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24 Apr 2015

Books I Wish I’d Written # 542: Three Men in a Boat

In case you haven’t come across it, it’s by Jerome K Jerome and was published in 1889.

Just by way of example: George, Harris and the narrator, J, have been on the river a few days (it hasn’t started to rain yet, so they are still more or less enjoying themselves) and settle down to a lunch of cold beef, only to find that they have forgotten to bring mustard.

I don’t think I ever in my life, before or since, felt I wanted mustard as badly as I felt I wanted it then. I don’t care for mustard as a rule, and it is very seldom that I take it at all, but I would have given worlds for it then.

I don’t know how many worlds there may be in the universe, but anyone who had brought me a spoonful of mustard at that precise moment could have had them all. I grow reckless like that when I want a thing and can’t get it.

Harris said he would have given worlds for mustard, too. It would have been a good thing for anybody who had come up to that spot with a can of mustard then; he would have been set up in worlds for the rest of his life.

I’d have been happy enough to write the first paragraph; the second would have been even better; but to think of carrying on to the third is surely a stroke of genius.

Throughout the book J has flashes of eloquence about history or sunsets or the glories of nature: at one point when he has been waxing particularly fine he stops mid-sentence and writes, ‘I beg your pardon, really. I quite forgot.’ I saw a TV dramatisation once (it turns out, when I look it up, to have starred Michael Palin) and every now and then the other two interrupted these flights with ‘Not now, J.’ It must have been like travelling with Proust, Shelley and Stephen Fry all rolled into one.

Three Men in a Boat was published when P G Wodehouse was eight years old. I like to think that he read it during his formative years.

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