Nigel Williams is presented with an unexpected £28,000 tax bill. This is not good news. Quite bad, in fact. He determines to recoup at least some of the money – and perhaps reduce his stress levels, although this is in question, as he doesn’t really like holidays – by taking a rowing holiday on the Thames with two friends, documentary maker JP and TV executive Alan, and writing about it: the full Jerome K Jerome thing, in other words, updated to 1993. And it’s delightful. The disclaimer suggests that ‘any eccentricities’ in the behaviour of his companions are ‘entirely the product of the diseased imagination of the writer’. I’m not so sure. Williams, author of The Wimbledon Poisoner and They Came From SW19, is a fine writer, much underrated – underrated, I suspect, largely because he is funny. He is certainly much funnier than Jerome. Williams can do chilling too: instead of revising for exams in my second year at university, I spent two straight days reading Witchcraft, on the very reasonable basis that it was utterly gripping. T
hree 2½Men In A Boat is engrossing, albeit in quite a different way: no ancient, malign spirits threaten to possess the soul of the protagonist unless you count the Inland Revenue men from Colindale. The ‘half a man’ of the title is Alan. Full name: Alan Yentob – former BBC supremo, now resigned in embarrassing circumstances, but at the time moving towards the peak of his irritating fame – who will only join the skiff late, and only then reluctantly at Marlow, and only if he can spend most of his time on a new-fangled mobile phone, and then duck out early. Alan doesn’t really do boats. Or normal conversation. Or consensus. Williams notes: ‘Some people shouldn’t be separated from their work. It is sheer cruelty.’ By the end, the Thames has claimed Williams – its pace and gentle oddness; its weird, placid rhythms and strange characters. And through the quality of his writing, we can see the appeal. That’s not the book’s greatest achievement, however. Williams also manages to make Yentob seem likeable. Annoying, but with a sort of tactless, infectious charm. But then, perhaps that was just Williams’ diseased imagination at work.