Tag Archives: Three men in a Boat

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.

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.