2wheels, the return: Edward Genochio's bike expedition across Asia to England

2wheels: The Return

Edward Genochio's bicycle expedition from China to England

September 2005 - November 2006

Sponsored by Decathlon China

 
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Mongolian Horseman Stole My Bicycle!

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The 2wheels expedition book:

- 'But Isn't There a Bus?' - details here.


2wheels is sponsored by:

- Decathlon China
- Drennan Co Shanghai
- Eclipse Internet
- P&O Ferries


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- CereCare Centre
- Sustrans
- Force Cancer Care
- The Lotus Project
- The Wheelchair Foundation


Other writing by Edward Genochio:

- Some snippets
- In Voyage Magazine
- In The Adventure Cycling Handbook


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- The 2wheels expedition blog


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- Some links to other websites


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2wheels in the future:

- Some map-gazing ideas


Pretty pictures:

- The original 2wheels photo archive


The original 2wheels expedition site:

- 2004-5 from England to China


As seen / heard in:

- 2wheels media credits


2wheels websiteography:

- 2wheels sitemap
- Historical and technical notes on the 2wheels website


Krasnoyarskiy Kray, Siberia, Russia

Siberia

Tuva, Siberia, Russia

Horses, Mongolia

Baikal, Siberia, Russia

Hop off

Priyanik, half-eaten (by me), Kyakhta, Russian-Mongolian border. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the other half was eaten. Also by me.

Buryatia, Russia

Roadsign in Tuva, Russia

Tuva, Russia

The sky, I think

Tuva

Three Men on a Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome

A Commentary

Three Men on the Bummel really contains all you need to know about the planning and execution of a journey, be it on a bicycle or otherwise. Though first published in 1900, the few extracts that follow will serve to show that little has changed in the ensuing 1.05 centuries.

 

The narrative begins with George helping his friends in their search for a plausible story to sell to their wives – his friends being (wrongly, it turns out) of the opinion that their desire to get away for “a change” will cause great distress to their spouses unless handled with delicacy.


"George suggested 'business'. It was the sort of suggestion George would make. A bachelor thinks a married woman doesn’t know enough to get out of the way of a steam-roller. I knew a young fellow once, an engineer, who thought he would go to Vienna ‘on business’. His wife wanted to know ‘what business’. He told her it would be his duty to visit the mines in the neighbourhood of the Austrian capital, and to make reports. She said she would go with him; she was that sort of woman. He tried to dissuade her: he told her that a mine was no place for a beautiful woman. She said she felt that herself and that therefore she did not intend to accompany him down the shafts; she would see him off in the morning, and then amuse herself until his return looking round the Vienna shops and buying a few things she might want. Having started the idea, he did not see very well how to get out of it; and for ten long summer days he did visit the mines in the neighbourhood of Vienna, and in the evening wrote reports about them, which she posted for him to his firm, who didn’t want them."

 

As the travel plans of the eponymous three men mature, Harris suggests taking bicycles. Today’s cyclist will be quick to notice that the cantankerous, nay wilful, nature of winds and hills has scarcely mellowed since the day this conversation took place:

 


"I have it!" exclaimed Harris; "a bicycle tour!"

George looked doubtful.

"There's a lot of uphill about a bicycle tour," said he, "and the
wind is against you."

"So there is downhill, and the wind behind you," said Harris.

"I've never noticed it," said George.

"You won't think of anything better than a bicycle tour," persisted
Harris.

I was inclined to agree with him.

"And I'll tell you where," continued he; "through the
Black
Forest
."

"Why, that's ALL uphill," said George.

"Not all," retorted Harris; "say two-thirds…”

 

I myself have not yet had the pleasure of riding a tandem, but if ever I do, and find myself riding in front, I shall be sure to stock my armoury of sarcastic abuse for the man behind with a selection of choice phrases from Three Men on the Bummel, including this one, my favourite:

 

“What’s the matter – lost your pedals?”

 

We hear a story from the days when Harris, younger and less wise, embarked on a tandeming holiday with his wife.

 

He was riding with his wife through Holland. The roads were stony, and the machine jumped a good deal.

"Sit tight," said Harris, without turning his head.

What Mrs. Harris thought he said was, "Jump off." Why she should
have thought he said "Jump off," when he said "Sit tight," neither
of them can explain.

Mrs. Harris puts it in this way, "If you had said, 'Sit tight,' why
should I have jumped off?"

Harris puts it, "If I had wanted you to jump off, why should I have
said 'Sit tight!'?"

 

The pair were at length reunited, but only after a convoluted adventure involving a Dutch policeman and a man sitting sideways on a horse, among others.

 

There are a couple of things, at least, that one should see to, before one so much as begins to think about the actual business of riding one’s bicycle. These fall approximately under the heading of ‘planning’.

