Thursday 28 February 2013

Small Boat through France - Book Review

Small Boat through France
By Roger Pilkington
February 2013

I suspect that this is a first - the first time I have reviewed a book twice!

This was the first Roger Pilkington "Small Boat" book I came across and it covered the mid point in his European travels. As such it was rather like joining a conversation mid way through and not knowing what came before I struggled to get into the account.
However, I persevered and have now read all but one of the preceding books and feel very much part of Piklington's 50 year old watery wanderlust. The Commodore is ageing having served them well for 14 years and is now on its 4th engine. The author steadfastly avoids bringing the crew into the tale and prefers to make it all about the boat and the places they visit. But that's not all - he also has a fascination with medieval history and recounts the events which took place in centuries past, fact mingling with legend and paying close attention to the religious struggles which befell the  initiators of the reformation.

I had considered skipping this book and jumping to the next edition set in the South of France, but as my last reading was over two years ago and out of sequence I decided to re read it.

I have since learned much about Pilkington's non conformist beliefs and the events which surrounded a previously under appreciated period in Europe's history all traced out as the family ventured south from Holland to the southern end of the Rhone via Paris in two holiday trips.

Whilst I remembered accounts of leaping weirs in flood and taciturn lock keepers, there was much which had passed me by and the book fully justified a second read. The tantalising element was their trip down a drought struck Rhone where one third of the distance was covered in a single chapter, but I shouldn't have worried. This rapid and eventful descent is covered in full in the next book which I read back to back.

Original post from 2010:

Belle picked this book up for me during a recent visit to Barter Books in Northumberland.

Of the the waterways books she bought this seemed the least engaging, but I asked her to buy it as it could be compared to Gerard Morgan-Grenville's works which I enjoyed so much last year.

The book is one of his 19 "small boat" series which covers most European waterways travelled over a thirty year period from 1956. The miracle is that I have never come across them before.

Before I reflect on the book itself, its worth sparing a few thoughts about the author himself. 

Roger Pilkington was born in 1915 into the Pilkington Glass family and his obituary (he died in 2003 at the age of 88) tells us that he was a "Geneticist by training, a Philosopher by instinct and a Christian by conviction". But most of all he is remembered as a prolific writer on travel, Christianity and morality, and children's books.

Whilst his father and elder brother ran the family business, the company rules stipulated only two family members on the board so he was obliged to follow other interests. After his time at university he spent time working for and being president of the London Missionary Society, contributing to the theological and moral debates of the day but most of all he was captivated by water travel. Initially this was aboard Commodore, an ex Admirals Barge he bought from the Navy in 1946 and in which he travelled the waterways of Europe till her wooden hull degenerated in the mid 1960's. This was replaced by the purpose built steel hulled Thames Commodore which carried him on for the next two decades.

The link to the Pilkington glass business explains his ability to spend extended times abroad - far more than most of us have at our disposal.

OK, so that's the background to the author. What of the book?

As I picked up the book by chance I didn't start at the beginning and the account of Pilkington's journey from Holland to the South of France in 1962 reads as an episode rather than a story in itself. By that I mean that it has no beginning and no end, and it is left to the reader to work out what went before and where the tale will lead. Of course, none of us really know where the tale of our lives will lead but working out the start helps put things in perspective.

It is important to recognise that this was written in1962, age of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The watery world they discovered was very different to that recorded by Morgan Grenville just 10 years later. In 1962 water trade was in sharp decline but it still existed and the canals were active commercial entities. Whereas Morgan-Grenville recorded the people and characters he met along the way, Pilkington recorded the history through which he passed. In some ways this makes his books more timeless, their contents remaining relevant engaging in spite of being 40 years old.

Small Boat trough France offers a slice of France from the Channel to the Mediterranean, with the focus of the author being over his shoulder into the history which surrounded him set against the scenery and watery travails through which he passed. Even though the book was written before I stepped out of my nappies I was lost in the journey, part of the crew and there on the Commodore as she journeyed between two oceans. 

The book left me wanting more, more of what went before and more of what was to come. So. if any of you guys have a Small Boat book and fancy doing a swap let me know. Otherwise I will be trawling Amazon for more.


Ruari said...

I have now collected all of the "small boat" series by the late Roger Pilkington, since first reading them in the 1960's. Suggest you start with "Thames Waters" published in 1956 by Lutterworth Press. My copy too precious to lose !
Happy hunting !
Ruari Cumming ARPS

Andy Tidy said...

Got that one but struggling with Belgium! Have Holland, Skagarak and Sweeden and picking up others as I spot them. Exactly how many are there?

Ruari said...

There are 18 after "Thames Waters".
Find a copy of "Small Boat on the Upper Rhine" (I find Abebooks a good source) and that lists all his books - bar two, they being "Small Boat Down the Years" (ISBN 0-907864-36-8) and his last "Small Boat in the Midi" (ISBN 0-907864-44-9).
Good Hunting!
Ruari Cumming ARPS