The Excitement Factory – This Sporting Life

Since sport requires leisure time and a surplus of money to spend on it, we can thank the Industrial Revolution for our weekend off to watch football, motor racing, tennis or rugby; and for the money to buy the necessary ticket or TV subscription. The 1850s were the crucial decade, when mills in northern England started to close at 2pm on Saturdays. According to A.N. Wilson in The Victorians, Wordsells of Birmingham was one of the first factories to give its workers Saturday afternoon off. It is no coincidence that the 1850s were the time when large scale sport really began to develop. Horse racing grew hugely in popularity with sixty two new horse racing meetings added to the calendar. Meanwhile, rugby and football were evolving rapidly into the games we know today. And as sporting events became established, trains were available to take people to them, thanks to the boom in railway building.

A century later we come to David Storey’s This Sporting Life, a novel about a factory worker who gets signed by a Rugby League team in a 1950s northern town. This Sporting Life might be set a hundred years after the Industrial Revolution kickstarted sport, but it is clear that sport and industry still go together. Rugby League is a kind of sporting heavy industry. This is a game played in vast stadiums by big men who have specialised jobs on the field, just as they follow specialised trades in their factories. Rugby, a sequence of systematic, repeated moments, is in effect a mill for producing sporting excitement, with sparks flying on the pitch as clouds of steam from nearby cooling towers drift overhead.

Even so, there is still a sense in This Sporting Life that Rugby League strives for something beyond the daily grind. The players are seen as heroes by local sports fans, reminiscent of those Greek heroes who took part in running and chariot races in Homer’s Iliad. The town’s gods – wealthy industrialists rather than deities on a mountain – run the club. Just as in Homer, the gods support some heroes at the expense of others, using their influence to trip up or push forward individual athletes as they see fit.

This Sporting Life is really a study of what it is to be one of these modern sporting heroes. Seemingly living lives beyond those of ordinary mortals, they are admired wherever they go, receiving free stuff and fan mail. Yet, a famous player also seems something less than human. The narrator and central character, Arthur Machin, often remarks on feeling like some sort of ape man who doesn’t belong in normal society. One of his lady admirers actually calls him Tarzan. The contradiction of popularity and a feeling of exclusion causes havoc with Arthur’s personal life. In his gruff way he loves his landlady, the widowed Mrs Hammond. This troubled young woman becomes interested in Arthur when he makes the metamorphosis from ordinary factory worker to sports star. At the same time she is unable to view him as a normal man she could be with. She always seems worried that Arthur will be off with one of his many female fans. Nothing Arthur can say will convince Mrs Hammond otherwise. Arthur’s fellow players Frank and Maurice are fortunate in having wives who treat them as normal men.

This Sporting Life is a study of professional sport and the celebrity it brings. Published in 1960 it is an uncompromising tale, interesting in the context of sport history, and in its prescience about the kind of developments that would follow in sport and celebrity culture generally.

Reading Between The Lines Of Chess

My daughter has recently started a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Watching her preparations, I was reminded of how close games are to story telling. A game offers a plot outline, whether that involves buying London property, racing around the railroads of America for a bet, or fighting dragons in dungeons. A new chapter unfolds each time the game is played.

If games are stories, I wondered what would count as classic literature, the sort of thing that students might study at university? Thinking along these lines I imagined being at university, about to embark on our course in game studies. After batting away comments from mathematicians in the bar about soft subjects, we could sit down with two of our subject’s oldest texts, draughts and go, which date back at least 3000 years. They represent a simple society, where all the pieces are identical and of the same value. But times change and society grows more complex.

Chess dates back about 1500 years, and settled into a recognisable modern form in Europe by the fifteenth century. Chess, in contrast to draughts and go, describes a complex, stratified society, with the sort of extreme social inequality that could very easily cause controversy on campus. In their differing sizes, chess pieces dramatise a ladder of importance, from a giant king and queen, through middle sized castles, knights and bishops, to the poor, bloody infantry of pawns who can be sacrificed without too many qualms if the wider strategy requires it.

However, a diligent student will look beneath the surface of a story, and in doing so with chess, it doesn’t take long to pick up much subversive commentary. The pawns, for example might be the smallest and least powerful pieces, but their range of movement is actually the same as that of the king, who, in effect, is a pawn dressed up in fancy clothes. Equally interesting is the way real power lies behind the throne. The queen, with her unmatched abilities, provides a remarkable challenge to a male dominated society.

