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24 April 2011

Three Men in a Float by Dan Kieran and Ian Vince

Take a classic 1958 milk float, three men and a journey from Lowestoft to Lands End, and you have the ingredients for a distinctly original book. This attention-grabbing concept prompted plenty of enthusiastic national media coverage, including a dedicated BBC Radio 4 programme broadcast in February 2008.

The book is jointly authored by Dan Kieran and Ian Vince, who share the writing of its twenty chapters - all written in the first-person narrative form. After describing the story behind the story, each day-long leg of the journey is allocated its own chapter.

These legs vary in length from as little as 17 miles up to 49 miles. Each day's eventual distance being highly dependant on weather conditions, driving terrain, characters encountered, extravehicular adventures and, of course, availability of suitable charging points. So, as you can imagine, it was a particularly slow journey, as confirmed by the book's subtitle - Across England at 15mph.

The pivotal third man, Prasanth Visweswaran (Pras), has the necessary electrical skills - and risk taking attitude - to turn their concept into a reality. Still, without the support of friends, supermarket managers, publicans, campsite owners and generously spirited members of the public, it would have been impossible.

The problems faced in securing adequate supplies of electron-based fuel are a central, and often highly amusing, theme within the story. A story imparts a crystal-clear indication of how far away the UK is from delivering a viable infrastructure, able to support battery-powered alternatives to our current fossil-fuel guzzling vehicles.

The milk float in question rolled off Cowley's Morris car plant production line on 2nd September 1958. In the intervening decades this once commonplace mode of door-to-door transportation, has largely been resigned to history. After all, when was the last time you saw, or heard, a milk float trundle down your street?

Parallels with Jerome K. Jerome's 1892 classic Three Men in a Boat are obvious. And the inspiration provided by Jerome's book is clearly stated in the text. But the narrative's pace, humour and sense of adventure ensure this isn't some pale imitation or shallow copycat effort.

Enjoyable as it is, it's unlikely this book will also become a classic. And yet, in my imagination, when this century ticks over into a new one, I can envisage a world where all transportation is electric powered. In such future times the trials, tribulations and experiences of completing a 600 mile journey three times slower than a cyclist could manage, might indeed become an interesting and amusing literary resource of a past era.

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