THE ARMCHAIR TRAVELLER Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K Jerome

Wave a picture of the Big Ben, and almost everybody goes ‘ah, London’. Ditto the Buckingham palace guards, red telephone boxes and road-master buses. It’s a city that’s so familiar, so etched in our collective consciousness that we almost believe we would never need a guidebook to that part of the world. But if, in the run-up to the Olympics, you were looking for one, may we recommend you swap the latest, glossy guide for something a bit older, say written in 1889? For that was the year Jerome K Jerome wrote his hilarious account of a boat journey down the Thames and called it Three Men In A Boat. Getting away from his many interesting and imagined illnesses, Jerome and his pals George and Harris (to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency) take off, one fine summer, with ‘some four or five overcoats and mackintoshes, and a few umbrellas’. Because, of course, English summers are when the sky drips and drizzles all over the island. But does that stop people from cheerfully lugging around picnic hampers and planning to sleep under the stars? Not if Jerome is to be believed, no. For his genteel sojourn through the many locks and bends of the river is punctuated with plenty of food (from bulging hampers), tomfoolery (the banjo, oh the banjo!) besides delicious vignettes of everything English — inns, mazes, fishing, cooking, willows skimming rivers, ladies dressed in silks and laces and complaining that tree-trunks are dusty…

It works because…

It’s not just one widely read boat journey down the Thames, but among the most famous and certainly the funniest. But what makes it so exceptionally memorable are the little digressions, the teensy bit of history woven throughout the pages. And so early one chapter, he takes us to Kingston, where Saxon kings were crowned; and he then lets us know that Elizabeth was ‘nuts on public-houses, was England’s Virgin Queen. There’s scarcely a pub of any attractions within ten miles of London that she does not seem to have looked in at, or stopped at, or slept at, some time or other’. And that, thank goodness, is his idea of a historical anecdote. Next, we get lost in the fiendish maze at Hampton Court, admire the willows skimming the water at Kempton Park. A short scull away is Magna Carta Island, Monkey Island, Marlow, Reading, Oxford. Along the way, Harris battles swans, the dog battles a large black tom cat; they come out of it fine, but we fall about laughing. And that makes you think: if Jerome had done this journey today, and tweeted about it real-time in his inimitable style, can you just imagine how many followers he would’ve had? A conservative guess would be several million… who, really would not want to read about the buffoonery and bonhomie that marks the boat journey down the Thames?

And this one stays with you…

An indulgent passage highlighting the very English pre-occupation with pets:

‘Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at. If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable’.