The aquatic memoir has a rich and varied history. To clarify before we begin, this rough category denotes memoirs by humans who have travelled on water, rather than poignant cris de coeur by literary fish. An atemporal and partial survey might include Travels in West Africa (1897) by Mary H Kingsley, describing (among other things) her journeys by canoe through colonial Gabon, or Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River (1994) by the American nature writer Ellen Meloy. In Waterlog (1999) Roger Deakin attempted to swim across Britain’s seas, rivers, lakes, pools and canals. Mark Twain and Jerome K Jerome joyfully parodied the genre in, respectively, The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Three Men in a Boat (1889); Twain also composed the ultimate river quest, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Much later, in 2011, Iain Sinclair (along with film-maker Andrew Kötting) paddled a giant fibreglass swan from Hastings to Hackney, with a nod to Twain: ‘It’s either Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn … a comedic river excursion [or] a deranged Lear-like quest with a demonic entity that you have to chase down and kill.’ Or, if you’re really unlucky, it’s both at the same time.
Alys Fowler embarks on her ‘voyage of discovery’ in response to a prevailing sense of unease. As a child, she dreamed of becoming an ‘adventurer’: ‘I learnt to climb rock faces, to abseil into caves, to swim long distances in cold water, to sail small boats and surf makeshift rafts.’