Book of the Week: The Odysseum

5 Nov|David Bramwell & Jo Tinsley

Strange cargo: Spiers and Robson's route across the world. Image by Johnathan Montelongo, taken from The Odysseum, by Jo Tinsley and David Bramwell (2018, Hodder & Stoughton). All Rights Reserved.

David Bramwell recounts the bizarre adventures of two men in the 1960s who decided to travel across the world, hidden in a crate.

One of the stranger tracks to be found among the clattering, shimmering brilliance of The Velvet Underground’s back catalogue is an eight-and-a-half-minute short story called ‘The Gift’. Penned by Lou Reed, ‘The Gift’ is narrated by the soft Welsh tones of the band’s violinist, John Cale, and juxtaposed with the early Velvet’s trademark thumping beat, guitars and feedback.

Reed originally wrote the story during the early 1960s while attending Syracuse University in New York. At the time Alfred Hitchcock Presents was a popular TV series and its macabre tales may have played a role in inspiring the young Reed to pen a story involving a dark twist of fate. ‘The Gift’ recounts the adventures of Waldo Jeffers, a lovesick student back home in Locust, Pennsylvania during the summer holidays. With his college sweetheart, Marsha Bronson, living in Wisconsin, Jeffers is having to endure the pains of a long-distance love affair while also growing anxious about his girlfriend’s fidelity.

Surrendering to a growing paranoia that Bronson might not stay faithful to him – but without the necessary funds to travel to Wisconsin – Jeffers hatches a plan to have himself delivered in a large cardboard box to Bronson’s house, as a surprise. When he arrives three days later, Bronson and her friend Sheila attempt to open the mysterious box but, finding it tightly sealed, resort to using a metal cutter. Unhappily for Waldo, his head is split open like a melon.

Around the time that Reed was penning the macabre track, Reg Spiers, a 22-year-old Australian athlete stranded in the UK, had struck upon a similar plan for dodging his travel fare back to Oz. Spiers, a promising javelin thrower, had come to England in 1964 to train as a potential Olympic contender, but after his wallet was stolen from his apartment he found he didn’t have the necessary funds to get home to Adelaide. His young daughter’s birthday was fast approaching and he wanted to be there to celebrate it with her.

Spiers had, however, taken some part-time work at an airport in the UK and learned that it was possible to send crates long-distance, marked ‘cash-on-delivery’. With the help of a friendly rival – the British javelin thrower John McSorley – Spiers had a special crate constructed, measuring 5 by 3 by 2ó feet (1.5 x 1 x 0.75 m), into which he could stow away during the long journey. Inside the crate, Spiers was able to sit cross-legged or lie on his back with his knees bent. Specially placed handles mean t that he could open the crate from the inside. Travelling light, his minimal luggage included tins of food, water, a blanket, a pillow, chocolate, his passport and a large empty bottle in which to empty his bladder.

For five days before the illicit excursion, Spiers ate very little in order to slow down his bodily functions. Then, on 17 October, he had himself transported to Heathrow Airport. His crate claimed to contain tins of paint and had a fictitious Australian address labelled on the side.

Spier’s journey didn’t get off to a propitious start: severe fog at Heathrow left him stranded in the baggage hold for 24 hours but, once air-bound, he used the interior handles to leave the confines of his tiny prison cell and stretch his limbs. The first leg of the flight was short, as the plane stopped in Paris to pick up more passengers. At this point, Spiers almost gave the game away. Having been standing in the hold when the plane began its rapid decent, Spiers scurried back into his crate, forgetting that he’d left his urine bottle perched on top. To his relief, on landing, he overheard a conversation between the French baggage handlers that suggested they thought his yellow bottle had been left as a joke by the British baggage handlers: British toilet humour at its most literal.

