Sunday, 14 February 2010

Barging into Burgundy - book review

Barging into Burgundy - book review
by Gerard Morgan-Grenville
14th February 2010

This is the third and last book in the "Barging into" series by Gerard Morgan-Grenville, writer, traveller and proto eco warrior.

 I was absorbed by his earlier accounts of his 1970's travels in the venerable Virginia Anne, a 150 ton barge which he had nursed from Holland to central France in his first book, Barging into France. He then continued on to the Med and ultimately the Atlantic via the Canal du Midi, which he unpacked in the sequel, aptly called.... Barging into Southern France.

Morgan-Grenville was clearly a man who called  spade a spade and turned in his third book with the pithy title of Barging into Burgundy, and true to it's cover that is exactly what he describes.

If you have read the first two volumes this is more of the same really, a wry slightly self deprecating account of their continuing misadventures on a boat past it's sell by date and on waterways under imminent threat of closure. As such it is a fascinating insight into the French waterways of the day, all presented an a series of fragmented but amusing anecdotes. The course of his travels are unclear and appreciation is enhanced if one has a map of the area to hand.

Whilst the book was a pleasure to read, it lacked the certain someting contained within the first two volumes. The first book handled the realisation of a dream and then the thrills and spills of taking an unreliable craft into unknown waters, and the second took this process further with it's account of the journey south along massive waterways, which regularly threatened to sink his plans to the bottom of the river. All gripping stuff which served to give an underlying direction to the books.

Barging Into Burgundy had none of the "will they?, won't they?" suspense about it, returning to Virginia Ann after six or seven years of ownership for a meander through the canals of mid France, never really reaching any sort of conclusion. Sure there were incidents along the way but nothing of great significance.

Strangely, it was the end that I was looking forward to. Not because I wanted the chronicles to finish but more because I wanted to read about how things ended up. Whilst this turned out to be the last book in the series, I suspect that the author didnt' know it at the time. I half expected a dramatic finale, maybe a catastrophic sinking in the Seine or more likely an spur of the moment sale to a like minder adventurer he met along the way. In the event, nothing like this happened. The boat is simply laid up at the end of the season with a strangely prophetic reference to the casual remarks of a French lock keeper, which appear to have crystallised Morgan-Grenville's thinking and set him on a new course into the area of sustainable lifestyles.

"I'm an old man, but I've lived long enough to see the rise of materialism which is crushing the very people by whose effort it thrives. Perhaps we may all be killed by some war, some accidental holocaust, who knows? I tell you M'sieur: it won't make the slightest difference. We might as well be killed in these ways as by the steady strangulation of the spirit, the erosion of the fundemental satisfaction obtained by doing ordinary things. You must believe me, M'sieur, the machine we have made is killing us".

Very eloquent for a French lock keeper. I suspect this short but skilfully drafted mantra contains more than a little bit of Morgan-Grenville within it, but well said whoever spoke it out!

That is the end of the travels of Virgina Anne. One assumes that the author had found a new interest in life and that the craft was sold, but who knows. 

Answers in the comments box please.

David and Cherles 1975
ISBN 0 7153 6834 6


Starcross said...

I can't answer your question - but I'd love to complete the series - any chance I could borrow your copy?

Captain Ahab said...

By all means Jim - I have sent you an e-mail.

gmorgan-grenville said...

Interesting review - sure my father would have appreciated! The Virginia Anne was eventually sold but not until many years later by which time he had built two more barges - the Fleur de Lys and Napoleon, both of which are now owned by Orient Express.

Halfie said...

I haven't come across these books before. How do they compare with Terry Darlington's Narrow Dog books? Or is that like comparing (french) chalk with camembert?

Captain Ahab said...

GMG junior
Thanks for your comment - it made my day!
My father was a huge fan of your fathers books and I only stumbled across them by accident. I have really enjoyed his accounts of the French travels but have been amazed by how little of himself he revealed. I was even more surprised to discover the link with CAT in wales which I visited in the late 70's when it was very new.
It amuses me when I hear that my very retrospective reviews of your fathers books have set others out on a Morgan-Grenville quest, scouring e-bay for all his books. This one has already been bagged by Jim of Starcross!

Captain Ahab said...

These books are gems and well worth a read.
Yes, they cover some of the same ground at Narrow Dog to Carcassonne (which I like in its own way) but they are all about the boat and the trips - very little about the crew.
They are also in a bit of a time capsule, looking at French Canals at the very end of their commercial life so in that way they are possibly more aligned to the LTC Rolt genre and his romantic slant on the renmants of Agricultural England.
If you decide to root out some copies on e-bay or Amazon I suggest you go chronoligically - France, Southern France and finally Burgundy.
I am a fan!

Margaret said...

My husband Gerard would have been thrilled by all the comments about his book. The Virginia Anne was sold in 1995, spent some time in France and then was sold again and I think is now in England, renamed and very much revamped! There are some copies of Barging into Southern France and Barging into Burgundy available from here. The first book, Barging into France, you will have to search for. Let me know. I'm rather new to blogs so hope there is some way this might happen!

Captain Ahab said...

I have grown very fond of your late husband through his books. I think he was a braver man than I, and I aspire to have a bit more of his courage. Has anyone ever written a biography of his life?
Having contact from your family makes me realise how careful I must be in my reviews!
If I have said anything which could offend I promise it wasnt intentional...I have the greatest admiration for him.
I do get queries based on my reviews from time to time - usually can I borrow it please? If I need to pass a name to you I would need your e-mail address. If you enter it on the comment form it wont show up in the public domain but it will show in the e-mail copy sent to my personal e-mail account. If yhou did put it in the comment box itself I simple wouldnt publish it.