Three young men decide to take a boating holiday up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford in fin de siecle Victorian England, accompanied by a dog, some cheese and a tin of pineapples.
On the face of it, “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)”, is a 19th century travel guide in which nothing much really happens, and which really shouldn’t have much relevance for the rest of us now.
Yet despite the apparent mundanity of a book about a riverbound camping holiday for three blazered boys in boaters, it is quite simply one of the funniest books ever written.
Jerome K. Jerome’s comic gem features the accidental escapades of three real people – himself as the narrator and two friends, Wingrave and Harris, plus a dog with the improbable name of Montmorency.
From the very start of the story, in which two of the party bribe a Waterloo train driver to go to a different station to board their boat, it’s constant laugh-out-loud hilarity as the ragtag party makes its way upstream, with hysterical passages on the playing of bagpipes, the occasional horrors of campfire cooking, doomed battles with a tin of pineapples and the advantages of cheese as a travelling companion.
I forget the other ingredients, but I know nothing was wasted; and I remember that, towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say.The Irish Stew
The book is a testament to the simplicity of earlier times, easy comradeship and the joy to be taken in savouring life’s absurdities – all told in a far too quickly read 150 pages.
“We are very fond of pineapple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready. Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tinopener to be found.A battle with a tin of pineapples.
Some years ago, Griff Rhys Jones, Dara Ó Briain and Rory McGrath recreated the journey for a BBC TV series, which was sufficiently amusing at times, but it was no substitute for the original material.
“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing. ”
“What the eye does not see, the stomach does not get upset over”
“Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.
To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable.”
That’ll give you an idea.
Funny then, funny now, funny forever.