Vogon poetry is of course the third worst in the Universe.
The second worst is that of the Azagoths of Kria. During a recitation by their Poet Master Grunthos the Flatulent of his poem "Ode To A Small Lump of Green Putty I Found In My Armpit One Midsummer Morning" four of his audience died of internal haemorrhaging, and the President of the Mid-Galactic Arts Nobbling Council survived by gnawing one of his own legs off. Grunthos is reported to have been "disappointed" by the poem's reception, and was about to embark on a reading of his twelve- book epic entitled My Favourite Bathtime Gurgles when his own major intestine, in a desperate attempt to save life and civilization, leapt straight up through his neck and throttled his brain.
The very worst poetry of all perished along with its creator Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings of Greenbridge, Essex, England in the destruction of the planet Earth.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz smiled very slowly. This was done not so much for effect as because he was trying to remember the sequence of muscle movements. He had had a terribly therapeutic yell at his prisoners and was now feeling quite relaxed and ready for a little callousness.
The prisoners sat in Poetry Appreciation Chairs --strapped in. Vogons suffered no illusions as to the regard their works were generally held in. Their early attempts at composition had been part of bludgeoning insistence that they be accepted as a properly evolved and cultured race, but now the only thing that kept them going was sheer bloodymindedness.
The sweat stood out cold on Ford Prefect's brow, and slid round the electrodes strapped to his temples. These were attached to a battery of electronic equipment - imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers - all designed to heighten the experience of the poem and make sure that not a single nuance of the poet's thought was lost.
Arthur Dent sat and quivered. He had no idea what he was in for, but he knew that he hadn't liked anything that had happened so far and didn't think things were likely to change.
The Vogon began to read - a fetid little passage of his own devising.
"Oh frettled gruntbuggly ..." he began. Spasms wracked Ford's body - this was worse than ever he'd been prepared for.
"... thy micturations are to me | As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee."
"Aaaaaaarggggghhhhhh!" went Ford Prefect, wrenching his head back as lumps of pain thumped through it. He could dimly see beside him Arthur lolling and rolling in his seat. He clenched his teeth.
"Groop I implore thee," continued the merciless Vogon, "my foonting turlingdromes."
His voice was rising to a horrible pitch of impassioned stridency. "And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,| Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon, see if I don't!"
"Nnnnnnnnnnyyyyyyyuuuuuuurrrrrrrggggggghhhhh!" cried Ford Prefect and threw one final spasm as the electronic enhancement of the last line caught him full blast across the temples. He went limp.
"Now Earthlings ..." whirred the Vogon (he didn't know that Ford Prefect was in fact from a small planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse, and wouldn't have cared if he had) "I present you with a simple choice! Either die in the vacuum of space, or ..." he paused for melodramatic effect, "tell me how good you thought my poem was!"
He threw himself backwards into a huge leathery bat-shaped seat and watched them. He did the smile again.
Ford was rasping for breath. He rolled his dusty tongue round his parched mouth and moaned.
Arthur said brightly: "Actually I quite liked it."
Ford turned and gaped. Here was an approach that had quite simply not occurred to him.
The Vogon raised a surprised eyebrow that effectively obscured his nose and was therefore no bad thing.
"Oh good ..." he whirred, in considerable astonishment.
"Oh yes," said Arthur, "I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective."
Ford continued to stare at him, slowly organizing his thoughts around this totally new concept. Were they really going to be able to bareface their way out of this?
"Yes, do continue ..." invited the Vogon.
"Oh ... and er ... interesting rhythmic devices too," continued Arthur, "which seemed to counterpoint the ... er ... er ..." He floundered.
Ford leaped to his rescue, hazarding "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the ... er ..." He floundered too, but Arthur was ready again.
"... humanity of the ..."
"Vogonity," Ford hissed at him.
"Ah yes, Vogonity (sorry) of the poet's compassionate soul," Arthur felt he was on a home stretch now, "which contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other," (he was reaching a triumphant crescendo ...) "and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into ... into ... er ..." (... which suddenly gave out on him.) Ford leaped in with the coup de gr@ce:
"Into whatever it was the poem was about!" he yelled. Out of the corner of his mouth: "Well done, Arthur, that was very good."
The Vogon perused them. For a moment his embittered racial soul had been touched, but he thought no - too little too late. His voice took on the quality of a cat snagging brushed nylon.
"So what you're saying is that I write poetry because underneath my mean callous heartless exterior I really just want to be loved," he said. He paused. "Is that right?"
Ford laughed a nervous laugh. "Well I mean yes," he said, "don't we all, deep down, you know ... er ..."
The Vogon stood up.
