Tag Archives: Jerome K Jerome

Book Corner – October 2019 (2)

Mr Finchley Discovers His England – Victor Canning

I have been musing why the interwar years saw such a prolific outburst of what might be termed escapist literature, particularly detective fiction and comic writing. It may well have been something to do with the absence of alternative popular entertainment, radio was in its infancy and television a distant spot in a cathode ray tube. It might have been a conscious attempt to blot out the horrors of the recent world war, the grim economic realities that were prevailing and the rise of fascism. Who knows? What is for sure is that there is a glut of literature, popular in its time, waiting to be rediscovered.

Victor Canning is best known as a prolific writer of novels and thrillers, he was a wartime friend of Eric Ambler, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, his first book, published in 1934 in the UK and two years later as Mr Finchley’s Holiday, was this rather charming and funny journey of self-discovery. The protagonist, Mr Finchley, in early drafts his name was Mr Pitcheley, is an unmarried, chubby, dyspeptic solicitor’s clerk who had never taken a holiday. The death of his boss and Mr Sprake’s assumption of the reins of power changes all that. Finchley’s dutiful service is rewarded with a three-week holiday.

And where better in the 1930s to spend three weeks than in Margate? Having booked his accommodation at the Kent resort, Mr Finchley sets off for his holiday. But he never gets there. Whiling away some time before catching his train, he is prevailed upon to look after a Bentley. Feeling a little tired, Finchley stretches out in the back of the car and, surprise, surprise, finds that it has been stolen and that he has now been kidnapped by a gang of criminals. And so begins a series of improbable escapades.

To modern eyes there may be too much easy stereotyping, people are labelled lunatics and gypsies, and an underlying moralistic tone in the book, but it is an easy and engaging read. Finchley manages to escape from the clutches of the criminal gang, and realising that his plans to enjoy his holiday in Margate, sets out west, reaching Land’s End before returning home. Along the way, he has adventure after adventure. He encounters many people who in one way or another have fallen on hard times and are living an itinerant lifestyle, including gentlemen of the road aka tramps, artists, travellers and gypsies. To make ends meet he takes a job at a fair and then sells petrol. He takes part in the obligatory game of cricket and towards the end of the book, becomes the innocent party to a smuggling expedition.

What is surprising is the dark undercurrent to life on the road. Finchley is forever being threatened with violence, on occasions threats turn to blows, and is nearly strangled to death. There is a dark side to the bucolic idyll that Canning paints. The humour is gentle and the book, effectively a comedic travelogue, reminded me of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat but, in truth, it is not as funny.

Journeys which transform people’s lives are a modern-day trope, I usually blanche when I hear someone say they have been on a journey, but this is a fair summary of Finchley’s experiences. As Canning wrote, “he still suffered from indigestion. He was still bald. He still loved his pipe. Yet he was different…” There are two more books in the Mr Finchley series which I will probably read at some point. Farrago Books are to be commended for bringing this thirties’ gem back into print.

Book Corner – August 2019 (4)

England, Their England – A G Macdonell

Writing a book that is actually and consistently funny is a tricky business. A comic idea is difficult to sustain and humour can date very quickly. But some writers manage to pull it off and the likes of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and Jerome K Jerome are firm favourites amongst aficionados of the genre. One author who has fallen by the wayside somewhat in recent times is A G Macdonell but his satire of English society, England, Their England, published in 1933, is worth a read.

In essence, it is a travel memoir, written by a young Scotsman, Donald Cameron. Whilst in the First World War he shares a pill box with a Welshman and publisher, Evan Davies, and they discuss, during a lull in the battle, the unfathomable nature of the English character. Davies suggests that Cameron should write a book about it. Their paths separate and Cameron returns to Scotland to help his ailing father farm. When Cameron’s father dies, the terms of the will force our hero to seek his fame and fortune south of the border. Initially, he writes for a number of newspapers before bumping into Davies again and accepting the commission to write about the English from the perspective of a foreigner.

If the book is known for anything these days, it is for the wonderful chapter describing a cricket match between a team of topers and literary types from London and a team of Sussex locals. It is a tour de force and even if you are not a student of the game or haven’t tried your hand at it, your enjoyment of the humour of the description is unlikely to be dimmed. Perhaps it is true that the foreigners’ perception of the English is coloured by this strangely eccentric game with its formal conventions and sense of timelessness. If so, Macdonell has struck the middle timber with a yorker.

The book, however, is more than the cricket match. Cameron saunters around English society in the 1920s taking in a country house weekend (natch, although there is no murder), a visit to a village pub, and a boat trip to Danzig where his only fellow passenger is an insufferable bore with a stock of preposterous stories of amazing derring-do and ingenuity. Macdonell is withering in his critique of the pretentiousness of modern theatre during his description of a trip to the theatre. Cameron even inveigles himself on a diplomatic mission to Geneva where he sees the wizardry of the English diplomat, their actions undetectable by the human eye.

Cameron also acts as a political agent and the description of the level of political discourse has disturbingly modern parallels – “you don’t need facts or tommy-rot of that sort”. Cameron tries his hand at golf and being a Scot is more than a match for his fellow players, even though he hasn’t a clue about the scoring conventions they are deploying. He also discovers that his fellow Scot, the club professional, takes great delight in ripping the locals off. Other sporting events are sampled, including the Varsity rugby match and a game of professional football.

The book does suffer from the attitudes and views of the time which may upset those readers who think writers should have the foresight to anticipate the sensibilities of future generations and in places it does seem like a rather elaborate inside joke. I’m sure that Macdonell is satirising some of the illuminati of the English literary and social scene of the era but the specifics rather passed me by. It also ignored the majority of English society, the working class.

That said, I found it a witty and strangely uplifting book, much needed in these increasingly gloomy times.

