Oxford Cockaigne

This parody of Jerome K Jerome and William Morris is on Page 144 of the text

Three Men in a Boat Going Nowhere.

William Morris

There were three of us - John Ruskin, and Charles Dodgson, and myself. We were sitting in my house, drinking absinthe, and talking about how over-worked we were.

We were all feeling over-worked and we were getting quite worried about it. Charles said that he sometimes felt like he was in an altered state of consciousness and then John said that he sometimes felt quite beside himself and was wrestling with the devil. With me, it was soft furnishings. For some reason, I was compelled to go on producing more and more elaborate designs for soft furnishings and I was troubled by visions of some demon called Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen who seemed to be lurking in the future, intent on destroying everything I held sacred.

We decided that we needed a complete rest and that a trip on the river would be just the thing. Sir Percy was not quite in agreement with the rest of us but he wasn't coming with us and the motion was carried.

We then fell to discussing whether we should camp out or sleep at inns. Charles favoured staying in hostelries as he was very keen to meet any young girls along the way. "For I thrive in the company of young people" he pointed out "If there is a chance to meet a new young friend and tell her a story I shall be delighted." John also seemed enthusiastic about this, although he wanted to open their minds to the finer points of art, and although my own tastes were somewhat different I was happy to think that there might be some "stunners" among the barmaids.

We were about to settle amicably on this plan when John had a sudden misgiving.

"How about if the premises are architecturally unsound?"

This was a devastating point although Charles did not seem to appreciate it, saying that so long as there were young people around, he fancied he could cope with imperfect architecture. John and I exchanged glances, wondering whether we could tolerate a long river voyage with someone whose aesthetic sensibilities were so severely blunted. John has already had to tell Charles that he was not a very good artist. But Charles is a mathematician so allowances must be made. However, for John and I, there can be no such compromises to the aesthetic sensibility. John would not be able to tolerate the architecture of any hostelries with a dishonest spire or porch. For my part, I was firmly of the opinion that to have to succumb to the Victorian Architecture of the brick box and the slate lid would make dullurds of us all

However, a moment's reflection persuaded us that we could easily attain a compromising position. Charles would stay in any place that had interesting young girls to tell stories to or camp out in the boat if he found any charming young gypsies along the riverside. John and I would stay in any place that had architectural integrity, or create our own "canvas cathedral" within the boat if all other places were compromised.

The question of accommodation being thus settled we moved onto the issue of what to take and all were agreed that we should take only the bare essentials. Charles indicated that this would require him to have 50 children's picture books, an assortment of cuddly toys a number of mathematical texts and a change of underwear. John said that this sounded like needless indulgence but would be all right as long as it didn't interfere with his artistic equipment, his travelling library of 50 essential volumes and his own change of underwear. When I remonstrated with them that their excessive requirements were likely to endanger my own plan to bring my weaving loom, a portably dyeing bowl and some essential soft furnishings, they both agreed that they could forgo their change of underwear. "After all" said John "My servants will be bringing the bulk of my wardrobe in the support vessels."

Eventually we agreed on a list of things to be taken and left our servants with instructions to assemble them for us. Charles being an academic had no servants but the task of selecting picture books and cuddly toys was within his own capabilities.

We met in the evening of the next day in Ruskin's dining room to pack. We had provided ourselves with a large Gladstone bag and two enormous hampers on the grounds that we could use the extra space to accommodate one or two last minute luxuries when we had finished packing the essentials. We moved the table against the window, piled everything up in the middle of the room and sat and examined it while we shared a pipe of some strange tobacco that one of his students had given to Charles instead of the mathematical treatise he had been expecting.

As we sat and smoked, and smoked and observed, a strange thing happened to the dimensions of the objects within the room. Some of them, notably the Gladstone and the hampers, seemed to decrease in size, shrinking rapidly before my eyes while others, such as John's nail-scissors and my toothbrush, seemed to swell and take on gigantic proportions, threatening to break through the constraints of the room which were themselves constantly changing, pulsating in and out and up and down.

Charles said that the problem was naturally susceptible to mathematical solution and, seizing a pen and paper, started to write down mathematical formulae, stopping every now and then to dart into the animated mass of belongings in a futile attempt to measure the dimensions of a particular object.

John said that he was sure that an aesthetic approach would enable the diverse elements to be combined harmoniously into the perfect set of luggage. He seized his notebook and started to write down his thoughts on this for the benefit of his disciples.

I laughed a great deal at the absurdity of both of their approaches. Indeed, I laughed somewhat too much as I was rolling on the floor helpless with mirth for a good few minutes, during which time some of the objects we intended to pack sustained unavoidable damage. Fortunately, my soft furnishings were unscathed and indeed provided me with some comfort during this attack of energetic hilarity.

Eventually, I composed myself and set to to show them how to pack. The trouble with Charles and John is that they believe everything can be solved in a dry, academic way. They are not aware that there is a time to think and a time to act and that this was the latter. It was up to me to show them. I seized my toothbrush which had grown to an alarming height of over 6 feet and wrestled it towards the Gladstone which had shrunk to an equally alarming 6 inches. These apparently incompatible dimensions would have thwarted a logical mind, but I could see a vision before me of a perfectly packed Gladstone and I was prepared to fight toothbrush and nail-scissors until my vision was realized. The struggle was long and energetic but after a lot of crashing to and fro, I finally forced my unwilling toiletry into the bag. I was dimly aware that John and Charles had paused from their tasks and were laughing very absurdly at my efforts but I had no time to remonstrate with them for their foolishness. I had the rest of the packing to subdue and although my task should have been rendered easier by the collateral damage sustained by the rest of the packing and the furniture during my wrestle with the toothbrush, which had crushed many objects into fragments, some of these fragments themselves grew in size and stubbornness to thwart my efforts and a very considerable counter-attack was mounted by a part of a camera tripod belonging to Charles which led a battalion of John's toiletries in a determined guerrilla action.

