16 March, 2009

'The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow' - A J McKinnon

A J (Sandy) McKinnon presents us with a travel narrative more Thor Heyerdahl than Frances Mayes (as a man who can survive a whole day on one sandwich, it's hardly a food journal!) With a couple of interruptions, McKinnon rowed a Mirror dinghy (christened Jack de Crow) from Shropshire (near the Welsh border) to the Black Sea in Romania. He mostly traversed canals, but it was not all placid sailing, as the trip included encounters with enormous barges, unnavigable rapids, and a crossing of the distinctly unplacid English Channel.

McKinnon, an Australian raised on P&O liners who was teaching in Britain before embarking on his nautical jaunt, is an erudite man. Each chapter is prefaced with a quote from literary masters such as Shakespeare and Wordsworth, and to while away the hours rowing French canals in summer he learns Keats' Eve of St Agnes by heart. He demonstrates his ability with words by coming up with so many ways to describe the surface of water in Europe's inland waterways.

McKinnon writes in a Brysonesque style, but where Bill Bryson has clearly done reams of research (although he is adept at presenting his adventures as entirely spontaneous) McKinnon really did set out as a clueless adventurer. He is surprisingly unprepared for many aspects of his expedition- making a major navigational error when crossing the English Channel, not knowing how the locks on the French canals work - and yet, fortune seems to favour him throughout the journey.

His editor also seemed to come to the task unprepared, particularly in the second half of the book. Tense is inconsistent throughout: sometimes McKinnon describes the adventure in the simple past tense, sometimes the present. Initially the shifts are between large sections: the Channel crossing, for example, is in the present ('The wind is perfect'), switching to the simple past when he reaches France ('I ate a baguette'). Later in the book it starts to shift within sentences. In these later passages information is sometimes retold in consecutive sentences, a further sign that it needed another read-through (some of his samples of foreign language could have used a better check as well - the German 'and' is 'und', not 'unt'!)

McKinnon has the happy fortune to repeatedly encounter local folk who insist on having him to dinner, or are happy to help build a new centreboard for his boat, and just happen to have the right tools to hand to do so. Perhaps we do all meet such folk when we travel, and if we sat down to write out how we got from our starting point to our destination we would find our story more littered with such acts of kindness than expected. I think it does befall a certain type of traveller more often than not, however, and it is as much about their eccentric circumstances as the inherent goodness of humanity. I've sat in hostel rooms with a dozen other people of similar age and aim, for example, where no conversation has sprung up beyond 'Is this bed taken?'. By doing something as random as sailing a dinghy from Shropshire to Romania, McKinnon has thrown himself in the path of interesting encounters (and a higher-than-usual proportion of people with interest in, and knowledge of, Mirror dinghies).

It's a travel story worth the telling, though it does fall into some traps of the genre (the occasional arrogance of an English speaker, mixing up journal-style writing with narrative). Where so much travel writing is escapism, however, McKinnon's is an extraordinary story, an audacious feat for one at pains to present themselves as normal and unassuming.


  1. Its a book that makes you wanna escape and do soemthing ridiculous

  2. That is one thing I liked about it - the combination of escapism with the ridiculous! His run of luck with people willing and able to help bordered on ludicrous, but I guess that was his reward for getting out there and doing something so crazy and wonderful.