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Historically interesting, but with cultural blinkers
on 25 August 2009
Rolt is an excellent writer, with a good eye for what he sees and good descriptive text, but with massive cultural blinkers.
His description of his travels on board his converted narrow boat Cressy back in the 1940s was to be one of the sparks leading to the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association and the restoration of the British canal network.
In the regard of writing about his journey, and his description of the life of the few remaining owners of horse-drawn boats when he encountered them, he gives many useful details (I'd never known that concertinas were popular instruments among boatsmen).
However, his blinkers come from his conviction that everything of the past is good and everything of the machine age is bad. He says quite seriously that he believes the canals to be the safest form of transport ever devised, but does not spot the contradiction when he encounters a boatman whose daughter had recently drowned in a lock (in fact, drownings and other accidents were pretty common).
He comments on the life span of over a hundred of some old countrymen in the parish records he views and attributes it to their simple life, but fails to spot the high infant mortality in those same records.
He loves his books, but believes that the illiterate boatman loses nothing by his lack of knowledge.
It's a good book if you want to read about the pre-restoration Inland Waterways, complete with the last surviving canal pubs (in the era of real ale served in a jug), but you may find it a touch annoying if you feel that you wouldn't actually want to have lived in Olde England even if it looks very charming in retrospect.