a letter from douglas adams

Douglas AdamsIn 1995 I wrote an e-mail to adamsd@cerf.net. This was the address of Douglas Adams of Islington, London, UK, who later passed away (far too soon) in mid-2001, and who provided more entertainment to his fans than some writers provide in a much longer lifetime. I wrote to Douglas Adams because I was headed to London, but I had never been overseas. Adams was the one person I knew of in England whose address was available to me; I had discovered it in a FAQ page on the Internet.

This was June. I had actually written to him in February to tell him a story about the number 42 that is not worth recounting here, but he failed to respond (except to warn me not to bother sending him anything related to the number 42). So I tried again, and wrote asking for advice on acclimatizing to life in England, cleverly avoiding the use of the number 42. As a random addition I also asked about tea, since tea was the first thing I thought about whenever someone said "England."

Adams replied with a whole essay, as shown below. Some parts of this essay were later republished in the book The Salmon of Doubt, a posthumous collection of works discovered on his Mac's hard disk after he died. It's available wherever fine books are sold, or online from Barnes and Noble here.

While living in London a few years later I wrote to him to ask if he minded my republishing his text, and he said it was fine - in fact he had forgotten ever having written it, and enjoyed seeing it again. With his blessing, then, I provide it for your enjoyment - complete with headers.

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Date: Tue, 6 Jun 1995 00:48:27 +0100
To: Iii Edward Perry Holden <iholden@oswego.Oswego.EDU>
From: Douglas Adams <dna@tdv.com>
Subject: Re: Americans etc.
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>Esteemed Mr. Adams:
>I am a student in New York who will be studying in London for a semester
>next fall.  As I have read most of your books, you are probably the only
>person whom I know of in England.  Tell me: I have heard that the British
>have a negative perception of Americans. If this is so, what is it about
>Americans (or their common stereotypes) that make them somewhat disliked
>among the British?

I think that the phrase "their common stereotypes" says it. There is a
certain type of English person (just as there is a certain type of
Frenchman, Chinaman or indeed American) who thinks that there is something
basically not quite right about all foreigners. It's called 'racism'. I
guess it's probably most prevalent amongst people who don't travel outside
their own milieu very much. This is something that is probably true to a
particular degree about the English and the Americans.

We used to have an Empire, and everywhere you moved within that Empire you
expected English rules to apply. We grew to be very suspicious of places
where those rules didn't apply.

America doesn't have an empire as such (though in a way it does - the
American 'empire' stretches to wherever Coca Cola and Baywatch and Oprah
Winfrey and Michael Jackson and Arnold Schwarzenegger and McDonalds reach)
but it does have a whole continent, outside which many Americans never
travel. (Look up the figues for how many Americans actually have passports
- it's a staggeringly small percentage, something like 12%) This sometimes
leads to a kind of parochialness of vision. I remember as a kid being very
puzzled by the fact that the US had a 'World Series' in baseball, when only
the US took part.

So, from the English point of view, we have emerged, slightly bruised and
chastened, from being the world's dominant power with a view of the world
as being divided up into 'English, and funny foreigners' to find that the
Americans are now the dominant power and regard the world as being divided
into 'Americans, and funny foreigners'. We hate being thought of as 'funny
foreigners'. A couple of weeks ago I watched one of David Letterman's shows
from London. I'm a great admirer of Letterman, and have actually been on
the show a couple of times (an experience, I have to say, that didn't
especially increase my admiration of him, but that's another issue), but I
was a bit bemused by how lame and dated his view of the English was. It was
rather as if an English TV guy had gone to do a show in the US and had done
stuff about cowboys or prohibition gangsters, or fat businessmen with big
cigars. It means you're just thinking in terms of the last stereotype you
came across, and not actually looking around you.

However, for most people, it only takes a couple of encounters with real
people to dispel silly stereotypes, and that is almost certainly what you
will find when you come over here. You'll have a great time, PROVIDED...
that you get the hang of tea.

>And please explain this fixation with tea that exist in
>our own stereotype of Britons.

The problem is this. No American knows how to make tea. This is sad and
mystifying but true. There is a very simple principle to the making of tea
and it's this - to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be
boilING (not boilED) when it hits the tea leaves. If it's merely hot then
the tea will be insipid. That's why we have these odd rituals, such as
warming the teapot first (so as not to cause the boiling water to cool down
too fast as it hits the pot). That's why the American habit of bringing a
teacup, a tea bag and a pot of hot water to the table is merely the perfect
way of making a thin, pale, watery cup of tea that nobody in their right
mind would want to drink. The Americans are all mystified about why the
English make such a big thing out of tea because most Americans HAVE NEVER
HAD A GOOD CUP OF TEA. That's why they don't understand.

In fact the truth of the matter is that most English people don't know how
to make tea any more either, and most people drink cheap instant coffee
instead, which is a pity.

So the best advice I can give to you when you arrive in England is this. Go
to Marks and Spencer and buy a packet of Earl Grey tea. Go back to your
flat and boil a kettle of water. While it is coming to the boil, open the
sealed packet and sniff. Careful - you may feel a bit dizzy, but this is in
fact perfectly legal. When the kettle has boiled, pour a little of it into
a tea pot, swirl it around and tip it out again. Put a couple (or three,
depending on the size of the pot) of tea bags into the pot (If I was really
trying to lead you into the paths of righteousness I would tell you to use
free leaves rather than bags, but let's just take this in easy stages).
Bring the kettle back up to the boil, and then pour the boiling water as
quickly as you can into the pot. Let it stand for two or three minutes, and
then pour it into a cup. Some people will tell you that you shouldn't have
milk with Earl Grey, just a slice of lemon. Screw them. I like it with
milk. If you think you will like it with milk then it's probably best to
put some milk into the bottom of the cup before you pour in the tea. If you
pour milk into a cup of hot tea you will scald the milk. If you think you
will prefer it with a slice of lemon then, well, add a slice of lemon.

Drink it. After a few moments you will begin to think that the place you've
come to isn't maybe quite so strange and crazy after all.

Have a good trip.


Douglas Adams


Douglas Adams                |                <dna@tdv.com>