What Is The Origin Of (217)?…

Digs

When I first came down to London to make my fame and fortune and soon discovered that the streets were not paved with gold, I lived in digs. It was a humble room in a house in Streatham with a fearsome landlady who served up hot meals to her paying guests. I didn’t stay there long but long enough to wonder where this strange description of what was, essentially, a glorified long-term bed, evening meal and breakfast gaff.

The word is an abbreviation of diggings which meant a place of excavation. It is used in this sense as early as 1538 in John Leland’s The Itinerary; “on the south side of Welleden…ys a goodly quarre of Stone, where appere great Diggyns.” The word was transported to countries where there was frantic and feverish excavation of minerals, such as the United States and Australia.

William Gilmore Simms, in his account of the gold rush in Georgia in the 1820s. Guy Rivers, published in 1834. There he uses the term diggings to describe the mine or excavations that the men are working, a fairly literal and prosaic use of the term; “we miners of Tracy’s diggings struck upon a fine heap of the good stuff, and having been gathering gold pretty freely ever since.

One usage by Simms is particularly interesting, at least from our etymological point of view; “The regular lodgers of the tavern were not numerous therefore, and consisted in the main of those labourers in the diggings who had not yet acquired the means of establishing a household of their own.” The term, diggings, was used exclusively to denote where theses impoverished, itinerant men worked, not lived.

This was the sense that Dickens used the term in Chapter 21 of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in 1844. There we find Martin in conversation with his new (and swindling) business partner in America; “She won’t be taken with a cold chill, when she realises what is being done in these diggings, said the stranger, No, no, said Martin.

Prior to penning the novel, Dickens had been to America and may have decided to sprinkle some Americanisms into the dialogue to give it some authenticity. The context in which diggings is used is ambiguous but it is more likely to contain a sense of place, as in Simms’ usage, than of a place of abode. The unglossed usage may mean that it was a word that British readers would be familiar with, although, equally, some incomprehensible language would heighten the sense that a foreigner was speaking.

But some six years before Dickens, the term, diggings, began to change its meaning. The New Hampshire born humourist, Joseph Clay Neal, wrote in 1838 in Charcoal Sketches, “Look here, Ned, I reckon it’s about time we should go to our diggings; I am dead beat.” I suppose you could argue that the context is ambiguous and diggings could refer to a mine but the suggestion that it is somewhere in which to sleep encourages me to think that it is used to mean, specifically, lodgings.

Quite why the meaning of diggings morphed thus is the subject of speculation. Perhaps it was because, as Simms pointed out, that the main users of lodging homes, at least in the mineral rich parts of the United States, were miners who had been working in diggings. They were moving from their daytime diggings to their nocturnal ones. Or perhaps there is the sense of nestling down, burrowing in to make oneself comfortable, which could be conveyed by the verb dig and its present participle. Who knows?

What is clear is that the word took off on both sides of the Atlantic to describe temporary accommodation, used principally by itinerant types. In Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, the three comrades arrive in Datchet and set out “to look for diggings.

And digs?

This first appeared in the May 11th 1893 edition of The Stage, a British publication; “being in the know regarding the best digs can only be attained by experience.” Perhaps this abbreviation started out in the theatrical world but it soon broke out to be adopted by a wider audience.

Book Corner – October 2018 (5)

Three Men In A Boat – Jerome K Jerome

Comic writing is a tricky business. Apart from a bit of slap-stick humour is not universal. What one person finds amusing, another may shake their head at in bewilderment. And humour often appears in the most surprising and unintended circumstances. For me, one of the funniest moments was the announcement by the PG Wodehouse committee that they wouldn’t be awarding their prize this year as there were none funny enough.

Of course, that poses the question; what is a humorous book? Even the most tragic of works have some moments of levity. Wall to wall jokes would be tedious in the extreme. No, it is a tone and general atmosphere that marks a book of humour. And if I was pinned up against the wall to name my favourite humorous books of all time in the English language, then Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat would be up there amongst the best. It is a book I turn to time and time again and one that does not pall on me.

Published in 1889, it was an overnight success, despite being condemned by the critics (what do they know?) because of its lowbrow language and its protagonists were seen as hopeless and neurotic, not the sort who founded and maintained an Empire. It started life out as a travelogue – vestiges of the original concept remain with the descriptions of Hampton Court, Marlow and Medmenham. But Jerome quickly spotted the comedic value of confining three chaps, not forgetting Montmorency the dog, in a small boat pottering up the Thames from the outskirts of London to Oxford. It is a trope to which desperate TV producers turn to this day.

The journey is almost by the by, a peg upon which Jerome hangs a diverse series of set pieces, exploring the absurdities and mundanities of daily life. My favourite of the many shaggy dog stories that Jerome peppers the text with has nothing to do with the journey but is a marvellous account of Uncle Podger’s attempts to hang a picture on a wall. I defy anyone not to find it funny. Following up fairly closely is the trio’s increasing desperate attempts to open a tin of pineapples without a can opener.  In disgust, Harris throws the by now misshapen lump of metal into the drink. We can sympathise with how he feels.

It’s easy to see the book’s appeal. It has a timeless quality about, even though the days of travelling along the river in a boat, pulling in wherever you fancied and escaping from the grime and drudgery of life in the metropolis to a spell, however brief, enjoying the bucolic charms of the countryside have long since gone. Rather like a road trip novel, it is a book about life, comradeship, how we rub along with each other and reminiscences of times past and irrespective of the time when the story is set, these are timeless concerns which affect all of us.

True, it has a particularly English slant. We are past masters at talking about the weather, the horrors of our food and the stresses and strains of suburban life but it is written with a light comic touch that makes it accessible to most, irrespective of where in the English speaking world they reside. This is its triumph and why it will long remain amongst the best of comedic writing.