Valerie Poore’s Watery Ways is a book of three love affairs. Each has its highs and lows, pleasures and pains. The human one seems to be the least anguished and captures well a true meeting of minds and hearts; the others are much more fraught with complete cargoes of crises, one being the development of the author’s passion for life on the water, with its close-knit harbour community, and the other her embarkation upon an emotional journey to her own live-aboard barge.
Having enjoyed narrow-boating on canals and rivers in the UK and sailed around the Western Isles of Scotland, I knew that this book would have much to interest me. I came upon Val and her books during my own voyages of discovery into social networking. She is active on Twitter and Facebook and I quickly realised that, in addition to being a generous supporter of other authors and an astute literary commentator, she has the ability to write captivatingly of her wide-ranging experiences and many practical skills.
Watery Ways charts her experiences as a new member of the nautical family of Oude Haven, the oldest harbour in Rotterdam and home now to a collection of vintage boats, lovingly restored by their owners to standards established by a commission of experts set up by the harbour’s special Foundation. As a tenant aboard one of these barges, Val found her personal background of self-sufficiency and expertise in the restoration of wooden artefacts well-suited to the task of refurbishing and maintaining her ‘new’ accommodation.
Using a present tense narrative and both factual and imaginative description, Val enables the reader to enjoy the immediacy of the moment and presents a graphic picture of places, people and events. The atmosphere of the harbour and the characters of its quirky inhabitants are evoked in unfussy but very personal prose. The technical detail, essential for an autobiographical account such as this, is explained in terms that present no problems to the lay reader: Val’s style is precise and lucid. Though there is sentiment, her matter-of-fact manner never allows it to become cloying; we are able to empathise easily with her feelings. Her capacity to interest a non-boating audience is considerable, not least because of her self-depreciating sense of humour and her willingness to share her many discomforts and mistakes, and the occasional success. For me, she doesn’t create an over-romanticised idyll that might seduce the reader into wanting to buy a boat, but does provide insight into the delights of ‘faring’ along urban, industrial and completely rural canals. She succeeds in transmitting the strange time-warp sensation that voyagers on such waterways experience as they move along at a pace of life that belongs to ages gone by, taking days to cover distances that modern road and rail transport completes in hours. There is a magic here, for the relationship of bargee to barge is very real and just as much of an affair as one between human lover and human lover. The boats themselves seem to have individual temperaments and eccentricities.
Watery Ways provides a very reassuring and positive image of human nature, a contrast to the violence of international events such as the 9/11 atrocity, which took place during Val’s first long boat trip with her partner Koos to Lille and to which she refers with great sensitivity.
I very much enjoyed reading this book. I know that Val is working on a sequel, telling of the next instalment of her life afloat and of the complete renovation of her own pakschuit (local delivery barge), the Vereeniging. The present book concludes by describing how she acquired this vesseI and I am very much looking forward to her account of her work to make it habitable and to meet Oude Haven’s rigorous historic criteria.
Watery Ways is published by Boathooks Books, ISBN 978-1-907984-12-9