Torching John Brosnan

Although that witty writer and fan John Brosnan had been a chronic depressive, the pathetic fallacy refused to play along. A week of British gloom and rain gave way to bright sunshine for his funeral on 29 April 2005. Despite a few large, would-be ominous crows amid the flowers, Kensal Green cemetery and the West London Crematorium looked positively cheerful.

I was a bit nervous about attending the actual ceremony, never having been very close to John; indeed I hadn't seen him for some while. But Rob Holdstock -- who with John Baxter, Malcolm Edwards and Leroy Kettle organized this funeral and wake -- had made encouraging, even begging, noises. A mere nine years after following the same route by rail and Tube to see off Gollancz editor Richard Evans, I'd forgotten just how long the journey to Kensal Green took, and ineptly arrived an hour early. Worries about appearing morbidly keen on these events were dispelled by the sight of a besuited figure who looked the way Ian Maule might have looked if miraculously unchanged since the 1980s. Bloody hell, it was Ian Maule!

Then Chris Priest appeared, and Harry Harrison, and the maudlin reminiscences began, interrupted by cries of "Bloody hell, it is Ian Maule!" The growing and mostly greying crowd could be partitioned in several ways, though I'll spare you the Venn diagram. There were the old buddies who knew John Brosnan in his home country of Australia -- i.e. John Baxter -- or from his first appearance at a London Globe meeting in 1970: Graham Charnock, Edwards (now a supremo at Orion Books, whose Gollancz imprint publishes John's sf), Kettle, Holdstock, and Priest. There was what might be the final muster of the seventies Ratfandom scene which had featured John's scurrilous fanzines Big Scab and Scabby Tales. "The Last Hurrah of the Silver Horde?" said Malcolm later: "Maybe". This contingent included both Graham and Pat Charnock, Edwards, John Hall (not sighted in fandom for decades), Holdstock, Kettle & Kath Mitchell, Maule, and Peter Roberts. Only the Ratfather himself was missing, now gone into seclusion as the Hermit of Haverfordwest: Greg Pickersgill.

Then there were ex-inmates of the Ortygia House writers' colony in Harrow, whose various flats had housed a variety of sf professionals: Priest (the first to move in), Chris Evans, Lisa Tuttle (who journeyed from the remote wilds of Scotland for this funeral) and of course John Brosnan himself, who actually died in Ortygia House. He wasn't the first Ortygia writer to go. The former occupant of John's own flat was Ian Marter, an actor who appeared in Dr Who, published ten Who novelizations and died in late 1986. According to John in 1993, "I moved in at the start of 1987. About three years ago Colin Greenland moved into the adjacent flat on my floor, and a few months ago an American horror writer called Jessica Palmer moved into the flat above."

Other pros: Pat Cadigan, marking this solemn occasion by not once saying "Langford, you dog!"; Jo Fletcher of Gollancz, Harry Harrison, Steve Jones, Roz Kaveney, Garry & Annette Kilworth, literary agent John Parker, and some guy called Langford. Other fans: Rob Holdstock's partner Sarah Biggs, Rob Hansen, Linda Krawecke (once Linda Pickersgill) and ... well, most of the above. And some unfamiliar, er, young adults who I slowly realized were the Charnock and Kettle offspring. Where does the time go?

As is now traditional, this gathering was billed as a celebration of John's life and work rather than a mere funeral. A couple of days beforehand I'd noticed a Private Eye cartoon of a priest addressing near-empty pews with, "I see this as not so much a funeral, more a celebration of his life ..." We knew that John was in safe fannish hands when the same cartoon reappeared on the back of the photocopied Order of Ceremony for JOHN RAYMOND BROSNAN (1947-2005).

In the crematorium chapel, the coffin was conspicuously decorated with a plastic dinosaur and a garishly-jacketed Brosnan sf epic whose title I was unable to parse, however hard I squinted. Something Mission? This unintelligibility was to be explained. Malcolm Edwards and John Baxter spoke, and as is traditional I couldn't hear a thing, though I must say I've never seen Malcolm, Master of Cool, look quite so visibly distressed in front of an audience. He let me consult his prepared script afterwards, pointing out that "it was written to be read aloud to an audience of John's close friends," rather than as a formal obituary for, say, the Christian Science Monitor or Locus.

