Monday, December 03, 2007

Book review: The Water Road

It's ages since I've done a book review, and they're queuing up to be skewered. Paul Gogarty's 2002 tome The Water Road: A Narrowboat Odyssey Through England is still available if you want to spend twice the cover price. My advice, despite seven out of eight Amazon reviewers giving it five stars (thank god for Granny Buttons, the two-star voice of sanity) is don't, don't, don't. Don't waste money buying this book. Maybe, just maybe, if you have plenty to spare, waste a little time reading it. But you may never be quite the same afterwards, and not in a good way.

Every generation has had its waterways inspiration, from Temple Thurston, through Rolt, and now, I suspect, Waterworld. Gogarty, I think, casts himself in this mould, almost to the point of pastiche, introducing the delights of the 'water road' as he finally plumps upon calling it, to his readers almost as he discovers them himself. But he just isn't in their league. More mawkish than Rolt, but lacking any hint of his redeeming passion; more flowery than Temple Thurston, but without the dry wit, Gogarty achieves the impossible in this book: he makes a narrowboat journey around England boring and pedestrian.

Part of the trouble is that he is too honest - or possibly self absorbed. So we (and many of his interlocuters along the way) get the details of how he got the commission to write the book, and how he was paid an advance; we get his family worries (what the hell does his father in law's illness have to do with the canals of England?), and we get him baring his soul to us about his relationship with his son in a way that had me reaching for the metaphorical bucket. I suppose we should be warned by the jacket blurb, which tells us that this is 'both a celebration of a secret England and a powerful personal odyssey, in which the author marks his own rite of passage.' Well, if I wanted to read about someone's personal odyssey, I'd be looking on the misery-lit shelves, not the travel ones.

His potentially interesting, and obviously set-up, encounters with the diverse and sometimes historically significant characters he meets en route are by and large a wasted opportunity. We hear as much of what he says to them as what they have to tell him (and through him, us). His attempts to render dialect really don't come off either, and his supposed direct quoting of conversation sounds terribly stilted and really doesn't ring true. His breathless present tense (as noted by Andrew in his Amazon review) also very quickly becomes wearing, and he does not wear his newly-acquired knowledge lightly, but rather hammers it home in a way that could be patronising to a reader with even a modicum of interest in the subject.

Another minor, and personal, annoyance is his extreme tendency to anthropomorphise his hired boat, which isn't even a particularly nice one. He has no eye for boats (I said this was a personal gripe) and not much of one for architecture or even scenery. (I've said this before, but I would pay good money to read an account of a comparable journey by Bill Bryson, a writer who has both the eye and the ear, not to mention the sense of humour, that Gogarty so painfully lacks.)

What has this book got going for it? I grudgingly concede that it does contain some information, both geographical and historical, albeit conveyed in a consistently heavy-handed manner. If you're into soul baring personal odysseys (complete with sanctimonious pontificating on crime, racism, etc etc) by obscure travel journalists, with a bit of waterways action thrown in, then this is just the book for you.

If not, then read Narrow Boat; for all its faults worth a thousand of The Water Road; if you want a warm and humorous (IIRC) odyssey through the waterways of England, read John Seymour's Voyage into England. The trouble with Gogarty, at the end of the day, is that he's too absorbed in himself to really be enjoying it - and if he isn't, how can we?


Anonymous said...

Ouch! ho ho.
I gave it 3 stars myself (not that anyone was listening) and I actually quite liked the personal touches, his opinions and family mentions. But I didn't like the way Gogarty moved into physical descriptions of people, as though he suddenly remembered he really wanted to write a novel. There's also a clear break in the book where his journey is interrupted and it just tails off lamely after that!
But hey, it's about boats and canals! What's not to like.
- Carrie
p.s Like the Newhaven blog

Anonymous said...

Have just happened upon your review of The Water Road.

I thought I was possibly a lone voice in not liking it at all, particularly as it seemed to have many good reviews.

I don't read a great deal, but having laboured to the end with this one, my strongest feeling was of "Why did I bother ?"