BOOK REVIEW / Tales from a river prank: 'Two and a half men in a boat' - Nigel Williams: Hodder, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE AIM of this book is to make its author the pounds 28,000 he owes the Inland Revenue. Nigel Williams's young son suggested that a larky trip up the Thames in the wash of Jerome K Jerome's famous journey might do the trick, and he may well have been right.

Even if the book doesn't make that much, the outing sounds enjoyable enough to have taken the sting out of the Revenue's demands. For the other two men in the boat Williams chooses a professional explorer called John Paul, for whom a paddle up the river is a welcome break from swinging through rainforests or bivouacking on the north face of the Eiger, and a television executive called Alan.

The wisdom of the latter choice is not immediately obvious. When first invited, Alan tells Williams to fix it with his secretary, who in turn tells him Alan has 'wall-to-wall meetings' till November and that he has no free lunch before 1995. Alan is eventually persuaded, by the promise of a mobile phone, to join them halfway. Once on board, he continues to behave as if he is in London. He rings up selected BBC minions and asks them difficult questions; he telephones his family, his friends and various work-related 'contacts'. While they are making dinner on a campfire he telephones Salman Rushdie's answering machine; when they have eaten, he rings one of London's most famous chefs to tell her he has finished dinner. Williams regards this behaviour with a bemused tolerance. It is as though in Alan's neurotic ambition and desire for control he sees something of his younger self; this is what he might have been if a sense of humour has not intervened. He is pleased with his own life; he likes being a 45-year-old suburban, a scruffy family man, and he has enough wit to convey this without sounding smug.

There is a dog involved in all this - Badger, a hungry lurcher, of whom Williams is extremely, perhaps inordinately, fond. Food and drink play a properly important part, beginning with Williams's first attempt at a list of necessities for the boat (1 bot Scotch, 6 bots white wine, 3 bots red wine, pork pies) and climaxing in an astonishingly lavish picnic prepared by his wife, who comes to join them near Henley. The preparation of this is described in slavering, microscopic detail, as though Nicholson Baker had been let loose in the kitchens of the Gavroche.

Still, rowing is just rowing when you come down to it (as even Alan eventually does), and the best parts of the river adventures are the digressions. Snoring, answering machines and his brother's fabled spaghetti bolognese bring out the best in Williams's allusive, mildly fantastic style. Whether his brother will forgive him for the extended culinary tease I don't know; perhaps he cleared it with him first. It is hard to think that Alan is going to be thrilled by the portrait of himself here, either; but maybe the lack of self-awareness he appears to have manifested throughout the trip will extend to his not seeing anything odd in the behaviour Williams describes. John Paul emerges, snoring apart, as the man of the match.

There is, fortunately, not much of a subtext or a serious purpose to the jaunt. If there is any, it is in Williams's admiration of Jerome and the voice he gave to the emergent lower-middle class, with whom Williams identifies, even if not many of that class became, like him, editor of BBC's Bookmark, Omnibus or their Edwardian equivalents.

This funny, amiable book should certainly do well. Nigel Williams is hoping for a swift reprint ('Preface to the First Edition' he announces hopefully) and for an American sale - Private Eye is an 'English satirical magazine', he footnotes for readers in Idaho. Throw in Holland, Japan and a BBC adaptation through one of his or Alan's friends and it should make . . . ooh, almost exactly pounds 28,000, I'd say. Of course, he'll have to pay tax on that . . .

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