Between the pawns and the royal pieces, we have the castles, bishops and knights. Now for those of you who don’t play chess all you really need to know is that castles move in straight lines, bishops move on the diagonal, and knights move in an L shape, three squares forward and one to the side. At the start of a game, the bishops are closest to king and queen, with the knights next to the bishops, and the castles out on the edge of the board. You also need to know that maybe keen literature students have a tendency to read too much into things. But let’s continue our studies anyway.

First the castles: what would their straight up and down movements make you think of? To me the castles suggest rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. They could be said to stand for the secular part of society. If I pictured a castle receiving a promotion, it would be on the basis of a rigorous exam. As the game begins, however, I can’t help noticing that the castles’ straight up and down approach to life is kept firmly out at the edges of the board, at a distance from the centre of influence. More favoured are the knights, closer to the king. Is it a coincidence that the knights, who owe their position to an accident of aristocratic birth rather than merit, come at their enemies from the side in a sneaky L shaped movement? Is there a subtle nod at the unfairness of life in the fact that the aristocratic knights sit closer to the king at the start of the game than the castles? Keep these questions in mind as we come to the bishops, who in the initial layout of pieces sit closest to the royal house. The bishops move not on the castle’s straight lines, but on a diagonal. Isn’t there a subtle hint of cunning in that way of moving? In an unsaid sort of way, it could be significant that the two bishops cannot support each other as the castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, the dark or the light squares. What does that make you think of? To me it suggests sneaky self interest, with hints of back stabbing division and closed mindedness.

Chess has long had an uneasy relationship with religious authority, suffering bans at one time or another from Muslims, Jews, Anglicans, Puritans, and most recently, the Taliban. These bans were generally related to perceived time wasting, or laws forbidding idolatrous depiction of people or animals. Perhaps the portrayal of the bishops in chess, is the game’s subtle revenge.

After student arguments about chess, even a few sit-ins, if you will, protesting at the kind of society it portrays, perhaps in the end we come to appreciate a game that is more subversive than conservative. It is ultimately also more reassuring than depressing, in the way it shows this whole ungainly, unjust mess of a society working in such intricate harmony.

The Rise And Rise Of Reginald Perrin

Author Jonathan Coe, writing in 2015 about the career of the late David Nobbs, claimed that Nobb’s most famous book, The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin, should be considered a classic. Initially I was sceptical that the story of Reggie Perrin, a 1970’s sales executive who fakes his own death and comes back disguised as someone else, could really be up there with Shakespeare.

First there were the dodgy jokes. While I laughed my way through some very funny sections, I nevertheless felt that some of the jokes were unwisely reheated from David Nobbs’ other career as a gag writer for TV comedians:

The driver got in the car and slammed the door.

‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.

‘I’m not Macduff. I’m Carter,’ said the driver.

‘I spoke figuratively,’ said Uncle Percy Spillinger.

‘Macduff’s got ’flu,’ said the driver.

That joke could have have helped fill the half hour on The Two Ronnies.

Apart from the odd less than ground-breaking joke, there was the bigger problem of accepting that a man could come back to his family, a bit older, greyer, suntanned, new bearded, and with nothing more than some am-dram experience, fool them into believing he is someone else.

AlI this being said, I still found myself fascinated by the story of an average man who wants to be something more. Reggie Perrin is a classic 1970s executive suffering a typical midlife crisis, hoping to escape his humdrum fate. David Nobbs does some very interesting things with the theme of fate, making you realise that we can never escape our destiny because what ever happens to us, no matter how bizarre, turns into what we are destined to do. Achieving something special does not involve leaving ordinary life behind, but finding remarkable qualities within it. This reminded me of that great tome of classic modern literature, the Alexandria Quartet, where Lawrence Durrell writes that our aim should not be to evade destiny, “but to fulfil it in its true potential.” David Nobbs makes the same point more succinctly, and with more laughs.

Overall the theme of fate is handled with such sensitivity and wit that I couldn’t help thinking of parallels with other authors who have written about the same thing, authors like, oh I don’t know, Shakespeare. Talking of Shakespeare, we could go back to my gripe about the veracity of Reggie fooling everyone with his disguise. Are all the cases of mistaken identity in Shakespeare always totally believable? Without the benefits of advanced prosthetics and a team of theatrical makeup artists, can shipwrecked Viola in Twelfth Night really concoct a disguise which persuades everyone that she is her brother? And dashing into the woods to escape her father in As You Like It, is it realistic that Rosalind manages to disguise herself as the sort of man capable of turning the head of shepherdesses? While we are on the subject of Shakespeare, let’s not forget that his plays have their share of dodgy jokes. What about all those puns? “You have dancing shoes with nimble soles. I have a soul of lead,” says Romeo. Did you get that – sole sounds like soul? If the Two Ronnies were working in the sixteenth century they might have passed on that gag.

