Thursday, 13 May 2010

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

I remember reading, or at least starting to read, Jerome K. Jerome’s classic on idling about on the river when I was fourteen or thereabouts. A while back anyway. It’s certainly been nice to reacquaint myself with the text; Jerome is a joy to read at whatever age.

The plot, so much as there is one, involves J and his friends George and Harris (and Montmorency the dog) taking a fortnight off work so that they can boat up the river Thames from Kingston to Oxford. The following series of episodes see them amble upstream at a leisurely pace, bumping into fellow rivers users and reminiscing on journeys past while suffering inedible food and uncomfortable nights sleep on the floor of the boat.

The packing seems to go well enough though:

George suggested meat and fruit pies, cold meat, tomatoes, fruit, and green stuff. For drink, we took some wonderful sticky concoction of Harris's, which you mixed with water and called lemonade, plenty of tea, and a bottle of whisky, in case, as George said, we got upset. It seemed to me that George harped too much on the getting-upset idea. It seemed to me the wrong spirit to go about the trip in. But I'm glad we took the whisky. We didn't take beer or wine. They are a mistake up the river. They make you feel sleepy and heavy. A glass in the evening when you are doing a mooch round the town and looking at the girls is all right enough; but don't drink when the sun is blazing down on your head, and you've got hard work to do.

And Jerome is certainly in good company. Harris, certainly, knows how to sniff out a pub wherever he is. In fact, Harris has something of a reputation in this line:

I wonder now, supposing Harris, say, turned over a new leaf, and became a great and good man, and got to be Prime Minister, and died, if they would put up signs over the public-houses that he had patronised: "Harris had a glass of bitter in this house;" "Harris had two of Scotch cold here in the summer of `88;" "Harris was chucked from here in December, 1886." No, there would be too many of them! It would be the houses that he had never entered that would become famous. "Only house in South London that Harris never had a drink in!" The people would flock to it to see what could have been the matter with it.

Among his musings on history, other people and life on the river, J notes, after a good lunch, on the peculiarities of the human body, namely the control that our stomachs have over our brains:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs... after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, "Now, come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh - drivel in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol."

Still, that would never happen to any of these stout fellows. Especially not Harris, left alone on the boat with the dog and the bottle of whiskey while J and George go off to the nearby village for supper. When they finally get back, Harris is behaving oddly:

There was an unaccountable strangeness about Harris. It was something more than mere ordinary tiredness. He pulled the boat against a part of the bank from which it was quite impossible for us to get into it, and immediately went to sleep... Oh, how delightful it was to be safe in the boat, after our trials and fears! We ate a hearty supper, George and I, and we should have had some toddy after it, if we could have found the whisky, but we could not. We examined Harris as to what he had done with it; but he did not seem to know what we meant by "whisky," or what we were talking about at all. Montmorency looked as if he knew something, but said nothing.

And so the book potters on, as the three slowly make their way to Oxford. Then in the pouring rain, they start to row back downriver. By the time they get to Pangbourne, the novelty of the trip has well and truly worn off. They leave the boat at a boathouse and hot foot it to the fleshpots of London the next time. Why, they are even back in time to stop at a capital little out-of-the-way restaurant... where you can get one of the best-cooked and cheapest little French dinners or suppers that I know of, with an excellent bottle of Beaune, for three-and-six...

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