Thursday, May 21, 2009

Vintage Reading

Memoirs of a Mountaineer, Helvellyn to Himalaya, by F. Spenser Chapman was discovered at a used book section of a thrift store for a couple of dollars. In fact, the named book is the shorter of two books it contained, the second, Lhasa: The Holy City, I read some time ago. Because I enjoyed Chapman's very simple and rather naive style I bought this book and am now rereading [which I very rarely do] the Lhasa part.

The book itself is a bit beat up, I think probably from age and neglect for only the cover is worn, the interior is pristine, with wonderful pictures like the ones seen above. The distinguished mustashed man is the 13th Dalai Lama. I can say like an old curmudgeon "They don't write books like this nowadays." It's true. Mountain climbing is a totally different undertaking these days. Chapman was first to climb Chumolari, a magnificent mountain on the Sikkim/Tibet border, 23,000 plus -- using no oxygen, wearing multiple layers of wool socks and sweaters, long before Gore-tex existed. He had no "expedition" really just one sherpa companion [not so different from Hillary on Everest twenty years later].

Best of all is Chapman, the writer. An orphan raised by pastors and apparently with enough money to go to private [what they call public] school and then to Cambridge where he learned roof climbing. A bit of a loner, like so many English writers of the past he wandered fields and England's small mountains and learned names of flowers and birds -- which no modern day writer seems able to throw into observations with the casual assurance of many former British writers -- we've lost touch with the natural world except those writers who take an ecological stance.

Chapman is proud of his mountain climbing but never brags or shows off, gives the local men their due -- in words, although they were paid very badly. He observes both the mountains and then life in Lhasa with a fresh and largely unprejudiced eye, though always taking British superiority for granted. He has not done a lot of research to make himself an expert, rather he simply relates what he did and saw and what happened around him. There is no gee-whiz, and no ponderousness. In short this is a very refreshing read. He had an ease with language and unpretentiousness that is a joy to read. I have no idea what kind of career or life he had after these Himalayan adventures in the mid-1930s. I sincerely hope it was a good life. He was a very likable individual.

No comments: