Idle Thoughts of a Very Idle Fellow

14 September 2018

By Greg Denieffe

Chris Dodd’s lovely quintet of articles 3 Men/Mann/Hommes in a Boat/Boot/Bateau about Diana Cook’s donation of her collection of foreign language editions of Jerome Klapka Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat to the River & Rowing Museum coincided with a wee holiday break by yours truly and provided the perfect accompaniment to that first cup of coffee each morning as I listened to the gulls squawk, chirp and wail the historic south-coast town of Hastings into life. They also got me thinking about my own relationship with JKJ and to come to terms with the sad fact that I did not possess a printed copy of the classic tale of river adventure.

Caveat Emptor!

I do have a copy of the 1998 audiobook – on cassette, read by Nigel Planer, who two years earlier had his first ‘rowing’ engagement by playing The Car Salesman in The Wind in the Willows. I readily admit that this is not same as owning the book, but for me there is simply too much choice, certainly in the English language, and the easiest thing to do is to go without. There is one edition that I would readily snap-up and that is the Irish translation Triúr Fear i mbád published in 1932. It is as rare as hens’ teeth and I’ve yet to see a copy for sale. The translation is by Leon Ó Broin, an Irish historian that I previously quoted on HTBS back in April 2016 in piece called A Shadow of Cloud on the Stream*. In addition to writing dozens of Irish history books, Ó Broin has also translated Kidnapped (An Fuadach, 1931) by R. L. Stevenson and War of the Worlds (Cogadh na Reann, 1934) by H. G. Wells. A fine trilogy of translations for an avid book collector/investor.

“Triúr Fear i mbád” (1932 and pronounced Truer Far ih Maud) with the title in the old Gaelic alphabet (An Cló Gaelach).

I do not know if the book uses the Gaelic alphabet throughout or the Roman/Latin alphabet which has been commonly used for Irish since the 1950s. However, some scholars do not accept the ‘Gaelic’ as a separate alphabet but only as a script of the ‘Roman’ one. I apply the ‘typewriter-test’ and beg to disagree with them. A letter from 1997 published in The Irish Times, ‘Gaelic Script’, is an interesting read on the subject.

I was greatly interested in the illustrations used by Chris throughout the five articles. That is because my favourite illustrations of George, Harris, J and Montmorency’s junket do not appear in a book (as far as I know) but as a set of comic postcards published in the noughties; the ones beginning with nineteen. The set of six cards by Thomas Browne (1870 to 1910) concentrates on the crew’s hapless adventures which was well suited to his style of drawing. The cartoon-style saucy seaside postcards (yes, I’m a fan) didn’t appear until the early 1930s, more than 20 years after Browne’s death, but his style can be seen all over them.

Some in the know say that Browne was the most important artist in British comics. He died nine months short of his 40th birthday, yet his legacy is considerable. His early work was mostly comic-strip illustrations for publications such as Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips for which he created two old tramps, Weary Willie and Tired Tim. Charlie Chaplin himself said that these two hobos influenced him to create his own tramp character. In addition, his ‘spirit’ still lives on in modified form in every new rendition of Johnnie Walker’s ‘Striding Man’ which he created in 1908. Apart from the hundreds of postcards that he sketched, my favourite pieces are the portraits and covers he produced for C. B. Fry’s Magazine. These are mostly sporting in nature, a subject he carried over into his postcard work. 

Tom Browne, the artist, at work.

Here, for your amusement, in no particular order are the six postcards printed by Davidson Bros. in a series called The Adventures of Three men in a Boat (Picture Post Cards, from originals by Tom Browne, R. I.).

Browne’s work involving ‘river types’ doesn’t begin and end with this set of cards. A further set called Up the River is also worth a look; my favourite being Into the Bank (see below). Have fun searching for the others: Spooning; “Hi! Clumsy!!”; “Good Heavens! What’s That?”; In the Lock; Two’s Company Three’s None; and Tramp – “Eres a Stroke of Luck.” Two further cards on the same theme also exist: Kissing and An Awkward Predicament but they don’t carry the Up the River title. And so, after four sleep interrupted nights it was time to bid Hastings adieu (well, I am a Norman Knight after all) and worm our way cross country to avoid the M25 Friday experience. The A25 is a pleasant enough alternative; all the while we congratulated ourselves on a job well done, stopped for a decent lunch and worked out our average speed of close to 25 mph. Shortly after we resumed our journey the ‘back-seat boredom’ set in. They survived to tell the tale, but it has taken me two weeks to recover and piece together my musings from my morning coffee indulgences.

Hastings Life – You can’t buy happiness, but you can borrow a boat. Photo: Greg Denieffe.

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