Review of Three Cheers for Me

I cannot believe that I have not reviewed this favourite until now. I had collected a few words about the longer series that comprise The Collected Bandy Papers (Vols 1 – 9) in a previous post. They are modern day comedy classics and Three Cheers for Me is the one that kicked it off and garnered the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour back in the 60’s.

In point of fact I have read this one on many more than two noted occasions. Needing a good reminder of what exceptional comedic writing can evoke – I needed a mood booster – I turned to this old friend yesterday and savoured a revisit.

Three Cheers for Me is the first in the memoirs of Bartholomew Wolfe Bandy by Donald Jack. It was first published in 1962 and along with subsequent volumes it was very deservedly awarded the Stephen Leacock Award for humour on three occasions. These awards seem all the more appropriate given the very Leacockian prose style of the Bandy papers themselves.

If you have not ever been exposed to Bandy, I can not recommend Three Cheers enough. They are superb examples of the comedic novelist’s art down the line of P.G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and George Macdonald Fraser. Set in early twentieth century Ontario, B.W. Bandy, the hero is an Ottawa valley farm boy who heads off to fight in the First World War. He meets real life notables along the way, enjoys some of the most brilliantly told adventures and despite the comedic delivery actually teaches much about Canadian history. These novels demonstrate the close connection between literature and history – the enduring importance and beauty of a tale well told.

The late Donald Jack’s talent as a raconteur has the comedic timing so essential not just to written prose, but comedy deliver in any media. But comedy is much deeper than just laughs and the special accomplishment of this book (and the broader series) is his unique ability to relate very poignant and real events using mirth to ultimately captures the human experience.

Amidst the muck and tragedy of war we meet – and Jack’s was a master of rapid and intimate characterisation – a stream of odd and fascinating characters. Theses range from punctilious colonel who is inadvertently harassed to mania by Bandy, to seemingly suspect compatriots that may or may not be out to him, to a mischievous horse that clearly is out to get our hero. All would be utterly ridiculous on their own but when cast in the web of Bandy are believable and play their mirthful roles.

Jack had a unique ability to deliver comedy in that deadpan manner that raised the level of amusement to a new high. I could go on at length about my recollections of Bandy, but instead I would like to end with an excerpt from the first volume of the series, where young Bandy joins the Canadian Expeditionary Force and heads off to Europe. He is placed in charge of a platoon and we find him training a colourful crew on Salisbury Plain in England. Bandy assumes his authority (despite his own experience or natural ability with typical officiousness). As I typed this passage in, I was typing through tears of amusement despite the fact that I have read this passage countless times over the past couple decades. Cheers.

One day on the grenade range I had a narrow escape. I was in charge of a small party of bombers. One of them was a thin sallow man from Toronto called Soapes. I had been a bit uneasy about him from the start, since he had been showing signs of fright at the thought of hurling a live bomb.
We were in a small sandbagged enclosure five or so feet below ground level, and well protected from the blasts by a parapet of more sandbags. I gave everyone careful instructions, repeated them three times slowly, and threw the first bomb myself before handling the the second bomb to Squires.
Squires, in spite of a bad habit of clattering his false teeth together like a riveting gun, had shown himself to be reliable. He got rid of the grenade with credible alacrity.
The next soldier, Private Barbara, began badly by releasing the spring clip in the pit before throwing the bomb. Unfortunately, of all persons it had to fly at, it chose Private Soapes; and in trying to catch it he somehow managed to entangle it in his trouser pocket. For some reason Soapes immediately go the idea that the spring arm was the bomb itself. He gave a terrified scream and tried to tear the piece of metal out o his pocket. It caught in the lining of his trousers, and although it tore a large hole, it remained stuck. Whereupon, still screaming at the top of his voice, he started to remove his trousers. Under different circumstances I would probably have congratulated him on his quick thinking.
Meanwhile, unnerved by the shrieks of Soapes, the rest of the men had made a concerted rush for the narrow, double-bagged entrance. But there they had managed to wedge themselves so firmly that not one of them was able to get through. By now they were al shouting, as well as kicking, biting, scratching, and elbowing in their frenzy to get away from the trousers.
In the middle of this, I suddenly noticed Private Barbara staring stupidly at the antics of Private Soapes, who indeed presented an absurd site, hoping around on one leg with hi trousers half off and screaming like a stuck pig. Private Barbara had not moved a muscle since the spring arm had flown at Soapes. There was a distinctly unpleasant sensation in my stomach when I realized that Barbara was still holding the bomb, and that it was smoking. When it smokes, its due to go off.
I opened my mouth to shout a warning to Barbara, but discovered to my surprise that my mouth was already open and that I was already shouting. Now Barbara noticed the smoking grenade still in his hand. His expression changed; he could not have looked more surprised had he found himself holding a haddock.
I snatched the grenade from him. Luckily his fingers were slack – I could not see myself spending half a minute prying the thing loose otherwise – and heaved it over the parapet. Simultaneously, another object flew up and followed it over the sandbags. It was Private Soapes’ trousers

Donald Jack, Three Cheers for Me, McClleland and Stewart, 1962, pp.26-7.

Three Cheers for Me is a remedy for all the dishumours that may ail you. I can only recommend falling into the spell of Jack’s beguiling BW Bandy – I strongly suspect you’ll find yourself hungrily consuming the rest of this series. I did and continue to do so when I turn to them like an old friend.

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