Inspired, of course, by Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but updated and given a gender twist, Three Women and a Boat is a feminist book. All three of the women characters (four, including a young friend) are out in the world without being beholden to, or reliant on men. They’re complete. There are men around, but the story is not about their relationships, but the women themselves. And there’s a dog like the one in Jerome’s version, who sparks some of the action, as dogs tend to do.
Anastasia has lived most of her life on a canal barge. But she’s ill, needs to take a break for treatments and is looking for someone to take her boat, The Number One, north to the yards in Uxbridge to get overhauled.
In the Natural History Museum in New York is a diorama that has two shots at telling history, emphasising the fluidity of historiography. It’s an unexpected display in a nation that seems to have a very strong idea of its historical story, with legends of the founding fathers and the war of independence and the civil war circulating ad infinitum. This is a culture that celebrates success. And yet, here is evidence in prime position of this great national institution that states: we got this wrong.
It’s two weeks ago and I am on a boat heading to a small beach on the edge of a remote bay on Aotea/Great Barrier Island. A Pōhutukawa tree fills the seaward side of the bay: in bloom and gloriously arched across a deep blue sky. We jump out on the sand and pull up the boat, looking up at a small house in the cove painted by the afternoon sun; quiet, unpeopled, and breathe a ‘thank you’ to the occupiers who tend this place with so much care. Through the lower branches of the tree, up a steep bank, a white picket fence is visible.
Sometimes you have to stick your hand up and here we go. I hereby award This Thing of Darkness the title of my best book ever.
For sheer meatiness, immersion, characterisation, research, story telling, and adventure. For the immensity of history involved. For the reach of these lives and the illumination of their development over the years and the way things build and unravel – all understandable in retrospect but so uncertain and risky at the time. For all the surrounding stuff that comes with historical fiction and the extraordinary passing detail. For the way it made me re-evaluate my life and life in this century generally. For the way it made me feel.
They’re not old. Early fifties is not old. But after sleeping rough on the trail for a few weeks they are often mistaken for a pair of old tramps. True, they have lost their house and are living hand to mouth, sleeping in a tent on waste land and often going without meals. Ray talks of her birds-nest hair and filthy clothes and Moth’s illness makes him frail and tentative. They kind of are tramps. Don’t judge the homeless, is a refrain throughout the story.
This is the journey of a couple who find themselves homeless. It’s a six hundred and thirty mile journey. Unable to secure a flat and with no income (their home-stay business lost with the house), they pick up a copy of Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path and decide to walk through the summer, freedom camping, a burden on no one. They have £115 topped up with a small weekly benefit, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, a copy of Beowolf. Not much else. Oh, and the complication that Moth has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and been told to get lots of rest, take occasional gentle walks, not too far, and be careful on the stairs.
State Highway One is a disturbing read. Gripping, though. As fast paced as the car roaring down those familiar NZ roads at death defying speed with the deranged, drunk, sleepless boy at the wheel and his harpy twin sister lighting his cigarettes and talking in his ear. He loses her occasionally but she always finds him again. Weird, that.
They’re both selfish, unlikable kids. They’re made that way by their selfish, unlikable parents who are Auckland mega-celebs: rich movie moguls who trot the globe and abandon their kids in the swanky party pad to finish their private schooling free-range. Do people like this really exist? Feels very LA, but perhaps Auckland is heading that way and growing a generation of rich, entitled brats.
I went sailing for the first time in about 30 years this time last year when I signed on for an “Adult Coastal” with the Spirit of Adventure Trust. This is different to a Spirit of Adventure experience for youth trainees, with its programme of empowering activities and challenges. On an Adult Coastal the ship needs to be moved to a new location, and berths are offered to adults keen to help, learn and experience life at sea.
I did all three of these things and it was wonderful. We sailed from Dunedin to Nelson and I sweat-and-tailed, learnt the difference between bunts and clews and stood watch off the coast of Kaikoura under the stars, listening to the night wind blowing over a dark sea. Continue reading “When the Spirit’s on the Sea”