Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome

★★★★★ (5/5)

“When I make serious observations people chuckle; when I attempt a joke nobody sees it”

What is one to expect from a book in which the author berates his own writing as something that “wouldn’t elevate a cow”. The humility of Jerome K. Jerome’s collection of brief yet splendid musings is professed in the aim of any book which should “improve, 2182instruct and elevate”. Amidst sensible humour which, if it fails to leave you roaring with laughter would at the least manage to bring a smile to an otherwise solemn face of the reader, and passages peppered with wisdom which are least didactic in nature, this book proves to be one of the great reads of this year already.

The author touches upon a myriad of topics without any crude judgement, sardonic sentiments or an ill-feeling which might transfer negatively unto the reader. From intangible subjects of love, idleness, vanity, memory to the tangible ones such as babies, weather, food and dressing, the author’s ideas are crafted to give the reader a sense of strong affiliation to the experiences of the author himself. After all, who hasn’t had the thought of weather turning in on their best of plans, or being silently mocked by women on your inability to take care of babies; “then everybody looks sideways at you, convinced you are a scoundrel of the blackest dye; and they glory in the beautiful idea that your true character, unguessed by your fellow-men, has been discovered by the untaught instinct of a little child”; or how questions abound when you are least in the position to answer them. “I should like to know, too, by what mysterious law of nature it is that before you have left your watch “to be repaired” half an hour, some one is sure to stop you in the street and conspicuously ask you the time. Nobody even feels the slightest curiosity on the subject when you’ve got it on”

On being idle, the author confesses that indolence is partaken only during times when it is least required of him. Idling around for idleness’ sake somehow dilutes the whole concept.

“I like idling when I ought not to be idling; not when it is the only thing I have to do”

Lethargic “activity” is best suited for occasions when one is needed to fulfil a certain role or duty in a limited time. Laziness for the sake of it, for example lying on bed doing absolutely nothing when absolutely nothing is required of you is not a correct measure of the concept.

On being in the blues, the author mixes humour and astute observations to comment upon the nature of sadness and what it does to oneself.

“There is no pathos in real misery: no luxury in real grief”

Grief may have been romanticised in literature and art as a form of creative muse, from which spur ideas untold, un-thought of in all human history. Yet the real grief experienced by oneself lacks the luxury and glamour attached to it. At another instance, the author reflects on keeping sorrowful memories evergreen. It can be assured that such memories bear with them no real anguish.

“When a man or woman loves to brood over a sorrow and takes care to keep it green in their memory, you may be sure it is no longer a pain to them. However they may have suffered from it at first, the recollection has become by then a pleasure”

Again, the author compares the nature of happiness as understood by man. Why is it that happiness is always expressed and related through outward gestures and exaggerated physical assertions such as that of laughter? Why has no one looked at an earnest, tearful face and claimed them to be happy (or content)? Or why is laughter associated with removal of oneself from the past whilst sadness is attributed to recollection of a time gone by?

“Why assume that a doubled-up body, a contorted, purple face, and a gaping mouth emitting a series of ear-splitting shrieks point to a state of more intelligent happiness than a pensive face reposing upon a little white hand, and a pair of gentle tear-dimmed eyes looking back through Time’s dark avenue upon a fading past?” 

On destitution and being hard up, the author once again offers honest analysis on its overly romanticised image.

“It is not funny to have to haggle over pennies. It isn’t funny to be thought mean and stingy. It isn’t funny to be shabby and to be ashamed of your address”

The rich are often known to show envy for the poor man for he is not acquainted with the horde of troubles money brings along with it. They speak of the poor man’s humility, closeness to nature and a general indifference to the problematic affairs of the world. They would regard the poor man as a spiritual being for cancelling out his desires, for his refusal to participate in the rat race. They are but least aware of the poor man as being carved by the same Creator, residing in the same world as themselves. The affluent cast the underprivileged in an idealistic shadow, unmindful of the pangs of hunger the destitute suffer, the cold winds cutting into their skin at night. Anyone with the most meagre of income or resources is but naïve in matters of privation. Poverty afflicts the mind in ways unimaginable by anyone else except the one who experiences it on himself.

