Three Men On The Bummel, Jerome K Jerome (1900)

A series of very humorous incidents featuring the triumvirate who first came to life in Three Men In A Boat – this time hung, very loosely, on a cycling holiday in Germany

Chilvers 0754032175 paperback 313pp

With Three Men In A Boat, Jerome produced one of the best-selling books of all time – it had sold a million copies during its first two decades, and is still in print today. He also originated a style of humorous writing that has spawned countless imitators in the years since it first hit the presses. Sadly, while many other authors profited from the format he created, Jerome himself struggled to follow up his biggest hit.

In many respects a bicycle should be an even more promising vehicle for carrying a comic tale than a boat – and there are plenty of belly laughs to be had from this volume. The thread holding together Jerome’s set piece sketches, is pretty thin, though. Indeed, it would be perfectly possible to extract the cycle-touring strand from the book, and leave it very little the worse.

Nonetheless, there is much worthwhile to be found in this book. Attitudes to Germany before the First World War, for example, are striking. At one point the lead character declares: “(one wonders) whether the Teuton be a member of the sinful human family or not. Is it not possible that these placid, gentle folk may really be angles, come down to earth for the sake of a glass of beer, which, as they must know, can only in Germany be obtained worth drinking.”

Jerome’s expectation of the triumph of English as the world’s language would also appear to be the product of the high point of British imperialism. “The man who has spread the knowledge of English from Cape St Vincent to the Ural Mountains is the Englishman who, unable or unwilling to lean a single word of another language but his own, travels purse in hand to every corner of the Continent….The practical fact is that he is anglicising Europe.”

That said, unpicking Victorian texts like a media studies undergraduate is no way to enjoy them. Much better to sit back and let Jerome weave his absurd tales. Whether it be the folly of letting a ‘tinkerer’ loose on your bicycle, failing to realise that your wife has fallen off the back of the tandem, or placing your trust in a wily ship’s captain, these are entertainments that have not lost a jot of their value in the decades since they first saw the light of day.

PS Nov 09

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