After being airborne for another ten hours, Spiers landed in Mumbai and was deposited upside-down on the airport’s runway in the sweltering Indian heat. This was the most dangerous portion of his journey. Dehydration began to set in and he stripped naked in an attempt to cool himself down, knowing he’d have even more explaining to do if the airport staff heard him and opened the crate to find a parched and naked Australian inside.

From Mumbai, the rest of the journey went relatively smoothly. After a fuel-stop in Singapore, Spiers finally landed in Perth Airport – chosen for its small size and relatively lax security – where his crate was carried to a freight shed and left. When night fell, Spiers snuck out, found some tools to cut his way out of the airport’s fence, and hitch-hiked back home, just in time for his daughter’s birthday. The entire journey – all 63 hours and 13,000 miles (20,900 km) of it – had hardly cost him a penny.

Spiers was so pleased with himself, and happy to be reunited with his family, that he forgot the one thing he’d promised to do on his return: to let fellow conspirator John McSorley know that he’d arrived home safely. Back in England, the athlete, aware of the very real risks of Spiers’s journey, was getting increasingly anxious that something had happened to his friend. As time passed, McSorley felt he had no choice but to contact the authorities and spill the beans. The press soon tracked Spiers down and, true to the pioneering spirit of the Aussies, was treated as a national hero. A leading Australian political sent him a telegram of congratulations and five pounds, describing the daredevil journey as ‘a gallant effort by a real Aussie’. With so much good publicity around the escapade, Qantas declined to fine Spiers. His luck, however, was not to last.

While Spiers was riding high on his new-found fame, somewhere in Australia’s dusty Outback, a homesick Welshman was at his wits’ end. Earlier that year, yearning for adventure, Brian Robson had signed up to be a ‘ten-pound Pom’ – a cultural exchange programme initiated after the Second World War to encourage Brits to emigrate to Australia. To avoid this being a mere jolly, those who signed up were given a one-way ticket and had their passports confiscated for two years. Having been given a job as a railway ticket clerk in a one-horse town, Robson quickly came to regret his decision. He was bored and lonely. To him, Australia felt like a prison sentence. ‘I wanted to go home about 12 hours after I landed,’ Robson confessed decades later in an interview for the podcast Snap Judgment. ‘There was nothing to do. In the Outback we mainly ate beans out of the tin. And they were cold most of the time. All I could think of was cheddar cheese. And home.’

Within a few weeks Robson tried his luck as a stowaway on a passenger ship to England but seasickness got the better of him. Bilious and miserable, he gave himself up, was dropped off in New Zealand and sent back to Australia. Home and freedom seemed beyond reach until Robson chanced upon Spiers’s story in a local newspaper. With typical Aussie nonchalance Spiers talked about his adventure as if there was nothing to it. ‘I just got in the thing and went. What was there to be frightened of? It’s no different to how I travel now overseas. There’s the seat. You sit in it and go,’ he boasted to a BBC reporter.

Robson reasoned that his only chance of freedom was to follow suit. With the help of two friends in Melbourne he had a crate constructed and planned to pass it off as a computer being sent to the UK for maintenance (computers were ridiculously heavy and bulky back in those days). He packed a book of Beatles songs to keep himself entertained, as well as some plastic bottles and a large suitcase. Following Spiers’s example, Robson’s crate was labelled ‘cash on delivery’ and ‘fragile, this way up’. The Brit’s crate, however, was smaller than Spiers’s and the suitcase made it impossible for him to move. Crucially, there was no easy means for him to get out. Instead, he was secured inside with a rope harness and had a pair of pliers to remove the nails on his arrival.

Problems began almost immediately after a short flight from Melbourne to Sydney. Unbeknown to Robson, he was now no longer flying direct to the UK. Having been overfilled with freight, his original plane had transferred some of its cargo to a PanAm flight, bound for America. This extra cargo included Robson, who would now be taking the ‘scenic’ route back to the UK. What’s more, the hold on the new plane was unheated. But there was worse to come. While being loaded onto the PanAm flight, Robson’s crate was placed upside down in the baggage hold. For the next 22 hours, Robson was trapped upside down, unable to move and in an ice-cold prison. With the extreme temperatures, and his head taking the full weight of his body, Robson’s joints began to swell. He started to experience severe pain and difficulty breathing. Slipping in and out of consciousness, he hallucinated that the plane was about to crash into the ocean. But even in his most torturous hours, Robson was unwilling to break out of his crate, knowing he’d be deported if discovered on arrival. Australia had really got under his skin.

