Monday, September 25, 2017

H. W. TILMAN Part 2

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With the last edition of the weblog, I began a series of observations on writers and how character, or the lack of same, stamps its mark on their work. This edition is Part Two on the explorer H. W. Tilman.


From The Ascent of Nanda Devi1:

I have always admired those people who before ever reaching a mountain, perhaps even before seeing it, will draw up a sort of itinerary of the journey from base camp to summit---a complicated affair of dates, camps, loads, and men, showing at any given moment precisely where A is expected to be, what B will be doing, what C has had for breakfast, and what D has got in his load. It always reminds me of the battle plans an omniscient staff used to arrange for us in France, where the artillery barrage and the infantry went forward, hand in hand as it were, regardless of the fact that while there was nothing whatever to impede the progress of the barrage, there were several unknown quantities, such as mud, wire, and Germans, to hamper the movements of the infantry.

Tilman with his baked loaf

What does one make of the man from this snippet of his writing? The first step, perhaps, should be to consider style, generally, and its several characteristics. Then one might apply what was learned to assess both the writer and his writing.

Begin with a definition (so we have some idea what we are talking about): Style consists of the way a writer uses grammar, syntax, and vocabulary to embellish or compress his work to fit a specific context, purpose, or audience.

Grammatically, the selection above is both formal and precise. Parallel structures---four elements of the 'complicated affair' followed by four specific examples---suggest Tilman's preference for an orderly syntax. This structure is also the means by which he embellishes the piece. His audience, he expects, is one that is well educated. Words such as 'omniscient' with an etymological root from Latin pepper his work.

What offers the clearest insight into his character is his use of humor, typically British, dry as dust. He ends the selection with a flippant description of the horrors of the trenches of the first world war as merely so many 'unknown quantities.'

Where does this leave us? Tilman was a man both orderly and precise, well educated with enough experience of the world to give substance to his ideas. He was a laconic man, often described inaccurately, I think, as shy. He had no more use for slang and 'sloppy syntax' than he did for the hypocrites and slackards of the world.

Finally, another man's opinion. The following abridged quote is from David Warren's weblog 'Essays in Idleness' (

[He] 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.

1Tilman H W., The Seven Mountain Travel Books (Diadem, London, 1983), 222.

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