By the time I reached the end of Fall and Rise, I’d decided that a rather silly romp could actually be a classic story.

A High Wind In Jamaica – The Wind Is Still Blowing

Published in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica tells the story of a group of British children living in Jamaica. After surviving a hurricane, their parents decide that England would be a safer place to grow up. The voyage home, however, is disrupted by some kidnapping pirates. These buccaneers are a motley crew, struggling to make a living at a time when Caribbean piracy has ceased to be economically viable. The world is changing. The children’s personal worlds are changing since they are variously on the border between babyhood and childhood, or between childhood and adult life. In the wider world, steamers are beginning to replace sailing ships, and law is replacing piracy. In many ways this book covers the same ground as a Western, set in a similar historical period, charting the same struggle between frontier life and the encroachment of civilisation.

The frontier is an unsettling, ambivalent place. Freedoms are passing, structures are rising. You might regret disappearing liberty, at the same time as welcoming a new order which dissuades a disaffected rancher from shooting you because he didn’t like the way you looked at him. Right and wrong are tricky concepts in the Wild West, and on the seas of the Caribbean as portrayed in A High Wind. It’s difficult to work out if the old world is innocent and good, or a place of primal violence. There are some very murky moral conundrums involving the pirates, who, whilst becoming sympathetic characters, nevertheless occasionally teeter on the borderline of child abuse. Similarly it’s difficult to work out if on-coming civilisation is sophisticated in its justice, or fatally deluded in its rules which do not accommodate the complexity of life.

These conundrums continue even today. The past is seen as a simpler age, viewed with a nostalgia, causing people to visit National Trust Properties, and buy vinyl records. At the same time, there is also a marked tendency to reinterpret the past in a negative way, to revisit past behaviour and find it unacceptable. Actual malicious behaviour has been uncovered, while at the other extreme a pop star accused of historical offences has had his house raided on national television before any wrong-doing had been established, and against whom charges were later dropped. Reminiscent of this situation have been controversies involving false memory syndrome where innocent behaviour is corrupted by later suggestion. This tension between actual bad behaviour and later reinterpretation by misguided moral guardians is a powerful theme in A High Wind, making it feel very contemporary. This is a book where events are reinterpreted according to new labels placed on them. The High Wind of the title refers to the Jamaican storm early in the story, during which the children seem more worried about their pet tabby cat, chased by local wild cats, than about their house collapsing around them. It is only later when the term hurricane is applied to the high wind that it becomes truly significant and threatening. I suppose the modern parallel would be the UK Met Office’s decision in 2013 to extend to normal storms the convention of labelling hurricanes with human names. What in the past was a gale blowing off the Atlantic, has now become something more sinister, a danger dramatised and personified.

A High Wind is a very interesting book, with beautiful descriptive passages. It left me unsettled and reassured in equal measure – unsettled that the winds of morality are so treacherous and unpredictable, reassured that the storm might not be as bad as it seems.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe – Things Fall Apart, The Centre Cannot Hold

This novel is an account of the years immediately before and after the UK’s 2016 European Referendum, seen through the eyes of a disparate group of old and young, academic and non-academic, politically engaged and would-rather-listen-to-music people, all centred on Benjamin Trotter, a struggling writer living a quiet life in the English Midlands.

