I was given a copy of W.E. Bowman’s entire published works in an omnibus edition as a gift and I turned my nose up at it. I mean, I accepted it courteously and my face undoubtedly even had a smile on it, but I really wasn’t that enthusiastic. I had hoped for a book by an author I knew, a reliable favourite. I read the back cover blurb and leafed through it dejectedly. My fear was that it was going to be unfunny, irritating, perhaps twee, like so much other ‘humorous’ fiction I had been exposed to in the past decade or so. I put the book away in a box. And that’s where it lingered for a number of years until one day I chanced upon it again.
I can no longer recall what compelled me to try reading it. I had moved house and maybe it was the first book to resurface when I unpacked. I don’t know. I settled on a sofa and opened it and began reading with no great expectations of finishing it. A few pages later I was regretting that I hadn’t jumped right in when I first had the chance. Here was monstrously brilliant prose and exactly the kind of ecstatically daft comedy I enjoy best. The omnibus contained only two books, The Ascent of Rum Doodle and The Cruise of the Talking Fish, the first two novels in the ‘Binder Trilogy’, because that was the totality of Bowman’s published output. The third volume exists only in manuscript form and may never be published.
And the reason for that is commercial, of course, for Bowman was never a writer who sold large numbers of his books, and he still isn’t, despite reissues and support from luminaries. He was obscure and remains so. This is shame. He was, in my view, the finest humorous writer in English literature in the past hundred years, funnier even than the impeccable Wodehouse, brilliant Maurice Richardson and sublime J.B. Morton. For decades he was a cult author to some mountaineers, who knew nothing about him. Information about this almost impossibly dry humourist was non-existent. He was a name on a book cover, nothing more.
Bowman did eventually pen a brief autobiography to enlighten his few devoted readers as to the course of his life, and this was read out to mourners at his funeral in 1985. He was born in Scarborough in 1911, studied engineering in Middlesbrough, worked in a drawing office where, in quieter moments, he indulged his interest in humorous fiction and popular science. Outside office hours he went walking in the Lake District and thought a lot about the theory of relativity. Relocating to London in order to make it as a writer, he “lapsed” back into engineering and moved to Swansea just before it was obliterated by the Luftwaffe in 1941.
The Swansea connection was one I didn’t know about until long after I became a devoted fan, but it excited me because it was in Swansea that I first read his fiction. It turns out that Bowman joined the RAF after the bombing, fought the Nazi menace and later went to live and work in Germany. The most successful of his books, The Ascent of Rum Doodle, is absolutely concerned with high altitude mountaineering and rather too much has been made by some commentators of the fact that Bowman himself only climbed fairly low peaks. I believe that this approach is a mistake. The climbing of even a modest mountain is mountaineering. One doesn’t need to eat a full bowl of curry to know what curry tastes like. Devise your own comparison, if you prefer. Besides, Rum Doodle is only fiction.
But the problem is that the details of the story are so exact and skilfully rendered and are so perfectly integrated into the situations the characters face that readers who were also mountaineers were convinced the book must have been written by one of the great climbers or at least by a member of one of the key Himalayan expeditions. They assumed that Bowman was a pseudonym, but for who? There were plenty of jokers and comedians among cragsmen back then. Shipton loved a jape, for example, and his climbing partner had been Tilman, and the style of Rum Doodle was clearly based at least partly on Tilman’s prose style.
But no, Bowman was an individual, just himself, an engineer who loved slightly surreal and massively absurd literature. He had read Tilman, of course, and Herzog, and all the works of those literary mountaineers blessed with an immeasurably calm, dry and understated way of describing extreme situations. Tilman in particular was tough and brave, yet he downplayed his qualities in a manner so brusque, abrasive and forcefully modest that he generated his own comedy, a comedy he probably was unable to perceive. Aplomb was his middle name.
Bowman parodied this mode, but never mocked it. The main protagonist of his books, the extraordinary Binder, is an honest, sincere, utterly honourable naïf, strong, noble and silly. And of course he is not based just on Tilman but on others of that ilk. He is an amalgam of imagination and reality. So overwhelmingly innocent is Binder that the other members of his team can’t help but play japes on him, some of which are authentically mean. But even when they regret their actions and go out of their way to apologise to him, he remains bewildered.
