John Brosnan & the Abomnibus

Travel is good for the soul, not the feet.

I’ve always considered science fiction authors to be sedentary creatures rather than frontier adventurers. Well yes, I did recently write about E. Hoffman Price nearly being gunned down but that was in the 30s. Any sort of long distance travel was unavoidably a death defying adventure back before WWII. As far as I can tell since then science fiction authors haven’t been widely known for enthusiastically scaling jagged mountains or trekking the remote wastes of exotic countries. In fact that the only science fiction author I can recall reading about having travels well outside his comfort zone was fellow Australian John Brosnan.

If John’s name is unfamiliar to you that’s hardly surprising because he is better remembered for his books on film such as; James Bond in the Cinema, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction, The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film, and Lights, Camera, Magic! and for the TV and film reviews that appeared in British magazines such as Science Fiction Monthly and Starburst. His novels also more frequently appeared using the Harry Adam Knight pseudonym, sometimes alone and in sometimes in collaboration with Leroy Kettle. Harry Adam Knight was the infamous author of horror novels such as Carnosaur, Slimer, and The Fungus. Novels which did, and which probably still do, rejoice in a small but dedicated following. He also wrote as James Blackstone in collaboration John Baxter and and as Simon Ian Childer, both alone and with Leroy Kettle. According to Leroy the different pseudonyms were for different publishers, Harry Adam Knight for Star and Gollancz, Simon Ian Childer for Grafton, a practise mentioned by Anthony Boucher in an earlier post.

I mostly knew John through his writings, though we had some contact via old-fashioned letter-writing (I don’t think John was what you could call Internet savvy). However when John passed away in 2005 I realised that given I had access to to both his early and later writings I was better placed than any of John’s close friends to celebrate John’s life with a collection of his best non-book material. This I did, the PDF version of which can still be downloaded for free from eFanzines. More recently Dave Langford asked whether I’d be interested in putting together a new, even larger version. I was and the end result can be downloaded for free from here.

Something that John wrote extensively about in the early days was his attempt to travel by bus from Australia to England. Up until the eighties there was something of a tradition among young Australians to visit ‘Mother England’ before settling down to lives of quiet desperation in the sun-baked suburbs of Australia. Most such adventurers travelled to the mother country via cruise liner, a few lucky ones flew there, but John, being inexplicably drawn to doing everything the hard way, decided that he would spend several months of 1969 travelling to ‘Ye Merry England’ with a group of other young Australians in a double-decker bus. My impression from what he wrote is that he enjoyed it more in retrospect than he did at the time:

It was not what you could call a successful venture, for a number of reasons. For one thing we didn’t get to where we were going… we aimed to get to England but only got as far as Italy (some of us only got as far as Greece) before having to abandon the bus. It was a failure due to mainly bad organisation and the type of people who made up the crew of fourteen. Everyone hated everyone, you see. Not that this state of affairs grew slowly as the trip progressed, we were quarrelling before we even left Bombay. You’ve heard of love at first sight? Well, with some of the people involved it was hate at first sight.

Travelling John

                         John Brosnan’s self-portrait of potential disaster!

None-the-less John had his share of unforgettable experiences, some of which he later wrote about. According to John he did put together a book-length manuscript chronicling the trip but then decided it was unpublishable and stuffed it into a bottom drawer somewhere. I expect it’s lost forever which is a pity because if the overall manuscript is as interesting as the following story then I think John was being too harsh on his writing:

Just before we were due to leave New Delhi, I managed to acquire a toothache. So I went along to a dentist who turned out to be a pleasant Sikh, turban and all. On learning that I would be leaving the next day he told me, after taking an x-ray of the offending tooth, that there would not be sufficient time to do the necessary work on it. Instead he gave me a letter to take to a friend of his in Lahore (obviously a friendship that formed in the days before partition) who was a dental mechanic. This friend, he assured me, would direct me to a reliable dentist in Lahore.

We arrived in Lahore about a week later, on April 20. The first night we spent a few miles out of town, parked in front of a Police station. It was at this time that we were having our first taste of mechanical trouble with the bus (not counting the boiling over it did at the slightest hint of an incline in the road). The clutch was acting up and we were going to have to find somewhere to have it repaired the next morning. So, come the next morning, we drive the bus, on the directions of one of the policemen, down the road to a nearby village. It was thought that there was a mechanic there who would be able to help us, but it turned out he could only fix things like electric fans. Faced with a double-decker bus he sort of paled and shook his head…

Chris had promised to take me into Lahore to look for a dentist, so we removed the motorbike from its usual resting-place. . .the back stairs, and prepared to move off. Suddenly my toothache vanished, not from fear of the dentist but from fear of riding on the back of the bike with Chris. That bike was bad news, if it wasn’t crashing it was breaking down. But I gave in, put on a crash helmet, and climbed on. While we were in town the others were going to take the bus back to the police station. After Chris had dropped me he was to rejoin the others and they would search for somewhere else where repairs could be made.

There are no such things as atheists in foxholes, they say. Nor are there atheists on the back of motorbikes being driven by Chris Guy in Pakistani traffic. But we reached the address of the dental mechanic in one piece, physically anyway, and as the New Delhi dentist had promised, I was able to obtain the name of a good Lahore dentist from him. (He had, by the way, relatives in Randwick and was disappointed when I had to admit that I hadn’t met them.) Chris then dropped me at the dentist and arranged to return in two hours time (at 12 o’clock).