I’ve read a number of nonfiction books which have struggled to explain the phenomenon of populism sweeping through western society since 2016, leading to the election of Trump and the result of the referendum. It is with the subject of Brexit, however, that we really see the value of a novel in exploring human experience. The nonfiction books tried to explain what happened in rational historic or economic terms. But the fact is, the decisions made by voters in the referendum, whether to leave or remain, were not primarily rational. Few people really understood the legal and economic technicalities of Britain’s relationship with Europe. Even the simple benefit of lorries rolling on and off ferries without any border delays was not widely understood. Neither was the disruptive consequence of border checks being reimposed, the fact that a two minute delay to each lorry’s progress at Dover would lead to a 17 mile traffic queue on the M20 – according to Port of Dover Authority. (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/…). In November 2018 just after the period covered by Middle England, Brexit Secretary Dominic Rabb admitted that “he did not quite understand” the UK’s reliance on the Dover Calais trade route. If a government minister charged with understanding these things could not grasp something so basic, what chance did the general population have? The reality is they had no chance and had to take an emotional decision, whether that meant voting to find some kind of lost identity, or revolting against the crude xenophobia of the poster revealed by Nigel Farage in May 2016, of a queue of migrants, mostly male and mostly black, apparently waiting to enter Britain. After days of confusing research on EU trade policy, it is this poster that persuades Benjamin Trotter to vote remain. 

So with rationality taking a back seat, a novel is a good place to explore the toxic brew of emotion, prejudice, diffuse frustration, misinformation and nostalgic illusion which really led to the final referendum result. If fictions were so influential, the fiction of a novel is a fitting place to consider them.

The story has a clever structure. A journalist’s regular meetings with the deputy communications director for Number 10 provide a satirical account of political events at the centre of government. We then see the impact of those events on the wider cast of characters. The portrayal of these characters is politically even-handed. At one extreme we have the odious Helena, who looks like a sweet old lady but is actually something of a Nazi. At the other extreme we have young, left wing agitator Coriander, who has a predilection for physical violence – camouflaged by an idealistic cause – and wages merciless campaigns of political correctness via social media, which serves as a digital lynch mob. On the spectrum between Helena and Coriander, we have people trying their best to understand and cope with a developing crisis.

Middle England is an excellent novel, well written and compelling as a story, and a reminder that the best novels are less a diversion, more a fascinating tool for understanding people.

A House For Mr Biswas – Sometimes Writing Rules Are Made To Be Broken.

I am reading the Modern Library’s 100 greatest novels of all time to try and help my writing. The problem with this plan is the way many of these books break the rules. This is certainly true of A House For Mr Biswas by V.S. Naipaul.

It is unlikely you will read this book for the usual reasons that people read books. A sympathetic central character? No. Biswas is often argumentative and nasty. Born in the most humble of circumstances, he has a measure of creative talent which sends him on a modest career of betterment and westernisation; but he is hardly a dashing hero. This is no Greatest Showman, “if you can dream it, you can achieve it” production. Romance? No. His relationship with his wife happens by accident, leading to years of scratchy cohabitation where husband and wife barely tolerate each other. The best that can be said is that they end up with some quiet mutual respect. Excitement and anticipation? No and no. The events of Biswas’ life are mundane. I would keep my incredulous daughter informed with updates such as: “he is living with his in-laws in a decaying mansion. He has moved to a small house out in the country. There was a bush fire; they put it out. He has now gone to live in the Port of Spain in a house owned by his mother in law. He is now a journalist. He is now a minor civil servant. He has finally bought his own house which looks alright but is a bit of a wreck.” And so on. As for anticipation, the author starts at the end, a dying man looking back at his life. You know what will happen. The reviewer doesn’t really have to worry about spoilers, because the story simply doesn’t work that way. The whole book is waiting for something to happen that never really does. And you know it beforehand. By all the usual measures, it’s like an anti-novel.

However, with frequent breaks, I kept going, and in the end I was glad I did. At the beginning of Biswas’s life a local holy man reads the omens of the boy’s life, in the way he sneezes, and in the fact that, briefly, he has an extra finger. He does not give a good report. The book is a bit like that. You can read the signs how you like, making perfectly ordinary phenomena into something meaningful, even as they remain ordinary. Apart from the brief period of Biswas’s early childhood, this book is interesting thematically rather than dramatically. If you accept that you will get a lot from it.

Biswas himself tries to learn writing via a correspondence course. He never does write his great novel, but by the time you get to the end of his story you’re wondering what a great novel is anyway.

The Specials’ Encore Album – A Vote For Sanity

The Specials have released a new album, called Encore.

Created at the time of Rock Against Racism in 1978, The Specials have always been a political band. It seems the present political situation is so dire that it has roused The Specials to their first original material in forty years. I enjoyed the results. Vocalist and guitarist Lynval Golding’s tells an affecting story of his childhood move from Jamaica to England. The track where smiling EDL opponent Saffiyah Khan updates Prince Buster’s Ten Commandments Of Man also works well. I liked the bit about makeup, and minds made up.

