Messing About in Boats: Writers & Rivers
February 4, 2013 | by Faber Social
‘I grew convinced that following water, flowing with it, would be a way of getting under the skin of things, of learning something new.’ Roger Deakin
From Siddhartha to One Hundred Years of Solitude, from the Congo of Heart of Darkness to Tom Sawyer’s Mississippi, rivers have been at the centre of many a classic work of fiction and non-fiction, symbolic of renewal, change, life, wisdom, death, escape. While Roger Deakin wrote his wild swimming travelogue Waterlog from a ‘frog’s eye view’ – bodily immersed – others prefer to retreat to the bank or linger on deck. Some notable writers have lived on the water: for example Penelope Fitzgerald, who lived with her family in a houseboat on the Thames until it sank with all their possessions (an experience that inspired her Booker Prize-winning novel Offshore), or Jan Morris, who describes here the moment she first stepped aboard the Nile steamboat Saphir, whose wheeldeck was to be her writing room in the years to follow.
Celebrated literary adventures on water include Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Inland Voyage – a canoeing trip through France and Belgium along the Oise River in 1876 which begins with these rather swiftly dispelled misgivings:
The sun shone brightly; the tide was making – four jolly miles an hour; the wind blew steadily, with occasional squalls. For my part, I had never been in a canoe under sail in my life; and my first experiment out in the middle of this big river was not made without some trepidation. What would happen when the wind first caught my little canvas? I suppose it was almost as trying a venture into the regions of the unknown as to publish a first book, or to marry. But my doubts were not of long duration; and in five minutes you will not be surprised to learn that I had tied my sheet …
To Mark Twain (his name, of course, a boatman’s cry indicating safe water), the river is ‘a wonderful book – a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice’. In Two ways of looking at the river from Life on the Mississippi he describes the way in which his training as a steamboat pilot, while bringing him this instinctive understanding of the river’s moods and dangers, also robs him of a certain innocence – never again will the river be to him purely a thing of poetry and grace.
There is a similar moment of bathos in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), the pinnacle of comical travelogue (and the book that introduced Housemaid’s Knee to the hypochondriac’s popular repertoire) in which J., the narrator, despairs at his co-voyager Harris’s lack of a soul:
Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing round the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years – will sing so many thousand years to come, before its voice grows harsh and old – a song that we, who have learnt to love its changing face, who have so often nestled on its yielding bosom, think, somehow, we understand, though we could not tell you in mere words the story that we listen to.
And we sit there, by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea – till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out – till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak – till we laugh, and, rising, knock the ashes from our burnt-out pipes, and say “Good-night,” and, lulled by the lapping water and the rustling trees, we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again – young and sweet as she used to be ere the centuries of fret and care had furrowed her fair face, ere her children’s sins and follies had made old her loving heart – sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast – ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands years ago.
‘How about when it rained?’
You can never rouse Harris. There is no poetry about Harris – no wild yearning for the unattainable. Harris never ‘weeps, he knows not why.’ If Harris’s eyes fill with tears, you can bet it is because Harris has been eating raw onions, or has put too much Worcester over his chop.
Finally, inevitably, to Kenneth Grahame and The Wind in the Willows, in which the riparian life is one of infinite calm and pleasant pottering, according to Rat:
‘Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not. Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a long day of it?’
If you’ve nothing else on hand this Monday evening, drop down to the Social and join Mick Jackson, Peter Murphy, Olivia Laing, Tom Bolton and Charles Rangeley-Wilson in dipping a toe into rivers of all kinds. Bring a towel.