What would drive a fastidious, fattish, fortyish man to clamber into a small canoe and spend two months paddling his way alone round England's inland waterways? A mid-life crisis? A sudden craving for the company of water voles? Or perhaps the lure of a plump publisher's advance, which, in David Aaronovitch's case, provided the wherewithal for a new fitted kitchen?
When I laid eyes on this book, I groaned inwardly, sensing the approach of yet another in that tiresome genre of gimmick-laden travelogues with ludicrous titles, predicated on a yoking together of unlikely elements in odd places: "Cooler Climbs: over the Andes with a fridge", perhaps; or "You've Been Maimed: a short hop through the minefields of Afghanistan". It can be only a matter of time now before some thrusting young writer builds his career from a trek across the Gobi Desert on one of those irritating little silver scooters.
I had assumed, too, that Aaronovitch's natural habitat was the high seriousness of broadsheet op-ed pages and Melvyn Bragg discussion programmes. He is, after all, one of this country's best-known and most astute political commentators, and people in his position tend to grind out portentous tomes about the parlous state of the nation. But I was very wrong on both fronts.
Last summer, Aaronovitch set out in a sea kayak from Camden Lock and up the Grand Union Canal, the start of a thousand-mile paddle through the heart of the country. What follows is best described, I suppose, as a set of slice-of-England observations, although with none of the bombast or glib, ex cathedra pronouncements that this might imply. He writes that he had "a whole lot of agenda" for the journey, but the agenda is all personal, not political or journalistic. It allows him to approach the trip with a rare candour, to see what he might see, and the result is this deeply humane and often hilarious book.
The England that Aaronovitch en-counters is peopled with characters of extraordinary ordinariness: wandering members of the Sealed Knot, Bob the taciturn canoe instructor, depressed Kenny, the mysterious Wo Chung, a masseuse called Iris. He spends six or seven hours on the water by day, and at night inhabits the demi-monde of provincial B&Bs, or else he camps. He is somewhat concerned with death, loss and his own anger, and has it in for people called Nick. He thinks about his mother and the landscape that bred her. During daytime forays on to dry land, Aaronovitch courts annihilation on the lawless highways of Milton Keynes, and is unable to find a cinema in Burnley.
In among the vignettes, the shards of local history and the bizarre encounters are some more serious, if tentative, attempts to sum it all up. Contemplating the ruins of Viroconium, where Roman civilisation flourished in the midst of indigenous barbarism for 500 years before dying out, Aaronovitch writes: "English culture seems always to be torn between a love of the rural and a deep, social need for the urban. The former may tug us emotionally but, in the end, the baths usually win out." It is, indeed, possible to read this book as one long, sublimated plea for a Continental breakfast and a decent wash.
Most of all, what this book leaves you with is a sense of the sheer physical hardship involved in undertaking such a daft endeavour: the hell of negotiating flights of locks and flinty camping grounds, the perils of geese with a grudge and wayward barges. Yet, against all the odds, Aaronovitch makes it back home in one piece, thinner, tougher, a bit more contemplative.