The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow by A. J. MacKinnon

[28 July 2008]

By David Pullar

If your average writer is more than a little eccentric, and travel writers are among the most eccentric of writers, A.J. “Sandy” Mackinnon is more eccentric than your average travel writer.  This is not to say that The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow is really a “travel” book, per se: it’s solely to point out that it’s about travel and that the writer is nuts.

In the late 1990s, Mackinnon was a young Australian teaching at an old English public school.  Upon reaching the end of his teaching stint on the border of Wales, Mackinnon felt that his departure deserved a triumphant exit of some kind.  Being a fan of classic children’s literature, he decided on sailing off down the river in the school’s pre-war dinghy that he named “Jack de Crow” after a former pet.

You know from the first page that somehow Mackinnon’s voyage ends up in the Black Sea, but his initial intention was much more modest.  Each time he reached his objective (the end of the creek, Bristol, London), Mackinnon decided he was game for another challenge.

This could be a simple tale of adventure travel of the kind you’ve probably read dozens.  Bill Bryson’s woefully-unfit trek along the Appalachian Trail; Tim Cahill’s 4WD exploits across the Americas; or Michael Palin’s traversal of any landmass you can imagine.  What is different is Mackinnon’s brilliant recreation of early 20th century children’s fiction in his writing style.

For any reader who grew up on Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series, The Wind in the Willows or the Narnia books, The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow is like revisiting childhood.  Not only is the prose witty and literate, Mackinnon’s has filled the book with his own delightful illustrations.  His maps are things of absolute beauty and just as clever and whimsical as anything in the novels that inspired him.

Jack de Crow isn’t being marketed as a children’s book and that’s fair enough.  There’s nothing unsuitable for young readers, but equally it’s not targeted at a young audience through the use of child protagonists or coming-of-age situations.  Yet it’s the kind of book that is perfect for reading to yourself on the train or reading to a youngster.  Mackinnon’s eccentric, pith-helmeted adventure is almost a holdover from the days when books for children weren’t simplistic; when adult writers talked to their young readers as equals, while still making sure there was plenty in the way of thrills and spills.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow is almost too much of a perfect reproduction of that era.  His “golly gee-whizz” expressions and use of some very anachronistic terms seem ridiculous on occasion (he uses “gay” in a sense you’ve probably forgotten it ever had).  Yet the language is in all likelihood true to Mackinnon himself.  Any grown man that decides to row a dinghy down some of the major shipping channels of Europe is going to have some idiosyncrasies and his literary preferences are definitely off-centre.

Once you accept that a book about a voyage taken in 1998 should be described as if it’s the Walker children drifting into the North Sea in the 1930s, it’s a fantastic trip for the reader.  Mackinnon has an incredible aptitude for getting into trouble, but an equally strong ability to get out of it.  The fact that the rivers and canals of England and Continental Europe are not designed for one-man dinghies (many of the automated locks won’t detect Jack de Crow) leads to any number of problems and some potentially life-threatening situations.  Travel books are written by the survivors, but it’s hard not to see some kind of guardian angel at work, here.

This is an uplifting book in many ways.  Not only is Mackinnon an unrepentant optimist (how else would he have kept going?) but he genuinely seems to be blessed with the most incredible good fortune.  The kindness of the people he meets along the way is mind-boggling in its consistency.  Apart from a few petty bureaucratic types and some shifty characters on the lower Danube, the people Mackinnon encounters (particularly in England and Germany) seem to be big-hearted souls with enviable wine cellars and near-miraculous carpentry skills.

Mackinnon doesn’t shy away from some of the practicalities of long-distance boating, although he does observe the children’s novel convention of never detailing his ablutions.  If we’re as naïve at the outset as Mackinnon is (of course you could sail a dinghy down the waterways of Europe!) we are soon educated in the ways of waterway safety and logistics just as he is.  Luckily we don’t have to learn the hard and wet way.

There’s a balance to observe in this kind of book.  Too much prosaic detail and the reader will abandon you.  Too little and critics will accuse you of romanticising excessively.  Mackinnon manages it well.  The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow is sufficiently absurd and mythical in its most basic elements that the details of currents and tides even take on a romantic character.

Great feats are often achieved by those who are too ignorant to know they’re impossible.  If Mackinnon’s ignorance got him through the obstacle course of Europe’s rivers and canals, his literary achievement isn’t nearly as haphazard.  When it comes to telling a brilliant true story and capturing the imagination of the reader, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

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