Thursday, 24 February 2011

Hold on a Minute - book review

Hold on a Minute
by Tim Wilkinson

I am sure that most us have wondered what it would have been like to live a life on the cut, back when the working boats ruled the waterways. I certainly have, particularly when I have messed about on old 70 footers.

Hold on a Minute is an account of a husband and wife team that  took to the cut shortly after the war in the late 1940's. Tim Wilkinson was an injured veteran who grew weary of the rat race and along with Gay, his model girl wife, took possession of a Grand Union pair and set about becoming boaters.

These tales are usually a retrospective description of life offered by a retired captain / steerer, but in this case the book records the challenges faced by novice trainees as they sought to master the etiquette and working practices of the working boatmen. As such this is a very readable account of life on the Grand Union, as trade fell off but was still very vital and alive.

The style mirrors Rolt's writings in some ways - but they are of a period so I suppose that should come as no surprise. The prose is clipped in a Pathe News style and at times the observations seem a bit bombastic, but the insight offered is excellent.

Tim and Gay win over the other boating families by sheer dedication to the task and a willingness to learn their ways. After a hesitant beginning they are welcomed in and in due course they employ a 17 year old crew who, on one hand, they taught to read and write but on the other he taught them the ways of the canal.A sort of symbiotic learning experience.

The trips up over the Tring Summit come alive as do their movements as far as Birmingham and Nottingham, real people living ordinary yet in some ways extraordinary lives for very low rewards. Incomes were modest, conditions crowded and at times the task was downright dangerous.

I was curious as to how the book would end. There they were going great guns after about nine months afloat, but there was only one chapter left. What happened? Well, in the end their crew had to return to the boat of his fiancĂ©e following the dramatic death of her father (fell into a lock and was crushed by the boat), Gay fell off the bottom of a lock and damaged her coxix and Tim aggraved a war wound when he jumped onto their boat - all in the space of a couple of weeks. The combination forced them off the cut but also highlighted the precarious nature of this career.

All in all this book is something of a literary time capsule up there with Tom Rolt's Narrow Boat. Whilst Rolt provides an insight into the big picture, Wilkinson offers an insight into the people who made the canals their home. The book was compulsive reading and I completed it in 48 hours flat.

I have no idea where you can find a copy of this book - first published in 1965. This copy was lent to me by Chris and Maralyn from nb Nebulae who have taken it on themselves to keep me well stocked with old waterways books from their extensive collection. Guys - thanks for another gem - I loved it. It will be back aboard Nebulae in a couple of weeks.


Flingel said...

You can get it from the IWA - so the money goes to a good cause!

canal book collector said...

Interesting book and very much of its time. When he left the boats he went to Cornwall and ran a pub and then published a book about that - called funnily enough 'We ran a Cornish Pub'.His obituary was in W World and it seems he never forgot the waterways and kept in touch up till his death.Mick