Liley, J. (2009) Keeping Afloat… Loose Chippings Books ISBN 978 0 955 4217 5 4

I read somewhere, I’m not sure quite where, the following biography of John Liley:

as a small boy in south Lancashire John played beside, and in, the derelict Ashton Canal. When, in 1952, his father organised the first of many trips on the English waterways, he discovered ‘an alternative world, a throwback that seemed likely to end at any moment.’ Years of sailing followed. He has crossed the Atlantic on a schooner and helped to deliver yachts between points as far apart as the Shetland Isles, the Canaries and the eastern shores of Greece. On joining Motor Boat & Yachting magazine in 1963 he was amazed to find the canals of England still surviving – ‘if only just, and they were constantly under threat. The waterways of England had to be campaigned for, against all the forces of a blinkered regime.’ John took the magazine into that fight and, on becoming Editor, found himself arguing the case for, amongst others, the Ashton Canal. It is now open to navigation again.

Leaving the magazine in 1972, he explored the waterways of France, then Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium in ‘a beat-up old English coal barge’. A spell with Practical Boat Owner followed, before he pursued a career with the hotel-barge Secunda.

John Liley’s hotel-barge ‘Secunda’, descending from Baye towards Auxerre.

In Keeping Afloat John Liley looks back. He describes the setting up the hotel-barge business in the early 70’s. Liley comes across as an accomplished raconteur and wordsmith who, writing in a relaxed style, shares his often wry observations on people, France and bureaucracy.

All round, the book is a joyous description of innocence, bloody-mindedness, optimism, energy, determination, recklessness and general joie de vivre; at times amusing and always informative and honest. It’s no sanitised travelogue but rather a robust attempt to describe the hardships, challenges, joys and pitfalls of establishing a pioneer business in what seems to have been a very foreign land 30 years ago.

How John and his business partners pulled the venture off remains a bit of a mystery to me – but they did it – despite encountering a huge catalogue of setbacks that would have seen most of us off along the way. To be honest I felt that somewhere beneath the light-heartedness was a much more interesting story trying to get out, one that could have really explored how he forged the relationships that allowed the enterprise to succeed

My only other minor quibble is an almost total lack of illustrations, I’d have loved to have been able to see more of the boats, landscapes and people, as well as read the descriptions of them.

John Liley writes a regular column in Waterways World magazine.

Mule haulage by the Loire.

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