ONE of the things I most missed during the first and severe phase of our lockdown was the chance to be afloat, to be drifting, paddling, and, occasionally, sailing down the broader reaches of the Cam in Willow, my little wooden sailing canoe.
I consoled myself in those first weeks with willows of another sort: with reading and re-reading that favourite passage in The Wind in the Willows when Ratty first invites Mole to step into his boat, and “Mole, to his surprise and rapture, actually found himself seated in the stern of a real boat.” It goes on, of course, to Ratty’s famous declamation of his true philosophy of life: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
This saying is all the more resonant for me because I first heard it from my father, when I was a little boy, and he invited me, just as Ratty invited Mole, to step into the stern of a boat and took me — not sculling — but sailing; and because, as a father myself, I, too, leant on the oars of a little boat and chanted the same words to my own children, as I hope that they, in their turn, will chant those words to theirs.
So, you can imagine the thrill with which I realised that the new arrangements might permit me to return discreetly to Willow, where she languished on the banks of the Cam, and practise social distancing, but this time with added water.
My poor little boat, who had waited patiently all winter and so long through the spring, balanced upside down on a couple of old tyres, was scarcely to be seen among the many clumps of nettles that had grown up around her and the drifts of leaves that had covered her tattered tarpaulin, but there she still was. A little brisk work drew her forth from her entanglements, and soon we were blissfully reunited where we should be, buoyant, floating, free, and happy on the smooth waters of the Cam.
I savoured the moment, and we drifted gently beneath high clouds and among the rippling reflections of the willows on the bank from whom my little canoe took her name. Eventually, I remembered that I had, properly speaking, “travelled for exercise”, and began to apply the paddle and skim forward, settling into a steady, simple, almost hypnotic rhythm. I was reminded of another favourite passage, this time from Robert Louis Stevenson’s neglected masterpiece An Inland Voyage, a passage in which he attains, while rhythmically paddling, a kind of detached equilibrium, a stupefaction, which he describes as being “as near Nirvana as would be convenient in practical life”:
To dip the paddle at the proper inclination, now right, now left; to keep the head down stream . . . to screw up the eyes against the glittering sparkles of sun upon the water . . . what a pleasure it was! What a hearty, tolerant temper did it bring about! There is nothing captious about a man who has attained to this, the one possible apotheosis in life, the Apotheosis of Stupidity; and he begins to feel dignified and longaevous like a tree.
I’m not sure that anyone witnessing my efforts to get in and out of the canoe after so long a gap would have called me “dignified”; but I do know that I was a happier and wiser man by the time I had made Willow snug again and returned home.