 

In matters pertaining to planning, the narrator reveals that he learnt much from his Uncle Podger. (Whose name, incidentally, I must add to my list of names that are held by, and exclusively by, uncles and aunts – May, Fanny and Joff are others.)

 

"Always before beginning to pack," my Uncle would say, "make a
list."

He was a methodical man.

"Take a piece of paper"--he always began at the beginning--"put
down on it everything you can possibly require, then go over it and
see that it contains nothing you can possibly do without. Imagine
yourself in bed; what have you got on? Very well, put it down--
together with a change. You get up; what do you do? Wash
yourself. What do you wash yourself with? Soap; put down soap.
Go on till you have finished. Then take your clothes. Begin at
your feet; what do you wear on your feet? Boots, shoes, socks; put
them down. Work up till you get to your head. What else do you
want besides clothes? A little brandy; put it down. A corkscrew,
put it down. Put down everything, then you don't forget anything."

That is the plan he always pursued himself. The list made, he
would go over it carefully, as he always advised, to see that he
had forgotten nothing. Then he would go over it again, and strike
out everything it was possible to dispense with.

Then he would lose the list.

 

Many cyclists of the present era take great delight in buffing up on, acquiring, and then going on at great length about, the latest gadgets, gizmos, widgets, and gazmos that combine to transform one’s bicycle into a Superior Machine. Gears, spokes, pedals, headsets and bottom brackets, nothing is immune from the seemingly unending desire, of some folk to design and build, and of others to buy, a better mousetrap. So to speak. Indeed, to speak of re-inventing the wheel scarcely begins to do credit to the endless powers of circular innovation possessed by our leading bicycle manufacturers.

 

To those for whom the delights of the very latest in velocipede technology seems hard to grasp, at best, or slippery, at worst, and indeed for those who once greeted each new engineering miracle with unbounded joy, but who now sense a weary cynicism beginning to edge out their formerly-wholehearted enthusiasm, it may be some consolation to know that there have been Latest Devices for Improving your Bicycle ever since, more or less, there have been bicycles. Certainly, novelties for your bike were by no means a novelty in 1900. Chapter three begins with a conversation between Harris, for whom no new-fangled contraption can come to soon, and the narrator, who sticks to the belief that any machine, bicycle included, having once been proved basically useful and sound, requires no further tinkering.

 

On Monday afternoon Harris came round; he had a cycling paper in
his hand.

I said: "If you take my advice, you will leave it alone."

Harris said: "Leave what alone?"

I said: "That brand-new, patent, revolution in cycling, record-
breaking, Tomfoolishness, whatever it may be, the advertisement of
which you have there in your hand."

He said: "Well, I don't know; there will be some steep hills for
us to negotiate; I guess we shall want a good brake."

I said: "We shall want a brake, I agree; what we shall not want is
a mechanical surprise that we don't understand, and that never acts
when it is wanted."

"This thing," he said, "acts automatically."

"You needn't tell me," I said. "I know exactly what it will do, by
instinct. Going uphill it will jamb the wheel so effectively that
we shall have to carry the machine bodily. The air at the top of
the hill will do it good, and it will suddenly come right again.
Going downhill it will start reflecting what a nuisance it has
been. This will lead to remorse, and finally to despair. It will
say to itself: 'I'm not fit to be a brake. I don't help these
fellows; I only hinder them. I'm a curse, that's what I am;' and,
without a word of warning, it will 'chuck' the whole business.
That is what that brake will do. Leave it alone. You are a good
fellow," I continued, "but you have one fault."

"What?" he asked, indignantly.

"You have too much faith," I answered. "If you read an
advertisement, you go away and believe it. Every experiment that
every fool has thought of in connection with cycling you have
tried. Your guardian angel appears to be a capable and
conscientious spirit, and hitherto she has seen you through; take
my advice and don't try her too far. She must have had a busy time
since you started cycling. Don't go on till you make her mad."

He said: "If every man talked like that there would be no
advancement made in any department of life. If nobody ever tried a
new thing the world would come to a standstill. It is by--"

"I know all that can be said on that side of the argument," I
interrupted. "I agree in trying new experiments up to thirty-five;
AFTER thirty-five I consider a man is entitled to think of himself.
You and I have done our duty in this direction, you especially.
You have been blown up by a patent gas lamp--"

 

Those wishing to know the full story of the patent gas lamp should probably try to get their hands on the book. Here, I shall pause to note only that it is no new trick of magazines, whose mission, we like fondly to believe, is to assist the citizen in his struggle to make sense of the ever-changing and ever-multiplying range of what-not proffered for sale by the manufacturers, not only of bicycles but equally of computers, kitchens, cameras and a hundred other things, to connive with their advertisers, on whose fees they largely subsist, in persuading us to part with our hard-earned in exchange for a great many things for which we have neither use nor need. And also that brakes can be obstinate creatures even to this day.

 

Few parts of a bicycle, ancient or modern, come into closer, more sustained, nor more intimate contact, with its rider than the saddle, and for this reason, perhaps, the subject of saddles is one that divides cyclists. There are those like who discuss them at great length at every opportunity, hoping thereby to share or discover a shred of information that might, even to some slight degree, allow them to enhance the comfort of that most delicate of rider-bicycle interfaces. And then, there are those who do not like to talk of them at all, as is perhaps only human nature when dealing with painful memories.

 

Here, the narrator exchanges views on the subject with George.

 

“…Then there are saddles," I went on--I wished to get this lesson home to
him. "Can you think of any saddle ever advertised that you have
NOT tried?"

He said: "It has been an idea of mine that the right saddle is to
be found."

I said: "You give up that idea; this is an imperfect world of joy
and sorrow mingled. There may be a better land where bicycle
saddles are made out of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world
the simplest thing is to get used to something hard. There was
that saddle you bought in
Birmingham; it was divided in the middle,
and looked like a pair of kidneys."

He said: "You mean that one constructed on anatomical principles."

"Very likely," I replied. "The box you bought it in had a picture
on the cover, representing a sitting skeleton--or rather that part
of a skeleton which does sit."

He said: "It was quite correct; it showed you the true position of
the--"

I said: "We will not go into details; the picture always seemed to
me indelicate."

He said: "Medically speaking, it was right."

"Possibly," I said, "for a man who rode in nothing but his bones.
I only know that I tried it myself, and that to a man who wore
flesh it was agony. Every time you went over a stone or a rut it
nipped you; it was like riding on an irritable lobster. You rode
that for a month."

"I thought it only right to give it a fair trial," he answered.

I said: "You gave your family a fair trial also; if you will allow
me the use of slang. Your wife told me that never in the whole
course of your married life had she known you so bad tempered, so
un-Christian like, as you were that month. Then you remember that
other saddle, the one with the spring under it."

He said: "You mean 'the Spiral.'"

I said: "I mean the one that jerked you up and down like a Jack-
in-the-box; sometimes you came down again in the right place, and
sometimes you didn't. I am not referring to these matters merely
to recall painful memories, but I want to impress you with the
folly of trying experiments at your time of life."

 

As saddles divide us (though not, we hope, literally), so too does the subject of fiddling – or ‘maintenance’, or ‘overhauling’, as you may please. Briefly: there are those who go in for it, and those who do not. This extended anecdote leaves us in little doubt regarding which camp the narrator belongs to.

 

George begins:

 

"Is the thing all right?" he asked.

"The tandem," I replied, "is well."

He said: "Have you overhauled it?"

I said: "I have not, nor is anyone else going to overhaul it. The
thing is now in working order, and it is going to remain in working
order till we start."

I have had experience of this "overhauling." There was a man at
Folkestone; I used to meet him on the Lees. He proposed one
evening we should go for a long bicycle ride together on the
following day, and I agreed. I got up early, for me; I made an
effort, and was pleased with myself. He came half an hour late: I
was waiting for him in the garden. It was a lovely day. He said:-

"That's a good-looking machine of yours. How does it run?"

"Oh, like most of them!" I answered; "easily enough in the morning;
goes a little stiffly after lunch."

He caught hold of it by the front wheel and the fork and shook it
violently.

I said: "Don't do that; you'll hurt it."

I did not see why he should shake it; it had not done anything to
him. Besides, if it wanted shaking, I was the proper person to
shake it. I felt much as I should had he started whacking my dog.

He said: "This front wheel wobbles."

I said: "It doesn't if you don't wobble it." It didn't wobble, as
a matter of fact--nothing worth calling a wobble.

He said: "This is dangerous; have you got a screw-hammer?"

I ought to have been firm, but I thought that perhaps he really did
know something about the business. I went to the tool shed to see
what I could find. When I came back he was sitting on the ground
with the front wheel between his legs. He was playing with it,
twiddling it round between his fingers; the remnant of the machine
was lying on the gravel path beside him.

He said: "Something has happened to this front wheel of yours."

"It looks like it, doesn't it?" I answered. But he was the sort of
man that never understands satire.

He said: "It looks to me as if the bearings were all wrong."

I said: "Don't you trouble about it any more; you will make
yourself tired. Let us put it back and get off."

He said: "We may as well see what is the matter with it, now it is
out." He talked as though it had dropped out by accident.

Before I could stop him he had unscrewed something somewhere, and
out rolled all over the path some dozen or so little balls.

"Catch 'em!" he shouted; "catch 'em! We mustn't lose any of them."
He was quite excited about them.

