Book of a lifetime: Three Men in a Boat, By Jerome K Jerome


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The Independent Culture

Three Men in a Boat is the book I've read more times than any other. I keep returning to it, but not out of choice. It's more of a compulsion, a sudden urge whenever I'm in need of a dose of humanity and laugh-out-loud humour.

First published in 1889, Jerome K Jerome's unassuming tale of three friends who decide to row up the River Thames from London to Oxford was massacred by the critics. They damned it for its lowbrow language and its triumvirate of hopeless, neurotic protagonists (not forgetting the dog, Montmorency). I can see their point. Who during the twilight years of the British Empire wanted a narrator who declared: "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours"? The answer was everybody. The book sold in its millions, and continues to sell in huge numbers.

The timeless appeal isn't so hard to appreciate. Like the very best picaresque tales – Don Quixote springs most readily to mind – the journey itself, the quest, is little more than a convenient peg on which to hang a series of observations and discursive asides about life, in all its minute, baffling and absurd complexities. Jerome wrings the most improbable humour from the most mundane situations. The digression about his Uncle Podger's efforts to hang a picture is so delicately crafted that it beats the best of Laurel and Hardy. It's like listening to Michael McIntyre riffing about the "man drawer" in most homes, the one full of arcane rubbish whose purpose is known only to the male of the species.

There's a tired old phrase in the film business: character is action. Jerome grasped this concept in spades. It's not enough to observe three men who have forgotten to pack a can-opener trying to break into a tin of pineapple. What matters is that once they have beaten it into every shape known to man (and a few more besides) with a rock and an oar, it is Harris, bruised and bleeding by now, who imagines he sees the leering face of the Devil himself in the twisted lump of metal and flings it far out into the river.

The fondness we feel for Harris is the same deep fondness Harris, George and J (not forgetting Montmorency, the wise old fox-terrier) feel for each other by the time they reach Oxford, in spite of the many arguments along the way. Ultimately, Three Men in a Boat is a study of friendship, human foibles and forgiveness. Returning to the book is like settling in for a fireside chat with an eccentric great-uncle who has seen it all, done it all, but who's still more ready to mock himself than others.

'The Long Shadow' by Mark Mills is published by Headline Review