"No, well you're completely wrong," he said, "I just write poetry to throw my mean callous heartless exterior into sharp relief. I'm going to throw you off the ship anyway. Guard! Take the prisoners to number three airlock and throw them out!"
"What?" shouted Ford.
A huge young Vogon guard stepped forward and yanked them out of their straps with his huge blubbery arms.
"You can't throw us into space," yelled Ford, "we're trying to write a book."
"Resistance is useless!" shouted the Vogon guard back at him. It was the first phrase he'd learnt when he joined the Vogon Guard Corps.
The captain watched with detached amusement and then turned away.
Arthur stared round him wildly.
"I don't want to die now!" he yelled. "I've still got a headache! I don't want to go to heaven with a headache, I'd be all cross and wouldn't enjoy it!"
The guard grasped them both firmly round the neck, and bowing deferentially towards his captain's back, hoiked them both protesting out of the bridge. A steel door closed and the captain was on his own again. He hummed quietly and mused to himself, lightly fingering his notebook of verses.
"Hmmmm," he said, "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor ..." He considered this for a moment, and then closed the book with a grim smile.
"Death's too good for them," he said.
The long steel-lined corridor echoed to the feeble struggles of the two humanoids clamped firmly under rubbery Vogon armpits.
"This is great," spluttered Arthur, "this is really terrific. Let go of me you brute!"
The Vogon guard dragged them on.
"Don't you worry," said Ford, "I'll think of something." He didn't sound hopeful.
"Resistance is useless!" bellowed the guard.
"Just don't say things like that," stammered Ford. "How can anyone maintain a positive mental attitude if you're saying things like that?"
"My God," complained Arthur, "you're talking about a positive mental attitude and you haven't even had your planet demolished today. I woke up this morning and thought I'd have a nice relaxed day, do a bit of reading, brush the dog ... It's now just after four in the afternoon and I'm already thrown out of an alien spaceship six light years from the smoking remains of the Earth!" He spluttered and gurgled as the Vogon tightened his grip.
"Alright," said Ford, "just stop panicking."
"Who said anything about panicking?" snapped Arthur. "This is still just the culture shock. You wait till I've settled down into the situation and found my bearings. Then I'll start panicking."
"Arthur you're getting hysterical. Shut up!" Ford tried desperately to think, but was interrupted by the guard shouting again.
"Resistance is useless!"
"And you can shut up as well!" snapped Ford.
"Resistance is useless!"
"Oh give it a rest," said Ford. He twisted his head till he was looking straight up into his captor's face. A thought struck him.
"Do you really enjoy this sort of thing?" he asked suddenly.
The Vogon stopped dead and a look of immense stupidity seeped slowly over his face.
"Enjoy?" he boomed. "What do you mean?"
"What I mean," said Ford, "is does it give you a full satisfying life? Stomping around, shouting, pushing people out of spaceships ..."
The Vogon stared up at the low steel ceiling and his eyebrows almost rolled over each other. His mouth slacked. Finally he said, "Well the hours are good ..."
"They'd have to be," agreed Ford.
Arthur twisted his head to look at Ford.
"Ford, what are you doing?" he asked in an amazed whisper.
"Oh, just trying to take an interest in the world around me, OK?" he said. "So the hours are pretty good then?" he resumed.
The Vogon stared down at him as sluggish thoughts moiled around in the murky depths.
"Yeah," he said, "but now you come to mention it, most of the actual minutes are pretty lousy. Except ..." he thought again, which required looking at the ceiling - "except some of the shouting I quite like." He filled his lungs and bellowed, "Resistance is ..."
"Sure, yes," interrupted Ford hurriedly, "you're good at that, I can tell. But if it's mostly lousy," he said, slowly giving the words time to reach their mark, "then why do you do it? What is it? The girls? The leather? The machismo? Or do you just find that coming to terms with the mindless tedium of it all presents an interesting challenge?"
"Er ..." said the guard, "er ... er ... I dunno. I think I just sort of ... do it really. My aunt said that spaceship guard was a good career for a young Vogon - you know, the uniform, the low- slung stun ray holster, the mindless tedium ..."
"There you are Arthur," said Ford with the air of someone reaching the conclusion of his argument, "you think you've got problems."
Arthur rather thought he had. Apart from the unpleasant business with his home planet the Vogon guard had half-throttled him already and he didn't like the sound of being thrown into space very much.
"Try and understand his problem," insisted Ford. "Here he is poor lad, his entire life's work is stamping around, throwing people off spaceships ..."
"And shouting," added the guard.
"And shouting, sure," said Ford patting the blubbery arm clamped round his neck in friendly condescension, "... and he doesn't even know why he's doing it!"
