The Meaning of Life, Larf AND Liff

Less known about Douglas Adams, the creator of the seminal Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, is that Richard Dawkins dedicated his treatise The God Delusion to him and that Adams made two brief appearances in the fourth series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Adams does Python

Adams does Python

Also hiding in the gargantuan literary shadow of Hitchhiker’s is a little handbook and dictionary of sorts called The Meaning of Liff, which Adams co-authored with John Lloyd in 1983.

Meaning of Liff book

The book which, incidentally, was in large part the inspiration for my blog’s name, also has a connection with the film,The Meaning of Life.  Hardcore Python fans will recall that the opening sequence of the gravestone reads Liff before the lightning bolt strikes the final F and converts it to an E.

Lloyd himself is an intriguing character who, oddly enough, I inadvertently struck up an email exchange with last year on a business-related matter.  At the time I had no idea that he was also the creator of QI and wrote for Not the Nine O’Clock News, Black Adder and was part of the winning Trinity College team in 2011’s University Challenge.  Never mind that he collaborated with Adams on Hitchhiker’s and The Meaning of Liff.

John Lloyd

John Lloyd

How I came to be in contact with Lloyd is another story for another time, but suffice to say I was over the moon when I realised that I was corresponding with the man whose name lay alongside Adams’ on the cover of one of my favourite books.

I love The Meaning Of Liff for its fine balance of practical intent coupled with absurd realisation.

Simply put it is a dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet. Rather than inventing new words though, Adams and Lloyd thought they’d make existing place names work harder for their keep by assigning them new definitions because the words were already recognisable entities without as such having any sense or meaning attached to them.

The book’s forward says it best:

In Life* there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no words exist.

On the other hand, the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing about on signposts pointing at places.

Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep in everyday conversation and make a more positive contribution to society.

Douglas Adams & John Lloyd

*and indeed Liff

Liff itself is a small village near Dundee in Scotland and is repurposed to mean: A book, the contents of which are totally belied by its cover. For instance, any book the dust jacket of which bears the words ‘This book will change your life’. Nice.

Some of my other favourites?

Beccles The small bone buttons placed in bacon sandwiches by unemployed guerrilla dentists.

Barstibley A humorous device such as a china horse or small naked porcelain infant which jocular hosts use to piss water into your Scotch with.

Gastard Useful specially new-coined word for an illegitimate child (in order to distinguish it from someone who merely carves you up on the motorway, etc).

Malibu The height by which the top of a wave exceeds the height to which you have rolled up your trousers.

Nazeing The rather unconvincing noises of pretended interest an adult has to make when brought a small dull object for admiration by a child.

Neen Sollars Any ensemble of especially unflattering and peculiar garments worn by a woman which tell you that she is right at the forefront of fashion.

Skibbern Noise made by a sunburned thigh leaving a plastic chair.

Spofforth To tidy up a room before the cleaning lady arrives.

Vobster A strain of perfectly healthy rodent which develops cancer the moment it enters a laboratory.

Whaplode Drove A homicidal golf stroke.

Whasset A business card in your wallet belonging to someone you have no recollection of meeting.

Happily Australia makes the briefest of appearances thanks to the entry for Yeppoon:  One of the hat-hanging corks which Australians wear for making Qantas commercials.

My mother has always said that if you’re struggling to find a present for the person who had everything, a back scratcher is the solution.  Wise words though they may be, I’d prefer to tickle my friends’ funny bones with a copy of The Meaning of Liff any old day.

Sydney’s Grotta Capri – the Restaurant at the End of the Universe

In the suburban wasteland of my youth, the scorching sun bleached dog poo to a whiter shade of pale on bitumen of black lava and mournful sounds of punters losing their crumpled notes at the nearby racecourse wafted pointlessly across west-facing shopfronts with half closed blinds, as if the windows’ eyes were cast downward in shame.

Amidst this soulless, stultifying stillness stood the preposterous oasis that was the Grotta Capri restaurant.

Grotta Capri interior 2grotta 1

I hated growing up in Kensington as passionately as I loved the Grotta Capri, often wondering how a suburb as unprepossessing as mine could be worthy of such grandeur.  It was as if a meteorite with a Rococo pop sensibility had crash landed on Planet Banality; a folly of shell-studded stalactites, fish tanks, Tyrrhenian trompe l’oeil awash with blue light and, in its early days at least, waterways complete with sound effects running beneath illuminated Perspex underfoot.

grotta bar

Grotta exterior good

That it was a restaurant was largely peripheral to proceedings.  The plastic sleeve was the tastiest thing on the menu and most of what got served up looked like crumbed cocker spaniel anyway.  

Of far greater note were the cocktails.  For reasons which remained unclear, there was an over-reliance on Advocaat in most of the recipes, making for a frothy tipple that just about scrambled itself on the way down.  Quite handy then that the accompanying mermaid and dolphin-themed plastic swizzle sticks, glowing like uranium under the black light, could be used to fish out the coagulated egg swinging from your epiglottis like Miley Cyrus.

If that didn’t make for enough high weirdness, the tables were occupied by SP bookies with bad rugs and polyester slacks that crackled with static, accompanied by their dubious, er, business associates from the neighbouring racetrack – the sort of people who put the ‘colourful’ into ‘racing identity’.

Grotta Capri filming Underbelly in 2011

The Grotta Capri played host to both the famous and infamous, featured in the Australian film favourite Muriel’s Wedding and television series Underbelly, and it was with utter delight that as an adult I also got to accompany Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for dinner when they were on tour, not so much for the name-dropportunity but to witness how comprehensively perplexed and uncomfortable they appeared to be amongst all that hideous fabulousness.

I shed a salty tear or two in 2010 when the Grotta Capri closed after 60 years. While Giovanni Battista’s ode to the life aquatic might have been made out of chicken wire and cement, it played a distinguished role for me in nourishing the vivid imagination of a small child in what was otherwise a vapid suburban commuter belt of antimatter.

grotta exterior night

I’m just sorry Douglas Adams never made it to the Grotta Capri because if nothing else, its Advocaat-crash cocktails would have given the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster a run for its money any old day.

(Ps. So long and thanks for all the Fishermen’s Baskets)

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