Skip to main content

The Rough Life

[clock] 13-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 1934

As far back as my memory extends, the rough life has existed for me as something real and vivid but utterly remote. When I say that I have lived until now in circumstances of practically unvaried comfort, I am not making the pretence of having been cradled in gilded luxury; on the contrary, I am merely stating a commonplace of normal English adolescence. There is very little connection nowadays between wealth and softness of living (indeed, the average footman leads a far softer life than his master). No normally educated Englishman is too hot or too cold, or hungry or thirsty or dirty or tired, for any appreciable length of time. Hot and cold water, thermometers and iodine, blankets and the appearance at regular times of unlimited quantities of food, are the ordinary circumstances of adolescence; they are sound enough foundations on which, with a little ingenuity, one can erect a fair edifice of personal comfort. From the first it was my hobby to develop the opportunities of comfort. At school, when malingering failed, it was always possible to turn to good account the few asperities of routine by making them the contacts against which to impose greater indulgence; scalding baths and vast orgies of crumpet eating succeeded crosscountry runs and O. T. C. field days, expunging their memory and no doubt their benefits. With ampler means and greater freedom of choice in later years it has been possible to elaborate and improve this architecture of comfort, sometimes demolishing, sometimes restoring, now polishing some decorative detail, now throwing out whole new wings and terraces, reconciling and adjusting harmony and contrast and slowly bringing into existence a solid product of the art of making one’s life tolerable; an inglorious occupation perhaps, but unambitious and, I hope, inoffensive.

But throughout all the years of soft living I have been aware, more keenly at some times than at others, of this second, opposed life which inevitably with the universal growth of comfort, has become a cult: the cult of “roughing it.” At first this other life was something which existed only in literature, glamorous and intangible as Arthurian chivalry. Sometimes the voice of authority would break in on my contemplation saying, “It would do you good to rough it for a bit. Make a man of you.” But for the most part it remained a poetic fiction quite unrelated to my own leisured existence. Prone on the hearth rug on winter evenings with a bound volume of “Chums” propped between my elbows, I would read of forest life; and as the coals glowed behind the nursery fireguard, picture, at what great distance, camp fires under the open sky where wood sparks volleyed up to join the stars. Or in the summer, dragging a desk chair into a shady corner of the garden, I would read, while bees buzzed among the Canterbury bells, of sledges and wolves and avalanches. I became familiar with the “crack” of the “Winchester” and with numberless italicized phrases—pampas, bolas, gaucho, kraal, veldt, assegai—which had for me the same magic and the same remoteness as the palfreys and damozels of Mallory.

The Boy Scout movement was then in its first flower. Every Saturday afternoon Hampstead Heath, where most of my childhood was spent, became overrun with boys of my own age from more densely populated districts who, in decorations curiously hybrid of heraldry and totemism, crept on their stomachs or plunged through the gorse uttering the scalping cries of American Indians, and doing little harm to anyone except the couples of lovers who habitually bestrew the district. I watched them with an interest that was cordial but aloof.

Later, for four years, the entire world adopted the standard of the Wild West, living in disastrous intimacy with firearms; the shops glutted their windows with camping equipment and insecticides.

Later still, various of my acquaintances were continually disappearing into distant parts of the globe to excavate ruins or shoot big game. They returned, some with handfuls of broken pottery, some with tiger skins, most with recurrent malaria, and all with vividly exciting anecdotes.


