Articles by John Liley
Getting the Arthur across to France was one of those salty stories, but we won’t go into that just now. Out there, friends would join at pre-arranged spots – as they had to, since in France in the ’70s, there were hardly any phones. With persistence, a telephone might be located at a bar or in the twilight zone the French term a post office. There a call to England might be booked for several hours ahead. Even that, though, could be dodgy. If the line went dead, the most we might get would be a shrug from behind the counter. At Corbigny in Nievre, in the evenings and at weekends the inhabitants became entirely disconnected when the lady at the switchboard – a grandiose term for something Alexander Graham Bell would have regarded as a prototype – went home at the end of her stint.
The route for the Arthur, then, had been carefully worked out beforehand, with a rendezvous each week, usually at a railway station.
It is all too easy in the planning stage, of course, to sweep a hand across the map, like Rommel during the blitzkrieg, and decide you’ll be in Paris on the 14th. But there were locks in the way, with freight barges dictating the pace. Early morning starts became the norm and many a citadel whirled by, uninspected, in the haste to reach our destination.
There, beneath the station clock, my friends could be found each Saturday, sitting with their rucksacks in the style of pioneers with the wagons drawn round.
The differences between first and second-class train compartments often confounded them. A child of ten, I would have thought, could have detected the reason why one set of carriages should be packed while a smarter part stood empty but, frequently, there were rows about this. Occasionally, even there was a fine, when the conductor came down the train doing Bonaparte imitations. There were problems of pronunciation also, ‘Nangcy’ and ‘Tchallonsewer- Sone’ proving not to be commonly under-stood.
Out in the countryside other oddities presented themselves.. “Is Horse the only thing you’ve got?” we asked at an auberge in Alsace. “It’s the speciality of the house, sir,” came the quickwitted reply. And so, washed down with corrosive vin ordinaire, another little adventure ran its course.
At the end of those voyages, after two long summers, I wrote a book about it. France – the Quiet Way this was called. On the cover was a photo of mine, of a lift bridge on the Nivernais, emerging through the mists. Mercifully small, but visible also, was the figure of my brother Peter alongside, in a strange, folded posture, as if he were a grasshopper that is changing its mind about jumping. He had, in fact, just emerged from the bushes after a pee. The ambiance, nonetheless, was of mellow mists, etc. Of time in reflection.
The Telegraph, when reviewing my book, said it “exhaled watery languor”, so our pounding progress between one railway rendezvous and the next had been satisfactorily concealed.
The title helped. “It’s France – the Quiet Way innit,” one of the sales reps said at a meeting with the publishers. And that was how it was decided, though Dawn to Dusk on the Voies Navigables might have been more apt.
So, if there was one lesson learned, it was Not To Travel Too Far. And this, with our present barge Luciole, is what we abide by. There are now, of course, plenty of telephones (maybe, with mobiles, too many; perhaps we should ban them, like smoking). But other factors conspire. Lock-opening hours are shorter. The canal is shallower now, so we are slower. And anyway, people relish the time to look around. What a relief it is not to be driven ever onwards. To the folk we meet on the hire-boats, lured by far-off place names or, worse still, set upon completing a circuit (how rarely is this outwardly attractive concept at all convenient, or relaxing?) I offer this motto: