Some words and names have a way of reappearing in one’s life. They are sort of there, on a bookshelf of your childhood living-room in one country only to reappear, twenty years later, on a poster at your workplace in another. For me – the ‘phrase’ Jerome Klapka Jerome are exactly such words – providing their quiet presence as a backdrop to my daily grind.
The picture of the blue plaque on Jerome K Jerome birthplace – the townhouse at Walsall’s Bradford’s Street – has been hanging on the wall of Walsall Council’s link bridge for a good few years. The link bridge joins the old Council building with the more modern Civic Centre. It’s also the place where senior managers and elected members cross pathways and officers rush to meetings. And so it is no surprise that though I have often glanced at the blue framed image that read JK Jerome it has taken me a while to realise that, yes, K stands for Klapka and yes, he was born in Walsall.
Why should that be of any interest to me? In the year of 1986, my mother received a bulky manilla envelope. She was a member of the Society for Friends of Beautiful Books – a popular Czechoslovak book publisher specialising in classics and received another two books fresh of the press – the Klapka’s Three Men in a Boat and the Nun by Diderot.
There was a reason why classics were in high demand in then socialist Czechoslovakia. It was one way (or maybe the only way) to get to read the Western authors that weren’t picked primarily for their critique of ‘the decaying Western imperialist world’. And whilst I might be inclined to read such a critique today, I understand why my mother loved the Western classics when the only travelling allowed was Eastwards. This way, she could travel anyway, anytime and with very little money.
As our newly fitted top to bottom bookshelves were soon filling up with all kinds of books sent to us by the Society and every time they arrived, my mum to would start reading one, then the second one, in addition to the already other 3 she had on the go by her bed. She would say:, “you should read the Klapka one day, he is really funny” and she reenacted the chapter about the poor uncle Podger who was trying hang a picture frame – a comical process worthy of about 5 pages.
But I never did read Klapka, I preferred a bit more intriguing Nun by Diderot or anything else with female characters really. I thought the book cover was really boring (why should anyone care about three middle age men in a boat that flows on a narrow canal?). As the book title was then neatly put on the shelf, I could see its author’s name looking at me, every time I was watching TV, or even brought my friends upstairs, declaring: “I am here, . Klapka Jerome!” and every time I thought what annoying combination of words – where on earth did he get the Klapka from?
Well, it was meant to be, that twenty odd years later, I regularly pass by JK Jerome’s house in Bradford Street where street workers, refugees, migrants and old Caldmore residents mix. I understand that the author lived here only very briefly after his birth, though he became Walsall’s honorary citizen later in life. His birthplace, turned into Museum, is not open to public at the moment, although one can see the memorabilia, including a medical cap he used as an ambulance driver in WWI, by prior arrangement.
Speaking to the curator I am surprised (or maybe not) that in recent years, there were more visitors interested in viewing from Slovakia, Czech Republic, Japan and Russia than from the native UK. Russia, of course, made their own film adaption of the Three Men in a Boat with a famous actor Andrei Mironov.
I walk into Walsall Central Library and very reluctantly pick up a copy of the paperback that I had to rescue from a shadowy bottom shelf. And later on, at home, I am completely taken in by effortless writing of a skilled observer, who sets out to write a travelogue but ends up writing a comedy stroke memories of childhood stroke commentary on a society with all its anxieties, flaws and false pretences that are as relevant today as they were hundred and fifty years ago. I find myself re-reading the uncle Podger picture framing plight to my husband and my children, I am imagining carrying large quantities of smelly cheese on a Victorian train and I am telling everyone at work to read JK Jerome – who I will forever call just Klapka – especially since I discovered that he stole this name from the famous Hungarian general to replace his less attractive original Clapp.
Final note: ‘klapka’ means ‘fastening’, ‘valve’ or ‘covering’ in Slovak.