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Not such an idle fellow

To the writer of a column called “Second Thoughts”, it should have long occurred to read a book called Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. Especially if the book has been lying obligingly on his bookshelf, simply asking to be picked up. Perhaps it has escaped notice because of its modest appearance — unassuming, self-effacing, whispering like wealth but not talking like money. Content in its blue cardboard binding with grey cloth spine, reminiscent of my high school calculus text book and so unlike its other 19th century companions on the same shelf, all dressed up in their vintage finery of maroon leather and golden lettering. But once one gets beyond the covers, the charm is ineluctable. Fraying edges of old thick pages, fragile to the touch, a large comfortable font and water stains that seem to indicate that it was rescued from some flood and left to bake in the sun for many days. And bought by — or more likely, gifted to — one Annie E. Albright, she of the slightly back-slanting handwriting, on Christmas 1898.

Chapter after chapter is vintage Jerome K. Jerome (the K stands for Klapka, a tribute to family friend and hero of the 1849 Hungarian war of independence, General George Klapka). Reams of chuckle-inducing humour, laced with acid observation of human behaviour. He muses “On the Art of Making up One’s Mind”, bringing home with pointed veracity the difficulty that a lady may have while choosing between a red or a grey hat or a gentleman standing in front of his wardrobe when wondering whether a tweed suit or a formal black one or a riding costume would present him as more imposing and admirable. He goes on to dwell “On the Disadvantage of Not Getting What One Wants”. We learn about the “Delights and Benefits of Slavery” and there are a full 25 pages “On the Care and Management of Women”. In this last, he advises young men against a quiet long honeymoon where the wife has enough time to examine, criticise and reform. Instead the preferred option should be a whirlwind honeymoon during which the couple rushes across many cities, with many trains to catch and much luggage to pack. “Don’t give her time to criticize you until she has got used to you. No man will bear unprotected exposure to a young girl’s eyes. The honeymoon is the matrimonial microscope. Wobble it. Confuse it with many objects. Cloud it with other interests. Don’t sit still to be examined.” As part of his thoughts “On the Time Wasted in Looking before One Leaps”, Jerome describes the difference between a man and a woman leaving the house- the man simply shouts a good bye, slams the door and is on his way, while a woman plans for it at least a day before, washes her hair, decides not to go, and then to go, kisses all the children… A rollicking description of a pony pulling a cart after it has been given a pint of old ale on the advice of a meddlesome stranger makes a telling point “On the Inadvisability of Following Advice”. And so on …the gems tumble out of this old book, coated in humour, stuffed with wisdom.

No reason to regret

Jerome K. Jerome himself said: “It is as the author of Three Men in a Boat that the public persists in remembering me.” He had no reason to regret on that account; on that score alone, his reputation in modern literature is secure. Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog) is a masterpiece of humour, quite simply the funniest book that one can ever hope to come across in the English language and one that should never be allowed to go beyond arm& #8217;s reach. A page or two is guaranteed medicine against the severest bout of blues and a quick dip into it is the surest way I know of turning heartbreaking sobs into helpless chuckles.

Yet, Jerome must be permitted a momentary twinge that the public knows next to nothing of much else he wrote — several novels, collections of short stories, humorous essays, stage plays. Most have faded into obscurity or dimmed by the fame of Three Men in a Boat, yet some ring a bell. Three Men on the Bummel (its American edition is simply Three Men on Wheels) that captures in hilarious detail a cycling trip in Germany, The Diary of a Pil grimage and the predecessor to my Second Thoughts…, Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, can still be found in bookshops. The 14 essays in Idle Thoughts… (1886) were all written as contribu tions to a regular column in a journal Home Chimes and proved to be so popular that they came out as a hardbound collection, which sold, in Jerome’s words, “like hot cakes”. An informal, chatty, conversational voice t hat could weave effortless prose around subjects such as vanity, love (love is like the measles, we all have to go through it), weather, cats and dogs, babies and so on had broken through the stodginess of Victorian prose. Jerome had few pretensions, not even to being a humorist, and often gave in to the temptation to sentimentalize and philosophise. Yet the vein of humour that he had mined was so rich that it refused to be hidden away. “What readers ask now-a-days in a book,” he wrote in his preface to Idle Thoughts, “ is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn’t elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purpose whatever.”

Besides producing an impressive body of fiction, plays and essays, Jerome edited two journals for several years The Idler and Today and lectured extensively in Europe. Pretensions aside, idleness to him clearly di d not mean lack of work. Yet the desire to wish away work, the claim to being joyfully idle surfaces several times in his writings. At one place he says: “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me; the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.” It is the evasion of work that gives idleness its delicious quality: “there is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”


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