One of the Geekiest Things I’ve Done

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of my favorite series of books as a teenager. It has been republished many times with many different covers. But the one I remembered best is from around 1984 and was designed by Gary Day-Ellison while he was Design & Art Director at Pan Books. Each book had one quarter of a picture; once you had all four books you could arrange them to see all four complete images; the Heart of Gold, a Babel Fish, a portrait of Douglas Adams and a stripped red & white towel bearing the words “Don’t Panic”. Interestingly, this seems to be the cover art that Pan forgot. In an article on the Pan Macmillan website entitled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a visual history they completely omit the Day-Ellison covers.

In 1995 Pan had the towel manufactured by Hap’Lo perhaps as a promotional item and it became know as “The Pan Towel”. Alas, as of 2022 no photographic record of this towel remains within the reach of Google on the Internet, but my recollection of seeing a picture online around 2008 is that it was more pink than red. Be that as it may I always coveted such a towel and in 2008 embarked upon a quest to acquire one.

Why a towel? Well as any fan of HHGTTG knows a towel is a rather important piece of kit.

“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 vapors; 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-boggingly 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 hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker 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.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

But beyond even the strikingly useful nature of a towel there is another pressing reason to have such an item close to hand. That reason is Towel Day which since the untimely death of Douglas Adams in 2001 has fallen every May 25th and celebrates his life and works. It’s really rather simple, just carry a towel around, everywhere you go, for the whole day. And what better towel to carry than the Pan Towel?

It turns out that the only way to get such a towel is to have it made yourself. However, there is a thriving market of custom towel manufacturing for high-school swim teams in the USA so getting it manufactured was the easy part. The real issue was tracking down who might hold the copyright on the towel design itself. The book covers credit Peter Williams (obituary) as the photographer for the towel picture. However, in an email exchange in 2008 he was pretty sure the image was not his and gave me Gary Day-Ellison’s name and contact as the cover designer. Mr. Day-Ellison told me that the cover was a collaboration between himself and Douglas Adams, who he says “was always up for witty innovation”. He suggested I contact Pan who obviously own the copyright on the actual cover design for their permission, which they graciously gave me for a limited production of the towel.

A note from Douglas Adams to Gary Day-Ellison regarding the cover design (from the link to GDE above)

In the end I recreated the design manually and had the smallest possible batch of towels made – 25 pieces. I think they had problems, because it took a few months, but once they eventually arrived (just before Towel Day 2008) the result was well worth it. I kept two which I still use to this day, sent one to Mr. Day-Ellison and then sold the rest online to other geeks to cover my costs.

Here is the finished article, (32″x64″) 100% cotton, jacquard woven with velour finish
In thanks for his permission to use the design I sent a towel to Mr. Day-Ellison which I’m delighted to say he posted a picture of on his washing line.
And here I am with my (completely embarrassed by her uncle) niece Lynda at the NASA Ames Research Center on May 25th, 2008 celebrating Towel Day and the Phoenix Lander’s arrival on Mars.