Submitted by Webmaster on Mon, 06/11/2006 - 17:03
The idea of crossing the channel, going up the Rhine and down the Danube all the way to the Black Sea in a Mirror dinghy is so unlikely that the CA reviewer of Sandy Mackinnon's odyssey "The Unlikely Journey of Jack de Crow" clearly didn't believe it happened, and if it did, muttered dark words about shameless irresponsibility. I'm planning a trip by boat to the Black Sea so have been reading the available literature and dived into this book with an aim to learning whatever I could from his experience. But I soon realised this was the wrong way to approach it and went back to read its 350 pages from end to end.
This has to be one of the most engaging and best-written books I've read recently and there weren't many pages that didn't invoke a chuckle. An Australian teaching English literature at an English private school, the journey started when wanderlust reasserted itself (he had previously walked and hitch-hiked his way overland from Australia to England) and he left the school by means of the Llangollen canal with the aim of reaching the Severn. But when he got there, he decided to continue to Bristol, then London and, you get the idea, he couldn't stop...
He wears a pith helmet which he doesn't confirm till page 266 has been "throughout this account, an affectation, an eccentricity deliberately adopted". At this point it has been stolen, in, of all places, the heartland of Germany. His pique at this discovery prompts the memories that "I had worn it poling a dugout canoe through the Okavango Swamp, rafting on the Zambesi, hitching across the Mogdagadi Desert and climbing in the Cuillin". Doubtless some (or all) of this is, as he warns us in the preface, part of his motto "I exaggerate for Effect". His reactions to the many pitfalls that he inevitably encounters are similarly spiced up but he is frequently lyrical as well with quotations from wonderfully apt poetry as well as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and of course Arthur Ransome. And his pen and ink illustrations, as well as the prose, stand up well to these illustrious forbears. At times he has to resort to busking, playing a tin whistle and doing conjuring tricks, as when he is unable to get any money from ATMs passing through Croatia and Serbia, at the height of the 1998 Kosovo bombings, and somehow survives till he reaches Bulgaria.
But his ability to cheer himself up using the same tricks whilst achieving underplayed feats such as rowing up the Main river in Germany are an example to anyone. Tim and Clare Frankl-Bertram, who've just done the trip to the Black Sea by barge, have been extolling the need for a ship's stamp in these regions. Jack de Crow didn't even have any ship's papers till he reached the Black Sea and wanted to give the dinghy to a local school (I conflate a little for effect). When the local police chief said he couldn't possibly do anything without them, he drew up papers with a fictional crest which among other things described his cargo as including "tin whistles, silken handkerchiefs, gossamer and autumn leaves".