Up & about with Bill Tilman

One of the greatest pleasures in life, for those who were taught to read in childhood, is falling upon an unread book by a much-loved author. This happened to me, and if I add the scrupulously bibulous celebration of an old friend’s seventy-fifth birthday (now ten years retired as the last competent drawing master in what, before name inflation, was called the Ontario College of Art), I may explain the omission of posts on Tuesday.

The author was Bill Tilman (Major Harold William Tilman, CBE, DSO, MC and bar, 1898–1977), renowned mountaineer, pilot-cutter yachtsman, and raconteur, whose fifteen ridiculously understated memoirs of voyages and adventures supply something that went missing around the time of the Great War.

The book, entitled China to Chitral, is an account of wanderings up and through the mountains of Chinese Turkestan, especially about Urumchi and Kashgar, with his old climbing companion Eric Shipton in anno 1948. It could be praised at many levels, both for what it describes and what it ignores. Tilman crossed China westward when Mao Tse-tung and his Communist Revolution were sweeping the other way. But not once does Tilman mention this news, restricting his remarks on China and Chinese either to the timeless, or to the exactly particular. We hear more about a T’ang Dynasty general who led an army across the Pamirs against an alliance of Arabs and Tibetans, in anno 747.

He spreads learning almost in spite of himself: “My theme is mountains, unsullied by science and alleviated with Chinese brandy.” A culinary anthology could be constructed from Tilman’s passing mentions of food, drink, and hard tack. From his climbing descriptions a reader may find the whole jargon of mountaineering self-explained. He minutely discerns birds and animals, glaciation and geology, without the slightest pretensions. He makes sharp anthropological observations on Kirghiz, Turkis, Kazakhs, Wakhis, Sherpas, Tungans — of a kind that could be made only by a man whose survival depended on getting them right. Yet he observes with a drollness that would be severely reprimanded today, by professorial experts who know nothing at first hand, and little true at second. And his way is lighted with innumerable aphorisms, both original, and derived: for he was a man of very broad reading, able effortlessly to insert the perfect, jaw-droppingly apt quotation, then improve on it with a light touch.

The inward joy is fully derived, from a view of life that is totally incompatible with that of the modern world. He is traveller, never passenger, and so he tramps or sails, compulsively taking the hard way over or around each obstacle. Several other twentieth-century English travellers shared in that attitude (Wilfred Thesiger is another of my heroes, Freya Stark among my heroines), but Tilman exceeds all in the gratuitousness of his assaults upon the world’s least habitable places.

He ascended Everest, for example, without oxygen and in weekend hiking boots and a tweed jacket, to an altitude of 27,300 feet, in 1938. He and Shipton were the first human beings to physically penetrate the inner Nanda Devi Sanctuary, similarly ill-equipped. There is a long list of such accomplishments, for which he was half-prepared at best. His soldiering in both World Wars, whether behind enemy lines or leading frontal attacks, was the stuff of legends.

And at the end of China to Chitral, upon hearing a false rumour that, during his absence from civilization, another World War had been declared, he says:

“There was no time to be lost. Modern wars are such long drawn out affairs that it would not be easy to arrive too late to take part, yet it would never do to commit such a solecism. In a terrible stew, hot-foot and resolved to march double stages, I set out for Gupis and the beaten track which I could no longer shun.”

The man writing that was already past fifty. He undoubtedly meant just what he said. Carefully read, the short passage communicates a masculine nobility almost gone from this world — a form of incorruptible flippancy which we correctly associate with those knights of old, who dared without hesitation, and laughed at everyone, especially themselves.