We grovelled round for half an hour, and found sixteen. He said he
hoped we had got them all, because, if not, it would make a serious
difference to the machine. He said there was nothing you should be
more careful about in taking a bicycle to pieces than seeing you
did not lose any of the balls. He explained that you ought to
count them as you took them out, and see that exactly the same
number went back in each place. I promised, if ever I took a
bicycle to pieces I would remember his advice.

I put the balls for safety in my hat, and I put my hat upon the
doorstep. It was not a sensible thing to do, I admit. As a matter
of fact, it was a silly thing to do. I am not as a rule addle-
headed; his influence must have affected me.

He then said that while he was about it he would see to the chain
for me, and at once began taking off the gear-case. I did try to
persuade him from that. I told him what an experienced friend of
mine once said to me solemnly:-

"If anything goes wrong with your gear-case, sell the machine and
buy a new one; it comes cheaper."

He said: "People talk like that who understand nothing about
machines. Nothing is easier than taking off a gear-case."

I had to confess he was right. In less than five minutes he had
the gear-case in two pieces, lying on the path, and was grovelling
for screws. He said it was always a mystery to him the way screws
disappeared.

We were still looking for the screws when Ethelbertha came out.
She seemed surprised to find us there; she said she thought we had
started hours ago.

He said: "We shan't be long now. I'm just helping your husband to
overhaul this machine of his. It's a good machine; but they all
want going over occasionally."

Ethelbertha said: "If you want to wash yourselves when you have
done you might go into the back kitchen, if you don't mind; the
girls have just finished the bedrooms."

She told me that if she met Kate they would probably go for a sail;
but that in any case she would be back to lunch. I would have
given a sovereign to be going with her. I was getting heartily
sick of standing about watching this fool breaking up my bicycle.

Common sense continued to whisper to me: "Stop him, before he does
any more mischief. You have a right to protect your own property
from the ravages of a lunatic. Take him by the scruff of the neck,
and kick him out of the gate!"

But I am weak when it comes to hurting other people's feelings, and
I let him muddle on.

He gave up looking for the rest of the screws. He said screws had
a knack of turning up when you least expected them; and that now he
would see to the chain. He tightened it till it would not move;
next he loosened it until it was twice as loose as it was before.
Then he said we had better think about getting the front wheel back
into its place again.

I held the fork open, and he worried with the wheel. At the end of
ten minutes I suggested he should hold the forks, and that I should
handle the wheel; and we changed places. At the end of his first
minute he dropped the machine, and took a short walk round the
croquet lawn, with his hands pressed together between his thighs.
He explained as he walked that the thing to be careful about was to
avoid getting your fingers pinched between the forks and the spokes
of the wheel. I replied I was convinced, from my own experience,
that there was much truth in what he said. He wrapped himself up
in a couple of dusters, and we commenced again. At length we did
get the thing into position; and the moment it was in position he
burst out laughing.

I said: "What's the joke?"

He said: "Well, I am an ass!"

It was the first thing he had said that made me respect him. I
asked him what had led him to the discovery.

He said: "We've forgotten the balls!"

I looked for my hat; it was lying topsy-turvy in the middle of the
path, and Ethelbertha's favourite hound was swallowing the balls as
fast as he could pick them up.

"He will kill himself," said Ebbson--I have never met him since
that day, thank the Lord; but I think his name was Ebbson--"they
are solid steel."

I said: "I am not troubling about the dog. He has had a bootlace
and a packet of needles already this week. Nature's the best
guide; puppies seem to require this kind of stimulant. What I am
thinking about is my bicycle."

He was of a cheerful disposition. He said: "Well, we must put
back all we can find, and trust to
Providence."

We found eleven. We fixed six on one side and five on the other,
and half an hour later the wheel was in its place again. It need
hardly be added that it really did wobble now; a child might have
noticed it. Ebbson said it would do for the present. He appeared
to be getting a bit tired himself. If I had let him, he would, I
believe, at this point have gone home. I was determined now,
however, that he should stop and finish; I had abandoned all
thoughts of a ride. My pride in the machine he had killed. My
only interest lay now in seeing him scratch and bump and pinch
himself. I revived his drooping spirits with a glass of beer and
some judicious praise. I said:

"Watching you do this is of real use to me. It is not only your
skill and dexterity that fascinates me, it is your cheery
confidence in yourself, your inexplicable hopefulness, that does me
good."

Thus encouraged, he set to work to refix the gear-case. He stood
the bicycle against the house, and worked from the off side. Then
he stood it against a tree, and worked from the near side. Then I
held it for him, while he lay on the ground with his head between
the wheels, and worked at it from below, and dropped oil upon
himself. Then he took it away from me, and doubled himself across
it like a pack-saddle, till he lost his balance and slid over on to
his head. Three times he said:

"Thank Heaven, that's right at last!"

And twice he said:

"No, I'm damned if it is after all!"

What he said the third time I try to forget.

