Narrow Dog

I have just finished reading Narrow Dog to Carcassonne by Terry Darlington.

Yes, I judged the book by its cover – the illustrations throughout are just as delightful as the one on the cover, and it has a picture of a narrow boat on it. And a dog. Good enough for me.

It tells  of the journey of Terry and his sensible sounding wife, Monica and their characterful whippet, Jim as they sail their narrow boat from Stone, down the English waterways, out and across the channel and down through Belgium and France to the Mediterranean.

Jim (my Jim, not the whippet) and I aspire to be canal boat owners one day. I cringed slightly when I read Terry’s scathing description of the leisure-boaters who think they are born to the life after a few hours at a rented tiller. We’ve been on a few holidays on canal boats, pre and with kids and there are many things we love about the canals. For one, the pace of life is so much slower by definition, because you can only travel at 6 miles an hour maximum, it appears to grind to a sudden halt the moment you step on board. Stop the world I want to get off – yup, here that actually appears to happen. And there is no clutter. There’s no space for it. No outhouses and spare rooms to shove stuff in that might be useful one day. Everything has its place and most things have multiple uses. Those may not be a sufficient reasons to want to up sticks and live on a canal boat but the best reason is we can aspire to afford to buy a canal boat.

Terry Darlington’s writing takes some getting used to. If you like neat paragraphs, whole sentences, punctuation and some indication of when there is dialogue, then forget it. He thinks and writes it down all at the same time. You’ll move seamlessly from a list of factual events, diary style, to a poetic and sensual description of a view, to historical facts and a humorous exchange between a local and the pork-scratching obsessed whippet. It’s fascinating, like looking inside the mind of someone with a lot of knowledge and intelligence who’s not really concentrating very hard. I like it.

At several points in the book my dream of living on a canal boat withered under a dirty grey cloud of filthy waters, expensive moorings, yobs, lock gate dangers, sewage pump-outs and confined spaces. Jim (whippet) suffers from lack of towpaths and space to run – I think I would too.  But I remind myself they are on a journey and we can choose nice waters and avoid yobby areas. And a lot of his tales are for comic effect so they can’t really be that bad… can they?

The barge, a 60 footer called Phyllis May, enchants many who see her on her voyage. Geraniums on the roof. Bunting for special occasions. But, in what appears to be Terry’s long-voyage induced cabin fever, she is constantly bombarded with crew-and-dog-life-threatening attempts to stop her reaching her destination.

You can learn much from this book about the wines of france, the customs of different regions, the navigability or not of stretches of water, how to speak french, how to make friends and influence people or not. Cultural and literary references and quotations abound, many of which make me wonder if Terry’s playing with my mind here and trying to make me feel inferior for not knowing the particular author, philosopher or composer, all because I’m a leisure-boater.

I’d like to meet Terry. And Monica, although I think she might be a bit scary. I can’t imagine I’ll ever meet Jim because at the rate he was scoffing pork scratchings, he won’t be around to tell the… no I won’t sink that low. Looking at their website it seems Jim as still alive and licking and joined by Jess.

An excellent read if you love canal boats. I do, so I can’t say if you’d enjoy it quite so much if you aren’t au fait with the canal boating experience (see, a little bit of french creeping in there, a la Terry Darlington). But if you like, dogs, wine, humour, poignancy, stories of derring-do, survival against all odds, grumpiness, beauty, food and travel, I highly recommend it.

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