Two and A Half Men in a Boat by Nigel Williams
There’s nothing like stumbling on a random book in a charity shop which turns out to be a great read! But that was the case with this lovely volume that I picked up last month in the Oxfam. Nigel Williams is known for working for the BBC and probably best as a writer for his “Wimbledon Poisoner” series of books. However, the title of this one caught my eye – I’m a sucker for “Three Men in a Boat” and anything spinning off from it (to the extent of watching silly TV shows where men mess about in boats in homage to Jerome, and even reading Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog”). So it went without saying that I would want to read Nigel Williams’ 1990 take on the concept.
The book opens with Nigel being terrified by a visit from Inland Revenue men (who come across more like the Gestapo or the Cheka). Traumatised by the whole experience, he mopes nervously around the house until one of his sons (no doubt fed up with his behaviour) suggests he takes a trip up the river. But who should he take along? After much debating, Nigel settles on JP, an extremely competent traveller and filmmaker, who thinks nothing of popping up Everest and is no doubt going to be ideal for any emergency. The third man is more difficult – Nigel settles on Alan (presumably Yentob, who I believe was his boss at the BBC at the time); however, Alan is a man so important and indispensable that he is committed for about a year ahead and has to have meetings about having meetings. What chance is there of JP and Nigel getting past his barrage of secretaries and pinning him down to a few days on a boat?
However, with a reluctant Lurcher called Badger in tow, JP and Nigel set off – and it’s telling that Badger attaches himself firmly to JP, despite being owned by Nigel, as he obviously recognises which of them would be the superior man in a crisis! However, the main issue initially is their lack of experience at rowing and the physical toll it takes them as they make their way up the Thames. There are run-ins with modern youth, angry lock-keepers and publicans who don’t like dogs. JP proves himself to be more than competent at just about everything, Nigel meditates on the ethics of being towed versus sticking to rowing, Alan makes a flying visit accompanied by a mass of friends and contacts plus Nigel’s family and a giant picnic, and eventually the group become Three Men and row on to their finishing point.
On the way, there’s space for plenty of musing on the way the world has changed since Jerome’s time and the need to get away from the hectic modern pace, gadgets, phones, answering machines etc. It struck me how much stronger than need would be now, with most younger people permanently attached to their phones or whatever mobile gadget they carry, and how this book, written in the 1990s and featuring the most basic of modern technology, is even more relevant today.
Cleverly woven into the book is a lot of background information about Jerome K. Jerome, his life and work, and the critical reception he had at the time. Much of this was new to me, and it seems that Jerome just wanted to be taken seriously as a writer. I wonder how he would have felt about being remembered for a humorous work? (although I have to say that I feel “Three Men” is much more than that, and has a lot of say about the human condition).
There is in “Two and a Half Men”, of course, plenty of humour. Williams is a very funny writer, and I think the opening chapters were some of the wittiest I’ve read for a long time – in the form of real laugh-out-loud writing. There were a lot of laughs in the latter parts of the book, but also some philosophising too (which matches the original book very cleverly). I liked Williams’ extensive use of footnotes too, which were funny and informative at the same time; and one chapter consisted of a single sentence plus several pages of footnote where he paid tribute to his wife’s amazing picnic which was more like a professional buffet served at the side of a river.
The original “Three Men and a Boat” was about the need at that time to escape from the everyday and the rat-race; and although the trappings and the technology around us have changed dramatically, the basic need to escape has not. We humans still long for the simple life and a gentle trip up a river messing about on a boat. Williams’ book manages to be funny and profound at the same time, much like the original, and it was pure joy from start to finish!