Object of the Week: the Bedford Dormobile Instruction Manual
In the archive of the International Anthony Burgess Foundation there is a file full of documents relating to the cars that Burgess owned from 1968 to 1989. The documents are in Burgess’s original name, John Burgess Wilson. The peculiar thing about this file is that Burgess could not drive.
This fact provided the basis for much of the action of Burgess’s first published novel, Time for a Tiger (1956), in which the protagonist Victor Crabbe has developed a fear of getting behind the wheel because of the death of his first wife in an automobile accident. In the photographic collections at the Burgess Foundation, there is a picture of Burgess in Malaya in the driver’s seat of an Austin A70 (below). Burgess’s first wife, Lynne, has captioned the photograph: ‘John the driver – I don’t think!’
The Austin A70 was the car that Burgess bought from Donald ‘Lofty’ Dunkeley, a deal that was subsequently fictionalised between Crabbe and Nabby Adams in Time for a Tiger, with Nabby becoming Crabbe’s driver. The Austin A70 is the first documented car that Burgess owned.
After he returned from Malaya, Burgess remained a non-driver, preferring to use public transport. In Inside Mr Enderby (1963), Burgess details the poet’s trip from Hove to London on the train, his tour around the London saloon bars and his eventual return on ‘a nice convenient after-closing-time train to the coast’. It’s easy to imagine Burgess writing this from experience, especially as his house at 78 Tisbury Road was very close to Hove train station.
When Lynne died in 1968, Burgess married Liana Macellari and decided to leave Britain to take up residence in Malta. His journey to the Mediterranean was undertaken in a Bedford Dormobile mobile caravan, newly purchased in October 1968. The Dormobile, as Burgess writes in The Listener, was ‘a miracle of British design, although much let down by slipshod British execution – screws missing, bad wood-planing and so on’. He remembers that the Dormobile ‘was delivered by a moron who could tell me nothing of how the thing worked. How to change a wheel? You’d better go and find out from a garage, mate’.
It appears that Burgess’s criticism of the delivery man was rather harsh, as the Dormobile was delivered with the user manual, which is in the archive at the Burgess Foundation. This manual is dated 1954, suggesting that the design of the Dormobile was unchanged for over a decade. It also describes, in great detail, how to change a wheel, among other maintenance procedures.
The file reveals that owning the Dormobile brought problems once Burgess decided to settle, first in Malta and later in Monaco. On arriving in Malta, Burgess registered the van on a temporary permit which lasted 90 days. Further documents show that Burgess was late in paying the appropriate duties. It is not known if Burgess registered the vehicle with the authorities after February 1969, but he reports in his autobiography that ‘There was talk of confiscating the Bedford Dormobile too, for the pedantic reason that we had dismantled the gas cooker in it and this converted it into a vehicle different from the one we had imported in 1968’.
When, eventually, the Burgesses arrived in Monaco, Burgess recalls similar problems with the Dormobile. The authorities did not allow them to park the vehicle on the street, causing Burgess to park it illegally and the Monegasque police to impound it. Even though Burgess claims that this was a ‘mostly passive struggle against bourgeois conformity’, he rented a garage in which to store the Dormobile. The latest dated document concerning this vehicle is from February 1989, suggesting there is truth in his statement that ‘it is not possible to cast an imposing vehicle like the Bedford Dormobile on the garbage heap’.
In a later article, Burgess describes the Dormobile as ‘the only home I have ever seriously acknowledged’. The journey to Malta saw Burgess, his new wife, and son, living out of the caravan through France and Italy, with Liana driving and Burgess in the back, ‘hammering away at my typewriter every day, but what I wrote carried the breath of the open road’. He looks back at his European road trip as ‘one of the healthiest, most productive, most essentially human episodes in my career.’
During this initial road trip in the Dormobile, Burgess worked on journalism and scripts, most notably a film adaptation of the first two Enderby novels for Warner Brothers. On subsequent trips in the Dormobile, Burgess wrote parts of Beard’s Roman Women (1976) and Man of Nazareth (1979).