Then he lost his temper and tried bullying the thing. The bicycle,
I was glad to see, showed spirit; and the subsequent proceedings
degenerated into little else than a rough-and-tumble fight between
him and the machine. One moment the bicycle would be on the gravel
path, and he on top of it; the next, the position would be
reversed--he on the gravel path, the bicycle on him. Now he would
be standing flushed with victory, the bicycle firmly fixed between
his legs. But his triumph would be short-lived. By a sudden,
quick movement it would free itself, and, turning upon him, hit him
sharply over the head with one of its handles.

At a quarter to one, dirty and dishevelled, cut and breeding, he
said: "I think that will do;" and rose and wiped his brow.

The bicycle looked as if it also had had enough of it. Which had
received most punishment it would have been difficult to say. I
took him into the back kitchen, where, so far as was possible
without soda and proper tools, he cleaned himself, and sent him
home.

 

I confess to having, when new to the joys of cycling, briefly fancied myself as a bit of a tinkerer. Now, fractionally older and, on a good day, fractionally wiser, but indubitably lazier and (this is important) less gymnastically flexible, I am more inclined to the view that a bicycle performs best when its innards are interfered with as little and as seldom as possible. The narrator concludes his story by stating his opinion that the art of riding a bicycle, and the art of mending one, have little in common, and should, so far as possible, left in the hands of different specialists:

 

There are two ways you can get exercise out of a bicycle: you can
"overhaul" it, or you can ride it. On the whole, I am not sure
that a man who takes his pleasure overhauling does not have the
best of the bargain. He is independent of the weather and the
wind; the state of the roads troubles him not. Give him a screw-
hammer, a bundle of rags, an oil-can, and something to sit down
upon, and he is happy for the day. He has to put up with certain
disadvantages, of course; there is no joy without alloy. He
himself always looks like a tinker, and his machine always suggests
the idea that, having stolen it, he has tried to disguise it; but
as he rarely gets beyond the first milestone with it, this,
perhaps, does not much matter. The mistake some people make is in
thinking they can get both forms of sport out of the same machine.
This is impossible; no machine will stand the double strain. You
must make up your mind whether you are going to be an "overhauler"
or a rider. Personally, I prefer to ride, therefore I take care to
have near me nothing that can tempt me to overhaul. When anything
happens to my machine I wheel it to the nearest repairing shop. If
I am too far from the town or village to walk, I sit by the
roadside and wait till a cart comes along.

 

 

You may on some past travels have packed a phrasebook in your luggage with an eye to improving conversational prospects with the natives; or you may be planning to do the same in the future. It is unlikely that you fall into both categories (unless you are unusually slow at learning from past mistakes). To those of you in the first: well, you have learnt your folly by bitter experience, and you may skip this paragraph without further ado. For those of you in the second, though, these few words may save your panniers a few ounces. Put briefly, though reading out from a phrasebook a phrase relevant in some way to given predicament is on occasion possible, you should put far from your mind any thought of actually being understood. The narrator has it thus:

 

I have noticed, myself, men standing on railway platforms and at
street corners reading aloud from such books. Nobody knows what
language they are speaking; nobody has the slightest knowledge of
what they are saying. This is, perhaps, as well; were they
understood they would probably be assaulted.

 

 

Cycling is one thing – a fine thing, perhaps. But many of us cyclists feel we must see things too. Perhaps we think we are somehow indebted to the country along whose roads and paths we ride – and that by seeing, we will somehow repay that debt. Lance Armstrong, one must suppose, is not much afflicted by this sense of guilt, but for the rest of us, it is nearly always there, however much we may feel that we have seen this place, or at least some other place that in most respects more-or-less resembled it, before; and that having seen it, we are unsure how exactly we are expected to respond to what is, after all, the kind of place that, were it not seen from a bicycle, one would not feel particularly obliged to take any note of at all. Listen, then, and be comforted by the wise words of Mr Jerome:

 

One ant-hill is very much like another.

 

And he goes on to show that the same applies to cities, valleys, towns, forests, churches, hills, and the rest of the usual range of things that one usually feels obliged to stop at, and perhaps take a photograph of. We should not, says the sage, trouble ourselves unduly that, having seen one or two specimens of tree, or village, or farmer-in-his-field, or whatever it may be, our enthusiasm to see more of the same begins to lose its edge. This is natural and human and, he ventures to suggest, right.

 

So, I hope that, should you feel that guilty feeling stealing up upon you, you will remember the words, One ant-hill is very much like another, and recall that these words come from no-one less esteemed than Mr Jerome K. Jerome himself; and that, thereby, the burden may be lifted a little.

 

Do not feel obliged to see much, and do not feel obliged, either, to tell others what little you did see. Mr Jerome has written a full account of his journey in which he candidly admits that

 

There will be no description of towns, no historical reminiscences,
no architecture, no morals.

