Episode 87 - Milking the Billy Goat (Cars Week)
Francis Birtles – Cars Week
The topic is cars,
Not Russel Crowe’s bras,
Not zucchinis in space,
Or kids with a weird face,
The topic is cars,
Not Sunderland bars,
Not unusually long ears,
Or mini Richard Geres,
I’ve got myself a sourcey little source this week; Battle Fronts of Outback that I was able to access online for free with the National Library of Australia. It’s a great website by the way with lots of classic culturally important Australian books such as ‘Not Another Bloody Prime Minister’, ‘101 Views of Kylie’s Arse’, ‘Rolf’s Been Texting My Daughter Again’ and ‘Jason Donovan’s Technicoloured Togs’.
It’s from 1935 and was written by Francis Birtles, an Australian nut job. There’s one chapter that I was interested in, in which Birtles describes his journey, by car, from London to Melbourne in 1927/28; a world first. And what a journey! I’ll describe the journey in 25 minutes, focussing specifically on parts that are fascinating, silly and can be warped into innuendos, welcome to That Was Genius.
A little bit about Francis Birtles; born 1881 in Australia, his early career as an odd case revolved around ridiculously long bike rides in Australia. Amongst other things, in 1905 he cycled from Freemantle to Melbourne becoming the first person to cycle across the continent. He received quite a bit of publicity or these feats and so began seeking sponsors and writing books about his journeys. As he got older, he upgraded to cars and, amongst other things again, in 1912 he became the first person to drive across Australia.
His greatest driving achievements up to this date were achieved driving the (Mr Bean voice) Bean 14.
Bean was a British car manufacturer that emerged out of the First World War. During the war, Bean was manufacturing shells for the British government. The first Bean 14 models seem to have been good cars, which, quite frankly is terribly un-British. I couldn’t find many criticisms of it in my research and they served Birtles well on his adventures, albeit with many modifications. Later Bean 14 models actually ruined the Bean car manufacturers by the end of the 1920s when they were released with major flaws.
Birtles himself experienced one of these very unreliable later models. In February 1927 Birtles decided to attempt his greatest feat of endurance; a drive from England to Australia. It’s worth pointing out that he was 46 at the time, so not in his physical peak, but crikey this guy was fit, strong and resilient. A proper ‘wipe-my-bum-with-a-cactus’ Aussie. Unfortunately, despite Birtles being as tough as an old pair of alligator undies, his attempt failed due to problem after problem. The Bean Imperial Six was untested and rubbish and Birtles and his chums had other problems with sickness and bad weather. They eventually abandoned in Delhi with monsoon season arriving, probably a good thing, because the latter part of this adventure was the toughest!
Birtles, being the tough old bastard that he was, returned to London and immediately started planning for a second attempt. He said goodbye to the Imperial Six and rebuilt his Bean 14 Sundowner; old faithfull!
In October 1927 he set off again. In his book, Birtles’s story begins:
I was in London, and was about to undertake a pioneer motor drive to Melbourne. Responsible people along the route bad been writing to equally responsible people in England with a view to deterring me, but I set off, despite their efforts. I had an outback Australian’s belief in my ability to meet whatever contingencies might arise.
(American Accent) Goddam Birtles, you’ll never make it there alive, you’re the strongest and most resilient man I ever did meet but goddamn this is crazy
(Aussie) She’ll be alright mate, I’ve got Cold Chisel Greatest Hits on tape, a pair of unnecessarily tiny NRL shorts and a stubby cooler. What could go wrong?
Not much happens in Europe, Birtles doesn’t spend much time describing this part of the journey, but there is a nice description of France 10 years after the end of the First World War:
The wind howled and as the powerful gleam of my head-lamps swept on, I could glimpse big guns, old barbed-wire entanglements and washed out trenches. As I reverently slowed down a flood of memories came to me. I had reached Hamel. Thousands of white painted crosses were around me, seemingly keeping an everlasting vigil. Over what? I cannot define it—but my best mate lies asleep at Hamel.
Birtles continued through Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia before arriving in Greece. The same journey today would involve many more border crossings. In Greece Birtles has his first hairy-scary moment when, zooming through windy Greek mountain roads in wind and rain, he whizzes onto a stone bridge and fortunately spots that half of it has been wiped out by an avalanche. After slamming on his breaks, he comes to a halt 10 yards from a sheer drop. He has to reverse 5 miles up a narrow road before camping for the night. This is an appetiser for what is to come in South East Asia.
In Athens he cheats slightly and takes a boat to Alexandria in Egypt. I’m guessing that he chose this route to keep to British territories. Remember, after the Second World War the British Empire reached its peak size, 50% larger that the Mongol Empire which is the second largest empire ever. The Ottoman Empire had dominated the Middle East but this had been broken up after the war. This meant that if Birtles went to Egypt, he was in British territory, he could then drive through Palestine and Mesopotamia (both British) before crossing Persia to India, where again, he would be in British territory. In fact, if my 1920 geography is right, he would have been in British territory through India and Upper and Lower Burma and might have just made a quick hop through Southern Siam to arrive in Singapore, from there, it was a boat to Australia! That’s pretty incredible really.