Arthur agreed this was very sad. He did this with a small feeble gesture, because he was too asphyxicated to speak.
Deep rumblings of bemusement came from the guard.
"Well. Now you put it like that I suppose ..."
"Good lad!" encouraged Ford.
"But alright," went on the rumblings, "so what's the alternative?"
"Well," said Ford, brightly but slowly, "stop doing it of course! Tell them," he went on, "you're not going to do it anymore." He felt he had to add something to that, but for the moment the guard seemed to have his mind occupied pondering that much.
"Eerrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm ..." said the guard, "erm, well that doesn't sound that great to me."
Ford suddenly felt the moment slipping away.
"Now wait a minute," he said, "that's just the start you see, there's more to it than that you see ..."
But at that moment the guard renewed his grip and continued his original purpose of lugging his prisoners to the airlock. He was obviously quite touched.
"No, I think if it's all the same to you," he said, "I'd better get you both shoved into this airlock and then go and get on with some other bits of shouting I've got to do."
It wasn't all the same to Ford Prefect after all.
"Come on now ... but look!" he said, less slowly, less brightly.
"Huhhhhgggggggnnnnnnn ..." said Arthur without any clear inflection.
"But hang on," pursued Ford, "there's music and art and things to tell you about yet! Arrrggghhh!"
"Resistance is useless," bellowed the guard, and then added, "You see if I keep it up I can eventually get promoted to Senior Shouting Officer, and there aren't usually many vacancies for non-shouting and non-pushing-people-about officers, so I think I'd better stick to what I know."
They had now reached the airlock - a large circular steel hatchway of massive strength and weight let into the inner skin of the craft. The guard operated a control and the hatchway swung smoothly open.
"But thanks for taking an interest," said the Vogon guard. "Bye now." He flung Ford and Arthur through the hatchway into the small chamber within. Arthur lay panting for breath. Ford scrambled round and flung his shoulder uselessly against the reclosing hatchway.
"But listen," he shouted to the guard, "there's a whole world you don't know anything about ... here how about this?" Desperately he grabbed for the only bit of culture he knew offhand - he hummed the first bar of Beethoven's Fifth.
"Da da da dum! Doesn't that stir anything in you?"
"No," said the guard, "not really. But I'll mention it to my aunt."
If he said anything further after that it was lost. The hatchway sealed itself tight, and all sound was lost but the faint distant hum of the ship's engines.
They were in a brightly polished cylindrical chamber about six feet in diameter and ten feet long.
"Potentially bright lad I thought," he said and slumped against the curved wall.
Arthur was still lying in the curve of the floor where he had fallen. He didn't look up. He just lay panting.
"We're trapped now aren't we?"
"Yes," said Ford, "we're trapped."
"Well didn't you think of anything? I thought you said you were going to think of something. Perhaps you thought of something and didn't notice."
"Oh yes, I thought of something," panted Ford. Arthur looked up expectantly.
"But unfortunately," continued Ford, "it rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway." He kicked the hatch they'd just been through.
"But it was a good idea was it?"
"Oh yes, very neat."
"What was it?"
"Well I hadn't worked out the details yet. Not much point now is there?"
"So ... er, what happens next?"
"Oh, er, well the hatchway in front of us will open automatically in a few moments and we will shoot out into deep space I expect and asphyxicate. If you take a lungful of air with you you can last for up to thirty seconds of course ..." said Ford. He stuck his hands behind his back, raised his eyebrows and started to hum an old Betelgeusian battle hymn. To Arthur's eyes he suddenly looked very alien.
"So this is it," said Arthur, "we're going to die."
"Yes," said Ford, "except ... no! Wait a minute!" he suddenly lunged across the chamber at something behind Arthur's line of vision. "What's this switch?" he cried.
"What? Where?" cried Arthur twisting round.
"No, I was only fooling," said Ford, "we are going to die after all."
He slumped against the wall again and carried on the tune from where he left off.
"You know," said Arthur, "it's at times like this, when I'm trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxication in deep space that I really wish I'd listened to what my mother told me when I was young."
"Why, what did she tell you?"
"I don't know, I didn't listen."
"Oh." Ford carried on humming.
"This is terrific," Arthur thought to himself, "Nelson's Column has gone, McDonald's have gone, all that's left is me and the words Mostly Harmless. Any second now all that will be left is Mostly Harmless. And yesterday the planet seemed to be going so well."
A motor whirred.
A slight hiss built into a deafening roar of rushing air as the outer hatchway opened on to an empty blackness studded with tiny impossibly bright points of light. Ford and Arthur popped into outer space like corks from a toy gun.