This began by quoting a Brosnan letter: "I occasionally watch NEIGHBOURS, just to keep in touch with my cultural roots, and whenever a character is written out of the series people say that he or she has gone to 'Perth', which I've deciphered as being a metaphor for being dead. I should know." Well, quite.

Malcolm went on to talk about John's vigorous atheism, his bouts of depression, his professionalism as an author ("he was very disciplined, writing in the mornings and drinking in the afternoons and evenings"), and his failing health as alcohol and despair got the better of him. Sadness at losing an old friend was mixed with anger at John's stubborn refusal to call in the doctors.

Nevertheless, tirelessly supported by the same friends who'd organized this funeral, John had lasted a great deal longer than medical science might have thought possible. (His general appearance at Novacon in 1995 had suggested that even then the sands were running out.) And although it's easy to moralize about a wasted life, there are plenty of longer lives which couldn't match his output of some thirty books, several acidly funny fanzines -- one of which shared the first Nova Award in 1974 -- and a huge run of humorous magazine columns which brought his fanwriting talents and movie erudition to a wide, appreciative audience. This last was a career move which I found personally inspirational.

Even his struggle with depression provided a source of melancholy vindication, as noted by Rob Holdstock and Roy Kettle in their Ansible tribute:

John's demon was also his triumph. He leaves some bloody funny memories, and one superb piece of theoretical human psychology. John's twin pet hates -- organised religion (he was an ardent Dawkinist) and alternative therapies, especially homeopathy, were often the starting pistol for spirited and hilarious evening discussions with his friends. And the theory? He always believed that the "default" condition of the human mind was "depression", and all other emotions -- happiness, contentment, libido, ambition and so forth -- merely the unfortunate side effects of the evolution of intelligence. He fought this corner fiercely. Then, in the mid 90s, an article appeared in New Scientist claiming much the same. The triumphant crowing of that boy went on for years! John was never more happy than when being proved right: that depression was the best! (Ansible 214, May 2005)

The brief ceremony ended on a cheerier note, nodding to the legendary bad taste of those 1970s Brosnan fanzines. Malcolm again:

One of the things John was interested in was the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion. One could even theorise that he kept up his liquid intake to minimise the risk of it happening to him. He wrote a novel -- TORCHED -- about it, in collaboration with John Baxter. What we're going to move on to now is something slightly different -- premeditated human combustion. You'll notice that we've put a couple of symbolic objects on the coffin: a plastic dinosaur, in the absence of a bust of Roger Corman, and a copy of one of John's books, in what I firmly believe to be a Polish edition. I wanted to launch the coffin by breaking a bottle of red wine against it, but apparently that isn't allowed. But I will now press this button, and the coffin will slide away, and I'm sure John would have appreciated the irony of his being torched now.

Whereupon, without any discreet veiling of euphemistic curtains, John Brosnan's final receptacle -- dinosaur, Polish space opera, and all -- moved off through automatic doors, to the jaunty sound of the James Bond movie theme. For everyone else's exit into the sunlight, the soundtrack was "The Time Warp" ... explained by Malcolm as "the only piece of music I can remember seeing John dance to. Feel free to try a few pelvic thrusts as you go."

The day's thoughtful organization didn't stop there. A well-timed fleet of taxis wafted the entire crowd across London to the next stage; I found myself crammed in with Messrs Maule, Roberts, and Hansen -- "There's three TAFF winners in this cab!" said Rob excitably. An ideal if somewhat seedy venue for a farewell party would have been the Troy Club just off Tottenham Court Road, where John spent so many long and liquid afternoons (as Terry Pratchett wrote, "I never really knew him well, but if you went into the Troy Club in the late 80s he was always in there."). But the club closed years ago, its proprietor "Helen of Troy" died of liver failure, and considerable research must have been needed to find an equally tiny upstairs room for the Brosnan wake, at The French House pub in Dean Street, Soho.

