Monday, March 05, 2007

Book review: Bread upon the Waters

I've finally got around to re-reading David Blagrove's Bread upon the Waters, and I have to say that I enjoyed it as much the second time as the first - which was, admittedly, only at Christmas. First published in 1984, it describes the author's experiences of working for Willow Wren in the early 1960s. It's partly the fact that the period he's describing is almost (not quite!) within my lifetime that makes the book appealing; another positive factor for me is the way it focuses on the boats, the companies and the business of carrying, rather than the history or geography of the canals themselves, and makes them tangible and immediate.

It is a very human book, written from a young man's perspective. Although frequently frustrated by the political and commercial decisions which he saw as killing off canal carrying (many of which resonate today), and not blind to the squalor and debasement which he occasionally witnessed, Blagrove does not seem to be jaded like Rolt, who sometimes seems to despise humanity. Blagrove clearly loves it, in all its varieties. Perhaps as a result, his descriptions of people are one of the real strengths of the book. He even manages to render dialect convincingly, without it being embarassing to read as such attempts often are. Particularly satisfying is his portrait of Leslie Morton, whom he recognises as an exceptional character and sets down, warts and all, for posterity.

It's interesting to compare the reception Blagrave gets from the longstanding boatmen and women - complete acceptance, in the main - with that described by Susan Woolfitt and Kit Gayford. Was this a question of gender, or of the changes in the commercial environment over the years that separate their experiences? There are some lovely unintended continuities between Idle Women and Bread upon the Waters; for example, in decsribing the rush to get orders at Braunston (p. 73) Blagrave says 'A third [person], perhaps Bill Whitlock or Maurice Peasland, would rocket crazily on a bike along the towpath...' Maurice Peasland, presumably, being the same 'small boy' whom Woolfitt attempted to teach to write his name some twenty years previously.

As Rolt ends Narrow Boat with the harsh winter that sounded the death knell for canal transport, Blagrove concludes Bread upon the Waters with another, that of 1963, which was to prove the final nail in its coffin. The description of the conditions is vivid, and the sense of despair palpable.

If I had to find fault with this book, it would only be a couple of minor niggles. Firstly the title, which, apart from containing the word 'water' bears no relation to the book's content; secondly, while Blagrove's writing style is very effective at conveying youthful enthusiasm, the punctuation occasionally leaves something to be desired. Both of these faults are actually far more marked in his second book, The Quiet Waters By, in which he describes his brief career as a lock keeper on the (markedly unquiet) Thames. I may return to that book at a later date, as it does feature canal flashbacks, and a genuinely tearjerking account of the death of Joe and Rose Skinner's mule.

Those however are excedingly minor and petty niggles. Bread upon the Waters is funny, sad, informative and fascinating. As a bonus it has two appendices; one listing all the boats in the Willow Wren fleet and where they came from - sheer joy to my inner anorak (for example, I learnt that Dunstable, which I believe has now been sold, was for part of its career Willow Wren's Swan). The second appendix is a comprehensive glossary of 'canal terms', which reads like poetry and can, in extremis, provide the basis for an amusing quiz.

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