The thing that really grabbed me about the album was the way it captured the chaotic current political situation. On Encore there’s a track called Vote for Me, which has familiar sentiments about a politician who is out of touch, living in an ivory tower. There’s nothing very ground breaking about that, aside from the way it chimes with the populist mood of the moment. But then the very next track is the old Fun Boy Three song, The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum. This is a very different political sentiment, because it gives the sense that there is a small group of competent people who run the asylum; and it’s definitely not a good thing when their charges get their crazy hands on the handles of power.

When you come down to it that’s the problem. You can be a political band, representing your audience of boys and girls/men and women-in-the-street to the smooth people in the corridors of power. But what happens when those ordinary folks stride down the corridors themselves?

Bands with a political bent might write songs about out of touch politicians, but the logical conclusion of that populist sentiment is the electoral success of a vulgar, dishonest real-estate entrepreneur who knows nothing about politics or national administration, who wins office with an emotion-driven message directed at the lowest instincts in people, and then runs a predictably chaotic, incompetent government. Another manifestation of this Vote for Me populism is the ascendancy of nationalist movements intent on breaking up a Europe-wide union designed in the interests of business efficiency and peace. This populist nationalism leads to the sort of ugliness Saffiyah Khan faced down. And if a song like The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum has relevance, then there it is. It’s difficult to have it both ways. It is true, politicians can become isolated in their ivory towers. Old Etonian Jacob Rees Mogg seems to me a politician who lives in just such a tower, oblivious to the effect his ideas might have on society generally. But if you despise and reject professional politicians, what happens to the asylum after that? What happens to the plane if the passengers decide to fly it themselves? It’s a never ending conundrum, a swinging pendulum of opinion which has reached one of the extreme ends of its swing.

Let There Be Editing

I’ve been hard at work over the last few months editing a novel, which meant blog posts fell by the wayside. It seemed difficult to provide exciting updates on the quiet, hugely time-consuming activity that is editing. This the polishing of what you hope will be a gem: it is not the volcanic activity that produces the rock in the first place. But then I asked myself, who wants a lump of rock? Isn’t writing more about the shaping, like sculpture is more about the chiseling than the lump of marble? When I thought back there was no moment when writing ended and editing began. In fact, now I come think about it, I was editing in some shape or form from the beginning.

Wanting to find out where editing itself began, I read an account of editing’s history in The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Once I’d done that it became impossible to think of editing as just some adjustments you make once the real work is finished. The first editors were medieval monks, human photocopiers, whose mundane job it was to copy out religious texts. They relieved the monotony by designing extravagant drop caps. These fancy first letters of chapters illustrate not only a letter of the alphabet, but a thwarted creativity which had no other outlet. Nobody would presume to set themselves up as an editor for the Almighty; nobody, that is, except for a few monks who couldn’t help themselves when they came to a passage that could do with tidying up. No doubt this was done in a spirit of great humility, just making the words clearer, you understand, so that readers would appreciate the religious wisdom all the better. Nevertheless, in practice medieval scribes began what we now know as editing.

Editing is the confidence to believe that we the reader also have something worthwhile to contribute. At first it was a tweak here and there. Then in the middle of the fifteenth century came the advent of the printing press, which meant the scribe could not simply copy out texts any longer. That was done by a machine. The only thing left for a scribe to do was to expand their role in shaping words. Into the sixteenth century, with printing technology widespread, the role of editor was almost that of author. In an age with few writers, editors, many of them working in the great cultural centre of Venice, became literary celebrities, finding works of the past to publish in copy-edited forms with introductions for contemporary audiences. It was then, of course, a small step, to going the whole hog and writing the damn words yourself. In this way the rich literary scene we enjoy today was born.

So in a sense writing began with editing, with the belief, that we as readers should have the confidence to give as well as receive. Writing is really one long edit, from the first word to the last.

I’ll Take A Night At The Opera Over A Day of the Locust

A_Night_at_the_Opera_Poster          West_locust

The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, is set on the fringes of the film business in 1930s Hollywood. The story centres around two characters who are new to Tinseltown – a young artist starting work as a set designer, and a repressed hotel accountant taking an extended holiday on his doctor’s advice. Both are pulled into the febrile, chaotic circle of a young woman desperate to make it as an actress.

The Day of the Locust is a bleak read, suggesting that everything in Hollywood life is artificial. People are either pursuing delusional ambitions, or working in shambolic movie production. Scenes set on studio lots paint an unflattering picture of even the heady heights of the film business. At a recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, a huge army of extras charge up a hill before carpenters have finished building it.

