Thursday, January 26, 2006

To The Baltic With Bob by Griff Rhys Jones

I found, reading this book, that I have something in common with Mr Jones. Apart, that is, from Not the Nine O'Clock News, Alas Smith & Jones and The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. No, I wasn't with him in those shows but I did watch an awful lot of them.

But what I didn't know is that we both grew up reading Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books (a series which has been recently re-issued and is in the Oamaru Public Library, maybe others). I'd actually managed to forget Ransome's name, but the memory of reading about these kids messing about in boats on the Norfolk Broads has never left me. In those days, I so wanted to get myself a boat and kit it out. Of course, growing up in Northland, we didn't have canals, or a boat, so it wasn't something I could experience for myself (the closest I got was a businesshouse yacht race in Whangarei harbour and a raft race) but it seemed like a lot of fun.

Jones, on the other hand, had a dad who was into boating and, being the highest paid comedian (2.5 million quid a year, apparently) could afford one of his own. Despite all his money, he buys himself a boat reputed to be no larger than a London taxi. He chose it for love, so stricken is he with its aesthetics. He describes it as the Chippendales of boats, built of timber in the 1950's and then rendered unfashionable by the use of sensible materials, like fibreglass, to build boats. Of course, once he bought it, he had to pile on lots of chrome and have it refurbished. I'd have been a bit frightened to be told, as he was when he took delivery with plans to leave immediately since he was well behind schedule, that "she might float".

Anyway, once they took delivery of this boat no larger than a taxi, Jones, his mate Bob and another fellow Baines who actually knew something about making boats work decide to spend the next three months or so making their way from England to St Petersburg. For Bob, it is an interesting way to indulge his passion for buying crap: he's offered a really good deal on an amphibious tank once he hits Russia. Their main reason for choosing that destination was that they were such cowardly sailors, they wanted to completely avoid the open sea (apart from the English Channel) and just potter about in canals, coastal waters and rivers. Easy peasey. Plus they were worried that at sea they'd get bored: this way they were never more than a few hours from the possibility of packing it in and flying home. Pretty much every night, they went ashore and found themselves a restaurant.

On the whole, they do have an easy time of it, apart from getting nearly run down by tankers in the English channel, finding their boat is not weather proof and getting damn near lost in an archipelago of islands "so topographically complex that it was expedient not to draw it". I think the funniest episode was when they were trying to communicate with the Russian coastguard, which said things like "BreeteeshYagt. Vazshoo desy frart deschkyykk" and, when asked to repeat "Vazshoodesyfrartdeschkyykk eschbek schbeckyyrrk" - meanwhile, this menacing black boat with its guns pointing at them was getting closer and closer - scarier than the time he had to ask Princess Margaret to repeat a question three times.

But the book is certainly not a joke-a-thon (someone accurately described it on Amazon as "amiable"), just a fairly gentle account of three guys (and the occasional hanger on) going for a fairly extensive boat trip. Rather than have the kind of falling out that Bill Bryson has with his companions, by the end of the trip Jones and Bob "had been reduced to 40 miles of silence between platitudes" - at about 6 or 7 miles an hour, that's a lot of silence. Nonetheless, when Jones had to go back to Sweden to retreive his boat, "loyal Bob, amusing Bob, patient and long-suffering Bob was ready, as always, to drop absolutely nothing at all and come with me. How could I have ever thought of leaving him behind?"


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