Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book review: Writer explores England by kayak

As British writer David Aaronovitch points out in the introduction to his 2000 travel book/memoir, Paddling to Jerusalem, in the last few years writers have walked around England under the guise of just about every gimmick imaginable.
From south to north, around the coast, up the middle, round the sides, in wheelchairs, on one leg, carrying heavy electrical goods, with no money, with a dog, with a horse, in the company of Ian Botham, each walk slightly more improbable than the last.
He concedes that walking is the right pace for seeing the true England: "It is a micro-country, where everything is in the detail, and any speed of more than 5 mph means that most of what England has to offer must be missed."

However, instead of walking, Aaronovitch chooses a similarly slow method of transport when he sets out to travel from London to the north of England in the summer of 1999. He decides to go by kayak.

(And just in case you're curious: the title Paddling to Jerusalem comes from a William Blake poem, "And did those feet in ancient time," and the patriotic hymn "Jerusalem" it inspired, both of which retell an apocryphal tale of Jesus visiting England.)

Aaronovitch's accounts of his lack of athletic prowess in training for the trip are hilarious. In fact, I went to the effort of tracking down the one copy of the out-of-print book in the Ottawa Public Library system solely because he gave an hysterical account of his adventures at the keynote address of the Travel Media Association of Canada's annual general meeting last March.

And there are laugh-out-loud moments throughout the book, too. Along England's quiet canals and surprisingly challenging rivers, he runs into tattooed anglers and chatty lock keepers, delves into the novels of Georgette Heyer in dusty country inns, and develops a titanic loathing for swans. He's also a self-confessed history nerd, and the book is sprinkled with tales both funny and horrifying about everyone from 12th-century monarch King John to 20th-century prime minister Stanley Baldwin.

But at its heart, it's a more reflective book than I was expecting. Aaronovitch sets out on the journey for a few reasons. One of them is his self-proclaimed wish to transform himself from grouchy, stressed "Mr. Stormy" to cheerful, relaxed "Mr. Sunny." Even more than that, though, he is trying to come to terms with the death of his father the previous year. Father and son had a complicated relationship, which Aaronovitch slowly and skilfully reveals to the reader.

In the end, the kayaking trip--with its tendonitis, rainstorms and rock-throwing urchins--is just the framework on which Aaronovitch hangs a much more personal tale. He gets to the heart of what makes him tick. In the process, he discovers the soul of his country as well.
Middle England is a land of saucy grannies, voyaging landladies...childhood museums, 50s' nostalgia, opticians, aromatherapists, steam railways, scented candles, shopping malls, computers, coffee cake, stress phalli, Man Utd supporters, rock festivals, soap opera behaviour, of young men driving too fast and waterside views...Of Midde Earth, middle management and Middlemarch. A country, for all the public pessimism, surprisingly unafraid about its future.
The book will be too introspective for some, too flippant for others, and too full of historical asides for many. While I enjoyed it throughout, it took a long while to really grab me. Of necessity, any travel narrative in which most days follow the same pattern--wake up, paddle for four or five hours, negotiate locks and swans, tie up the boat, stay in some form of accommodation, eat a lonely dinner while observing the locals--is in danger of becoming monotonous, and Aaronovitch does fall into this trap a few times. But by the end, as his life story, his kayaking trip and the tale of England itself all came together, I found myself eagerly flipping pages to learn how it would all turn out.


Tom Allen said...

Sounds like a fascinating book - must find a copy!

Laura Byrne Paquet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Byrne Paquet said...

"Paddling to Jerusalem" is a fun book, Tom! It's out of print, but I think it's available on I got my copy at the local library here in Ottawa.