Much preparation was in evidence: Malcolm's wife Jacks had been hard at work. The walls, tables and window-sills were covered with block-mounted photos of John as toddler, neofan and sophisticate, and of his book jackets. Covers from serious and genuinely notable works of film criticism like James Bond in the Cinema, Movie Magic, and The Primal Screen were varied with such modernist literary novels as The Fungus, Bedlam and Carnosaur (the one which became a Roger Corman dinosaur exploitation flick, loyally characterized by John as "crap ... but it's interesting crap."). Also reproduced was a testimonial from the great Alasdair Gray, who made ink sketches of various fans at the first Mexicon in 1984, and whose Brosnan drawing is inscribed: "The Author of SLIMER, a seminal work which has influenced everything I have ever written."

Alasdair Gray's John Brosnan

Later, Roy (co-author of The Fungus by "Harry Adam Knight", who was praised as "The New Stephen King" in a Starburst movie column whose authorship I shall not reveal) produced an armload of photocopies of John's 1993 ANZAPAzine Son of Why Bother?, containing this fragment of introspection:

Philip Larkin died of throat cancer. I've just been perusing the volume of his collected letters and discovered, to my chagrin, that I had a lot in common with the miserable old sod. Morbid obsession with death, hypochondria, disgust at the ageing process, serious alcohol dependence, heavy smoking ... the lot. About the only thing we don't have in common, come to think of it, is the ability to write great poetry. But then Larkin was probably incapable of writing something like JAMES BOND IN THE CINEMA ... or SLIMER.

Cynical bastards that we are, the guests expected no more than a few glasses of plonk and some nibbles, and were taken aback by the ceaseless flow of good wine and premium lager, the sit-down meal of plentiful cold salmon, ham and other treats, the high-calorie desserts.... Several of us muttered that we'd quite like the same team to organize our funeral celebrations, though perhaps not just yet.

All along, further people turned up and squeezed in somehow, including Faith Brooker (late of Gollancz), Avedon Carol, Chris Fowler, David Garnett, Alun Harries, John Jarrold, Paul McAuley, Kim Newman, Andy Richards, Jimmy Robertson, and doubtless others who escaped my notebook. Sorry about these boring lists: I have the notes and I'm damn well going to use them. You're lucky I didn't take photos. Come to think of it, Rob Hansen and Ian Maule took lots; some of Ian's can be seen on line at http://www.nabu.net/brosnan/brosnan.htm.

There were, of course, informal speeches. Roy Kettle stole the show, I think, explaining this wake as striving to be "the sort of event that John would want to gatecrash -- that he would have enjoyed -- that he wouldn't want to be remembered." Or something like that. He followed up with some droll extracts from The Dirty Movie Book by John Brosnan and "Leroy Mitchell", the pusillanimous co-author having borrowed his partner's surname for fear of prejudicing a fast-track Civil Service career. "This book, published 17 years ago, is as popular today as it was then." It took a moment for the penny to drop. Malcolm: "Is that the last copy?" Roy: "Yes."

That day, Roy's most reliable weapons of mass hilarity were John Brosnan's own words -- like this all too characteristic fragment from his 1975 fanzine Scabby Tales 1 (I still have the copy that he mailed to me at the dread Atomic Weapons Research Establishment hostel: Boundary Hall, Tadley, Hampshire ...), in which our hero muses on alcohol and its effects:

This is a subject close to my heart, and also to my liver and kidneys. I really do think that I am drinking too much these days, which is quite a confession for me to make, but when your liver starts making knocking sounds when you walk you know it's time to slow down.

Last Saturday I really overdid it. I started at about 11 o'clock in the morning drinking in a pub with a few friends and at closing time someone invited us all to his club a short distance away. It looked exactly like a pub, though it was more expensive, and the drinking continued unabated. Everything gets a bit hazy after that [...]

