Special Issues » 2009 Book Issue

Summer treats for Anglophiles

The British Beach Read

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Narrow Dog to Indian River
By Terry Darlington
Delta • 340 pages

Britannia in Brief
By Leslie Banker and William Mullins
Ballantine/Random House • 238 pages

The British seem to revel in making rash travel plans. It's a long-standing tradition.

Richard the Lionheart packing off to Jerusalem. Sir Francis Drake circumnavigating the globe. English comedian Tony Hawks taking up a bar bet to hitchhike around the circumference of Ireland — with a fridge — in one calendar month. All great stuff, and maybe a little daft.

Set against this backdrop, the trip taken by retirees Terry and Monica Darlington and their dog Jim — a nine-month, 1,100 mile cruise down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway aboard their English canal boat — is by comparison, very nearly a reasonable proposition. And Narrow Dog to Indian River, Darlington's chronicle of their eccentric nautical escapade in the American South from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico, should have been hilarious fun. But the book, like the Darlington's 60-foot long narrowboat, is flat-bottomed and more than a bit tetchy in these waters.

You can't blame the Darlingtons for trying. Their previous conquest of the English Channel and France's waterways (Narrow Dog to Carcassonne) became a best-seller. Taking their narrowboat to America — where no English narrowboat had gone before — posed an irresistible challenge.

Despite the threat of water moccasins and alligators, the clear and present danger of rednecks, swarming insects, and watery American beer, the Darlingtons clearly envisioned themselves having a great time. Yet even diehard American Anglophiles may find the going a little prickly.

Early on, as they await the arrival of their boat in Virginia, the Darlington's plans are nearly scuttled. Terry suffers a hernia and undergoes an operation; his outlook veers into cranky terrain just as they're finally setting out.

Recurrent vexations intrude on the story: Terry can't resist mentioning every single overweight American he encounters (and there are lots of those). He makes a point of noting each hint of racism and social inequality as if these were uniquely American offenses. He's appalled to find people his own age on their second or third spouse.

Along the way, inquisitive visitors ("gongoozlers" in Lincolnshire vernacular), keep pestering him with the same, obvious questions: Is your dog a greyhound? (No — it's a whippet), what kind of boat is that?, and so on. Why Darlington finds any of this remarkable, why he didn't simply head home to fully recuperate and then return to embrace his quest in a heartier frame of mind is a question that looms larger as the story plods along, particularly since nearly all the gongoozlers are, in fact, generous, helpful and warmly supportive of the Darlington's quixotic adventure. Nearly two-thirds of the book through, the author finally seems to recover his good humor and recognize the hospitality of the people he frequently, backhandedly, censures.

It's disappointing that what might have been a light-hearted look at the South through English eyes ultimately suffers from too much judgmental ballast and not nearly enough even-keeled observation.

Unrepentant gongoozlers need not entirely despair, however. The splendid Britannia in Brief by Leslie Banker and William Mullins is a genuine transatlantic treat. She's a New Yorker, and he's a Londoner who discovered that their first trip to Britain together underscored George Bernard Shaw's observation — "England and America are two countries separated by a common language." Britannia in Brief is the couple's remedy for the cultural divide.

Witty and companionable, this brisk read bills itself as a crash course in all things British. From descriptions of London neighborhoods to the mysteries of cricket, pub etiquette, and British celebrities you've never heard of, Banker and Mullins provide much more than the typical travel guide gloss on our mutual muddle. They delve into history, society, culture, politics, and daily life, providing irreverent but very useful intelligence for the otherwise clueless Yank.

Even if your appreciation of Monty Python, British rock, and Weetabix is unrivalled, Britannia in Brief may fill in some hitherto unrecognized blank spots for you.

They shed light on such cultural touchstones as Blue Peter, The Wombles, and Terry Wogan. They explain the "gap year" and "A levels." Puzzled over salad cream or Branston pickles? They've got you covered.

And there's much more in this surprisingly wide-ranging, informative, and entertaining little book.

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