Here’s a wonderful cult gem from English writer William Ernest Bowman (1911-1985). Published in 1956, it’s a satirical take on popular mountaineering non-fiction works from the 1950s.
It’s very amusing. And lampoons the various patriotic, Rule Britannia, stiff upper lip garbage us English folks are increasingly immersing ourselves back into.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle
Right, for some reason we only found out about it in June 2020. We’ve missed it entirely all these years! Absolutely ridiculous. Damn and blast!
Anyway, happenstance led us to it and we read it in a handful of days (it’s a novella). Brilliant it is, too.
It reminds us of Eric Newby’s twee A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (itself a mild mockery of mountaineering works), but it’s much more subtlety biting.
A real jab at the way the English barge into situations with a mindless sense of exceptionalism and presume themselves to be superior. But then to do so in a dissarmingly endearing way.
It’s basically the Withnail & I of the mountaineering world. The book remains a cult hit amongst those fond of scaling tall things.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle is a parody then (satire, please!) about the entirely fictional mountain Rum Doodle.
It’s the largest mountain in the world, don’t you know? Standing at some 44,000 and a half feet high in the Himalayas.
The Plucky Mountaineers
Our intrepid set of English heroes consists of:
- Tom Burley: Essentially the no nonsense strong man of the group and a major in the RASC.
- Lancelot Constant: The language translator. Probably the funniest of the lot. His minor failings with foreign grammar and syntax leads to a perpetual stream of raging arguments with locals.
- Ridley Prone: The doctor, who’s absolutely always falling ill with a bizarre set of diseases.
- Christopher Wish: The scientist utterly obsessed with measurements, many of which he disastrously miscalculates.
- Donald Shute: The photographer set to document the journey, whose experience and judgement are highly questionable.
- Humphrey Jungle: A radio expert and route finder. Arguably the most incompetent member of the lot, as his inability to find routes causes constant chaos.
- Binder: The well meaning, but intensely naive, leader (and narrator). You quickly realise he’s an atrociously hapless individual and provides an unreliable account of the Rum Doodle trek.
Right, so the book absolutely nails that sense of bumbling English eccentricities.
As that lot are pretty ineffective and (despite Binder’s chest thumping accounts) it’s clear they don’t work well together as a unit.
You get that right from the off. Meeting in a pub in London to finalise plans, Prone is too slammed out with cold to function.
Jungle can’t attend as he’s lost. And Wish is busy faffing about with an impossible scientific dream:
"Wish then outlined the scientific programme. In addition to investigations into the hypographical and topnological fossiferation of the area he hoped to collect new data on the effect of biochronical disastrification of the gencospherical pandiculae on the exegesis of Wharton's warple. He also hoped to bring back a pair of each species of living creature found on the mountain in order to study the possibility of breeding mountaineers capable of living normal lives at high altitudes."
Well, yeah, stiff upper lip and let’s be having you, then.
After heading out to the Himalayas, the group meets the local Yagistani people out there, who communicate through an unusual mixture of guttural burps and speech.
Translator and diplomat Constant’s inability to fully master the language leaves him frequently engaging in the most furious shouting matches with the locals.
Especially the porters. It’s Constant’s error in pronunciation that sees some 30,000 porters waiting for the mountaineers’ arrival, when they really only needed 3,000.
Everyone must also deal with the terrifying Yagistani cook who accompanies them. This is Pong. Binder describes him as:
"Of all the barbarous three thousand, Pong was probably the most startling in appearance. His face had a peculiarly flattened look, as though it had been pressed in by a plane surface while it was still soft. This same flattening seemed to have spread to his soul, for a more morose, unresponsive, and uninspiring individual it would be impossible to imagine."
Throughout the rest of the trek, Pong utterly haunts the Englishmen and their every move. With his presence and horrific cooking skills.
They fear him to such an extent, his continuous lurking behind them actually helps their relentless push up the mountain.
Binder continues to regale a heroic and successful journey to the peak of Rum Doodle. But it’s clear from his anecdotes and gullibility his crew don’t value him as a leader.
And the expedition isn’t exactly going swimmingly. Although there are the usual trips, slips, an falls that occur with mountaineering. Most notably when Constant plunges into a crevasse.
Binder is able to secure him via a rope and attempts to relay the translator’s broken Yogistani to Prone over radio. Who then informs the Yogistani porters of the predicament.
"My stomach and Prone's were quite unused to pronouncing Yogistani. The noises we produced would have been a disgrace in any company; as vehicles of communication they were a total failure. Constant said that the replies which I passed on to [Prone] bore no relation at all to the problem under consideration. They would, he said, if uttered in the streets of Chaikhosi, result in imprisonment for life, if not worse. They were, he imagined, without precedent or parallel in the whole history of spoken language. He himself had never imagined that such statements were possible; if he ever came out of the crevasse alive he would have to reconsider his whole philosophy in the light of what I had said."
Although the others appear to get on, as evidenced by the memorable drunken celebration on that crevasse (to which Binder isn’t invited) after the porters save the day.
Prone, meanwhile, continues on with his relentless series of disasters.
"[Constant] produced a first-aid manual and pointed out that the symptoms were exactly those of haemorrhage, except that the last two were missing, namely; insensibility and death. He said there was still hope. Prone then discovered that he had cut himself in the ear while shaving and was slowly bleeding to death. After stopping the bleeding by holding ice against his ear and afterwards treating himself for surgical shock and a frostbitten ear, he went down with Italian measles."
And so they plod on up the Rum Doodle. Doddering, hapless, and then a series of further total disasters renders the entire expedition as pointless.
All of which Binder hails as a success, thanking all his crew for their sterling efforts.
And in gushing forewords at the start of the novella, there are demands that every schoolboy read the book twice, thrice, or however many times it’d take to stamp the spirit of Empire into them.
Right… we must say this is the most enjoyable book we’ve read in a long time. Slight at 171 pages, but a joyous farce and very funny.
What’s amazing is this was written in 1956. Yet Bowman’s sense of humour, his sharp wit, is remarkably fresh and modern.
The book doesn’t feel old. Yet it’s clearly written in the 1950s, as many of the songs the mountaineers sing belong in skiffle groups and beer halls.
From Scarborough, Bowman was an engineer and writer. He served in World War II in Egypt as a radar instructor for the RAF.
After reading Bill Tillman’s The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937), he clearly found the ridiculous English pomp and ceremony was crying out for lampooning.
And that’s what he specialised in, funny parodies lampooning that English sense of exceptionalism in completing dangerous (but kind of pointless) missions.
Mighty fine books, we must say, but also a testament to stiff upper lip England. With a dwindling Empire, what better way to rouse a nation than to go off exploring?
Unfortunately, The Cruise of the Talking Fish (1957) was the only other major work from Bowman. Two books! Although he also wrote short stories and essays simplifying relativity.
It seems a shame he didn’t take his comedic skill further—on his own, the sadistic chef Pong is a work of genius. And that’s just the peak of the mountain of comedy gems on display here.
Well, he (Bowman, not Pong) clearly needs more renown than this. Our advice—go out and get yourself a copy of The Ascent of Rum Doodle immediately.
It’s short, sharp, and very bloody funny. A cult classic that needs to be taken up mountains and shouted about from the peak.