Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Who ate half the canal?

I'm currently reading - and thoroughly enjoying - Stuart Maconie's Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North. His affectionate and enthusiastic exploration of the north of England, in idea and in concrete reality, is reminiscent of Bill Bryson, only with a bemusement born in Wigan rather than Des Moines. (Apart from the fact that it would attract oodles more people, I would love to see Bryson write about the canals.)

But - and there's always a but. You know how when you're young, you believe anything adults tell you; when you're at school you take whatever the teachers say as gospel (and I had a teacher who didn't know how to spell chimney, so don't tell me standards have fallen); when you're at university you tend to accept - god help you - that lecturers know what they're talking about.

And when you're reading a book, you tend to take it on trust that even if the person writing it isn't an actual expert, they have at least checked the basic facts. Occasionally I'll think of some snippet of information that I grew up with, usually imparted by my mother, that I haven't thought of for twenty years - for example, that tea contains more caffeine than coffee - and suddenly realise that it's completely and utterly wrong. Parents are not infallible founts of knowledge! Then I think, well, what else might I still believe quite baselessly ... Similarly with a book, if it gets one thing wrong that you actually know about, then you have to think, what else has it got wrong; which of those delicious little bits of information is actually a trap for the unwary? Is Port Vale really the only club in the football league not to be named after a geographical place?

Because on page 188 Maconie states unequivocally that 'Best of all, though, is the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, opened in 1811, which runs from Marsden to Huddersfield'. This is followed by a bit of guff about the Standedge Tunnel taken straight out of the tourist brochure, followed by the claim that the tunnel is 'seven feet wide and three miles long' (a tad of an underestimate in both dimensions, I suspect) ... and then he says that the 'Marsden shuttle [is] a narrowboat that you can take on the short trip through [sic] the tunnel.' Now that last bit must just be plain sloppiness, as he's already noted that it's the longest canal tunnel in the world. (In fact the trip boat just goes in a bit and then backs out again. I'm not even entirely sure that that, rather than the tug, is called the shuttle, but I'll let that pass.)

What worries me more is how we managed to get from Marsden to Ashton-under-Lyne last year ...

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