TOM KITCHING – Where There’s Brass

Where There's BrassThere are few musicians who can also write entertaining prose, let alone sustain it for the length of a book. Tom Kitching is one such. Where There’s Brass is the companion piece to the CD of the same name; or perhaps the CD is the companion piece to the book since both stand alone perfectly well. Entertaining? I laughed out loud on the first page.

The first part of the book details the journey of the Spey from Stretford to London. The Spey is an old oil and tar carrier and short on creature comforts but Tom is an experienced waterman. He had twelve days to make the journey before parts of the network closed for winter maintenance which, in narrowboat terms, is practically a sprint. Some days involved negotiating more than twenty locks which is hard work even with someone moving ahead of the boat to set the gates. Members of Tom’s crew came and went (and sometimes came back) and while he describes the countryside through which they pass and the thrills and (mostly) spills on the way what comes over clearly is the camaraderie of boating folk and those who live in close proximity to the waterways. Everyone wants to lend a hand.

The second, more substantial section of the book details Tom’s life and work as a liveaboard. Initially, the story is fairly mundane: cleaning and tidying; fettling the engine, shopping etc. Around this he fits his work – online education, the occasional gig and, of course, writing the book – and some relaxation: a weekly music session and the odd pint. The Spey doesn’t move much except to find a new mooring which isn’t always easy in London, particularly when some people book a seven day mooring and stay for several years.

As life settles down again Tom makes new friends and volunteers to crew on other working boats and still the camaraderie of boat people shines through. But there is something else. Tom remarks frequently on the dereliction and neglect throughout the system. The organisation supposedly in charge of the waterways has no statutory powers and seems more intent on driving working boats off the canal system than maintaining the facilities. In one chapter an old friend relates a rebellion involving mending locks on stretches that the local authority wand to close. It reminded me somewhat of the Kinder Scout mass trespass. There is a denouement to the book but you’ll get no spoilers from me.

Where There’s Brass is a mixture of social history and travelogue with descriptions of contemporary life on the waterways. It’s always entertaining and I insisted on reading sections out to my wife whether she wanted to hear them or not. I’m sure it was good for her.

Dai Jeffries

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320 pp  softback  ISBN 9781399 979368