 

Not only that; also –

 

…in this book there will be no scenery. This is not laziness on my part; it is self-control. Nothing is easier to write than scenery; nothing more difficult and unnecessary to read.

 

And, to complete his hat-trick of avoidances –

 

nothing in the nature of practical instruction will be found, if I can help it, within these pages.

 

So there we have it: a complete travelogue, devoid, almost entirely, of scenic description, history, architecture and the usual stuff that fills the pages of these things. And no handy traveller’s hints, either.

 

You may ask, then: With what does the author contrive to fill two hundred and more pages of decently-dense type, having excluded on principle all that which most writers would allow to occupy a good two-thirds of every chapter?

 

The answer is: mainly, by expostulating on the subject of the Germans.

 

Any one of us can probably expostulate on the subject of the Germans. The passive role in the expostulation process is, perhaps, one which comes easily to your German. What is interesting in this particular case – that is, in Mr Jerome’s expostulation – is that it might have been written yesterday. And yet it was not – unless, by some unlikely miracle of time-travel, you are reading this review on approximately the eighteenth of March in the year 1900. Chapter seven of the book is almost entirely devoted to a lengthy essay on the German preference, as seen through English eyes, for tidiness and order, and on the extent to which this preference prevails over any desire to defend or promote individual liberty and initiative, and prevails even more strongly over any attempt on the part of nature to assert its wilder (the Germans might call it savage, or disorderly, or both) ways.

 

Ask your average Englishman today whether, in his opinion (to ask him about his experience might put him rather out of his depth) your average German leans toward the orderly way of things, and likes things to be just so, it will surprise me greatly if you do not receive an answer along the lines of ‘yes’; and if you tried to obtain the same answer without putting a leading question, you would have no great difficulty in doing so.

 

The German sense of humour, Mr Jerome does not refrain from noting on more than one occasion, is conspicuous in the main by its absence. Again, your Englishman today would concur.

 

There is undeniably a striking congruency between the prejudices vis-à-vis our German cousins of the Englishman today, and the opinions expressed by Mr Jerome in his book over one hundred years ago. Whether we should ascribe this to the rapidity and ease with which Mr Jerome’s notions were spread and accepted among his fellow-countrymen, or to some atavistic, folkloric belief common among Anglo-Saxons well before the author ever penned paper on the subject, or simply to the possibility that what Mr Jerome wrote about the Germans in 1900 was accurate and true then, and remains accurate and true today, I will not venture to guess. But it is in any case worthy of note that in 105 years, the course of which included two fairly comprehensive wars between the two nations at hand, the general notion held by one about the other should scarcely have changed one jot.

 

I may perhaps be permitted here to insert a short anecdote of my own, very much pertinent, I believe, to the topic here under discussion. Not many years ago, I with some friends, one of whom happened to be a German, were covering the usual ground concerning the differences between, say, a Hindu and a Moslem, an Englishman and a Welshman, a Navajo and an Eskimo, and so on. Inevitably, somebody, I forget who, brought up the question of the sense of humour, perhaps to illustrate one of the various ways in which a Patagonian, for example, would not always see eye to eye with a Muscovite, despite superficial similarities in the wintertime temperatures that both must endure. At which point, my German friend weighed in, a little too anxious, perhaps, to deflect the criticism which he felt would eventually be on its way, before it had actually arrived. And he said –

 

“In fact, ze Germans have a very vell-developed sense of humour and ve have a great many jokes. Ze only difference between a German joke and an English joke, is that a German joke does not have to be funny.”

 

Which is one of the funniest things I have ever heard a German say.

 

It is, I think, at this point, as well to move on.

 

And move on I will, once I have taken the opportunity to quote Mr Jerome on the subject of Germans and grass – the stuff of lawns, that is.

 

Nowhere, and under no circumstances, may you at any time in Germany
walk on the grass. Grass in
Germany is quite a fetish. To put
your foot on German grass would be as great a sacrilege as to dance
a hornpipe on a Mohammedan's praying-mat.

 

The author might care to pay a visit to the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge before he waxes too lyrical on that particular point of Teutonic eccentricity.

 

On balance, though, Mr Jerome is an acute observer, and, on occasion, unnervingly prophetic as well. This is not, on the whole, a political tome, and his comments on the Germans fall more into the category of friendly recognition of difference than of criticism or excoriation. That said, the Germans, and the rest of us with them, might have profited by paying a little more heed to the following remark (written, remember, in 1900):

 

The German idea of [duty] would appear to be: "blind obedience to everything in buttons." It is the antithesis of the Anglo-Saxon scheme; but as both the Anglo-Saxon and the Teuton are prospering, there must be good in both methods. Hitherto, the German has had the blessed fortune to be exceptionally well governed; if this continue, it will go well with him. When his troubles will begin will be when by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine.

