Thursday 21 January 2021

The Company Of Gentlemen

A Stack Of Gentlemen

There was a period of my life when I would hands-down declare to prefer the Company of Gentlemen over my own fair sex. Five years in an all-girls' high school forged the iron in my will there and I did my best to shun the loathsome company of the female form even beyond the school years by fortuitously studying subjects at university where girlies were thin on the ground* and then falling into a ditto career. 

Ahh, memories ...

Heretofore, the mostly unregarded other half of society held little charm, so I was in for quite the surprise. What I enjoyed most about the new company of the gentlemen in my orbit was their embrace of the silly side of life, in spite of a bit of braininess, simple camaraderie and, shall we say, lack of guile. But with a bit of age, on my part, came a bit of mellowing of these Rules for Living, and I do now count charming women to be close to my heart and no longer fear vipers a-nesting when in close proximity.  

However, I occasionally find that I've been settling back into my old ways when I take a survey of where I've found some recent pleasurable reading, viz. the little stack of books, above. Shall we see five of the ways in which Gentlemen spend their time, Dear Reader, when left to their own devices?

1: They take a pleasure cruise.

Two weeks on a skiff with your chums? What could be pleasanter ...

Well, the gents in Jerome K. Jerome's 1889 classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), were doing more than pleasure cruising as they rowed and towed and camped along the River Thames, they were attempting a fortnight's restorative cure, as gentlemen will always have their Niggling Worries. Notwithstanding their utter inexperience in the finer points of such matters, just the usual close shaves with themes aquatic most young men will have had which will lend them to an air of confidence about such matters, by the sixth chapter they've taken possession of their camping skiff and the tenth before they bed down for their first night. But then they're off, and so the Thames and our heroes thence meander, and while I cannot say they ooze requisite braininess, they do prove endearing company. 

This erstwhile travel book for fellow Victorian pleasure-cruisers is really a foil for jokes and tall tales and reminiscences as the three friends and Montmorency, the feisty fox terrier, and their mountain of luggage cope with confined space, one another's cooking, the novelties of locks and uncouth bargemen and other riparian hazards, and English Weather. 

Two weeks on a skiff ... ??

I was particularly enchanted by the chapter introductions with their amusing take on their foci, and as I like to save treats for last, I began to read them only at the close of each chapter to savour them more as little desserts to see how they marry up with the main course. 

viz. Chapter 8: 

Blackmailing—The proper course to pursue—Selfish boorishness of river-side landowner—“Notice” boards—Unchristianlike feelings of Harris—How Harris sings a comic song—A high-class party—Shameful conduct of two abandoned young men—Some useless information—George buys a banjo.

Which of course in no way really orients you to the fact that what starts as an offering of bread-and-jam when a shilling is desired by a potential blackmailer, declaring fluvial trespass as their crime, leads to discoursing on how best to call the rough's bluff as the proper course to pursue, and the later "useless information" is indeed a bit of guidebook fodder, &c. &c. The book holds more of this sort of rambling caper, and the gents bicker and tease one another throughout, and Montmorency, who has strong opinions of his own, gets to have a few bracing scraps along the way. But they depart at the end of their odyssey firm friends still.

The whole is a gem, and much beloved and never out of print, but I was shocked to read the early critics derided it for its common vulgarity, and the modern for its purple prose, for what better colour is there between book covers? Mr Wiki compensated this with the nugget that this book, being so beloved, was once a prescribed text in Russian schools, and was adapted as a musical comedy by Soviet television, which neatly segues into my next point:

2: They play detective. 

Erast Fandorin Detects

Cleverly, and with lots of style. And in Moscow in 1882, just a handful of years before our boaters set forth. I'm speaking here of Erast Fandorin, the hero of Boris Akunin's series of novels - a sort of Russian Sherlock Holmes, perhaps. The Death of Achilles, fourth in the series and the second I've read after The Winter Queen, is a classic mystery novel with the death of a war-hero which Fandorin suspects to be murder, a tangled web of intrigue, an investigation and a mysterious assassin.  And who even is Achilles?

