Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome ~ 1889 and 1900. This omnibus edition: Penguin, 1999. Introduction and notes by Jeremy Lewis. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-043750-9. 362 pages.
My rating: 9/10
I’m sure everyone has heard of these two classics of light literature, and doubtless most of you have read at least the first one, so I’ll keep things superficial in my assessment below.
The takeaway: great fun, though the humour sometimes drops down into territory one can only designate as “lowish”. And occasionally exceedingly thought-provoking, as J.K.J. drops his farcical tone and muses on the serious things in life, like the sad plight of the hapless unwed mother, and the gathering clouds of potential conflict swirling round Europe during the German stage of the journeying.
In all, an enjoyable sort of mix, dished up by a thoughtful (dare I say professional? – I think that would be accurate) observer of the human race.
We meet our three clerk-class English adventurers in 1889 as they start off on a two-week boating jaunt up the busy Thames, overloaded with all the wrong provisions and baggage, and accompanied by a quarrelsome fox terrier, Montmorency.
Much discomfort ensues, as well as much beer drinking and slanging of each other, but there are occasional moments of happy camaraderie, too, and though the trip is prematurely abandoned to everyone’s mutual relief, the triumvirate remains firm friends.
So much so that they reunite for another fellows-only trip some ten years later. Two of the three are now married, children are much in evidence, but Montmorency is not mentioned. (Doubtless he is off and away wreaking terrier havoc in The World Beyond.)
The two wives, when tentatively approached with the idea of temporary abandonment by their spouses, express a cheerful relief at being so bereft, and, once recovered from the ego-bruising that this easy permission to go off with their chums engenders, the excursion turns from conjecture into reality.
This time the friends decide to take a month or so, and to visit Europe – the Black Forest region of Germany, to be more precise – and the mode of transport is to be two-wheeled. Our intrepid and eternally bickering travellers make do with a single and a tandem bicycle, spelled off by train rides – “We’ll take the train UP the hilly bits, and ride our bikes mostly DOWNHILL.”
Well, you can guess how that bit turns out!
Of the two slim books, I found the second to be much the most interesting, and that is because it is not so much about the travellers and their many woes while coping with their bicycles – and there are many, starting with the expected blisters and running through all the other possibilities of grief-while-biking – as about the digressions of the narrator.
The best aspects of both books are the tangential excursions. The actual on-the-ground (or water) travels seem merely to provide a sturdy framework for adorning with elaborate anecdotes, and those anecdotes occasionally take on a life of their own, before the writer recollects his original purpose and comes back to the here and now. Very roundabout, it all is, and, yes, so similar to that titular bummel.
I will close with the oft-quoted description of what exactly a bummel is, courtesy of Jerome K. Jerome:
‘A “Bummel”,’ I explained, ‘I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are for ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk a while; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.’