Sunday 10 July 2011

Bread upon the Waters - book review

Bread upon the Waters
by David Blagrove

I am so indebted to Chris and Maralyn on nb Nebulea for introducing me to the works of David Blagrove. I arrived at Wand'ring Bark the other day to discover two of David's books carefully wrapped and ready to read. Its like my birthday every time I go there!

This book is unique in a number of ways, set as it is at the balancing point when commercial trade came to an effective end amid the ice and  snow of 1962 / 63, a decline spurred on by the indifference of the authorities and the structural shift from water to road.

There are other books from this period, books like 'Hold on a Minute' and 'The Last Number Ones' which record the latter days of narrowboat trading, but none which approach the subject with Blagrove's eloquence and eye for detail. Blagrove is a natural storyteller, a peoples person who appears universally well liked and able to draw illuminating first hand accounts from those he encounters.

But what of the book? 

Well, its an autobiographical account of a young Bragrove aged about 20 whose passion for narrowboats sat uncomfortably with his city office job. He ran a summer trip boat on the River  Kennet in Reading, and when he was sacked he expanded his passion for boating into full time winter work with Willow Wren. 

Willow Wren's contracts took him up and down the Grand Union, rubbing shoulders with the last of the working boatmen and their families, who accepted this enthusiastic young man into their community. By the time he plied the route between London, Birmingham and the Northamptonshire coalfields there were less than 100 pairs working the whole system, but he made the most of the meetings he had.  He listened to their stories and retells them in his book, woven into the tales of his own travels. 

The result is a book rich in atmosphere and history. I am sure that the technical descriptions are accurate, but its the people stories which bring it all to life. Its an age just after my birth and maybe six years before I started to travel the same waters, but not as one of his beloved boatmen but rather as part of a body tourist boaters who ultimately offered a new lease of life to a canal network, which appeared in terminal decline.

If you love the canals but want to get a real feel for how it was when working boats were for work and not for play, read on. 

The book was written in the mid 1980's and its sobering to realise that such is the passage of time that working boaters are passing out of living memory. David Blagroves account therefore represents one of the very last first hand accounts of this significant period, and is one to read and savour.

Read this book and you will emerge educated, amused and enriched - not bad for a book written 25 years ago.

Chris, Marlyn and especially David - thank you.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yes a great book and a nice bloke.I have good reason to be thankful that David had his trip boat at High Bridge Wharf ,Reading when he did as
I helped run the 'Enterprise' trip boat for David's successor and this was my first encounter with canals and boats.A long time ago now but happy times remembered with great affection!