Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In the Wake of Giants

One of the hallmarks of any great book is how much it makes you interested in something you normally couldn't care less about. Such is the case with In The Wake of Giants by Gerald Potterton*. Its subtitle (Journeys on the Barrow and the Grand Canal), caught my eye in the bookshop, not because I have any interest in boats, but because both waterways are fairly near me, and I have a deep interest in local history and general goings-on in my area (the Irish midlands, specifically County Laois).

The author is a County Meath farmer who, the blurb tells us, "dislikes most sports" (straightaway, a man after my own heart) and, in the proverbial nutshell, this is his account of the places he sees, and the people he meets as he dawdles along in his narrow boat (better known to terrestrials like myself as a barge). "Deadlines for destinations", he says, "have no place and would largely defeat the purpose of leisurely cruising along the water." An observation that, in light of the overall title of this blog, strikes another strong chord with yours truly.

This is no formidable tome bulging with technical jargon and arcane knowledge; on the contrary, it is a compelling, human story full of everyday life and everyday people by a man who, initially didn't know much about boats at all, but who is certainly no daw – there’s a Laoisism for you - when it comes to navigating the shifting depths of language. I loved his lively, anecdotal style, his evocative pictures of the countryside, the bits and pieces of river lore, his philosophical musings and, occasionally outspoken comments on - Brace yourself, Bridie - hooliganism, shop assistants, the EU, Sinéad O’Connor, Bord Bia, teenagers, tractors, traffic accidents, solitary walks, cabin cruisers and their owners. And that’s not the half of it! I was particularly taken by his views on the evironment and the whole energy crop/ food production debate. His boat, incidentally, was the first in Ireland to be fuelled on pure plant oil.

On the debit side, I might refer to the surprising misuse of the word ‘geyser’ and the phrase ‘rite of passage’, not to mention the fact that that whoever edited the Smoke On the Water chapter seems to have nodded off (too much Heavy Metal?) but, all in all, this is only nit-picking.

I find it hard to believe that I've actually written this piece at all. That's how good this book is. Did it make me see the Midlands through new eyes? It did. Did it make me - a townie who wouldn't know his starboard from his port - want to embark upon a similar journey? It did. But then I recalled his experience at one particular lock and I definitely tought twice about trying to be Odysseus of the Midlands....

*Published by Ballyhay Books, Laurel Cottage, 15 Ballyhay Road, Donaghadee, Co. Down, Northern Ireland.


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