After many torturous hours of torment and pain, his body creeping towards death, Robson finally felt the plane land and his crate being carried into a freight shed. Fumbling for a torch he managed to turn it on, but, with his limbs barely functioning, the torch fell to the floor and he was unable to retrieve it. This simple error saved his life. The light attracted the attention of a freight handler who, peering into the crate, saw what he thought was a dead body and rushed off to get help. When the crate was prized open, Robson’s pallid but blinking face revealed that he was alive. Just. Unable to speak and still struggling to breathe, Robson was carried out in his cramped posture by a medical crew. When they attempted to straighten him up, his body jack-knifed back to its foetal position, as if spring-loaded.

Amid his pain and confusion, the drawl of the customs officers, cops and medical crew made it clear to Robson that he hadn’t even made it back on home turf, but was in Los Angeles. Had he travelled 42 hours, covered 8,000 miles and endured crippling pain only to be deported back to the land of cold beans, dust and boomerangs? Robson was taken to a prison hospital to convalesce and, once his voice had returned, was interviewed by the FBI, who were initially convinced that he’d been kidnapped or was a Russian spy. As the truth unfolded, his story created a media storm. Unsure what to do with him, the authorities finally decided that Robson’s fate lay in the hands of the airline he had arrived with: PanAm. Like Qantas, PanAm decided to make good use of the publicity and when Robson was well enough, they sent him back to the UK, free of charge. What’s more, he flew first class.

Had Robson remained undiscovered in the freight shed in LA and continued the final leg of his journey over the northern ice cap to the UK, the cold would have finished him off for good. By a twist of fate, a lucky accident saved his life. He arrived back in Cardiff to a hero’s welcome. And, while the cheddar cheese sandwich that he’d been dreaming of didn’t taste quite as good as he’d remembered, he was ecstatic to be home.

Our tale, however, doesn’t quite end there. While Robson went on to have a fulfilling life, running a successful chain of retail outlets, Spiers’s lot took a very different trajectory. After retiring in the late 1970s, the athlete turned his talents to a different kind of illicit cargo: drug smuggling. In 1981 Spiers was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import cocaine and hashish into Australia. Threatened with a ten-year sentence, he managed to skip bail and carried off another spectacular vanishing act only to be arrested in India the following year, again for drug smuggling.

Once more, Spiers evaded jail and smuggled himself out of the country with a fake passport. The third time he was not so lucky. Caught at a Sri Lankan airport in 1984 with a sizeable quantity of heroin, he was sentenced to death. After a long appeal process, Spiers was finally returned to Australia and in 1987 began a five-year prison sentence in Adelaide.

By the time he reached his 40s, Brian Robson had long gotten over his unhappy ordeal in Australia. Having made peace with the country, he decided it was time to return there for a holiday – a chance to see the place with fresh eyes. While it’s not recorded whether Robson considered looking up Reg Spiers during his travels Down Under, it must have crossed his mind. The pair had never met and this one-off journey back to Oz would have offered Robson the opportunity to finally meet Spiers in person and to thank him for inspiring his own daredevil escape. And perhaps that’s exactly what Robson had planned to do, until he learned of Spiers’s incarceration and thought better of it. To witness behind bars the heroic individual who had provided the catalyst for his own break for freedom would have been too much of a dark twist of fate.

This is an extract from The Odysseum: Strange Journeys that Obliterated Convention, by David Bramwell and Jo Tinsley (Hodder and Stoughton, £16.99). Buy a copy here.