 

Mr Jerome is equally capable of turning his attention to the shortcomings of his own kind (though, admittedly, he puts this faculty to use less often). The Englishman abroad is on the receiving end of a fair quantity of rough stuff in the book, and here once again we see that either Mr Jerome set the stereotypical standard which we have since slavishly followed, or that things today are much as they ever were. The travelling Britisher is, says the author, constitutionally incapable of speaking anything other than his own mother tongue. The author is careful to let it be known, here and there throughout the text, that he himself has risen above this congenital deficiency and is able to parlay with the foreigner to the extent that some degree of communication is actually achieved between the two sides; but then, one would scarcely go to the trouble of lampooning and impugning one’s own tribe, as a class, without a special exemption for one’s self.

 

While on the subject of language, and deficiencies in its learning, the author allows at least a partial excuse for the Englishman’s shortcomings, by quoting from an imagined version of the sort of language-learner’s handbook that we have all seen.

 

“Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved upwards so as almost—but not quite--to touch the uvula, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say 'Garoo.'”

 

His account lacks only the impenetrable diagrams which usually accompany such texts – the sort with cut-away representations of the innards of the skull and jaw from perspectives that one hopes and imagines would usually be available only during the very grizzliest of autopsies.

 

Perfect consistency is perhaps something to which we may aspire, though few would claim to achieve it, and so we can perhaps forgive Mr Jerome if, having some chapters previously vowed to eschew all historical anecdotes and asides, he allows himself a brief digression on the history of church and state in Prague, and in particular for the propensity of the folk of that city, at points in their past, to hurl one another from windows; ‘defenestration’ is the proper term. We may further pardon the author’s inconsistency on this occasion, because it allows him to slip in a comment with which many Prague-ites, past and present, might reasonably concur:

 

…half Prague's troubles, one imagines, might have been saved to it, had it possessed windows less large and temptingly convenient.

 

The question of mileage, though unrelated to windows in Prague, is a vexed one for cyclists, the more so now that on the continent, one is forced, unless one is unusually conversant with the 1.6 times table, to think in terms of kilometres if one wishes to tally with local maps and signposts. Mathematical difficulties aside, this is awkward because the graeco-metric terms kilometrage and kilometrepost lack the grace and elegance of their romano-imperial equivalents. All that said, you might argue that it makes little difference to the crow, whether it flies where it does in miles or in kilometres; it must get there all the same. Mr Jerome does not, as it happens, feel impelled to make this point, preferring instead to give space to the following observations that many cyclists, especially those of the weekend or occasional variety, will readily recognise.

 

"Ten miles an hour for seven hours, seventy miles. A nice easy
day's work."

"There are some stiff hills to climb?"

"The other side to come down. Say, eight miles an hour, and call
it sixty miles. Gott in Himmel! if we can't average eight miles an
hour, we had better go in bath-chairs." It does seem somewhat
impossible to do less, on paper.

But at
four o'clock in the afternoon the voice of Duty rings less
trumpet-toned:

"Well, I suppose we ought to be getting on."

"Oh, there's no hurry! don't fuss. Lovely view from here, isn't
it?"

"Very. Don't forget we are twenty-five miles from St. Blasien."

"How far?"

"Twenty-five miles, a little over if anything."

"Do you mean to say we have only come thirty-five miles?"

"That's all."

"Nonsense. I don't believe that map of yours."

"It is impossible, you know. We have been riding steadily ever
since the first thing this morning."

"No, we haven't. We didn't get away till eight, to begin with."

"
Quarter to eight."

"Well, quarter to eight; and every half-dozen miles we have
stopped."

"We have only stopped to look at the view. It's no good coming to
see a country, and then not seeing it."

"And we have had to pull up some stiff hills."

"Besides, it has been an exceptionally hot day to-day."

"Well, don't forget St. Blasien is twenty-five miles off, that's
all."

"Any more hills?"

"Yes, two; up and down."

"I thought you said it was downhill into St. Blasien?"

"So it is for the last ten miles. We are twenty-five miles from
St. Blasien here."

 

I finished the book with a strange sense of dissatisfaction, as if it had, far from casting a little light upon my shady days, in fact taken some away. Only on flicking back through the pages did I discover why. What had left me feeling gloomy amounted not even a to a full sentence of the book; it was the following snippet, the context of which, though not important, involved a man from Somerset trying to make himself understood to a German railway porter:

 

… he himself had a ticket for Donaueschingen, and wanted to go to Donaueschingen, to see the source of the Danube, which is not there, though they tell you it is,…

 

And what was it in these few lines that left me feeling down? It was that, not long ago, I myself visited Donaueschingen, on my bicycle, for the very purpose of seeing the source of the Danube. I suppose I should admit that I did find the whole set-up there a little strange. The town of Donaueschingen is furnished with not just one, but in fact two perfectly serviceable rivers, the Breg and the Brigach, which to judge from their size, have both been flowing their merry ways for a good few dozen miles or more before they reach town. Just below the town, the two merge into one, larger river, that from there to the Black Sea is called the Danube (unless you happen to live in one of the countries through which it actually flows, in which case you certainly do not call it the Danube, but rather the Donau, or Dunai, or Dunav, or Dunarea). My knowledge of geography, admittedly slight though it is, goes far enough to tell me that a river’s source is not, conventionally at least, determined to be the point at which two of its tributaries merge. In logic, a river cannot have two tributaries if it does not itself extend upstream from the point where those two “tributaries” merge. Sure, two tributaries might join a third river at one point; in this were the case in Donaueschingen, I would have no argument. The trouble here is that two rivers merge, one with the other, and thenceforth they assume the new name of the Danube (or Donau, or Dunai, or Dunav, or Dunarea, depending on your perspective). But this is to look at things the wrong way round. When determining a river’s source, one must work from the bottom up, not the top down. And when, seen from the bottom up perspective, a river forks, one must determine which fork is to be the tributary, and which is to be the river itself continuing upstream. One cannot mark them both down as tributaries, and neither as the main river. To do so is an act of first-rate geographical cowardice stemming from a desire to hurt the feelings of neither fork. This, it seems to me, is what has happened at Donaueschingen. In determining such matters, one must be clear-headed and ruthless, and not allow the presumed sentiments of a stream to get in the way of the truth. The situation in Donaueschingen, frankly, calls the whole system of fluvial geography and nomenclature into question, and casts a shadow upon the otherwise good name(s) of the River Danube.

 

If all this were not enough, in Donaueschingen they attempt to muddy the waters by concocting an absurd additional tributary, with which they hope to answer rationalist criticisms of the sort I have attempted to outline above. In essence, they have built a little pond, a kind of over-ornamented goldfish pool, lined with rather gloomy decaying marble. This they have connected, by means of a kind of concrete sewer or drain, to the Breg (or it may be the Brigach, I forget which, but it matters not) as it flows by, a hundred yards or so to the south of the pond. And this, they now declare, is the true source of the Danube. This claim, is an insult to the intelligence of a goldfish, which may account for the fact that there are no goldfish to be found in the above-mentioned pool; they have all packed up and swum away for less intellectually-sullied waters.

 

The reality of the matter is now clear enough to me, as indeed it should have been when I visited the place with my bicycle not long ago. But on entering the town of Donaueschingen, one finds oneself in a realm where the ordinary laws of science seem not to obtain. Fortunately, from the point of view of Donaueschingeners, the most important ones are, by and large, still operational: gravity and so on still do their usual thing. But in matters of logic, a great leap has occurred and I am sorry to say that it is not by any means a leap in the general direction of enlightenment. In any ordinary town, the visitor might, having taken a moment or two to size up the situation, and perhaps to glance at a map of the area, pronounce that this is plainly not the source of the Danube; and the people would agree; and there would be an end of the matter.

 

But in Donaueschingen, no. To say such a thing there would be to undermine not just the town’s self-confidence, but really also its very raison d’être – you must excuse my ignorance of more appropriate home-grown German expression, if one exists.

 

Of course Donaueschingen is the source of the Danube – hence the name.” Against this kind of argument this is little recourse in sound reasoning; the best one can do is to attempt a reductio ad absurdum, along the lines of “Were I to name my daughter Source du Nil, would that make her the true source of the Nile?”. But it would take a braver man than me to stand up and utter something like that in Donaueschingen – the consequences would be unpredictable. In the worse case, violence against the utterer might ensue, possibly with the intention of stemming forever the font of such heresy from this world. More likely, I suppose, would be an uncomprehending gasp from the assembled ranks of Donaueschingeners (as assembled in ranks they no doubt would be, very quickly, were someone so rash as to speak as I have suggested), following which they would I imagine break into little huddles, from which muttered sentiments of pity and disbelief for one so deluded, so ignorant, so bemuddled, or frankly insane, would emanate until long after dark.

 

This is the thing. In a city where everybody holds that Rome was built in a day, it is futile to get up and say that it wasn’t. Not only will nobody believe you, but quickly you will begin to doubt yourself, as the logical force of sheer weight of numbers is brought to bear. In no time at all, you will be telling yourself that yes, back at home people really did used to say, when one was idling or getting a little behind at one’s work: “Come on, hurry up, aren’t you done yet, what’s taking you so long? They built Rome in single day you know.”

 

And so it is in Donaueschingen. The framework of one’s own intellectual certainty is quickly crushed by the equal but opposite certainty, and, and this it what clinches it, the unanimous certainty, of so many of one’s fellow human-beings in one particular place.

 

And only now, on reading Three Men on the Bummel, have my eyes been re-opened to the truth.

 

 

 


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