Maybe somewhere in the world is a person – unimportant their skin colour, gender, religious beliefs, vegetarianism – who has not laughed at some at least of Three Men in a Boat. But I doubt it. To translate this hilarious, clever work into Serbo-Croat, Mandarin, even (perhaps) the clicks of the Khosian languages might involve losing something of the eclectic, often florid wordplay indulged in by Jerome K Jerome; but it would never lose the gentle inspired comedies of character and situation which fill the tale as full as an egg is of meat.
For J, George and Harris are ageless and of all places. Their rashness, their self-indulgence, their blindness to obvious obstacles, their stupidity, their startling energy and their instant subsequent inertia are still as much to be found in young men in their mid twenties in Europe as in any of the continents. I challenge you to tell me that you have never met all three at one time or another. Harris with his fondness for the drink – if you met him at the Pearly Gates he’d greet you with “I know a little spot round the corner that serves a nice drop of rum”. George, the banjoist par médiocrité, you heard ceaselessly trying out the scale of D Minor (always slightly off-note) on the violin from his bedroom; J the hypochondriac, suffering from a litany of illnesses matched only by the private trying to wag off parade. And all three ready with those sharp, smart put-downs of his two friends which only true friends can get away with, as witness also Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle ten years later in 1899.
And the philosophical, gentle internal monologues which interleave the book – romantic and idealistic in content and style (genuinely serious or parody one can’t always tell, but invariably moving) – can be understood by homo sapiens wherever. The passage in which J urges us to throw off the unnecessary trappings of life, or laments how civilisation has scarred this beautiful world, or sermonises on how people so often want only what they cannot have – these apply universally from the Inuit to the Aborigine via the Choctaw and Xhosa. The unforgettable images and ideas of so many of these long deep musings are often oddly underlined by a puncturing, a humorous bathos at their conclusion, best provided by the pragmatic Harris over whose head much of this philosophy would have passed, indeed DID pass, without a blink.
I’d not read the book in some years, and had forgotten many of the lunatic and diverting episodes. The saga of the ultra-strong cheese, finally buried under a beach somewhere, now renowned for its bracing air. Harris attempting disastrously to sing a comic song. The glorious fiasco of Uncle Podger and the picture-hanging, a tale which, when I read it as a ten year-old, made me nigh on sick with laughing, as did the suddenly awakened George leaping out of bed straight into an unexpected tub of ice-cold water. The old verger offering J a Good Time – “Oh, come and see the skulls!”
I doubt the extent to which young women have ever, not just today, identified with these young Victorian middle-class men. But they surely recognise them. And I suspect that all we men see or pretend to see much of our former selves in these portraits of three blundering, hapless, thoughtless, amiable lads intent on having a good river holiday without offending anyone (and sometimes failing). The young-muscled easy-stroked rowing up the Thames; the constant filling of pipes; the soothing and necessary effects of alcohol (“for a thirst is a dangerous thing”); the falling in the river; the micky-taking out of ones friends; the sometimes total lack of common sense. I wager most of we men have all been there, done that – I hope so, at least.
For theirs was, in its way, a last celebration, a rite of passage before domesticity, perhaps a final bachelor fling. And just as Christopher Robin and Pooh will always be playing in Hundred Acre Wood, so too will Harris, George and J be forever on the move up-river, quietly bickering, smoking their pipes, amiably looking for their next adventure. I salute them fondly.