Sometimes seen as a hymn to the joys of boating in late Victorian England, Three Men In A Boat is more a paean to the delights of the bachelor life as the author and two friends – George and Harris – plus a dog, Montmorency, go up the Thames on a two-week rowing holiday from Kingston to Oxford. Its appeal comes from a depiction of the bucolic life that even then – with the late 19th century’s increasing urbanisation and industrialisation – must have been slipping hopelessly out of reach. And that’s it, really. They banter and bicker and you imagine that P.G. Wodehouse and Anthony Buckeridge, author of the Jennings stories, were to be fans. Jerome sounds like quite the swell but in fact he was born poor in the East End of London and both parents were dead by his mid-teens. He presented himself as an idler – highly unlikely for such a successful man from such an unpromising beginning – and indeed wrote for the title of that name. At times his most famous work reads like an offhand travelogue, with the author barely bothering to note points of interest – at others he is intent on offering serious re-imaginings of historical events, in particular the signing of the Magna Carta. In some ways the book resembles seeing a stand-up comedian on a panel show, who shoehorns bits of their act into the answers they give. Some of these reheated observations – like the tale of Uncle Podger putting up a picture – are welcome, others are not. Reality intrudes, most incongruously, in the body of a dead woman who floats past after drowning herself but she is gone in a page and a half. The book came out in 1889 and the world it describes – boating, fishing, ale in riverside pubs, lazy days with friends – was to be obliterated for a generation 25 years later. Jerome was in his fifties by the time the First World War started and volunteered to drive an ambulance in France. He was understandably appalled by what he saw. It was all so horribly far from the depiction of a watery life of late Victorian leisure by which he made his name. Such escapism must have seemed pointless.