C17th Tapestry of the Death of Achilles,
After Peter Paul Rubens

Each book is styled on a different subgenre of the detective story and they are richly layered with cultural and historical references, and tropes betwixt them, if you like to go hunting for these things, (and the chapters sport slightly more helpful introductions - for inst. Ch. 4: "In which the usefulness of architectural extravagance is demonstrated"). In Achilles we are introduced to Masa, Fandorin's loyal Japanese manservant, with whom he engages in a bit of ninja shenanigans, à la Pink-Panther's Cato and Clouseau. So it's all rather good fun, really. And while we're in Moscow ...

3. They take their hardships with bonhomie.

I speak, of course, of Count Alexander Rostov, Amor Towles' eponymous A Gentleman In Moscow, and one-man masterclass in how to roll with life's punches. Our adventure begins in 1922 when the Count walks into the Hotel Metropol, heading toward his usual suite, where he will now live out his life under perpetual house arrest. Over the subsequent years, the gathering absurdities of life under the new Stalinist regime (both real and literarily imagined, and it's hard to guess which is which) are seen through the gradual degrading of the decadent and elegant hotel, and the lives of those within, with the warmth and good humour as is constantly exuded by our Gentleman friend. We never really leave the hotel for the duration of the book, where the Count's compressed world is enriched by those he meets within it, but that's okay for Rostov is excellent company. I'm restrained from spoiling on this one, for if you haven't already indulged in the pure reading pleasure that this book constitutes, then I shepherd you in that general direction. 

Hotel Metropol, c. 1905
And home for our charming Count

4: Search for their homeland before it's too late.

If you had a name like Henry Canova Vollam Morton and had the privilege of being the Times correspondent who scooped the opening of the mysterious Tutankhamun's Tomb in 1923, surely you might consider the rest of your life would be filled with the colour and noise of foreign lands. But homesickness in Palestine brought him back to go in search of the soul of his own homeland in a Morris motorcar. And then he wrote a nostalgic little gem of a travel book about where he went and those he met along the way. And so In Search Of England was published in 1927 to great acclaim.

We love a gorgeous endpaper map to pour over

H. V. Morton was a man for our (plague)time, really, and ready and able to find the pleasure of his own backyard. He tootled around the countryside in search of the vignettes that he hoped would inspire future generations to understand and cherish their island, especially those city dwellers for whom the countryside and smaller places are a forgotten land. He drifts along roads that had been long bypassed by the steam train generation, encountering relics here, cathedrals there and one-horse villages in between (bumping into a surprising number of American tourists along the way, such that they seemed like the 1920s version of the modern-day Japanese and then Chinese tourist, popping up in surprising places with their cash and curiosity). 

And he unknowingly captures an England about to be challenged and changed in ways unimaginable within a generation. But this book is sweet and charmingly written, and lo! chapter introductions to whet the appetite:

viz. Ch 4: 

I fall in love with Cornwall and a name. Describes a hidden Paradise and how wireless comes to Arcady. I meet rain at Land's End, and, late one evening, climb a hill, grasping the key of Tintagel.

I did lend this to our English next-door neighbours who were unable to travel to their Other Home in Devon this past year and were feeling a bit homesick, since a goodly amount of the book is spent in Devon and Cornwall, but rather than prove a bit of a balm to their soul, the reading of was bittersweet. Whoops ...

5: Wear their eccentricity with aplomb.

Rumpole. Of the Bailey. 'Nuff said**.

Leo McKern, for whom Mortimer declared was
Horace Rumpole's perfect fit

* As always, there must be an exception to prove this rule, and the friendship of the Lovely L and I dates to our first week at University, par example.

** Except that this Folio edition of a suite of ten of John Mortimer's many Rumpole short stories was a condominio book exchange find!

Image credits: 1, 8: Flying With Hands; 2: Ronald Searle via Google; 3: Paul Rainer via; 4: C.L. Doughty via; 5: Igor Sakurov via Google; 6,7: Wikimedia Commons; 9: Google


  1. What fun reading!
    I was a bit thrown off at the 21 Jan title - in a way it seems to say tomorrow is actually coming!
    And for me/many tomorrow feels a good thing for once.

  2. I've just been writing about my own life through books, and have realised how much I omitted.

  3. Ur-spo: Yes, come on in! The future looks bright.

    Cro: Intriguing. The omission is in the books, or in the telling of the life?

  4. I omitted so many of my favourite authors.

  5. Hello Pipistrello, I love Jerome's books and between Ohio and Taiwan have all or most of them. I just read a volume of Chekhov's stories, and while very good, I have had enough Russia for the time being. On the other hand, In Search of England sounds like just my cup of tea, and I am going to order a copy for my next cycle of reading.

