I remember first meeting Angus when he sauntered into my office at the Australian High Commission in New Delhi back in 1990. There was none of the formidable security that guards the building today. But I doubt that the formalities that go into making appointments with diplomats would have deterred him. For me Angus was a breath of fresh air compared with the usual visitors that came to see me in my capacity as First Secretary (Press and Culture) – the grumpy Indian academics wanting free trips to Australia or visas for their children. When Angus explained he was going to Pune to do an M.Phil at the prestigious film institute there and asked if I could give him a letter of support, it didn’t occur to me that it might be outside my brief to be endorsing the activities of someone I had only met a few minutes before and couldn’t really vouch for. To me Angus was doing just what I would have wanted to be doing – pursuing his dreams, unencumbered, in a land that both of us found fascinating.
I saw Angus occasionally over the next year or so. He would stay sometimes in my massive taxpayer-funded bungalow with numerous servants who didn’t have much to do. We shared an interest in travel, primarily to out of the way places, and we both preferred travelling on our own. I remember doing that now very old-fashioned thing of having a slide night when I returned to Australia in 1992 and taking my future wife, Niki, along who was somewhat less enthusiastic than I was at seeing our respective collections of photographs from India and other parts of Asia. Another time it was to see his photos of China and Burma that he had taken to illustrate his first book, The Five Foot Road, which retraced the overland journey of Morrison of Peking
When I returned to India in 1994 as a foreign correspondent Angus would sometimes stay in my much less luxurious flat in the Delhi suburb of Jorbagh. More than ten years later I would bump into him at the Jaipur Literature Festival, to which he had travelled from Dharamsala to visit. Each time our paths crossed, I found Angus immersed in some new project – this time it was the Moonpeak cafe and photographic studio in Dharmasala – or planning the next one. It was only after he died that I found out that his extraordinary humility meant that he never mentioned some of his more amazing adventures, such as walking across Tibet in 1998.
To me Angus was like a modern day Eric Newby and Patrick Leigh Fermor rolled into one. He was always attracted to travel for its own sake, not as a something one bragged about or did for the sake of ticking off points on a map. I could never imagine Angus with a Lonely Planet, nor for that matter could I ever imagine him without a sturdy Nikon, stout pair of walking boots and a notebook in hand. It didn’t surprise me that when a brief window of opportunity opened after an intensive bout of cancer treatment he took the first plane he could find to visit Burma and attend the inaugural Irrawaddy Literature Festival, this time with his fiancée Catherine whose support over the last couple of years made a massive difference to how he dealt with cancer. Nor did it surprise me that he was also planning to do the photographs for Rory Stewart’s book on the Scottish border and help edit it. I never heard Angus complain once nor did he ever lose hope that he would make it through. The last thing he would have wanted was to burden someone with his cares.
It is a comfort that Angus died doing what he loved but that can’t take away the regret I feel for not getting to know him better and that he wasn’t able to fulfill all his dreams – dreams that would have made us all the richer because of his ability to translate them into books, stories and photographs.