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Book Review: The Water Road by Paul Gogarty

Gogarty, P. (2002) The Water Road Portico Books ISBN 978 1 861 056559

Gogarty has a sharp eye for character and his warm-hearted book proves a triumph of the romantic spirit, a labour of love among the slow-moving, quick-witted narrow-boaters of England. This is evoked with wit and a wealth of lively anecdotage by a writer who is always good company.

Roger Deakin, in the Daily Telegraph

The Water Road is the story of a gentle escape from the hurry-sickness of modern life. Paul Gogarty, a travel writer and TV presenter describes his four month navigation of ‘The Grand Cross’, from the Thames to the Humber, Severn and Mersey.

With the aim of leaving behind the noise and trouble of modern life for a while Gogarty starts in London, and follows a figure of eight through Britain’s major cities and across the Pennines sailing into England’s past, and it’s future, as the waterways begins to enjoy what may turn out to be it’s second golden age with waterfront cities being regenerated and more inland waterways opening in Britain than were being built at the height of Canal Mania 200 years ago.

For Gogarty ‘The Cut’ is a hidden garden flashed with kingfishers and traditional narrow boats; a parallel universe ringing with the laughter and tall tales, the thin cries of bats and drunken congregations in waterfront pubs.

His is a journey across the face of England with all its exultations and darkness; rave boats, glorious sunshine and sheeting rain: canals that have been resurrected and enjoying their new summer and those still abandoned like shameful secrets.

The Water Road is beautifully written, a voyage that is poignant, illuminating and entertaining at every turn. He weaves a mesmerizing tale packed with drama, hilarious encounters, and illuminating reflection. The Water Road is both a celebration of what he describes as a secret England and a powerful personal odyssey, in which the author marks his own rite of passage.

Apologies for the extended nature of this quote, from pg. 114 which certainly struck a cord with me:

I sit at the stern, hand vibrating lightly on the tiller, legs crossed, chin resting in left hand. As I observe the shape-shifting of trees and wheat fields, it strikes me that while we spend an inordinate amount of time feeding different needs that simply set in motion new needs, it is at such moments as this, when we inhabit the aesthetic sense and the divide between the self and the world vanishes, that we really sing. A man in a boat is singing his way through the countryside.

I remember once being on a trek where each night the members of the group chose different poems from a compendium to read. Voices reverberated with heaviness and meaning, words were polished, and only poets dressed in finest tuxedos chosen. The poem I selected by William Carlos Williams left everyone singularly unimpressed:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

Williams is right: so much really does depend upon being able to see a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens. And on the Cut there are unlimited possibilities for seeing. Apart from the glorious countryside, there’s the simplicity and beauty of the lock gates, the eloquence of original warehouses and boatyards, and of course the rainbow of colourful narrow boats. All have an enhanced aesthetic value because of their aquatic setting.

Paul Gogarty manages brilliantly to convey a boatman’s total euphoria in his delightful account of a four-month narrow boat idyll spent pootling along the 900 miles of central England’s inland waterways… his enthusiasm bounces off every page, and I was completely mesmerised.

Val Hennessy Critic’s Choice, in the Daily Mail

I think it’s a classic. And, certainly one for any narrow boat book shelf.

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