One Man in an Ambulance

If you have not read about Harris getting lost in the maze at Hampton Court, go and read it now. And about George’s shirt falling into the River Thames. And about Harris, George and J trying to open a tin of pineapple without a tin opener. I have mentioned the book before in these letters but again I suggest you read it. Beg, buy, borrow or even download a copy of ‘Three Men in a Boat’. It is a great tonic for this long, hot summer.

In 1889 three young men decided they needed a holiday on a boat on the River Thames. They went from London upstream to Oxford and then downstream back to London again. Well, almost back to London. Why they never finished the journey is something else you can discover when you read their adventures.

´Three Men in a Boat is an expression of the easy-going life of three young men at the end of the 19th century. Victoria was on the throne and all was well. The trip up the Thames as far as Oxford nurtures nostalgia for the England of the time.

And the writer? What happened to Jerome K. Jerome, the only writer, I think, with a palindromic name? Ford Madox Ford almost qualifies, but not quite. His middle name would have to be just an initial. Anyway, after such a carefree jaunt up the River Thames, what did Jerome do?

Life is never a smooth journey for long. In 1914 the First World War broke out. Jerome wanted to do something. At 56 he was too old for the army so he volunteered as an ambulance driver at the front.

It must have been a terrible experience. His secretary said that when he returned, ‘He was not the same Jerome. He was strange.’ Yet in his autobiography, ‘My Life and Times’, published in 1926 just a year before he died, there is still something of the old Jerome. There is still his enjoyment of the oddities of life. There is still some of the old spirit and humour. 

We like to file away our writers firmly in a pigeon hole. For us they are not human beings with complex lives. Once they are safely dead and cannot surprise us with new work, we give them convenient labels which we can understand.

So it is with Jerome K. Jerome. Driving an ambulance at the front in the First World War is an uncomfortable truth for us. We push it to one side and try to forget it. What we want to hold on to is the carefree creator of the three men and a dog in their boat.

In the same way we want Kipling to be eternally in India writing the Mowgli stories. This is what we understand. In fact, he wrote the Jungle Books while living in Vermont, so Mowgli and Baloo were created in New England. We blot out Kipling’s years in the States and we forget his years as the squire of Batemans, his house in the countryside of Sussex. We put Kipling in India.

Some writers we delete altogether. The fame of Sherlock Holmes deprives Conan Doyle of any sort of existence at all. Sherlock Holmes lives on while Doyle remains a vague shadow. Holmes and Watson are the people who matter.

Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes when Holmes began to take over his life. Holmes fell with Moriarty into the Reichenbach Falls and that was supposed to be that. But the public demanded Holmes’s return, and so back he came giving Watson a tremendous shock. Watson tells us, ‘I rose to my feet, stared at him for some seconds in utter amazement, and then it appears that I must have fainted for the first and the last time in my life.’

We, the demanding public, do not like our firm ideas to be shattered. We cannot accept anything which does not fit with our simple view of life. We like our world to make sense. We believe in our labels.

So, we must broaden our minds. We must accept contradictions. We must tolerate inconsistencies. Jerome left the comfort of London and drove an ambulance at the front in France. We must let our favourite writers live full lives. Above all, we must take out those labels that we keep for our own ease and tear them up. Life is never that simple.