Happy Birthday Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat – To Say Nothing of the Dog! – a serious contender for the funniest novel ever written, especially if your taste in humor runs toward Monty Python. Published in 1889, the story chronicles a boat trip taken by the author and two friends on the River Thames in a camping skiff. The original manuscript had been commissioned by a publisher as “history mixed up with comic relief.” An astute editor removed most of the history and kept the comic relief. Since its publication, Three Men in a Boat has never been out of print.
England during the Victorian era sent explorers and travelers to the far corners of the earth. Less adventurous English men and women explored local rivers and enjoyed afternoon outings on the water. (Remember Ratty in The Wind in the Willows? “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”)
Camping, whether experienced in the Nineteenth or the Twenty First century, has not changed that much. Today we rarely struggle with canvas tents, but otherwise, Jerome’s account of camping in the rain has a familiar ring:
“Camping out in rainy weather is not pleasant.
It is evening. You are wet through, and there is a good two inches of water in the boat, and all the things are damp. You find a place on the banks that is not quite so puddly as other places you have seen, and you land and lug out the tent, and two of you proceed to fix it.
It is soaked and heavy, and it flops about, and tumbles down on you, and clings around your head and makes you mad. The rain is pouring steadily down all the time. It is difficult enough to fix a tent in dry weather; in wet, the task becomes Herculean. Instead of helping you, it seems that the other man is simply playing the fool. Just as you get your side beautifully fixed, he gives it a hoist from his end and spoils it all.
“Here! What are you up to?” you call out.
“What are you up to?” he retorts. “Leggo, can’t you?”
“Don’t pull it; you’ve got it all wrong, you stupid ass!” you shout.
“No, I haven’t,” he yells back; “let go your side!”
“I tell you you’ve got it all wrong!” you roar, wishing that you could get at him; and you give your ropes a lug that pulls all his pegs out.
“Ah, the bally idiot!” you hear him mutter to himself; and then comes a savage haul, and away goes your side. You lay down the mallet and start to go around and tell him what you think about the whole business, and, at the same time, he starts around in the same direction to come and explain his views to you. And you follow each other round and round, swearing at one another, until the tent tumbles down in a heap, and leaves you looking at each other across its ruins, then you both indignantly exclaim in the same breath:
“There you are! What did I tell you?”
Meanwhile the third man, who has been baling out the boat, and who has spilled water down his sleeve, and has been cursing away to himself steadily for the last ten minutes, wants to know what the thundering blazes you’re playing at, and why the blarmed tent isn’t up yet.
At last, somehow or other, it does get up, and you land the things. It is hopeless attempting to make a wood fire, so you light the methylated spirit stove, and crowd round that.
Rainwater is the chief article of diet at supper. The bread is two-thirds rainwater, the beefsteak-pie is exceedingly rich in it, and the jam and butter, and the salt, and the coffee have all combined with it to make soup.
After supper, you find your tobacco is damp, and you cannot smoke. Luckily you have a bottle of the stuff that cheers and inebriates, if taken in proper quantity, and this restores to you sufficient interest in life to induce you to go to bed.”
Three Men in a Boat is full of asides that astonish with their insight and humor:
“Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous – almost of pedantic – veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.”
The journey from Kingston to Oxford on the Thames is relatively unchanged from Jerome K. Jerome’s day. Fans of the book, using its detailed descriptions, still take to the river to follow Harris, George, J. and Montmorency (the dog) on their journey. The book has given birth to several movies and even musicals. If you can stretch your memory back to 1975, you may remember Michael Palin and Tim Curry starring in a Masterpiece Theatre production.
Learn more about Jerome K Jerome
+ Why won’t Walsall honour Jerome K Jerome?
+Jerome K Jerome Wikipedia
This is another in an occasional series of posts celebrating the birthdays of environmentalists, ecologists, travelers, adventurers, thinkers, artists, writers, and scientists who have inspired us to a greater appreciation of and participation in life on planet Earth. Who has inspired you? Please let us know, so we can add them to our celebration list.