Thus the conception of the rough life was never absent from my mind, and as my own habits became softer and more circumspect I became aware of a doubt growing up that could only be satisfied by personal investigation. For there must have been a time in everyone’s experience—more than one in mine—when a conversation about some amenity of life—cookery for example—has been rudely interrupted by a stern voice from another world. “Well I can tell you the best meal I ever had. Arrowroot biscuits, rather mouldy at that, and cocoa made in an old cigarette tin. We’d done twenty-six miles safari that day, on foot, through elephant grass—two of my bearers down with dengue, etc. . . . That meal tasted better than anything I ever hope to eat in Europe.” Crash! The whole structure of polite living lies in ruins. The little restaurant your informant discovered while motoring in the Dordogne is swept away, and dark doubt mounts in the mind. Has all the building been in vain? Do these men from the Equator and the Arctic Circle really know secrets of luxury that are denied to the inhabitants of more temperate regions? And in books of travel how invariably does one meet the purple passage in which the author—or more commonly the authoress—after fearful dangers and hardships has found in a bush camp comfort which he or she would not exchange for all the luxuries of civilization? So insistent is the witness that every sybarite must at one time or another have been haunted by the fear that he is on the wrong track and that his real goal lies among deserts and glaciers.

It was partly to examine this heresy that I undertook the phase of the journey I am now engaged on—from the River Berbice in British Guiana to the Rio Branco in Brazil. And now I know. I can return in confidence to the decencies and refinements of Europe. I have discovered numerous excellent reasons for such a journey, but luxury was not one of them.

I think I chose a very fair sample of the rough life, offering certainly little apparent danger but about every other negation of physical and mental comfort as it is understood in Europe. It was in fact as rough a route as one can take and still keep within the limits of legitimate travelling. Beyond that, one’s journey becomes a feat of athletics. For the essence of athleticism is the overcoming of self-imposed obstacles; one first erects a series of hurdles between two points and then sees how rapidly one can travel between them, or one invents a code of rules to hinder one in propelling a ball across country, or one attempts to reach the summit of a mountain by the most circuitous and laborious means. The art of travelling, on the other hand, consists in the avoiding or overcoming of natural difficulties; in choosing a place difficult of access and getting there as expeditiously as possible, with the single aesthetic principle that as far as possible one should employ the materials peculiar to the place: e. g., that in a place where the normal means of communication is by canal, one should go in that way rather than by an aeroplane—and that is because the whole course of the journey is its object, not merely its terminal point. Within these qualifications, then, I can claim that the trip from the Berbice to the Rio Branco gives me authority to expose some of the heresies current about the rough life, again insisting that this essay treats the subject purely from the point of view of the epicure. There are a hundred excellent reasons that made the journey worth while. It is only when they claim to have all the tricks that the men from “the back of beyond” are bluffing.


First there is the heresy about Freedom, which is perhaps the most widespread and mischievous of all. It crops up again and again in one form or another, and takes its origin, I believe, from the praise devoted to the simple life by the classical poets. But nothing could be more repugnant to Horace than “roughing it.” When he eulogized the simple life he meant the life of the private citizen as distinct from courtier and politician. It is typical of the rough-life cult that it should have taken over this loyalty with it. For how often almost in paraphrase of Horace’s praise of his farm, does one read praise of the camp. The authoress sits by her camp fire, with only her faithful native bearers as companions, crooning their songs in the darkness, and reflects on her independence of all the constraints of convention and civilization. . . . It is needless to quote. Everyone must be familiar with countless examples of this sort of ecstasy.

Well, it is all my eye. I have never encountered any manner of life more restricted in every way and more weighted with responsibility than life in the bush. I would sooner take charge of a troop of preparatory-school boys—I speak who have done so—than of those faithful native bearers, who combine the idleness and dishonesty of children, the blank stupidity of office girls, and the spite and jealousy of a theatrical company. One is completely responsible for and dependent on these people for the whole of one’s journey; one has to make every decision in the ordering of their lives, elaborate every detail of their duties and repeat the detail on each occasion that the duty has to be performed. One has to dose them with medicine, arbitrate in their quarrels, instruct them exactly how everything must be done, each time it is done; one has to set them in motion and maintain them in motion by one’s own effort, and one is completely dependent on them at every stage, for they are the link which connects you with your stores.

