Many are the quirky literary tours of this Sceptr'd Isle (particularly since Bill Bryson's very individual take on the tour of Britain), but David Aaronovitch's Paddling to Jerusalem
manages to be both highly original and highly entertaining. Subtitled An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country
, Aaronovitch describes how in the last summer of the 20th century, a large man--the author--boarded a small boat (in fact, a canoe) and set out to find England, via its canals and rivers. His watery trajectory (from the Thames to the Trent and from Camden Lock to Skipton) produced not only the problems of getting out of the next lock and (given his size) even getting out of the canoe, but how to marshal his dizzying host of impressions after his punishing trip. Readers can be thankful that he managed all these tasks, and his wryly written odyssey describes a land of shopping centres, tattooed anglers, aromatherapy experts, drunken Manchester United supporters and a nation behaving as if it were part of a television soap opera. We're told in hilarious detail how the author had to survive the rigours of camping, dangerous rapids, equally dangerous yobs throwing stones, murderous attacks by swans and the Beaverbrook Hotel in Burnley.
But this is not just a panoply of modern day Britain: the ghosts of the nation's eventful past populate the tale, and everyone from Bad King John to eccentric prime ministers make an appearance. We know Aaronovitch from his appearances on TV as an award-winning journalist, and he doesn't spare himself in his descriptions of an unfit 40-year-old struggling to survive in what is (for him) a ludicrous method of transport. Ultimately, Paddling to Jerusalem is an archetypal British book: eccentric, wilful and full of the kind of energy that sees an idea (however wrong-headed) right through to the end. And some of the writing has the kind of self-deprecation that no reader can resist, as in his description of a humiliating immersion in the River Ouse at the age of 11:
The world was inverted. A moment earlier the water had been below me, and the sky above. Now I looked upwards at the river, at the ceiling. It was perplexing. My clothes, unexpectedly heavy, exerted a downward pull on my limbs. How odd this was, this immersion! How strange that my trousers and shoes should want to drown me! I broke surface, spluttering, with the strange taste of unprocessed water in my mouth and nose they made me undress in the open field. With my body temperature dropping this was no time for pubescent modesty, so, skinny and hairless as a shorn poodle, I stood and shivered while the whole group--including girls--gathered round me and (as I thought) took careful note of my stick insect limbs and supremely unintimidating organs of generation.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
‘Deeply humane and often hilarious.’ New Statesman
‘Aaronovitch is naturally funny company…perceptive and touching.’ Independent on Sunday
•'A witty, compassionate, honest and ultimately optimistic man whose observations on everything are a delight to read' The Oldie
•'Aaronovitch approaches each layer of his book with an irresistible simplicity, directness and humour. I doubt there will be a more intelligent or engaging book written about England – hidden or otherwise – for some time to come' Scotsman