On vanity, the author offers another honest observation:

“The truth is, we each of us have an inborn conviction that the whole world, with everybody and everything in it, was created as a sort of necessary appendage to ourselves.”

All our actions and thoughts dispensed from within fall in the realm of a certain kind of self-righteousness even in the face of recognition of disapproval with ourselves. Somehow we consider ourselves to be always in the right even if we pretend to acknowledge our wrongs. Behind every “I know I was wrong” there lies an assertion that we are indeed right. This misconception stems from inherent vanities we all try to subdue but which always reside within us in the deepest and darkest corners of our mind.

The author proceeds to show how our faults make us more human than we intend to believe or would like to agree to, especially in public spheres.

“It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch one another and find sympathy. We differ widely enough in our nobler qualities. It is in our follies that we are at one.”

The author then offers his personal thoughts on getting on in the world, the rat race we are all inextricably meant to participate in.

“Cheek by cheek they struggle onward. Screaming, cursing, and praying, laughing, singing, and moaning, they rush past side by side. Their speed never slackens, the race never ends. There is no wayside rest for them, no halt by cooling fountains, no pause beneath green shades. On, on, on—on through the heat and the crowd and the dust—on, or they will be trampled down and lost—on, with throbbing brain and tottering limbs—on, till the heart grows sick, and the eyes grow blurred, and a gurgling groan tells those behind they may close up another space”

This passage reflects on how one life after another is indulged in this perpetual state of conformity and work where no respite is possible for the fear of being overrun or overtaken. True rest comes only upon death but that too is seen as an opening up of a space to be quickly filled by those who are behind. One’s death is seen as a chance to hog their place in society. This is the bleak cornerstone upon which all societies have amassed blind following of norms to gain material goals of wealth, resources and power. There is always someone more stable than oneself, one more rich or powerful or influential than oneself, more happy than oneself – this perpetuity of a race no one knows the end of has led to increasing discontentment as a general malaise afflicting everyone in all spheres of life.

“Ah me! life sadly changes us all. The world seems a vast horrible grinding machine, into which what is fresh and bright and pure is pushed at one end, to come out old and crabbed and wrinkled at the other.”

On a lighter note, the writer ponders over the abrupt changes in weather and how more often than not such changes have ruinous effects on one’s perfect plans. He likens the weather to the government as being “always in the wrong”. In the midst of chilling winters we pray for sunny days, and in the summer heat we curse the time for not being generous enough with the winter time. The seasons of Spring and Autumn leave one in a confused state, they pass too quickly to give ample time to one to discern which weather is which and what to do with it.

“Life, like the landscape around us, seems bigger, and wider, and freer—a rainbow road leading to unknown ends. Through the silvery rents that bar the sky we seem to catch a glimpse of the great hope and grandeur that lies around this little throbbing world, and a breath of its scent is wafted us on the wings of the wild March wind.”

The author makes casual remarks on what life is all about time and time again. He muses over adulthood’s lost ability to find beauty in the simplest of things:

“Even we grown-up children hear his piping now and then. But the yearning notes are very far away, and the noisy, blustering world is always bellowing so loud it drowns the dreamlike melody”

At another instance, the author offers his sentiments on the value of swearing and cursing aloud.

“I think it does a man good to swear. Swearing is the safety-valve through which the bad temper that might otherwise do serious internal injury to his mental mechanism escapes in harmless vaporing”

On being shy, the writer touches upon this subject with a gravity that not only eases the reader into feeling they might be reading their own personal account but which is also a testament to the author’s candidness with his reader. Shyness, according to him, is “simply extreme sensibility, and has nothing whatever to do with self-consciousness or with conceit, though its relationship to both is continually insisted upon by the poll-parrot school of philosophy.” So shyness is a virtue in itself. To keep one to oneself is often disregarded as characteristic of being arrogant or narcissistic when in reality the exact opposite is true.

At the same time, the author extols the nature of genuine conceit which does not make a man objectionable. In his humble opinion, “it tends to make him genial, kind-hearted, and simple. He has no need of affectation—he is far too well satisfied with his own character; and his pride is too deep-seated to appear at all on the outside. Careless alike of praise or blame, he can afford to be truthful”. Genuine conceit differs from conceit for its own sake, or otherwise known as snobbery. A firm belief in one’s own self in all respects, so much so that one does not require flattery in any form, and which enables one to exude frank confidence is what “genuine conceit” implies. Haughtiness arising from inherent want of appreciation and praise leading to ostentatious displays of wealth or character result in ugliness of mind and body which becomes apparent to any recipient.

On a humorous note, the author uses shyness as a weapon against those who are audacious in worldly affairs.

“The shy man does have some slight revenge upon society for the torture it inflicts upon him. He is able, to a certain extent, to communicate his misery. He frightens other people as much as they frighten him. He acts like a damper upon the whole room, and the most jovial spirits become in his presence depressed and nervous.”

On the topic of babies, the author amalgamates comic elements with clever opinions on how to deal with such young creations of God.

“But if you desire to drain to the dregs the fullest cup of scorn and hatred that a fellow human creature can pour out for you, let a young mother hear you call dear baby ‘it’”

And once again, the writer compares adults to their childhood selves, implying that our curiosity never alters in regards to asking the more pertinent questions of life.

“With what awe they gaze down the long street, wondering, like us bigger babies when we gaze up at the stars, where it all ends!”

On eating and drinking, the author comments upon the effects of a good meal, leaving everyone hale and hearty.

“Sour, starchy individuals, who all the rest of the day go about looking as if they lived on vinegar and Epsom salts, break out into wreathed smiles after dinner”

Once again he denounces the prosperous and fortunate people for their naiveté when it comes to hunger.

“foolish people, I say, then, who have never experienced much of either, will tell you that mental distress is far more agonizing than bodily. Romantic and touching theory! so comforting to the love-sick young sprig who looks down patronizingly at some poor devil with a white starved face and thinks to himself, “Ah, how happy you are compared with me!”—so soothing to fat old gentlemen who cackle about the superiority of poverty over riches. But it is all nonsense—all cant. An aching head soon makes one forget an aching heart. A broken finger will drive away all recollections of an empty chair. And when a man feels really hungry he does not feel anything else.”

Here the author remarks upon how more than often mental suffering is considered to be more painstaking than physical suffering. This is of course an opinion harboured by those who have never had to go to bed on an empty stomach once in their lives, or who have never suffered persistent physical ailments that impede their day-to-day activities. Pangs of the slightest of hungers can drive one into objectionable behaviour so one can very well imagine what incessant feeling of being famished must feel like.

Ending the essay on yet another humorous note, the author questions why “we never eat to anybody’s health, always drink it. Why should we not stand up now and then and eat a tart to somebody’s success?”

“New furniture can make a palace, but it takes old furniture to make a home.”

On the topic of furnished apartments, the writer praises the oft misguided and undervalued attic which has time and time again housed artists in their most creative and genius of moments.

“Ever since the habitations of men were reared two stories high has the garret been the nursery of genius. No one who honours the aristocracy of mind can feel ashamed of acquaintanceship with them”

“There is a sublimity about their loftiness. I love to “sit at ease and look down upon the wasps’ nest beneath;” to listen to the dull murmur of the human tide ebbing and flowing ceaselessly through the narrow streets and lanes below”

He makes yet another shrewd observation on how lodgings are indirectly proportional to one’s status in the world. “On the lodging-house ladder the poor man is at the top, the rich man underneath. You start in the attic and work your way down to the first floor.”

The author narrates a witty story of an attic cupboard designed in a way which required him to cross the bed to reach it and by the time he acquired his desired object from the shelf, the bed would pose as a vast desert to be traversed across.

“Indeed, so many things were spilled and dropped upon the bed that toward night-time it had become a sort of small cooperative store. Coal was what it always had most in stock.”

Again, the writer describes a comical instance of a particular front door which opened directly above a flight of stairs which led down to the cellar.

“Visitors on entering the house would suddenly shoot past the person who had answered the door to them and disappear down these stairs. Those of a nervous temperament used to imagine that it was a trap laid for them, and would shout murder as they lay on their backs at the bottom till somebody came and picked them up.”

The author’s musings on various topics always come full circle in one passage or two in each essay. Here he ruminates over the nature of means and desires in one’s life.

“happiness we gain in one direction we lose in another. As our means increase, so do our desires; and we ever stand midway between the two. When we reside in an attic we enjoy a supper of fried fish and stout. When we occupy the first floor it takes an elaborate dinner at the Continental to give us the same amount of satisfaction.”

On dressing, the author is of the view that “a little foppishness in a young man is good; it is human”. After all looks are a blessing, and to take care of them, within rational limits, is only one’s solemn duty and responsibility. A little sense of fashion in young men, especially during the author’s time, was but a mere means to an end, the end being romancing the opposite sex. Not much has changed these past hundred years, but now perhaps fashion has become more of a statement pronounced by those most indulged in their selves, actively cognizant of their beauty and handsomeness as a trait that sets them apart from other ordinary humans. Sense of dressing has become more lewd in its appearance and intention, but this is all a mere product of our ingenuous times.

Lastly, the author reflects on the subject of memory. Memory is personified in the following extract in words so beautiful, they do complete justice to one’s comprehension and underlying meaning of it:

“That is just the way with Memory; nothing that she brings to us is complete. She is a willful child; all her toys are broken.”

“It seems as though the brightest side of everything were also its highest and best, so that as our little lives sink back behind us into the dark sea of forgetfulness, all that which is the lightest and the most gladsome is the last to sink, and stands above the waters, long in sight, when the angry thoughts and smarting pain are buried deep below the waves and trouble us no more.”

Memory and forgetfulness are two sides to the same page, each incomplete without the other.

“I remember tumbling into a huge dust-hole when a very small boy, but I have not the faintest recollection of ever getting out again; and if memory were all we had to trust to, I should be compelled to believe I was there still.”

The book ends on a high-spirited, optimistic note, for the author brings to our attention the importance of delving and revelling in the marvellous pleasures life affords us in many instances.

“From all accounts, the world has been getting worse and worse ever since it was created. All I can say is that it must have been a remarkably delightful place when it was first opened to the public, for it is very pleasant even now if you only keep as much as possible in the sunshine and take the rain good-temperedly.”

As a parting note, the author advises us to not let the past hinder our present, to let bygones be bygones and look forward to countless opportunities that pass by us every moment.

“Let us not sit with folded hands, gazing upon the past as if it were the building; it is but the foundation. Let us not waste heart and life thinking of what might have been and forgetting the may be that lies before us. Opportunities flit by while we sit regretting the chances we have lost, and the happiness that comes to us we heed not, because of the happiness that is gone.”

The author’s writing style is persuasive and gentle. One finds no fissures in what the reader comprehends and what the author is saying. The clarity of Jerome K. Jerome’s style also aids in the sometimes subtle, sometimes side-splitting humour with his narration of personal experiences as brief stories with a hidden moral. The following excerpts are a testimony to the author’s writing style which synthesise beauty of sentence structure all the while keeping it simple and coherent.

  • And autumn! ah, how sadly fair, with its golden glow and the dying grandeur of its tinted woods—its blood-red sunsets and its ghostly evening mists, with its busy murmur of reapers, and its laden orchards, and the calling of the gleaners, and the festivals of praise!
  • Affection will burn cheerily when the white flame of love is flickered out
  • I remember once a friend and I—dear old Joe, it was. Ah! how we lose one another in life’s mist


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