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British humour – Riding tandem

Jerome K. Jerome had a hit with Three Men in a Boat when it appeared in 1889. He published Three Men on a Bummel (known to American readers as Three Men on Wheels) in 1900. His three stalwarts - J, George and Harris - feel they need a change, and decide to embark on a bicycle tour. First, however, they must inform their wives, establish a route and decide who is going to be riding tandem. As Jerome observes -

There is always unpleasantness about this tandem. It is the theory of the man in front that the man behind does nothing; it is equally the theory of the man behind that he alone is the motive power, the man in front merely doing the puffing. The mystery will never be solved. It is annoying when Prudence is whispering to you on the one side not to overdo your strength and bring on heart disease; while Justice into the other ear is remarking: ‘Why should you do it all? This isn’t a cab. He’s not your passenger’: to hear him grunt out:

‘What’s the matter – lost your pedals?’

Harris, in his early married days, made much trouble for himself on one occasion, owing to this impossibility of knowing what the person behind is doing. 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 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 bitterness is past, but they argue about the matter to this day.

Be the explanation what it may, however, nothing alters the fact that Mrs Harris did jump off, while Harris pedalled away hard, under the impression she was still behind him. It appears that at first she thought he was riding up the hill merely to show off. They were both young in those days, and he used to do that sort of thing. She expected him to spring to earth on reaching the summit and lean in a careless and graceful attitude against the machine, waiting for her. When on the contrary, she saw him pass the summit and proceed rapidly down a long and steep incline, she was seized, first with surprise, secondly with indignation, and lastly with alarm. She ran to the top of the hill and shouted, but he never turned his head. She watched him disappear into a wood a mile and a half distant, and then sat down and cried. They had had a slight difference that morning, and she wondered if he had taken it seriously and intended desertion.

She had no money; she knew no Dutch. People passed, and seemed sorry for her; she tried to make them understand what had happened. They gathered that she had lost something, but could not grasp what. They took her to the nearest village, and found a policeman for her. He concluded from her pantomime that some man had stolen her bicycle. They put the telegraph into operation, and discovered in a village four miles off an unfortunate boy riding a lady’s machine of an obsolete pattern. They brought him to her in a cart, but as she did not appear to want either him or his bicycle they let him go again, and resigned themselves to bewilderment.

Meanwhile Harris continued his ride with much enjoyment. It seemed to him that he had suddenly become a stronger and in every way a more capable cyclist. Said he to what he thought was Mrs Harris:

‘I haven’t felt this machine so light for months. It’s this air, I think; it’s doing me good.’

Then he told her not to be afraid, and he would show her how fast he could go. He bent down over the handles, and put his heart into his work. The bicycle bounded over the road like a thing of life; farmhouses and churches, dogs and chickens came to him and passed. Old folks stood and gazed at him, the children cheered him.

In this way he sped merrily onward for about five miles. Then, as he explains it, the feeling began to grow upon him that something was wrong. He was not surprised at the silence; the wind was blowing strongly, and the machine was rattling a good deal. It was a sense of void that came upon him. He stretched out his hand behind him, and felt; there was nothing there but space. He jumped, or rather fell off, and looked back up the road. . .

Alas, Harris does not know where he has lost his wife, and cannot even remember how she was dressed when he manages to contact the police. . .

‘. . .in the evening they brought her to him in a covered wagon, together with a bill for expenses. The meeting was not a tender one. Mrs Harris is not a good actress, and always has great difficulty in disguising her feelings. On this occasion, she frankly admits, she made no effort to disguise them.

Jerome is terrific. Married couples intending to ride tandem - you have been warned.


Thanks for all the magical journeys I made on my bike.

Thanks to inventor John Macmillan (1849), Brits began pedalling bikes; thanks to John McAdam they cycled on smooth macadam roads with pneumatic tires thanks to Robert William Thomson (1846-7) and John Dunlop (1888). By the middle of the 1890s bicycles were all the rage, and thanks to the Industrial Revolution, Brits were manufacturing and riding 800,000 new bikes.