Three Ways to Capsize a Boat, By Chris Stewart

Hugh Thomson
Friday 12 June 2009 00:00
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Chris Stewart's beguiling tales of life on a Spanish farm have been a publishing phenomenon: produced by a small press, Driving over Lemons and its sequels have sold over a million copies. The charm lay in Stewart's boho, ambling ways. This was no prosperous retirement to the good life in Tuscany or Provence. Stewart fetched up in a dirt-poor part of the Alpujarras as an unemployed sheep-shearer, and the farm was dilapidated when he bought it with his wife, Ana. That he made such a success of both the farm and the books is due to a refreshing honesty and an ability to take people – and animals – as he finds them.

Now he provides what Hollywood would call "the back-story" – the years before Spain, when he gets a job as the charter captain of a Greek yacht, despite never having sailed in his life. With a guitar and a pair of flip-flops, he sets out to learn on the job. The ensuing disasters and encounters with wily locals slip down as easily as retsina in an island harbour. His description of the island he fetches up on, Spetses, could apply to the book: "the scale, the proportions and the colour seemed perfectly contrived to make you feel at ease."

It's a childlike view of the world: the sea is blue, islands round and dolphins playful. We have become so used to travel books that delight in being counter-intuitive – Chatwin's Russians in Australia, or the Welsh in Patagonia – that there is a certain charm in a writer who finds places exactly as he expects them. One has to go back to Stevenson and Travels with a Donkey to meet a writer so comfortable in his own skin.

But lest it all get too cosy, Stewart embarks on a far more hazardous voyage – a crossing of the North Atlantic via Greenland in an old Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter. This is more in the tradition of travel books that take journeys so that we don't have to. I have long toyed with the idea of an ocean crossing in a small boat, but his account of being stuck for days in the teeth of a gale, "like a fish in a washing-machine", does not have me reaching for the oilskins.

Indeed, he makes the shrewd point that, for many, the pleasure of such sailing "is like banging your head against a wall; it's only good when you stop... pulling in to a quiet bay or a harbour... to walk in the woods, or climb a hill or go to a bakery". It is easy to enthuse about the simple pleasures of life, but hard to write about them well. Stewart's gift is to do so with the carefree manner of someone you've just met in a bar, and who is buying the drinks.

Hugh Thomson's 'Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico' is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

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