Stand well back: Delightful days on the Thames

 Photo Illustrated London News, July 1893 / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Roald Dahl once described an American publisher, Alfred Knopf, as ‘a terrible wrathful man with a slow burning fuse in one end of his belly and a stick of dynamite in the other.’

‘This is nice,’ he goes on to say in his characteristically dégagé way, ‘because explosions are exciting.’

He makes a good point. And so, wives and girlfriends, sons and daughters, we have a suggestion. Before he disappears northward in pursuit of fish and fowl, smile sweetly and tell the Old Man that a day on the river would be simply wonderful. ‘It would be lovely to spend some time together, just us,’ you would say (if you were in an Adam Curtis film).

He’ll say, ‘Yes, dear,’ and go back to looking for whatever it is he’s lost. But keep at it.

Because if you like explosions, a man in a boat along with his nearest and dearest is pretty much guaranteed to produce results. ‘See how I propel my family using nought but muscle, sinew and willpower,’ the speech bubble above his head will say. ‘There’s nothing like good, honest toil,’ he will suggest.

And then he will realise how ill-equipped he is for the endeavour. From the ‘perfectly alright, thanks’ he gives the man who, with some misgivings, supplies the boat to the ‘just twiddle the handle’ he tosses up to the lock-keeper, his creeping self-doubt and fraying temper will be poorly camouflaged behind a gossamer-thin veil of pseudo-confidence and ill-fitting bonhomie.

It’s when he realises that he doesn’t know which side of the approaching steamer he’s supposed to go, when he realises that he doesn’t actually know how locks work, when he is asked by the apple of his eye what the difference is between a skiff and a wherry, when he realises – late in the afternoon - that his oars are designed port and starboard and he’s been using ‘em the wrong way round – that you’ll start to smell smoke.

It’s not until his wife and daughter start giggling, however, that it’s time to stand well back and wait for the glorious, awe-inspiring and hilarious detonation.

Fortunately, one doesn’t have to go far to find such fun. Just visit or