Just ahead of Episode Twelve of Three Men in a Boat, thank you again for your kind comments about this caper and all our other Tales for Our Time. Over two years ago, we launched this series of audio adventures on a whim, threw it together somewhat hastily, and learned on the job. So I'm enormously grateful for your appreciation of it.
Our current tale is Jerome K Jerome's comic classic of minimal plot and maximum digressions. And yet, in a uniquely careless way, it somehow manages to convey the great sweep of one tiny island's long history. A UK member of The Mark Steyn Club, John Lewis, writes in elegaic mood:
I was looking forward to this and the first episode did not disappoint.
England is a very small, albeit heavily populated country. For centuries we punched above our weight on a global scale. Those days are over, demographic changes both involuntary and self-inflicted have ensured that mine is the last generation with direct experience of the essential 'Englishness' so perfectly expressed in this story. As with the USA there are rapidly growing minorities who positively revel in the elimination of our national culture and identity but have little of worth to replace it. The world is a less kind place.
I'm as pessimistic as the next chap, John, but nothing is foreordained. There is certainly a huge loss of collective cultural consciousness in your country, and of its deep roots. Jerome K Jerome wears it lightly but bestrides the centuries and, as in tonight's episode, wanders down some of the more obscure byways:
By Hurley Weir, a little higher up, I have often thought that I could stay a month without having sufficient time to drink in all the beauty of the scene. The village of Hurley, five minutes' walk from the lock, is as old a little spot as there is on the river, dating, as it does, to quote the quaint phraseology of those dim days, 'from the times of King Sebert and King Offa'. Just past the weir (going up) is Danes' Field, where the invading Danes once encamped, during their march to Gloucestershire; and a little further still, nestling by a sweet corner of the stream, is what is left of Medmenham Abbey.
The famous Medmenham monks, or 'Hell Fire Club', as they were commonly called, and of whom the notorious Wilkes was a member, were a fraternity whose motto was 'Do as you please', and that invitation still stands over the ruined doorway of the abbey. Many years before this bogus abbey, with its congregation of irreverent jesters, was founded, there stood upon this same spot a monastery of a sterner kind, whose monks were of a somewhat different type to the revellers that were to follow them, five hundred years afterwards.
"Wilkes" is the English radical John Wilkes, a distant kinsman of the American actor John Wilkes Booth. The Hellfire Club, which had various incarnations in England and Ireland during the eighteenth century, was a notorious and exclusive organization for wealthy and privileged roués who disdained conventional morality and, indeed, did as they pleased. Oddly enough, during his time in Britain, Ben Franklin is said to have attended its gatherings.
Be that as it may, Sir Francis Dashwood was the chief executive rake, and, after setting up in his "bogus abbey", referred to the club as the Friars of Medmenham, or the Brotherhood of St Francis of Wycombe. Here's a quatrain by an Oxford undergraduate twenty years before Three Men in a Boat:
In Medmenham Abby they passed the day,
Those jolly Abbots, 'mid wine and lay:
There Hugh le Despencer, gallant and free,
Bid 'fay ce que voudras' their motto be.
As Jerome notes, "Fay ce que voudras" appears above the doorway of Medmenham Abbey: Do what you will. The "Friars of Medmenham" used - or, in fact, perverted - traditional religious iconography, and didn't make much secret of what they were up to: Thus the painting at top right, by George Knapton, Keeper of the King's Pictures, was prominently displayed in an English pub. From Volume II of A Select Collection of the Most Interesting Letters on the Government, Liberty, and Constitution of England (1763):
There was for many years in the great room, at the king's arms tavern, in Old Palaceyard, an original picture of Sir Francis Dashwood, presented by himself to the Dilettanti club. He is in the habit of a Franciscan, kneeling before the Venus of Medicis, his gloating eyes fix'd, as in a trance, on what the modesty of nature seems most desirous to conceal, and a bumper in his hand, with the words MATRI SANCTORUM in capitals. The glory too, which till then had only encircled the sacred heads of our Saviour and the Apostles, is made to beam on that favourite spot, and seems to pierce the hallow'd gloom of maidenhead thicket. The public saw, and were for many years offended with so infamous a picture, yet it remain'd there, till that club left the house.
Piercing the hallow'd gloom of maidenhead thicket: There's a fellow who knows how to write. If you're a member of The Mark Steyn Club you can hear Part Twelve of our serialization of Three Men in a Boat simply by clicking here and logging-in. All previous episodes can be found here.
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Please join me tomorrow for Part Thirteen of Three Men in a Boat - and just ahead of that my return to The John Oakley Show on Toronto's Global News Radio 640 live at 5pm Eastern.