However, eventually I triumphed, the task was completed and I slammed the Gladstone bag shut. "Aren't you going to put the books in?" said John

And I looked round and there they all were. That's just like John. He didn't want to interfere with my free-will until I'd got the bag defeated and secured. of course. And Charles just laughed and laughed - one of those manic, out of control, rolling around the floor, lunatic laughs. I frequently wonder about the sanity of both of my travelling companions.

I opened the bag and packed the books in before the luggage had time to struggle but just as I was closing it I was struck by the notion that somehow during these proceedings my toothbrush had managed to shrink to a miniature size and escape undetected. Of course I could not allow such a suspicion to go unchecked and I couldn't find my toothbrush without unpacking everything again. Eventually, I found it acting as a book-marker in one of John's books. I will not trouble you with the detail of the problems of re-packing the Gladstone bag.

When I had finished, John said that he and Charles had better pack the rest and I agreed, sat back, had another smoke and watched them have a go.

They started in a cheerful mood, evidently believing that the remaining provisions would be more co-operative with them and that they would triumph over my confrontational approach. I held my peace. I looked at the pile of cuddly toys, and fine china, and bottles of absinthe, and jellies, and trifles, ?c., and felt certain things would soon liven up.

They did. They started by breaking a chandelier. That was the first thing they did. Just to show you what they could do, and to get you interested.

Then John packed the bottles of absinthe on top of a jelly and squashed it and they had to spoon out the jelly into a punch bowl. And then it was Charles' turn and he stood in a trifle.

I didn't laugh - although it required iron self-control - but I came over and sat on the edge of the table and watched them more closely which irritated them more than anything I could have said. It made them nervous and they tried to do things more quickly and they put things under other things and couldn't find them. They were both still trying to work to their own philosophies so Charles would pack some things in what he considered to be a mathematically correct way but they would offend John's aesthetic sensibilities and he would rearrange them - or vice versa. Neither of them having any common sense, they would pack the heavier things on top of the lighter things and squash them.

As for the trifle, after Charles had got it off his shoe, they spooned it into the punch bowl but then realized it had no lid. So they put it on a chair and John sat on it and it stuck to him - bowl and all - and they went looking for it all over the room. Charles was furiously pulling through the remaining items looking for it when he flung up a doll in disgust and John saw it flying toward him and it startled him.

"I must fight with the devil" he yelled trampling the remaining items underfoot as he rushed forward to defeat it, his actions dislodging the punch bowl from his bottom as it described a perfect parabola to land trifle-side down on top of a small picture by Turner which he had brought along to furnish the boat.

After that we let John's servants finish the packing and arranged to meet the next day at Biffin's yard at Hammersmith to start on our river trip.

I was the first to arrive the next day and I found a man sitting watching a boat, fully loaded and moored into the bank He was a handsome young man, unusually pleasant both in manner and appearance - most unlike the usual, surly, Biffin boatman. He was dark-haired, brown-skinned and muscular but without the usual course and rough appearance of the riverman and scrupulously well-turned out and clean, although he appeared to be dressed in a medieval smock of some sort with a delightfully embroidered pastoral scene emblazoned on his breast gathered around an excellent leather belt with a large solid silver clasp of elaborate design. He smiled at me as I approached and held the boat ready for me to climb into

"Good Morning,. A good day for a boat trip" he said as I climbed aboard.

"It certainly is. Goodness, how clear the water is" I said as I noticed that the normally murky Thames was sparkling like a clear mountain spring.

"Same as always" he said, without evident sarcasm.

I was going to reply when, still standing up in the boat and stepping carefully towards the stern, I turned slightly and caught sight of the bridge just upstream of us and I was so astonished that as I stared at it I carried on walking right out of the boat and plunged myself fully-clothed into the river. My companion dived in after me and helped me out with the utmost good humour and as I sat spluttering on the dock I looked at the bridge again. Instead of the ugly, if utilitarian, structure of Hammersmith Bridge that I was expecting there was the bridge of my dreams, the bridge to beat the Ponte Vecchio with its elegant stone arches showing to maximum effect from my vantage point and delightful little medieval buildings, turrets and tours built up over the parapet. All charming, bespired , painted and gilded, glowing and sparkling in the summer sun, resonating with good taste.

"How long has that been here?" I gasped.

"Oh not long. Just since 2003" my companion replied and fortunately I was spared the necessity for reacting to this extraordinary information by the appearance of John and Charles who arrived together in a convoy of hansom cabs containing themselves and John's support and ancillary services teams.

Charles and John were immediately tiresomely supercilious about my damp and bedraggled state. They seemed unaware of any change in our surroundings: but then that didn't mean anything. Those two have usually got their heads in the clouds: John may have the most refined aesthetic sense but he is unaware of the basics of his local geography and Charles always seems to be off in a world of his own. John was fussing over whether to lend me some dry clothes from his support wardrobe when the friendly boatman returned and offered me a smock embroidered with a picture of a hay-making scene, flared purple trousers and another fine leather belt with an elaborate clasp featuring a serpent. I accepted these gratefully and soon looked a perfect sight. I could see that Charles and John were green with envy, dressed as they were in their usual conventional style. John issued instructions to his head servant as to where they were next to meet up with us, and we pushed off in the boat and pointed it towards Oxford, John and Charles were doing the rowing and I sat in the back steering our course. We were on our way to a better future. As we passed under the "new" medieval Hammersmith Bridge, I looked up to see a large party of Hammersmith Socialists cheering wildly.