Copyright © 2005 Martin Newell
Pepys 0.1 Blogware © Steve Dix
Last month a new book was published. Afterliff is the third in a series of publications begun three decades ago by the Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy author, the late Douglas Adams. A hugely popular writer for the last two decades of his life, Douglas Adams, died aged 49 in 2001. Born in Cambridge in 1952, he lived in Brentwood, Essex from the age of 5, attending Brentwood School. until he went to university in 1970. It was Adams and his friend, the TV comedy producer John Lloyd who came up with the idea of The Meaning of Liff, the first in the series. Briefly, the concept is that there are a number of situations or objects for which there are no names. At the same time there are a number of names which have nothing else to do but hang around on the signposts for villages or towns. Adams and Lloyd decided to combine the two.
Wivenhoe, for instance, is defined by The Meaning of Liff as 'The cry of alacrity with which a sprightly eighty year-old breaks the ice on a lake when going for a swim on Christmas Eve.' Farther down the page you'll find Woking defined as 'Standing in the kitchen, wondering what you came in for.' Jarrow is listed as, 'An agricultural device which, when towed behind a tractor, enables the farmer to spread his dung evenly across the road.'
I first came across The Meaning of Liff only months after its publication, and having worn my first copy out, eventually managed to find another. I still buy copies in second-hand bookshops and send them to friends whom I think will like it. The book has reportedly never been out of print, but there was a time during the late 1980s where it seemed harder to find.
The idea itself, however, that a spurious definition could be conjured from a place name on a signpost, took root, among other places, in the differently wired-minds of travelling musicians and other itinerants whom I knew. 'Liff' as a road game for myself and my friends never went away. Whilst touring in early 1990 in East Suffolk as it happens a music journalist and myself whiled away almost a week playing with village names. Hasketon, near Woodbridge became, 'A nondescript tartan blanket owned by two old ladies living together, who kept it in the back of their Morris Traveller to prevent the Jack Russells making the seat muddy after walks.
Little Glemham, I'd suggested, was a boy soprano once mooted as Scotland's answer to Aled Jones, until his career was cut tragically short by his voice breaking at age 12.
Our journalist, however, suggested that Little Glemham might have been a character so pathetic that Charles Dickens couldn't even bring himself to write him into Bleak House.
A Westleton, we thought, was either an inferior type of service rifle, left behind by the British Army to native defenders during a managed retreat or possibly a coat of indeterminate make, found hanging in the cupboard under the stairs, which your mum always reminded your dad to put on whenever he had a bad cold.
For this past quarter century, thanks to The Meaning of Liff, whenever I've been travelling I have been unable look at place names, without also wrestling with definitions for them. Sometimes I reverse the game by fitting a place name to a situation which seems to need one.
An academic once told me the following story: Apparently, whilst at a party a colleague of his met a professor whom he hadn't seen for a while. Since they'd last met, the professor's wife had died. Having temporarily forgotten this fact after a drink, the chap absent-mindedly asked the professor: By the way, how's your wife? There was an awkward pause before he added: Still dead, I suppose? Such a situation might easily have been a Clacton but more likely, a Great Bromley.
Essex, as well as Suffolk is littered with possibilities: A Kirby Cross for example might be an old rugby manoeuvre outlawed in the 1930s because it caused players fertility problems later in life.
Frating is descriptive of a teenage daughter pining beside the telephone.
A Colchester is an uncomfortable make of chaise longue only found in a divorce lawyers' offices.
In 1992 Douglas Adams and John Lloyd revised and expanded the original Liff book, with The Deeper Meaning of Liff. Here were new definitions along with original gems such as Ambleside A talk given about the facts of life, by a father to his son, while walking in the garden on a Sunday afternoon and, Amersham The sneeze which never comes.
Following Adams' untimely demise after a heart attack, the Liff books might well have died with him. Just over a decade later, however, his former writing partner John Lloyd enlisted the help of another friend, Jon Canter, a a well-known comedy writer, to revive the idea. Canter, had been at Cambridge with the book's two authors also a sharing flat with Douglas Adams for some time. There is something brilliantly eccentric, delightfully time-wasting and very British about the whole notion of the book and as a long-term fan, I can only wish its new incarnation a long and healthy second Liff.