The influence of L.T.C.Rolt and ‘Narrow Boat’

The start of the centenary year of L.T.C.Rolt’s birth would seem to be an opportune moment to celebrate — re-evaluate perhaps, certainly to reconsider his influence and impact on the whole waterways scene today. Why was ‘Narrow Boat’ so popular and influential, and would Tom Rolt really be satisfied by the leisure industry that he helped to create?

LTC Rolt Narrowboat

Right, I thought, this should be fairly straightforward– delve into a book or two, find a judicious quote and comment on it. But where to start? The problem is that so much is so quotable and still so relevant. It is a measure of Rolt’s perspicacity that he saw the importance of so many modern problems well over half a century ago, questions of ecology, industrialisation and energy that are only now being belatedly faced up to. Belated, or already too late?

LTC Rolt

Let’s start at the beginning, with Narrow Boat published in 1944 although already completed by 1940. In the second part of his autobiography Tom Rolt modestly admits that even with hindsight, he could not altogether account for its success. It was “too self-consciously arcadian and picaresque… and not strictly truthful. I believe its instantaneous popularity was due to the fact that it appeared at precisely the right moment. After four years of war it satisfied a thirst for what is called escapist literature.” Well, perhaps that was one element, but the underlying character of the author was another. He had already spent several years worrying out a personal philosophy, actively searching for a balance between the pressures of technology and the natural world. This adventure of living aboard a travelling houseboat and exploring the canal world was not a momentary accident. It was the culmination of a practical plan, a “grand design for living,” and some of that thoughtful consideration is implicit in this apparently simple travelogue. Arcadian maybe, but still optimistic that something important could be rediscovered and saved, something of use that could help rebuild some lost values of craftsmanship in the post-war future.

It is sometimes forgotten that by the time Narrow Boat was published its author had already completed another book called High Horse Riderless, a very different kettle of fish. This is a dense thoughtful book setting forth a policy and philosophy for a new world order based on Rolt’s interpretation of a medieval balanced life with a particular stress on the importance of agriculture, a balance of man’s spiritual values with the natural environment. It is well worth reading today although admittedly hard going. It reflects the time it was written of course, in style and wordiness, and the depressing fact of the war then in progress which Rolt saw as the entirely predictable result of unbridled industrialisation and the ‘will-to-power’ that he was arguing against. But it is shaped by a young man’s optimism that if only his new philosophy is understood and accepted everything else will automatically fall into place. Perhaps the ultimate blind optimism is his expectation that although this transformation of society would actually take several generations, the co-operative goodwill that was bound to result after the end of the war would almost make it inevitable….

Three critical chunks of Rolt’s early life shaped much of what he thought and wrote for the rest of his life. First there was the idyllic countryside of his childhood, the border country of the Black Mountains overlooking Hay on Wye and Llanthony Abbey, ‘Kilvert Country’ as it is known to the writing classes. Undoubtedly beautiful and still relatively unspoilt, his happy younger childhood here indelibly tinged his memory and this area of the country took on almost a mystical significance for him in later life. After that there followed many dull years of unsatisfactory private schooling before he was fired into a more constructive life when he started his engineering apprenticeship. He started serving his time at an old fashioned agricultural workshop in Pitchill in Worcestershire, a time that proved to be a very rich experience for both engineering and life skills. Here he discovered the integral role of the pride of craftsmanship that seemed to him to be an essential ingredient for a fully rounded life, both spiritual and practical. This was continued by what was supposed to be a three year advanced apprenticeship at a locomotive works in Stoke on Trent but it was quite dramatically hammered to a halt by the slump in 1930. This was a profoundly depressing experience for the young Tom Rolt and affected his views on the devastating effects of industrialisation and the loss of craftsmanship for the rest of his life. It shaped the philosophical imbalance that he spent the rest of his life trying to reconcile, that between a love of machinery and a love of nature, and perhaps some of the satisfaction that I get from his writing is seeing that argument going on. He was good, but not perfect, and I take a crumb of comfort from seeing somebody else struggling for me. He recognised this dichotomy very early and was clearly arguing his way through it in High Horse Riderless.

He was also researching and rehearsing those arguments in Narrow Boat although they are rather disguised by that tinge of Arcadia, that flavour of rural romanticism. This certainly did catch the imagination of the war weary public four years later and may have contributed something towards a false bedrock for the restoration movement that emerged thereafter. The bitter disputes of the early Inland Waterways Association were about underlying values as well as the clash of personalities. The I.W.A. wanted to save canals whilst Rolt wanted to retain or restore the underlying values that had created and maintained the life balance of the people of the canals. In his conclusion he says ”the English Canals….are the particular vehicle of this book” (my emphasis) The book was carrying a cargo of constructive ideas, but his readers saw what they needed to see through the very understandable nostalgia of the time it was published. If you haven’t got time to re-read the whole book just read the conclusion again. And if you have never read the whole book you must. That is my New Year resolution for you.

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