  6. Jim: JKJ seems to have been rather prolific in his output, but this is the only one of his I've read and I expect I will pounce on any more that pass my way. I'm not done with Russia just yet, Pushkin's Onegin is sitting in the towering pile!

  7. I am going to try and find In Search of England - I know that I would enjoy it. Many of the observations mentioned resonate with me. My father had what would now be a vintage Morris 10 when I was a child, and my parents named there first marital home Tintagel - it is where they spent their honeymoon. The map is a delight, casting my eye over it I can see our own Cotswold escarpment and also the town where I was born.

  8. Rosemary: Oh, you will certainly love this book! He was such a charming pioneer of the travelogue idea, driving around in his little car, just taking whatever comes his way ... How wonderful of your parents to name their home Tintagel!

  9. Such a fabulous post - it must have taken you ages and I thank you for such wonderful details.

    Like you, I went to an all girls Grammar (High)school and was glad to escape the giggly 'girls' and to go Technical college with handsome 'boys' to gloat over as they lined the steps to the classrooms! As I was taking advanced secretarial studies they weren't in many of my classes (though if you are familiar with older British classic movies there were actually many male 'secretaries'), but of course those same 'boys' could also be enjoyed over lunch in the college café! Yes, I was a flirt, lol!

    As Rosemary said, have to hunt down a copy of 'In Search of England'
    as I love a good travelogue. You have neighbors from Devon? I know how they are feeling not being able to travel home last year, I'm in the same boat (but no dog!) and hope we can go later this year.

    Enjoyed your post immensely - the books are all fabulous, and that map makes me even more homesick!

    Hugs - stay well - Mary

  10. Mary: Thank you and it was a pleasure to put together ... College and university were such tonics after the hot-housing of single-sex schools. I know it's quite the thing to reminisce fondly about the Old School Days but it was years before the mere thought of them didn't have me break out in hives, haha! ... Yes our retired neighbours usually spend six-months here, six-months there and haven't been back for simply ages & are feeling very droopy about it all. I hope a window opens for them, before too long, and you! xx

  11. I went post-haste directly to Amazon and would not be diverted from my mission to place three of these beauties in my shopping cart. A few clicks and they will magically arrive at my door (this I still find amazing for some reason), one from a UK bookshop with the prestigious word 'rare' in their shop name (fortunately for me the price was not). Thank you so much for these recommendations, they were in a word, tantalizing!! Cannot wait to dive in (the boat epic will be first, seems reminiscent of 'Wind in the Willows' except with humans : )

    Here's hoping 2021 will be much improved...for me, it began Jan 20 : )

  12. Debbie: There must not be an equivalent consumer item on the planet that has us so comfortably transacting anonymously with merchants in far-flung lands, as the book. It is a modern-day wonder! I do hope you enjoy what eventually arrives in your letterbox, as we cannot always trust that our taste will be shared, but what could possibly go wrong beyond a baffled questioning of my pleasure-seeking? :)

  13. I went to a mixed Primary and a mixed Grammar school so boys were the norm and were my friends throughout my school years. In my twenties/thirties, it was the ' in ' thing to say that you preferred mens company but, I have always liked the company of both men and women.
    Personally, I don't think the men in the books are very representative of the men that I have met over the years, more's the pity 🤣🤣🤣XXXX

  14. Jackie: I would have to agree with you there that the this clutch of men are not your Average Gent! xx

  15. Wow - I finally found this (as often, enlightenment coming often by looking for something utterly different ). I have the Rumpole book and the DVDs, and use sometimes the title "She Who Must Be Obeyed" :-) - not for me, another Hilda Rumpole among my acquaintances (mind: not "friends")
    Thank you, Pipistrello - and also a heartfelt thank you for the feast for the eyes in your other blog where one cannot comment (I am a person being highly impressed by the visual - half-eidetic, they say).

  16. Britta: Hilda's moniker is often heard about the place (and amongst a particular generation, it must be admitted) as Rumpole's charm has been long-lived in this country. I also did a televisual binge of him more recently ... Thank you for the appreciation of my Cabinet. You remind me I've been somewhat tardy in tending to my bibelots and must give them some more attention :)


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