Chas Newkey-Burden has written for a range of newspapers and magazines including The Times, Mail On Sunday, Four Four Two and Time Out. He is a fortnightly columnist for Jewish News, and a regular studio guest on BBC Radio. Chas has written a number of books including best-selling celebrity biographies, humour titles, football trivia books and even a dog breed guide. He also co-wrote Not In My Name: A Compendium Of Modern Hypocrisy with Julie Burchill. He wishes he didn't drink so much frappucino, and blogs at OyVaGoy. Below Chas writes about Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat.
Chas Newkey-Burden on Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
In 2002 myself and my partner moved to a village near Windsor, in east Berkshire. We've a lovely house, in a nice neighbourhood and we quickly became very happy here. For me there is an added bonus to the location. The house is a short stroll from a pub called The Royal Stag, which Jerome K. Jerome mentioned in my favourite book, Three Men In A Boat. I really love coincidences like that, you see.
Three Men In A Boat, To Say Nothing Of The Dog (to give the novel its full, quirky title) is a hilarious and touching story of a boating holiday undertaken along the River Thames. Jerome has a fantastic way with anecdotes and comic set-pieces, but it is not only with the plentiful mishaps that occur during the journey that these are shown. Jerome effortlessly digresses from the main narrative to make more general comic observations on the world. He then eases the reader back to the journey itself.
The novel was first published in 1889, but one of its most remarkable qualities is just how timelessly it reads. Putting aside a few obviously dating period details, the book could almost have been written last week. Its influence is considerable, though I personally rather disapprove of the recent television tie-ins and various attempts at theatrical dramatizations.
For the real genius of Three Men... lies not with the action but within Jerome's ever witty mind. This can only be brought across effectively on the printed page. His riffs about the difficulties of putting a framed picture up on a wall, the construction of an Irish stew or the challenges of learning the Scottish bagpipes are hilarious and charming.
We could do with books like Three Men... being published today. But who, if anyone, could be the Jerome K. Jerome of the 21st century? I feel that his influence today can actually be most keenly felt in the humour of stand-up comedy star Michael McIntyre. The charming, observational style of McIntyre is reminiscent of Jerome at his best. Both men manage to make razor-sharp comic observations while rarely straying anywhere near territory that is genuinely cruel.
For instance, in one of his less-celebrated works, a collection of droll essays entitled Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow, Jerome writes about newly-born babies. 'There are various methods by which you may achieve ignominy and shame,' he begins. 'By murdering a large and respected family in cold blood and afterward depositing their bodies in the water companies' reservoir, you will gain much unpopularity in the neighbourhood of your crime, and even robbing a church will get you cordially disliked, especially by the vicar.' However, he concludes, 'To drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby "it".' Amusingly, Jerome dedicated that book to his pipe. A sequel was published 12 years later, but we should not be surprised by the lengthy gap between volumes; after all, Jerome once said: 'I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.'
As well as my local pub, I've enjoyed a few other coincidences with the author of Three Men... over the years. When I wrote for the men's lifestyle magazine Loaded, I wasn't at all surprised to learn that the original editorial team were big fans of Jerome. Three Men In A Boat had influenced their fondness for a jolly jape that developed into a caper that would play well on the printed page. Three lads on a boat, they might have said. I have written a few articles for The Idler, whose namesake title Jerome had edited in Victorian times.
Three Men In A Boat is still popular around the world. (It used to be enormously popular in Russia for some reason.) No wonder someone at the original publisher said: 'I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them.' I must say I wouldn't go so far as eating a copy of it, but I have been known to pop to my local to flick through the book's pages over a Diet Coke or two. Cheers, Jerome!
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]