We left around 5 o'clock and I went and had a meal, I think. That night Harry Harrison and his wife were having a small soiree round at their temporary residence in Gloucester Rd. I arrived early so I naturally killed time in the nearest pub. I can remember the first hour or so at the Harrisons but not much else. I was later gleefully informed that I was rather obnoxious to poor old Chris Priest (me?) and that I made a pass at Little Mal (me?) but mercifully it's all a blank. I can't remember leaving either but I do remember getting into a cab and giving the driver my address. And I also remember standing outside the front door trying to find my key. It was then that I realized I was at 62 Elsham Rd in Shepherd's Bush ... which was embarrassing seeing that I had moved away almost a year ago. Very annoyed I stomped around Shepherd's Bush, bouncing off parked cars and stop signs, trying to find another cab. I eventually stopped one and informed the driver that I wanted to go to South Ealing. "No chance, mate," he said and roared off. The same thing happened with the next two cabs I stopped and I became even more annoyed; I remembered the law that once you get in the cab they have to take you where you wanted to go. So the next time one stopped I immediately leapt in and snarled at the driver, "Congratulations, you're going to South fucking Ealing." Amazingly he took me there and it was only later that it occurred to me that the law I was thinking of was an Australian one, not English.

Several other people spoke, as recalled out of order by my random-access memory. John Parker set some kind of record for inaudibility, and for once this wasn't just me: Chris Priest later grumbled that he "seemed to be whispering deliberately." Lisa Tuttle bravely revealed an uncharacteristic escapade from her Ortygia House days, when she'd become seriously tiddly and John was filled with utter delight and wonderment by the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to steer someone drunker than himself. This led Malcolm to remember John's proud calculation that his alcohol intake did not exceed the UK medically recommended maximum of 28 units, a startling conclusion made possible only by failure to grasp that this was a weekly rather than a daily figure. Jo Fletcher treated us to passages of idiosyncratic dialogue from the latest Brosnan sf epic Mothership, or possibly its sequel. Someone else read out a comic tirade against ill-mannered cinema-goers from his film column -- traditionally the first page turned to by readers of Starburst magazine.

(For one year beginning in December 1999, John also had a column in SFX, where I've been a regular since its 1995 launch. I lived in terror of being dropped in favour of the wiser and funnier Brosnan, but something went wrong after his piece for the December 2000 issue. Despite weeks of editorial entreaties, John simply stopped delivering copy and let it be known through a bemused third party that he was giving up writing to become a teacher. This seemed wildly unlikely.)

What else? Faith Brooker, full of editorial memories, favoured us with a threnody in the manner of Private Eye's E.J. Thribb:

Ode to JB (with apologies, etc)

So, farewell then, John Brosnan, Harry Adam Knight, Simon Ian Childer, et al.,
Master of Horror and the vicious bon mot

At last you go to that great Troy Club in the sky
Where Peter Cook and Richard Evans
wait to hear you score points off the Pope

You, like the Scotch Eggs,
are now immortal
And the drinks are on the house --
Suddenly three guys break the door down,
Carrying machine guns ...

Any perceived connection between those final lines and John's favourite way to liven up unpromising scenes in potboilers would be both libellous and accurate. Simon Ian Childer, for those not in the know, was another Brosnan/Kettle pseudonym, the distinction apparently being that Harry Adam Knight wrote HAK horror while Simon Ian Childer produced SIC jokes. Blame them, not me.

In the wake (as it were) of so much coruscating stuff, it didn't seem worth barging in with my own tiny and not particularly funny Brosnan anecdote. John consulted me on the physics of his 1981 technothriller Skyship -- involving a giant atomic-powered zeppelin whose overheating reactor he wanted to have cooled by an emergency plunge into Niagara Falls -- and bore up bravely when I revealed that nuclear fission was somewhat more complex than depicted in Doctor No. As my reward I received not only a thank-you in the acknowledgements but my very own Tuckerization, a chief engineer called Langford whose big line was the crucial engineering diagnosis, "Bullet holes." Another fellow-author got off less lightly in Skyship: "Ballard's a megalomaniac ..."

But enough of me. Once again, much applause to the whole organizing team for giving John such a splendid send-off. "The room was full of love for the man and the knowledge that he will be truly missed," Linda Krawecke wrote afterwards. Inevitably there's a certain grim irony in enjoying a lavishly boozy party in memory of a friend who died of acute pancreatitis brought on by alcohol-induced liver damage. But -- for once, I think, the usual easy assumption of the views of the departed is entirely justified -- it was most definitely what he would have wanted.

Afterwards, making my unsteady way up Dean Street in search of an Underground station, I came across a chance epitaph for John Brosnan. It was chalked on the blackboard outside another Soho pub: "When I read about the perils of drinking ... I gave up reading."