Book Review: If only all travel books were written like this…

By Nimish Dubey
There are travel books that tell you about how people went about a particular journey. There are those that tell you about places that people visited. Of the people they met. Of the food they ate. And so forth. And there are a few rare ones do all of this and leave you breathless with laughter while doing so. Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat is a book that falls in this rare, last category. It not only tells you about the trip that three friends – and their dog – undertook on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford, but tells it with so much humour that there are many (and Jawaharlal Nehru is one of them) who remember the book mainly for its good humour and cheery tone.

Three Men in a Boat starts off with three friends, J (the author), George and William Samuel Harris being bored to death and wondering what to do. Harris suggests a sea cruise but this is converted to a cruise on the Thames (after some very interesting descriptions of the perils of travelling on the sea). As Jerome points out, the vote for the cruise stood at three to one – the only voice of dissent coming from Montmorency, the author’s dog who rather plainitively (but silently) complains: “There’s nothing for me to do. Scenery is not in my line, and I don’t smoke. If I see a rat, you won’t stop; and if I go to sleep, you get  fooling about with the boat, and slop me overboard. If you ask me, I call the whole thing bally foolishness.”

Needless to say, poor Montmorency is overruled and millions of readers, even dog lovers, are glad that he was. For, what follows is without doubt one of the greatest tales in the history of travel literature, replete with action, sarcasm and wit aplenty. There are hilarious accounts of how the threesome tried to pitch tent on the riverside, of the visits they paid to the local inns (yes, there is the famous incident of a fish on display that everyone claims to have caught – only for it to turn out to be an artificial one) and of course, all the people they meet, pleasant and otherwise. In spite of being the best of friends, J, George and Harris seldom agree about things, and as none of them consider the others’ opinions to be worth much (“That’s Harris all over – so ready to take the burden of everything  himself, and put it on the backs of other people,” remarks J in an aside to the reader), this results in a number of very interesting arguments that more often than not have disastrous consequences, including a near fatal attempt to open – yes – a tin of pineapple!

And even while all this is happening, the English landscape is described in loving and affectionate (if occasionally ironic) detail. There are also genuine pearls of travel wisdom sown for the reader. For instance, hark to what is written about the perils of camping out under the open sky:

Camping out in  rainy weather is not pleasant.

It is evening. You are wet through, and there is a good two inches of water in the boat, and all the things are damp. You find a place on the  banks that is not quite so puddly as other places you have seen, and you
land and lug out the tent, and two of you proceed to fix it. It is soaked and heavy, and it flops about, and tumbles down on you, and  clings round your head and makes you mad. The rain is pouring steadily down all the time. It is difficult enough to fix a tent in dry weather: in wet, the task becomes herculean. Instead of helping you, it seems to you that the other man is simply playing the fool. Just as you get your side beautifully fixed, he gives it a hoist from his end, and spoils it all.”

Sounds familiar, does it not? And yet it is narrated with such skill that you will be hard pressed to keep a straight face while reading it. Three Men in a Boat is a slim volume by most standards but seldom have so few pages given so many people so many reasons to laugh. Read this book. Not just if you like travel, but if you like to be entertained. Or just feel better.

Laughter is, after all, the best medicine. And not just for travellers.

Buy it. Or if you prefer to get your laughs without paying a penny, download it for free from here. After all, the best things in life, and even in travel literature, are free. Well, sometimes…

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