books monthly

april 2018 - The Jerry Dowlen column...

Home Page | Adult Fiction | Crime & Thrillers | SF & Fantasy | Children's books | Nonfiction | Pen and Sword | Nostalgia | The Jerry Dowlen Column




You are here: Books Monthly » The Jerry Dowlen Column »


The Bookshop that Floated Away: Sarah Henshaw’s solo voyage seeking sanctuary on Britain’s canals.


An audit of Britain’s public libraries has revealed a drastic decline in the number of books available to lend. A press release on World Book Day (1st March 2018) stated that stocks have fallen by one fifth in seven years. More than 15 million books have disappeared from circulation.         


Ouch! That is a dramatic and worrying decline of book-reading opportunity. I’m firmly in favour of anything and everything that might be done to reverse the trend. I duly propose a vote of thanks to Sarah Henshaw. Why? Please read on …


Sarah floats her boat


It was in 2009 that the young showbiz journalist Sarah Henshaw thought of a change of career. She decided that she would convert a narrow boat into a floating bookshop, and then sail England’s canals and waterways selling her wares.


If you would like to read about Sarah’s nautical book-selling exploits they are reported in her charming and engaging little book The Bookshop that Floated Away (Constable, 2014). It’s a light read, often in humorous and self-deprecating vein, with abundant description of places visited and people (and birdlife!) met.


Fittingly for such a literary enterprise there was some high literary inspiration. Treasure Island was a big favourite book for Sarah as a child, and when she began to learn about the author Robert Louis Stevenson she noted that his first published work was called An Inland Voyage. He had journeyed by canoe from Antwerp into France.  Another book had stuck in Sarah’s mind, too: in the late 19th century the author Elizabeth von Arnim had penned The Solitary Summer, extolling the virtue of a blissful six months of rest from her duties as mother and wife.


For six months from 3rd May to 30th October 2011 ‘a dumb boat and a dumb bookseller’ chugged the length and breadth of England. Does Sarah’s self-chosen adjective infer that foolhardiness trumped bravery? She freely admits that she possessed no business acumen and no knowledge or experience of the economics of running a bookshop. Part of her mission, she explains, was to publicise the plight of small independent bookshops that were feeling the pressure of the big on-line discount distributors and the new gadget the Kindle. The question was: as a commercial venture, could Sarah cover her costs or even make a profit?


Banned in Bristol – Branded in Bath – Loved in London!


Throughout her voyage Sarah had to face some tricky navigation challenges – especially the dreaded swing-bridges and locks. Her narrative is filled with incident: sometimes amusing pranks but other times more troublesome issues including burglary and vandalism. The laws of licensing brought one tricky obstacle, too. Archaic trading laws in the port of Bristol rendered invalid Sarah’s permission from British Waterways to moor there and sell her wares. Sarah had fallen in love with Bristol after finding that a bookshop there has the delightful name of Bloom & Curll!


Literary allusions to Jane Austen came thick and fast for Sarah during her stay in the city of Bath. Single herself at the age of 28, Sarah was discomforted to remember that Jane had once described Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion, unmarried at 29, as ‘approaching the years of danger’. Sarah’s solitary status had moreover exposed her to a sharp rebuke from an impatient lady waiting with her husband to steer her barge into a lock, on the approach into Bath. ‘Have you not got a boyfriend or a husband?’ she had stormed – asserting that steering a barge single-handed through a lock is a selfish action because the process takes much longer.


Fortunately for Sarah there was plenty of friendship extended to her during her voyage. This was especially so while she chugged through north London on the Regent Canal: several newspapers reported her existence; her Twitter count reached a peak; in echo of the cricket commentary box on Test Match Special she was showered with gifts of cake and herbal teas. And when visited by a couple whose home address was Micawber Street, in Islington she was uplifted by the notion that even when the Book Barge seemed to be sinking financially, there was always the Dickensian hopeful notion that ‘something will turn up’.   


Keeping bookshops alive


I applaud Sarah Henshaw and all who valiantly strive to keep bookshops alive. At the time in 2011 when Sarah floated her boat, small bookshops were disappearing from our towns and villages at a worryingly fast pace. That trend continued on its downward path until a small ray of sunshine in 2016 and 2017 when not only did the rate of closures slow down but there were reports of new independent bookshops opening their doors. That was good to hear and I hope that it may help countermand the effect of our libraries being forced to close down or lend fewer books, because of ten years’ enforcement of Tory government ‘austerity’ measures.


Jerry Dowlen

March 2018


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part Two

   Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part One

   Charles Raw

   Rumpole December 2017

   Roger Moore as Ivanhoe

   Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s

   The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love

   Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


The small print: Books Monthly, now well into its sixteenth year on the web, is published on or slightly before the first day of each month by Paul Norman. You can contact me here. If you wish to submit something for publication in the magazine, let me remind you there is no payment as I don't make any money from this publication. If you want to send me something to review, contact me via email and I'll let you know where to send it.