Saturday, March 24, 2007

W. E. Bowman – ‘The Ascent of Rum Doodle’

I put my breakfast aside and went to Pong’s tent. I found him filing a fork into a bowl. He took no notice of me. After a while he laid down the fork and began to grate a piece of rock. I thought I had better let him get used to my presence before trying to communicate with him; so I sat down and watched him. After chopping up a portion of climbing rope and mincing an old sock he threw everything into a pan of pemmican stew and stirred for five minutes, adding sand and paraffin to taste. Finally, he strained it, spread some of it on a slice of leather, and took a hearty bite. (p. 135)

As an antidote to last week’s bungling (with redeeming features) Shackleton, here is bungling untempered, as only the English explorer can accomplish it. A satire on mountaineering, exploring, and the spirit that made 20th Century England think itself great, Rum Doodle is both a hilarious exposition and a reminder that raw exploring excellence isn’t the only yardstick with which to judge a man (or a boy): charm has its place too and, away from the precipice, is probably the more significant quality. Shackleton had charm, of course, and knew it. He used it to recruit men and to raise funds. Binder, leader of the Rum Doodle expedition, has it too, but is utterly oblivious to it or its effects. To him, as to Robert Scott, Getting There is the only important thing, and his biggest and most mistaken assumption is that his men unquestioningly agree with him in this; that they have a pure, character-less desire to claim the summit for England. On the contrary, his men do have characters, foibles, failings, generally in direct opposition to their station (Jungle, the navigator, has no sense of direction; Prone, the doctor, keeps coming down with measles and mumps at inappropriate moments; Binder himself is a born follower). He never works out why they like to be left alone with the medicinal champagne.

I think my favourite joke is the presence of this champagne. Like all the jokes here it is unsubtle but irresistible. For a few pages at the beginning it all seemed a trifle obvious, but with repetition the obvious jokes get more and more funny, as Binder continues to mention the champagne, or Burley’s various ‘lassitude’ illnesses (Burley is just lazy, but Binder attributes everything to external causes), or the 3,000 porters, or Pong’s cooking, the chief trial of the expedition. It is the porters, in fact, who do the hard work: they do all the hard climbing, cutting steps in the ice, and they rescue the members of the core team from the scrapes their incompetence lands them in at almost hourly intervals. The one member of the expedition who makes it to the summit does so on the back of a porter called Un Sung. Binder still counts this as victory, not out of malevolence, but because he honestly sees the achievement as belonging to his party. In fact, here he is on honesty:

I had been telling myself that I was miserable, and, being a naturally truthful person, I had believed myself. The remedy was plain: I must tell myself something cheerful. (p. 123)
Two of the blurbs of the back of this (Pimlico) edition mention The Diary of a Nobody, and it’s a good point of reference. Binder has no more originality in his approach to mountaineering than Mr Pooter does in his to social climbing. There’s nothing you can do with characters like this, except laugh loud and long.

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