As an extension of this caricature of Hollywood, I think we are meant to reflect on life in America generally, and see how much of it is driven by artificiality. In some ways, this seems a prescient observation. After all, movie stars and reality TV celebrities have become presidents of the United States; and America’s current reality-star president manufactures illusions on a daily basis.

However, even against the background of a reality TV presidency, I baulked at the book’s relentless negativity. My frustrations centred around a famous scene depicting a riot outside Kahn’s Persian Palace Theatre where an unnamed new film was premiering. I got the feeling that author Nathaniel West thought that cinema, with its huge audiences, must necessarily appeal to the worst, lowest common denominator instincts in people. This just doesn’t ring true when you start to wonder what the unnamed film might have been in reality. In contrast to West’s sour portrayal, the 1930s were in fact a golden era in Hollywood film making, with Alfred Hitchcock, Laurel and Hardy, Frank Capra, John Ford, the Marx Brothers, and Charlie Chaplin all hard at work. Creativity peaked, ironically, in 1939, the year that Nathaniel West published his book, with premieres for – amongst many other excellent movies – Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, and Mr Smith Goes to Washington. So the movie showing at the Persian Palace Theatre, rather than pandering to mob tastes, could conceivably have been a classic. Actually, Gary Cooper is mentioned by one of the vile film goers; so this could have been the Hollywood premiere of Mr Deeds Goes to Town from 1936, directed by Frank Capra, for which Cooper was nominated for an Academy Award. Thinking about specific movies makes you see how unrealistic it is to dismiss Hollywood as nothing more than the home of tawdry mass entertainment and frustrated fantasists. Perhaps what we are seeing here is not so much a perceptive portrayal of the debasement of modern culture, more the snobbish outlook of a writer who doesn’t accept that cinema has produced masterpieces rivalling anything in literature.

In my view, for all the quality of its writing and it’s accurate depiction of important aspects of America’s situation, the cultural snobbery implicit in The Day of the Locust results in a book that has not aged well.

Trying Hard To Take It Easy

Holidays are odd things. They derive from exhausting pilgrimage where sedentary, medieval folk would up-sticks and walk hundreds of miles on muddy tracks, in unsuitable clothing, at the mercy of thieves, brigands and weather, to reach a distant shrine. Equally, holidays also derive from peaceful rest cures at spas and seaside towns, where instead of getting foot sore you’re more likely to get foot massage. This contradictory ancestry ends up combining a long physical ordeal in search of spiritual meaning with the beach resort experience, reclining on a lounger, watching waves lap on smooth sand, cool drink in hand.

Both the pilgrimage and sun lounger aspects of holidays are explored in Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome’s nineteenth century account of a Thames boating trip. The nineteenth century was the time when holidays came into being for people generally. You no longer had to be religiously earnest, or be wealthy enough to sit around drinking mineral water in Bath or Tunbridge Wells. People were earning better money, had more free time and, thanks to the railways, could travel more easily. The three men who take Jerome’s boat trip are regular chaps. George works as a bank clerk. It’s not clear exactly what Harris and Jerome do, but you don’t get the sense that they are government ministers, captains of industry, or deep-thinking academics. They are the new holiday makers, embarking on a journey of ancient contradictions.

In many ways this boat trip is a spiritual pilgrimage, an attempt to leave behind the humdrum and find something more profound. Against a background of arduous effort and spartan living conditions, there are reflections on life and extravagant descriptions of nature in all its comforting, uplifting beauty. But the attempted profundities are always punctured by various down-to-earth mishaps involving ill-behaved dogs, poor boatmanship, bad cooking, vengeful steam launches, forgotten tin openers. While this journey might be seen as a kind of physically demanding pilgrimage, it is also an indolent escape from stress and strain. Each man takes it in turn to pull tricks to get out of rowing. Jerome avoids tours of churchyards containing historically significant graves. There is much lounging around in riverside meadows, and laughter at the memory of conscientious old school fellows who threw themselves into French irregular verbs.

So where does this physically demanding, yet languid – profound yet commonplace – journey take us? Without giving anything away about the “denouement”, it takes us somewhere significant, while allowing us to escape heavy significance. It takes us somewhere new, while also taking us home again with a new appreciation of our daily lives.

That’s what the best holidays do for us.