Friday, May 4, 2018

Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome

For years, I've loved Jerome K Jerome's comedic classic Three Men in a Boat - one of the few books in the English language funny enough to give PG Wodehouse anything like competition. I had never, however, read its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel (a bummel being defined thus:)
“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.  Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days.  But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand.  We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way.  We have been much interested, and often a little tired.  But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when ’tis over.”
I've just finished a rather gruelling three months' work on some very demanding projects, including yet another rewrite of A Wind from the Wilderness, this one being, DV, the final major draft. Writing a 100,000-word novel in two months is exhausting work, and as I struggled my way through the final week or two, I decided that I really needed something light and funny to read.

So I cracked open Three Men on the Bummel.

J, Harris, and George decide to take another holiday, this time cycling through Germany. Since J and Harris are now respectably married with children, getting away from their wives proves to be a ticklish and costly business, but pretty soon the three companions are on the road in Germany, navigating all the intricacies of foreign travel, from accidentally asking for kisses in cushion-shops to being chased around Prague by statues.

Everyone who had mentioned this book to me had added a warning not to expect the same level of humour as in Three Men in a Boat, so I didn't have very high expectations. That didn't stop me laughing myself silly on a whole number of occasions, and I think that anything in this book is every bit as funny as anything in the previous one. If something is lacking, it's probably the central image of the river, which gives the previous book a greater sense of cohesion. Highlights include the comments on the discomfort of bicycle travel and the German respect for authority (more on this in a moment), and the wonderful passage that describes trying to sleep in a house with lots of children:
On this Wednesday morning, George, it seems, clamoured to get up at a quarter-past five, and persuaded them to let him teach them cycling tricks round the cucumber frames on Harris’s new wheel.  Even Mrs. Harris, however, did not blame George on this occasion; she felt intuitively the idea could not have been entirely his.
I thought only my friends' children behaved like this, and yet there we are in 1900 or so and respectable middle-class London children are doing exactly the same sorts of thing.
Yes, 1900: this book must have been written about 15 years before the outbreak of war. In that light, Three Men on the Bummel becomes something rather more than Jerome K Jerome might have suspected: it's an impression - a funny impression, broadly generalised and hyperbolised for comic effect, naturally - but still a valid impression of Germany on the eve of a half-century of war and conquest. Jerome stereotypes the Germans as hopelessly law-abiding and respectful of authority to the point that any young Englishman thirsting to break the law without repercussions should travel there to enjoy raising a mild kind of hell - let us say heckraising:
Now, in Germany, on the other hand, trouble is to be had for the asking.  There are many things in Germany that you must not do that are quite easy to do.  To any young Englishman yearning to get himself into a scrape, and finding himself hampered in his own country, I would advise a single ticket to Germany; a return, lasting as it does only a month, might prove a waste.
In the Police Guide of the Fatherland he will find set forth a list of the things the doing of which will bring to him interest and excitement.  In Germany you must not hang your bed out of window.  He might begin with that.  By waving his bed out of window he could get into trouble before he had his breakfast.  At home he might hang himself out of window, and nobody would mind much, provided he did not obstruct anybody’s ancient lights or break away and injure any passer underneath.
And Germany provides opportunities for transgression to people of every age and walk in life:
Not that the German child is neglected by a paternal Government.  In German parks and public gardens special places (Spielplätze) are provided for him, each one supplied with a heap of sand.  There he can play to his heart’s content at making mud pies and building sand castles.  To the German child a pie made of any other mud than this would appear an immoral pie.  It would give to him no satisfaction: his soul would revolt against it.
“That pie,” he would say to himself, “was not, as it should have been, made of Government mud specially set apart for the purpose; it was nor manufactured in the place planned and maintained by the Government for the making of mud pies.  It can bring no real blessing with it; it is a lawless pie.”  And until his father had paid the proper fine, and he had received his proper licking, his conscience would continue to trouble him.
No doubt this is a stereotype, but it's not without a core of truth. The modern compulsory state school system was pioneered in Prussia and Austria for the avowed purpose of raising obedient soldiers who would obey orders without question.
The German citizen is a soldier, and the policeman is his officer. The policeman directs him where in the street to walk, and how fast to walk. At the end of each bridge stands a policeman to tell the German how to cross it. Were there no policeman there, he would probably sit down and wait till the river had passed by. At the railway station the policeman locks him up in the waiting-room, where he can do no harm to himself. When the proper time arrives, he fetches him out and hands him over to the guard of the train, who is only a policeman in another uniform. The guard tells him where to sit in the train, and when to get out, and sees that he does get out. In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well.
Jerome K Jerome sees nothing particularly sinister in this, maybe because he's writing fourteen years before this started to shake Europe, more likely because he knows he's exaggerating for the sake of fun. Still, there's one genuinely insightful comment here:
Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continues, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.
Granted, this is not exactly rocket science. There are only two ways to define authority. One is that the office itself legitimates anything the office-holder may do, and the other is that the office-holder's conformity to a law above himself is what legitimates him (the rule of law). Anyone who adheres to the idea that it's the office which confers authority, not the office-holder's willingness to uphold the law, binds himself to total obedience to the office-holder no matter what the office-holder may command. A person who believes in rule by office and permit will be amiable and well-behaved for exactly as long as his officials submit themselves to the rule of a higher law and a higher standard of right and wrong - but the minute those officials lose their moral compass, they will lead their obedient subjects to perdition. That is why the rule of a transcendent moral law is necessary.
How much of what Jerome wrote about the Germans is exaggeration and stereotype, and how much of it is accurate? That's something that could probably bear some discussion. (And I should probably assure you all that I don't see Germany as a sort of international villain - not only have they done some amazing things to demonstrate their repentance for the Holocaust, I'm also inclined to think that they were not the bad guys in World War I). That said, I do remember discussing the German educational system with some German tourists a few years ago and being awed by how uncritical they were of a level of government control that would be unthinkable, even in Australia. 
Three Men on the Bummel is not just a comedic classic on the same level as Three Men in a Boat, it's also an unexpectedly thought-provoking discussion of law and authority in a country that would, for better or worse, help sponsor two of the most destructive wars in history. If you haven't read it, or if you're a stranger to Jerome K Jerome's wonderful brand of comedy, you definitely should!

You can find Three Men on the Bummel at Amazon, The Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox.

And don't forget to check out my review of
Three Men in a Boat!


Stella Dorthwany said...

Great review! I remember laughing my head off at Three Men in a Boat, so I'll have to try this one as well. Have you read Connie Willis's time travel riff on the book "To Say Nothing of the Dog"?

xavier said...


If you have time to read some thoughts on the Prussian school model as apllied to the US the had a multiseries post on the subject.
I jave the ebook of the first so i should read it


Suzannah said...

Stella, yes! I have read TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG - I enjoyed the literary references very much!

Xavier, thanks for the link!


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