taking, probably, about the merits of Final Fantasy VIII on the PS1.  Unbeknownst to me, my friend Lloyd, at least I think it was Lloyd, had hurled it up into the air with considerable strength.  My other friend Robert, at least I think it was Robert, stopped talking and look at me with slightly widened eyes.

‘Watch out,’ he said.

I didn’t know what he was on about.  So I didn’t watch anything.

I don’t think I’ve ever had real concussion, but I bloody well know what it feels like to be hit in the head by a pigeon.

It bent my glasses completely out of shape.

That or it bent my face completely out of shape.

Glasses are pretty robust nowadays.


Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family.
Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars,
compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good
health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed
interest mortage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your
friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a
three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics.
Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning.
Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing
game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose
rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable
home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up
brats you spawned to replace yourself. 

Choose your future.

Choose life.

I read an article recently on the BBC News website.  Although all the science articles featured on the BBC are almost always filled with the most embarassing errors, this one stuck to the simple facts and managed to escape scrutiny unscathed.

Apparently, a supermassive black hole may have been observed in the process of being hurled from its parent galaxy at high speed.  May have.  There are a number of different possibilities for this bright streak of luminous energy.  But it’s a possibility.

Tiny red circle = speeding supermassive black hole

The authors of the article believe this could be the result of the merger of two smaller black holes.  Or – the author failed specify – the failed merger of two black holes, resulting in one ‘hole’ being slingshot around and right out of the proverbial park.

One of the things that interested me is the term ‘merger’.  Researching, which is what I do – not perfectly or accurately or thoroughly, mind you – confirmed that this is a term used in the field.  A merger.  A merger of two black holes.

Maybe it’s me.  Maybe it’s because I’ve had low-performance jobs in in high-performing businesses the last few years.  But this sounds like a very formal term for what must be a violent and colossal event.

2012 - Bollocks

2012 - Bollocks

Surely it’s beside the point, though.  Am I the only one shit-my-pants terrified of the idea of black holes flying from one end of the galaxy to the other at high speeds!?

This is an object with gravity so powerful that it sucks in light.

Light, which is the fastest-moving thing in all the known universe, cannot escape a black hole.

One of these things could be hurtling towards us right now. We’d never know it, probably.  We’d just be gone.

Singularities – the spherical core of a black hole – can be as big as a sun or as as small as a pinprick.  Maybe one of these pinprick singularities are zooming through the cosmos towards us right now.  It could bore a hole right through the planet.  What would that do?

Singularities do not dress in suits.  An event horizon is not easily explained on a flipchart.

This is no time for business.  Such an event would be catastrophic – apocalyptic.

A merger.  Inappropriate?  Are we so enterprise-driven?

Not THAT Enterprise.

Are we, culturally, in a mind-set that endorses managerial bollocks-speak when discussing peculiarities of the universe of such magnitude?


I would hate to be witness to, say, a wormhole conference.

I wouldn’t like to sit in on a supernova downsizing brainstorm.

What concerns me is that to describe a cataclysm we are using terms from the most banal aspect of our lives.  We’re stapling the face of something so boring, so stressful, so tiresome, so can’t-be-fucking-arsed right on top of the sort of thing words like ‘god’ were invented for.

I’n’t that weird?

— db