The Ascent of Rum Doodle, was published in 1956, a few years after successful ascents of Everest, Annapurna, Nanga Parbat and the other giants. It was one of the great decades of mountaineering history. Published by Max Parrish, a publisher long fallen into oblivion, it was issued in two separate editions in the USA and translated and published in France in the same year. The following year a Spanish edition was released and a Danish edition the year after. Then nothing for more than two decades. The book died or would have done had it not become a cult item among the climbing fraternity. Those climbers kept the memory alive, passing around battered copies until a supplier of climbing equipment asked Bowman for permission to republish it. That was in 1979. Bowman said yes, and Dark Peak produced a facsimile edition that was only available for sale in some climbing shops.
Pimlico republished the book in 2001 and Bill Bryson wrote a Foreword, stressing that he thought it was one of the funniest fictions he had ever read. That should have boosted sales, but it didn’t. At last Vintage got hold of it and published the edition that is available now. The omnibus edition that I owned, published by Pimlico is 1992, is actually a rarity, and I didn’t know it. I give away books after I have read them. That was a mistake in this instance, because The Cruise of the Talking Fish, which was an even bigger commercial disaster than Rum Doodle, is now expensive to get hold of in any edition. It takes patience and determination.
Whereas the first book was a satire on climbing, the second was a parody of Thor Heyerdahl and his sailing of the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps even dafter, certainly rafter, it failed to find an audience. I consider it even funnier than Rum Doodle yet I have only managed to read it once. I have read Rum Doodle three times. I may read it a fourth time before my life is over. Who knows? There are very few books indeed I have read more than twice. That book is special to me, and so is Bowman. He captures perfectly the quality of the explorers of his time, their heroism and foolishness, their ability to improvise and their chronically peculiar ailments.
The Cruise of the Talking Fish was published in 1957, a year after Rum Doodle. It is a curiously circular tale, profoundly ironic but charming rather than cruel. Because of the lack of interest from the reading public, Bowman lost enthusiasm for writing. He forged ahead with the third volume of the planned trilogy but without any haste. The working title of that third volume was Mugluring but this was changed to Mabits by the time it was eventually completed. I have been in touch with Bowman’s son, who confirms that the manuscript still exists, but I have no idea what it is about, what new misadventures Binder is given to negotiate in its pages. The only way it will see print is if a determined publisher has the will to seek it out, obtain the rights and then launch it into the world, maybe smacking it into life with the rear end of a champagne bottle as it slides down the ramp of improbability into that sea of troubles called the modern publishing environment. Will this happen?
Probably not. Great works often remain in oblivion or semi-oblivion and it is not unlikely that the best novels ever written are rotting unseen and unread in a chest in the attic of a crumbling house somewhere. The fact that Bowman does have enough fanatical readers to keep his name alive is the reason Vintage republished The Ascent of Rum Doodle, but that number is just enough, no more. It is not sufficient to ensure that Talking Fish stays in print or that Binder’s third part will be made available to us anytime soon. It’s the nature of the publishing beast. But the small press may come to the rescue if no one else does. Some small publishers now produce books that are no less professionally made than the big publishers.
The comedy best beloved of Bowman was a typically British melange of semi-surrealism, full absurdism and music hall banter. It tends to be highly inventive and as comfortable with metaphysics as it is with social misapprehensions. Absurdist thought experiments might be mixed with outrageous yarns, all presented with an aplomb that heightens the effect. When characters do react emotionally it is generally in response to trivial incidents, not major ones. Disasters usually elicit an understated response. Two men tangled in climbing ropes in a tent becomes an episode of sexual intensity, a frantic and hysterical encounter of rapidly escalating melodrama, whereas the systematic loss of the entire team in a deep crevasse is treated as nothing to get especially worked up about, a simple inconvenience.
This reversal of real life convention is one of the classic techniques of this kind of comedy. The Grossmiths can perhaps be regarded as its spiritual godfathers. J.B. Morton (aka Beachcomber) is the one who introduced a metafictional element in the 1920s and 30s. Some of the Liliput magazine writers of the 1940s, including Maurice Richardson, were its ultimate paladins. By the time Bowman got involved, the style was already in decline. It is not really social or political comedy, nor is it parody for its own sake. It is a type of positive ironic whimsy that rigorously contributes to the genre it feeds from. Rum Doodle is genuine mountaineering literature. Talking Fish is genuine raft literature, if such a thing as raft literature exists. I am glad that Bowman existed, popular or not. He is my comedy summit.
Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He currently shares his time between Britain and Kenya. His first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995, and since that time he has published more than forty other books, eight hundred short stories and numerous articles, and his work has been translated into ten languages around the world. His fiction is generally fantastical, whimsical and inventive. His most recent book is Mombasa Madrigal and Other African Escapades. A lover of paradoxes, he incorporates them into his fiction as entertainingly as he can. All the photos above come from his own collection.