This was an impulse purchase. I found it while I was looking in the travel literature section for a book I’d heard about at the TBEX travel bloggers conference, describing one man’s search for Jesus’s foreskin (stolen in 1983 from a Northern Italian village church). I now know that that book, David Farley’s An Irreverent Curiosity, is shelved in an entirely different part of the store, and I’ll return for it, but in the meantime I’ve been happily absorbed in the story of a couple who sail their English narrowboat from their home in Stone, Staffordshire to the edge of England, then across the Channel (madness, in a narrowboat) and down the length of France (also madness, in places) to Carcassonne. The “narrow dog” of the title is their whippet, Jim, who loathes boating, but is otherwise an enchanting companion.
Terry Darlington must make other first-time authors bang their heads against walls. His writing is graceful, poetic, and achingly funny — I’m only going a little overboard when I tell you that reading Narrow Dog is like reading the funnier, more accessible bits of Ulysses. Here, I’ll show you by opening the book at random — at every turn you run into passages like this one:
After dinner I will go and see the crayfish, I said. Jim and I will stun them with the light from our kitchen torch and then we will catch some and have them for lunch tomorrow. Alas, monsieur, said madame, they are fearful, they back away. She backed away from our table, à reculons, à reculons, and with a twitch of her tail she was gone.
The book isn’t perfect, but it’s a great delight, and I’ll be snapping up the sequel (Narrow Dog to Indian River) when I go back to the bookstore for An Irreverent Curiosity.
It’s appropriate that Jim is the focus of the book’s title, because he’s crucial to the tale. “Cowardly, thieving, and disrespectful” he may be, but the Darlingtons’ progress through England, and then Belgium and France, is lined with people who throw themselves to the ground to greet Jim. He keeps his people amused, fit, and socially-engaged. The Darlingtons are sociable people in their own right, and they both speak serviceable, even fluent, French, but their experience, and ours, would be poorer without Jim.
So will we be retiring, buying a narrowboat (or a péniche), and setting off with Chloe? Unclear. Though they laugh at their skills, the Darlingtons, I suspect, are actually good, experienced sailors, and we certainly are not. Our French needs years of help. And the impression you get of life on the canals is not romantic. The Darlingtons are by turns stressed, hot, bored and homesick, but they also experience moments of great beauty and King of Rock and Roll triumph. We might rent a canal boat, and add ourselves to the crowd of hire boats that cross paths with the Darlingtons — who knows where that might lead? And we’ll certainly bring Chloe with us.