Upriver (Jerome K. Jerome Comes Out of the Woodwork)

“Let’s row up the Thames.”

I said this towards the end of dinner sometime in January . “Like in Three Men in a Boat,” I specified, in case anyone around the dinner table was in the slightest doubt.

My husband gave me a wary look from the opposite end of the table. On my left, Sophisticated Young Lady tried (and failed) not to look immensely relieved that she was old enough to be excused family holidays. I can’t remember whether Young Friend of the Elephants was in favour or not. But either way, she got over-excited. She always gets over-excited.

The idea of rowing up the Thames came from some dark recess of my mind quite unexpectedly. Not that it was a new idea, mind. But you get certain ideas when you’re young and of course life gets in the way and suddenly, half your life’s gone and there you are. You and your ideas. I’m sure this particular idea hasn’t been mentioned for at least 15 years. It popped up now because I carelessly wrote a blog post about Books That Transport You and Three Men in a Boat was one of them.

A long time ago, when we first met, my husband and I agreed that Three Men in a Boat was a ripping book and that we ought to row up the Thames. I’m sure the idea of rowing up the Thames was mine; my husband can row but…Well. He can row. His style is characterised by brute strength and a complete inability to use the oars for directing the course of the boat. As long as nothing gets in his way, he’s just fine.

I remember one summer day some years ago when we hired a boat on the Great Ouse near Huntingdon. We had been out for a day’s walking and passed one of these places where you can hire boats. (I can never pass a boats-for-hire sign without having to hire a boat.) My husband took the oars first. The boat was not a traditional rowing boat – well, it might have been traditional for the Great Ouse but I’ve never seen one like that one before: it was narrow and long, almost like a canoe, and nearly as unstable. On the plus side, it was lightweight and extremely manoeuvrable. Really, if it wasn’t for the fact that it had rowlocks and you rowed it like a normal rowing boat, ie. with your back towards the bow, I could, in all conscience, describe it as a canoe, full stop.

The fact that it was unstable meant that there was a fair chance that Young Friend of the Elephants, who was never one to sit still, would at some point topple us all into the river. On the other hand, the fact that it was manoeuvrable meant that within two minutes my husband rowed it into some bushes and then couldn’t row out of them. All he needed to do was to backwater but that turned out to be a skill wholly beyond him. After we spent a long time in the bushes, he finally agreed to hand over the oars to me. We changed places; he nearly upset the boat while doing so. I took the oars, backwatered, left the bushes behind and refused to give up the oars.

After that we did famously. My husband sat in the stern, telling me where to go. I rowed. The boat was light as a feather and responding to every touch; the best rowing boat I’ve ever rowed. There was no current to talk of. The sun was shining. Not Yet Sophisticated Young Lady, in those days more often known as Sulky Teenager, stopped rolling her eyes and Young Friend of the Elephants was sufficiently subdued by her father’s earlier rocking of the boat not to rock the boat herself. We had a great time.

All the same, not an auspicious beginning for rowing up the Thames.

But then, Jerome K. Jerome, George, Harris and Montmorency had their own mishaps. We can’t do worse than them.

Or can we?

Continued with: Downriver

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