I wasn’t very long in the dentist, he wasn’t able to do anything with my tooth as he said extensive work was needed. He gave me a prescription for some pain-killers but didn’t charge a thing. So I went and had the prescription filled, spent some time wandering around Lahore, then went to the YMCA for breakfast. In there I met a Pakistani youth who turned out to be a science fiction fan! He was a university student, obviously came from a family of some means and had hopes of travelling to Europe in the near future, as soon as his father could bribe the necessary people into giving him a passport. We talked of Asimov, Bradbury, Ballard and other comic strip artists. He was shocked when I told him I was looking forward to visiting Greece. He said all Liberal minded people should boycott the place in protest of the military take-over. We also talked of India’s relationship to Pakistan (a touchy subject in those parts) and he told me many things that were new to me. Our conversation ended with him offering to pay for my meal, a gesture I immediately agreed to, being as broke as ever. But I told him I had accepted only because I didn’t want to offend him by refusing. And he answered that he wasn’t fanatical about such things, unlike the more traditional Pakistanis, and if I had refused his offer he wouldn’t have pressed me any further. We said goodbye and I went back to the place where I had arranged to meet Chris.

Twelve o’clock came and went. I became anxious. An hour went by and I was beginning to become annoyed. Then, just after one o’clock I spotted him approaching. He pulled up on the opposite corner and I made a hazardous crossing of the road to reach him. The first thing he said as I got there was… “I’VE LOST THE BUS!” I started laughing. I though it hilarious. How had he managed that, I asked him.

Well it turned out that he had made it back to the bus okay, but then later, as they were driving it to a garage, the disaster occurred. Chris didn’t know where this garage was and was following the bus on the bike. As they were approaching the city the bike stalled and came to a stop. Chris yelled but the bus kept going and disappeared into the distance. So there he was, stuck in Lahore with a dud bike and no money. He pushed the bike along the road until he came to a garage. The owner had a look at the bike fiddled with the ignition wiring and-eureka-the-thing started again. Chris tried to explain to the owner, who couldn’t speak English, that he had no money, then hopped on the bike and drove off. He had then managed to find me, just barely in time because the bike was almost out of petrol. By this time, he was very thirsty, hungry and tired. Luckily I had some money on me and the first thing we did was to go and have a cold drink and a hamburger, then we had the bike filled. Next problem was to find the bus.

We had a map of Lahore so we were able to find the tourist office. It was only a small place. There was a man and a woman behind the counter and they were talking to a middle-aged American woman, obviously a tourist. We sat down and waited until the girl asked if she could help us.

“Err,” said Chris, “We’re looking for a bus.”

“A double-decker bus,” I added.

The girl looked puzzled but managed to smile. “A double-decker bus? But we have many of them in Lahore.” Which was true, Lahore did have a double-decker bus service. As far as I know the only city, apart from Bombay, in Asia to have one.

“Ah yes, but this one is ours,” said Chris.

“And you’ve lost it?”

We nodded shamefully. The American woman had stopped talking and was listening intently.

“How?” asked the girl. Chris told her the story and the girl started to make phone calls in an attempt to trace it. The American woman was laughing now.

Despite the fact that our bus was far from being inconspicuous no one she rang had seen it. She was unable to get through to the bus depot itself but suggested we drive out and have a look around ourselves. We decided to do this, and after thanking her, prepared to leave.

“My God!” laughed the American woman, “this is like something out of the movies!”

We made our way slowly through the streets of Lahore. Slowly is the only way possible as the Lahore traffic consists of a tangle of bicycles, trucks, carts pulled by bullocks, motorbikes and reckless pedestrians.

Main hazard is the cattle dung all over the road. On a bike one tends to get covered with it as it is scattered by the vehicle in front. So it was in a dirty and rather smelly condition that we reached the bus depot. It was a huge place and full of double-decker buses. Again we had the embarrassing task of explaining our mission.

“We’re looking for a double-decker bus,” we told the gatekeeper. He gestured silently at the rows upon rows of double-decker buses. “But this one is blue not red, and has a white top. Have you seen it?”

He said no and suggested we go and see the depot manager. We did but he was unable to help us either. His suggestion was that me try their other depot, a small one in the heart of the city, which was used for single decker buses. He gave us directions, we thanked him and off we went again.

Then we got lost.

We spent about an hour going round in circles, stopping and asking for directions that were no help at all, and getting covered with more cattle dung. I couldn’t stop laughing, though my laughter was beginning to have a hysterical tinge to it.

Then, as we were going up a grimy backstreet, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Annoyed (who did these locals think they were?!) I looked round and was surprised to see Elaine, Chris’ fiancée, loping along beside the bike in a very agitated condition.

“Chris,” I yelled, “Elaine is running along behind us.” He immediately stopped the bike and the poor girl collapsed into his arms. She was very upset and had apparently given up hope of seeing him again (a fear not shared by other members of the crew). While they had their touching reunion I snarled at the crowd that had quickly grown around us. But to no effect.

The bus depot was only a hundred yards behind us up the road. We had gone right past it without noticing. Elaine had been keeping a lonely vigil by the gate and had spotted us as we had chugged by. If it hadn’t been for her I imagine we would still be haunting the streets of Lahore, two smelly apparitions constantly asking the one strange question: “Have you seen a double-decker bus… ?”

We spent two days in the bus depot at Lahore while they fixed our clutch plate. For free too. The evening we left we hadn’t got very far down the road when the bus broke down again.

If you enjoyed this then be aware that John’s collection contains more stories about his epic bus trip, plus some thousands of words covering lot of other interesting topics. Download the collection from here and be amazed!

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