Sunday, December 10, 2006

Book review: Narrow Boat

So I take on the prophet and the holy book: L.T.C. (Tom) Rolt's Narrow Boat, first published in 1944 and widely credited with setting off the inland waterways restoration movement. My copy is a 1946 Eyre and Spottiswoode/Readers' Union austerity edition, which somehow seems fitting. It was a Christmas present last year, and I first read it on Warrior up at Hargrave where we spent the week from Christmas to New Year. I really loved it then; I felt that Rolt was articulating much that was not only true when he wrote, but is even truer today, and articluating it eloquently to boot. I went on to read Landscape with Canals, the second part of his autobiography, and got a taste of his amateur philosophising, and began to like him rather less.

Reading Narrow Boat for a second time feels rather like the sort of situation where you meet someone who agrees with your view of the world, and you enjoy talking to them at first, but then they won't shut up. I was struck with how negative the tone of much of the book is, and how relentlessly Rolt harangues the reader. Even though I still sympathise with many (but by no means all) of his views, it's hard to take totally seriously someone who expostulates about 'the evil genius of the can-opener' and its role in undermining traditional - i.e. rural - English cooking (and yet, and yet, the TV dinner and the microwave, he is right really ...). But still you are reminded of a modern day equivalent, ranting spittle-flecked over his copy of the Daily Mail.

Rolt's extreme bucolic conservatism sometimes seems poised to tip over into something a little less savoury. His veneration of traditional rural life, and concomitant excoriation of the drift to the industrial towns, is a little too blood-and-soil for comfort. This is explicitly expressed in his contrasting of two markets: one features 'groups of gaitered farmers and their plump, bustling wives, filling the air with the murmur of their rich country dialect', there to buy 'great baskets of eggs and golden farm butter', while at the other, 'the wives of the men from the factories .... crowd round the Jew vendors of shoddy clothing and gawdy ornaments, clutching their string bags and shrilly admonishing their grubby children.' I don't think you need to be an expert in discourse analysis to get the message there.

There is a nasty streak of smug snobbery running through Rolt's commentary. While Susan Woolfitt is identifiably from a similar class background, and displays her own share of snobbery and class prejudice in Idle Women, she doesn't seem to despise people in the way Rolt does. He also seems to buy into the myth of the 'noble savage', the epitome of man's true nature before its corruption by civilisation, here represented above all by the boatman, in whom 'shines a bright natural intelligence whose great charm lies in the fact that it has not been acquired from Council schools and newspapers'.

So I wouldn't want to be sat next to Rolt at a dinner party; he's smug, snobbish, and arguably naive. But for all that, Narrow Boat is not a bad book; it is not only an important book, but a very readable one too, and it is a book that demands to be read. There are passages of poetic beauty, and of shivering prescience. There are lines that ring so true they could have been written yesterday (the transformation by breweries of the pub into 'a sordid drink-shop as characterless as their liquor', for example, or 'the new spirit of joyless sanctimony which was a product of commercialism').

Rolt's writing is at its most affecting when he isn't laying it on with a trowel, as when he describes the boatman who 'had but lately lost his wife, and now worked his boat with the help of his three small children, the eldest a girl of ten. There had been four, until one was drowned in Tyrley top lock'; or when, towards the end of the book, he describes the effects of the harsh winter of 1940 on the lives and livelihoods still dependent on the canals. Along with this, what makes poignant reading are the losses Rolt himself is unaware of; the things that he didn't know were going to disappear or change beyond recognition over the next sixty years, and so only mentions in passing.

The killer question is whether things have improved since Narrow Boat was written, or whether they have continued to deteriorate, not just on the canals, for Rolt casts his net more widely than that, but in society as a whole. In every age, surely, some things get worse, and some things get better, and people tend on the whole to notice and comment more upon the former. Rolt regrets the passing of so much, and seeks to cling to a past that he has, arguably, romanticised. While we can - indeed, must - learn from the past, and preserve and even recreate what is best from it, the one thing we cannot do is turn the clock back. Rather than wasting time and energy looking over our shoulder and crying after what we've lost, we should embrace the present, appreciate and enjoy what we have, and work to make the future - if we have one - better still.


Anonymous said...

Superb review! "Concomitant excoriation" is my new favourite phrase.

I am currently reading 'Windlass In My Belt" which refers to Narrow Boat frequently, and I suppose I shall have to read the latter eventually, even though I am rather afraid of ruining the mythos that surrounds the tome.

My first experience of canal literature was actually the Pearson guides, which amused me no end with their similarly disdainfully erudite dismissal of modern ideas such as, well, roads.

I (perhaps like you) find myself mostly glad of the daily mail brigade's avid defence of 'tradition' whilst simultaneously feeling barely a hair's breadth from becoming a target of their ire myself...

How is it that the cut can be so non-comformist in character, yet so full of officiousness?

S said...

Hi Tess, yes you must read it, although perhaps only once. Love your site and will keep reading to follow your boat move. Thanks for the kind comment - I was steeling myself for hatemail from Rolt fanatics. I know one guy who will have nothing to do with the IWA 'because of what they did to Rolt' - fifty years ago!

Anonymous said...

Good review. I've only read Narrowboat, not the autobiography, so I'm not sure if he addresses there a paradox he seems to have overlooked in Narrowboat. Namely, that the canal system he loves was both a product of, and a significant force in the development of, the Industrial Revolution whose consequences he affects to despise.

Anonymous said...

I like your reviews, but I think you're a bit hard on poor old Rolt, although I found the book a bit dreary. He obviously doesn't despise the industrial revolution because he has written a splendid history of victorian engineering, which he clearly admires.

As for Mrs Woolfit, I really enjoyed her book and quite warmed to her because of ther gutsyness and the frequent vists to the pub!

I don't think it was abnormal in those days to be chairy about use of christian names. I remember my mum (who was as working class as you can get and of a similar age to Mrs Woolfit) generally using surnames to all except very close friends and family.

I'm hoping to get "Narrow Dog" for Christmas and am looking forward to reading that.