Mackinnon A. J. (2009) The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow Sheridan House ISBN 97 818 639542 59
I’ve got to admit when I first began reading this book I wasn’t sure if it was a spoof.
It was just a little too 1950’s, too spiffing, too public school, end-of-empire and daring-do. How could such an Enid Blyton-esque adventure story of a pith-helmeted hero have been written in 1998 and published in 2009, and not be a knowing pastiche?
However, I’m glad I stuck with it, because the story rewards being given a little time and space. Sandy Mackinnon, an Australian drama teacher working in minor English public school is a new-world storyteller and old-world adventurer.
In Jack de Crow (the source of the title of the book is a mini-saga in itself), Mackinnon finds, in the weeds of the school’s sailing club, an ancient Mirror-class dinghy and, inspired by Narnia, Doctor Dolittle and similar ripping yarns, forms the idea of leaving the school by sailing away in this dinghy, just to “see where I got to – Gloucester near the mouth of the Severn, I thought”.
Buoyed by optimism but unprepared and ill-equipped, Mackinnon sets off bumbling his way along rivers, creeks, canals, and through locks. Passing his initial destination, he decided to attempt a crossing of the English Channel and continue through the Continent. After more than a year, he completed his journey, having sailed all the way across Europe to Romania and the Black Sea. ‘Somehow things got out of hand…’ writes Mackinnon, ‘A year later I had reached Romania and was still going.’
Over 3000 miles of salt and fresh water, under sail or at the oars through twelve countries and through 282 locks, Mackinnon paints a vivid picture of his adventures, large and small, whether he’s crossing the Channel or simply trying to navigate the shallow rivers, he has a knack for putting the reader into his remarkably small boat with him, to share his trials and triumphs.
‘Swallows and Amazons’, ‘The Wind in the Willows’, William Dalrymple’s travel books, Jerome K. Jerome, and numerous classical references pepper this engaging tale. It’s an ideal antidote to the repetition and obligations of everyday Wintry life.
This book is so very English, as you’d expect from an English teacher well versed in the classics. But the scholarly element doesn’t overwhelm and is balanced by warmth, wisdom, humanity, and with prose as crisp as Beaujolais and warm as old port.
The descriptions are, at times, winsome and lyrical but at the heart of this adventure is an affirmation of just how kind and generous people can be, as this seemingly guileless figure, wearing that pith helmet, and sailing a yellow dinghy with a red sail and an ensign emblazoned with the figure of a crow, finds hospitality almost everywhere he goes. Almost always he is saved by his likeable personality and the kindness of strangers. It’s this fundamental empathy for and curiosity about unfamiliar people and places, and a lack of self-importance that makes Mackinnon a disarming travel writer and this book a delight.
There’s an article about the journey here.