Water-Music by Sir John Squire (dedicated to William Bliss)

Although written by Sir John Squire this book was essentially my introduction to William Bliss. It is an account of the canoeing trip by Bliss and Squire along canals and rivers in the summer of 1938. I purchased the book as Solo & Duet a reprint published in 1943 which also contained The Honeysuckle and the Bee. I suppose wartime printing restrictions might have had a role in these two books being reprinted as one.  The fly leaf of Water-Music gives a clue as to its nature because Squire notes, in his dedication to his companion, “This narrative as vagrant as our meandering streams” . And meander it does!
Sir John Squire in 1935
(National Portrait Gallery)

The narrative starts quite straightforwardly with Squire discussing the books Bliss has written on canoeing but Squire admitting that he hadn’t been canoeing apart from the odd short journey down a backwater. Bliss, obviously not a man to let the grass grow under his feet, immediately suggested a week’s canoeing up the River Cherwell, Oxford Canal, portage to the Avon at Warwick, and then back down the Thames.
They left on May 20th 1938, or so it says in a letter to Bliss that Squire reprints. This date will have some significance in a later post. They hired their canoe from Salter’s at Oxford.   It is worthwhile noting that at this stage neither was young. I calculate that Squire was 54 and Bliss 73. Bliss had just had published four books, his Heart of England by Waterway 1933, Canoeing 1934, Rapid Rivers 1935, and his autobiography Pilgrimage of Grace 1937. Squire, a member of the Bloomsbury set, had been editor of the London Mercury magazine and was reviewing for the London Illustrated News. Some of the episodes in the book originally appeared in Punch. He was a literary figure with a reputation for drinking, being credited with the classic one-liner I am not so think as you drunk I am”.
Their journey began with Squire visiting Bliss at his home at Lane End, Buckinghamshire in the Chilterns near High Wycombe.  They promptly set off in a car but not before Bliss had purchased a jug of cider from the Peacock Inn, which is still in business. They managed to take the jug in the boat throughout their adventures without breaking it or drinking it! Their journey is full of interruptions and leisurely, but given their ages I suppose that is only natural. Bliss, being a devout Roman Catholic, breaks off to attend mass, and both have contacts who must be visited along the way. This creates a lot of natural diversions in the text but Squire makes it even more rambling by his literary diversions. You could be forgiven for thinking that this is reminiscent of Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, the uproarious story of the cheese comes to mind, but it is not. The diversions are amusing but literary and this makes it difficult to follow at sometimes. 
I will relate, as an example, one diversion which will give you the flavour of the book. Bliss and Squire are staying at the Crown Hotel Bicester, which unusually had a cinema attached. It is Sunday so Bliss goes to morning mass and they have a late start from Aynho. They are ferried to the Oxford Canal by a car belonging to a friend. They eventually get moving about 4 o’clock and only get as far as Banbury where the locks are shut. They dump the canoe for the night and have dinner. It is then that Bliss announces that he is off to see a friend. Left on his own, Squire rings up a friend who picks him up. Squires’ friends are playing cards at a nearby house. This leads Squire to recall card games in Switzerland and on a ship in the Baltic. He then recalls his visit to Monte Carlo in 1923. Several pages of discussion about gambling later, he recalls that at the roulette tables he sat next to a woman with a heavy accent who introduced herself as Zazel the “‘uman cannon-ball”.  It turns out she had been a very famous celebrity in Victorian England who, as a young girl had thrilled the crowds nightly at the Royal Aquarium which stood opposite Westminster Abbey. According to Squire she had her portrait painted by George Fredric Watts OM.
After this diversion, you might expect Squire to return to the job in hand, describing the journey. Instead he has a discussion with a demon about the meandering nature of his text and he then goes on to discuss the raising of goats, Czech and Irish names, and his passion for poetry.
The book continues in this vein with boating incidents, friends who provide entertainment and accommodation, and many changes of plan. They manage to get back to Oxford in one piece and with the boat intact. Although the journey was not long the reader is taken on a extended journey to far most reaches of John Squires mind!
It is a book for the literary enthusiast who enjoys the English countryside and is nostalgic about the period between the wars, or perhaps for a William Bliss enthusiast - like me.