On the way to Baghdad Birtles was clearly getting a bit bored with everything. Quote:
Solo-motorists were not permitted to travel over the desert route to Baghdad. Convoys were
the general rule, but I eventually found myself speeding at fifty miles per hour over open plains. A gigantic queer-looking dog, low in the hind-quarters arose from behind a heap of earth. His hair stood straight up along a bony spine, from the end of which his short tail dangled loosely. Looking over his shoulder, he showed his long yellow fangs. I swung the car round at this grinning hyena, and gave chase. He loped off in a straight line at about twenty-five miles an hour. Then, as the car closed on him, he darted to one side, stopped, then watched the car critically as it shot past. Several times
this was enacted. I could see his plan. He was making for the rough washouts on the side
of a small hill. He beat me to it.
10 points for a hyena! 15 for an old lady with shopping.
As Birtles was driving along these roads in Mesopotamia, on more than one occasion he had an RAF plane fly close overhead, inspecting him. When the pilot satisfied himself that Birtles was just a mad Aussie, he’s wave and then shoot off. You see the RAF were patrolling these roads because there was a lot of banditry. POSH ENGLISH ACCENT Hello! What are you up to then old boy? AUSSIE Just cruising along, on my way to Canberra, listening to Cold Chisel, life is good! ENGLISH Jolly good! And nice old bean old bean.
In Baghdad Birtles observes that the women are top Shielas and on his way through modern day Iran and into the Afghanistan foot hills, he encounters lots of snow and has to be careful to avoid hostile nomadic tribes.
Birtles continued to travel through mountains terrain in snowy conditions. He describes how he encounters many nomads with large, lanky dogs. They sound very hardy, rough and aggressive but all I can imagine is one of those ponsy Afghan hounds with drooping hair. On one occasion, Birtles decides to sleep the night in what sounds like a disused mud hut full of goats. Quote:
I crawled inside to investigate. The gaunt body of one of those wolf dogs came in through the tunnel and lay down on guard. He seemed to regard me as a new sort of goat. Every time I turned to go out he stood up. He was a big dog and very un- friendly. I could see his watchful eyes shining in the half dark. It occurred to me that perhaps my lambskin coat was having a mis- leading effect. I took it off and started to go out. The effect was startling. He rose up and came at me, growling. He was dull-witted as well as savage. I resumed my top garment, deciding to be a goat for the remainder of the night. Outside the wind howled increasingly. Snowflakes drifted in through the tunnel; but in the goat-warmed atmosphere I was quite snug. With the idea of getting some milk I chased a goat into a corner, only to find, after a very determined struggle, that it was a billy! During the night I woke up to find a bearded nanny licking my whiskers while her husband, near by, was stamping his left forefoot. Taking my time from him I stamped in unison. I was afraid that he was going to make a charge. As we faced each other there came from outside a sardonic laugh and several blood-thirsty groans. It was a starved hyena. Still, with a guardian at the door, there was no danger of his adding himself to the company.
So he almost tossed off a male goat, almost got off with a female goat and almost had a fight with a goat. We’ve all been there.
Birtles stops off for a few weeks in a town in modern day Pakistan to rest up because he had malaria.
Beyond Lahore he found good roads again and found himself zooming along as fast as 70mph.
I was made to feel at home in Calcutta. It was there that I met Mr Percy Stollery, a young Canadian who expressed a desire to accompany me on the remainder of my journey. I warned him that there was a chance of his head being the chief decoration on the top of a wild Naga hillman’s spear. He looked quite hopeful at the prospect, so I accepted him as companion—and he proved to be a good mate!
Beyond Calcutta, into Burma, things got tricky! Armed with an elephant gun and warned that it would be almost impossible, the two set out to reach Singapore. They managed to get across the Ganges, just, almost losing the car and themselves when they’re make-do raft began to sink. A little further on they encounter a community of Brits in a remote town, they are kindly given a goat that they made room for in the car. Somebody warn that goat! Birtles is to goats what Rolf Harris is to underage girls.
They soon found the roads to be awful. The car engine was switched around to give it 1 forward gear, presumably this gave them more torque. They spend endless days making barely any ground, about a mile a day, carrying as much as they could, digging out roads and then doing their best with the car (often winching it along). One night the two of them were awoken by a tiger walking past where they were sleeping, apparently they smelt it before they saw it!
In the early morning monkeys, in hilarious choruses, would troop along through the tree- tops. Often we got amusement watching them, down in a creek-bed, rolling rocks over in search of insects. On one occasion I put an explosive elephant bullet alongside a rock just as a monkey was turning it over. His frantic leap, and the alarm of his mates was funny to watch. . From that incident was born an idea… I shot a monkey. We skinned him and cooked him in a two-gallon petrol tin. As he boiled, the victim’s grinning face, with teeth showing, and little clasped hands, made me feel like a cannibal. But curried rice and monkey put new life into us!
With monsoon season coming to South East Asia and the early wet weather already causing havoc, Birtles and Stollery decided to take a boat for a portion of their journey. They eventually arrived in Singapore, got on another boat to Darwin and found their car immediately seized by customs officials. AUSSIE Welcome home you wanker. The Prime Minister intervened, they were released and they continued their journey to Melbourne, arriving in July 1928, where they were asked to move their car because it was obstructing traffic. AUSSIE Welcome home you wanker.
Birtles went on to find gold in the Outback and retired a wealthy man. Poor old Stollery got a job working as a chemist and only a few months after arriving in Melbourne, drop some acid and blinded himself.