Sunday, 27 January 2013

Week Four - Jeanette

The Ascent Of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman (1956)
Recommended by Phil

One may be misled by book knowledge. It was a lesson to me, as a reader, to take nothing on trust.

The nearest thing I can compare The Ascent Of Rum Doodle to is The Blair Witch Project.

Both are innovative takes on a specific genre. Both are, in their own twisted ways, adventure stories. Both play with the notion of ‘truth’: of how the conventions of reportage, and of personal viewpoints, can and do mislead. And both feature shonky navigational skills.

The Ascent Of Rum Doodle is a parody of mountaineering literature, of boys-own explorations, of – since the Empire was falling around British ears at this time – the idea that plucky Brits could conquer just about anything.

This is a clever book that a writer would love, so it’s no surprise that it was an amazing scribe who recommended it to me: Phil McMullen, the creator of Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine. I remember well how nervous I was in approaching Phil for the first time. I wanted to interview him for Seasons They Change, knowing how influential the Terrascope, and its Terrastock festivals, were for the new wave of psychedelic folk music.

Phil’s going to think I’m a massive charlatan, I thought. I am a massive charlatan! He should be writing this book, not me! I fretted over my approach, and eventually sent what I hoped was a humble message to him, hoping he’d be kind to my efforts.

He was! We met, shortly afterwards, in a pub near Whitehall. I brought my Dictaphone along, but it stayed firmly turned off; I even removed my spectacles, the familiar sign that I am enjoying a social occasion rather than conducting an interview. We found out about each other’s lives as well as each other’s music tastes. We tried to get some olives from the bar but they’d run out. We ordered another bottle of wine instead.

We conducted the interview, sober and via email, a week later.

Phil not only supported the creation of Seasons, he helped to spread the word when it was published, too – in a thrilling twist, I was interviewed by the Terrascope itself! Phil and I don’t chat much, but when we do it’s as if we’re back in that Whitehall pub: unbridled enthusiasm for the music we each love, no olives, lots of wine. Even if we are simply sharing a text message exchange.

Mont Blanc might be climbed by a disunited party; Rum Doodle, never.

Rum Doodle, discovered in the remote country of Yogistan by Allied airmen during World War II, is the world’s greatest unconquered peak. Binder, expedition leader (and narrator) is determined to be the first. He has a team of six at his command: the burly Burley, scientist Wish, photographer Shute, navigator Jungle, linguist (and Yogistani expert) Constant and the doctor, Prone.

Prone immediately comes down with a severe cold in the head. Jungle is still in London, having caught the wrong bus and ended up in Cockfosters (or is it Richmond?). Constant mispronounces so many Yogistani words that riots break out among the local people. You begin to see where this is going.

But it’s not simply cheap laughs (albeit told in a sophisticated, P.G. Woodhouse-esque fashion). As the book progresses other, subtler, tensions arise, for instance the dislike all the team has for our narrator, and their increasing efforts to avoid his conversational gambits.

Prone, with his usual unselfishness, refused to let me share his tent; he said that Constant and I, who would climb together, ought not to be parted. […] As it turned out, the only thing I was able to learn about Constant was that he was a good sleeper, for he dropped off as soon as I had settled down in my sleeping bag.

This is particularly true for Burley, who seems rather to be the object of Binder’s charged affection. Burley himself is engaged to a woman with a hare-lip and club-foot, and this surreal fiancĂ©e is a creation worthy of David Lynch or Knut Hamsun.

She had been studying the structure of the sideboard on behalf of the local antiquarian society, but had unfortunately got stuck and had been there a fortnight when Burley found her.

Although its language is often playful, Rum Doodle bites. The blustery, quite useless Brits are silently watched and implicitly mocked by the local Yogistani porters (based on Sherpa guides, a staple of the adventure literature Bowman was satirising) while Pong, their Yogistani cook, makes his own comment on the ‘essentials’ the expedition had brought along.

All our choicest titbits had gone into Pong’s awful pot: our luscious breast of chicken, the tinned apricots and cream which we had so often tasted in anticipation, the sardines, the caviar, the lobster, the lovely gruyere cheese, the pickled walnuts, the curry, the salmon, even the coffee and chocolate biscuits; all these were reduced to a nauseating brew which might have sent Macbeth’s witches shrieking from the place.

The fictional locations notwithstanding, it would be possible, just, to read The Ascent Of Rum Doodle as a straight work. ‘Sixteen illustrations in photogravure’ go towards the realism of the tale. Just as The Blair Witch Project’s videotapes supposedly prove the fates of Heather, Josh and Mike, these photos – a mixture of genuine climbing material and dramatic illustrations – help locate the story in its ambiguous place between fact and fiction.

There is a disclaimer on the copyright page of the book:
No criticism of any mountaineering book or method, and no reference to any mountaineer past or present is intended.

I believe him. The portrayal of mountaineering literature is affectionate ribbing. However, The Ascent Of Rum Doodle reads as far more than a spoof of a literary sub-genre. Bowman also parodies contemporary British hubris, taking a snapshot – in photogravure – of how the country struggled with the transition from imperial overlords to insignificant island.