It was my father who recommended Three Men in a Boat to me when I was a teenager. (He also suggested P G Wodehouse, yet I never knew him to read fiction. I’m saddened now that I never thought to ask more.) I recall before a geography class not being able to stop laughing at the tale of transporting cheeses from Liverpool to London: “I took my ticket, with my cheeses, and marched proudly up the platform, the people falling back respectfully on either side.” Jerome had me there. Do 14-year-olds today still read such writers?
I’ve re-read the book many times since, and it still makes me smile. I’m always surprised at the number of rather pious sections in it, and – probably like most readers – I skip them. But Jerome was still a Victorian Christian, albeit an undogmatic one, as his autobiography – written shortly before he died – makes clear: he is rather more understanding about (male) youthful indiscretions than most and ends his days a Labour Party member. He might have been mocked by his upper-class contemporaries for his literary deficiencies, but he was a principled man: he spoke out at the status of Black Americans (lynchings were still common) while on a US lecture tour. (I am also working by way through 1956 by Simon Hall, which covers the civil rights protests to desegregate schools . . . a long tail of prejudice.)
This is an arm’s-length autobiography: Jerome remains private throughout, apart from mentioning a tendency to melancholy, but he leaves you with an indelible sense of his times. At the age when I was having geography lessons, Jerome was orphaned and supporting himself by working as a clerk at Euston. Then as an actor. He mentions a night (presumably not the only one he experienced) in a doss house. Success takes many years of hard work and false starts.
Things I particularly noted. Jerome’s take on a Blakean East End with their marks of woe: “The ashen faces, with their lifeless eyes that rise out of the shadows and are lost.” There is a photograph of a favourite restaurant, Pagani’s, whose painted façade answers my question about art nouveau in London. I realised – not before time – the very first cyclists learned to ride a bike as adults: “The bicycle took my generation unprepared.” Jerome met Prince Kropotkin: an interesting thought.
Such energy. He never stood still. He travels as much as he can. He tries all the sports he can. He takes up skiing at 45. He writes and writes – whether journalism, plays or stories. In middle age he volunteers as an ambulance driver in France.
The book is patchy; parts are pedestrian and feature people of whom – unsurprisingly – I had never heard. Nevertheless I googled some of them and came across characters like Eden Phillpotts (boo, despite Jerome’s affection for him) and Richard le Gallienne (belle époque to the fingertips). Equally, there are some gems: the bowdlerised version of “The Doll’s House” where “the curtain went down on Nora flinging herself into his arms with the cry of ‘Husband'”.
And, yes, I couldn’t help myself laughing out loud again.