Here one is confronted by another of the fetters which make life in the bush the least free form of existence. Most people who study their own comfort realize soon enough that possessions are a thing to be approached with caution. The moment one becomes attached to any object one’s freedom is curtailed. I have for some time adopted the austere policy of denying myself the ownership of anything I cannot put in a suitcase. I undoubtedly lose a great deal of pleasure, but I think I gain more. In the bush one has to possess whatever one wishes to use. Loss or damage to any single thing may render your whole progress impossible; a single man or animal incapacitated and your whole expedition halts with him. I was travelling extremely light, in fact with almost less than an adequate minimum; but I required besides my own horse a pack animal and three men for four weeks’ journey. Consider the difference in freedom between a day in London and a day in the bush. In London you wake up, dress, and stand on your doorstep with complete liberty of choice; a vast variety of company at the other end of the telephone, a vast variety of food to eat, of books or entertainment; if the mood is on you you can step into an aeroplane and lunch in Paris or take a train to the country; a vast variety of scenery is at your disposal. In the bush duty besets you at once. Your pack-animal has to be loaded, and though it has been done in exactly the same fashion for twenty mornings, you have to supervise every detail and detect the same mistakes, a rope across the withers which will cause a gall, an unequally balanced pack that will swing loose during the morning; you have to apportion the loads to each man and see he does not surreptitiously add his to the ox’s. When everything is ready, and the best, cool hour of the day wasted, you set off without possibility of deviation down the little green tunnel that is your unvarying route.

And what is this freedom from convention I read so much about? What are these prohibitions that beset female travellers in civilized life? I live among normally mannered people, and for the life of me I cannot say I am aware of any of these restrictions. On the whole, it seems to me less onerous to remember one’s collar and tie, than perform the cumbrous toilet of the tropics—to shake one’s shirt free of ants and search one’s boots for scorpions, to rub one’s body with bitter oil to keep away ticks. It seems to me more trouble to scramble down the mud bank of a forest stream for one’s bath and keep a boy near you kicking up the water to warn off stinging eels and carnivorous fish, than to put on dressing-gown and slippers and go next door to the bathroom. And is it really much more oppressive to wear a bowler hat than a cork helmet? Or if it is the conventions of social intercourse that these authoresses mean, is it not easier to observe the rudimentary rules in which one has been brought up, than to adapt oneself to the extraordinary politeness of savages, to drink bowls of utterly nauseous intoxicants, exchanging compliments by means of an interpreter, to squat in dark huts in absolute silence under the scrutiny of the entire village, to shake hands with some dozens of semi-civilized mission products and pretend to understand the curious jargon of English they have acquired? I do not say that all these things are not of absorbing interest—but where does the sense of Freedom come in?

With this goes the heresy that one sleeps and eats better in the wilds. Do not believe it. Have you read with envy descriptions of the savoury stew pot full of newly shot game? There is nothing nastier. After six hours in the saddle in an atmosphere of moist heat, with two or three hours to wait for one’s men to turn up with the stores, when one finds that the last occupants of the rest house have torn up the floor for firewood, have demolished the little bench that was the only furniture, and left the place scattered with rotten fish, one could find in Europe more complete rest than standing up or sitting on a tree trunk alive with ants. And lying on a hammock in the shelter of a Brazilian ranch, I have been kept awake two thirds of the night, after a day of strenuous exercise, by the smell of an ox which happened to have died a week previously some yards away, and which no one had had the trouble to remove.

Gentle reader, the object of this essay is not, Othello-like, to excite your compassion with a chronicle of the hardships and tedium of my journey. It is rather to reassure you of your own standard of living. The remedy for all these troubles—and I could mention a dozen others—is perfectly simple. If you value comfort and physical pleasure, stay at home; don’t let the literary globe-trotters shake your faith in the valuable things of our civilization. We have little enough to offer, but at least in Europe we can enjoy bodily ease in a degree which has been impossible in any other age. There are plenty of reasons for travelling in obscure and inaccessible regions, but the sybarite need not concern himself with them. He is on the right track where he is.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading