Paul Klee [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s now the 6 November and I am on my own. For the last ten days we have had various guests filing in and out of the boat. They were Gideon’s friends mainly – one of his old best friends came to visit with his French girl friend ‘Al’. They now both live in Marseilles together. He studies at the conservatoire and she studies History of Art as I once did. They kept us entertained with wonderful stories of Provencal life and of their small apartment high above one of the old squares in the central quarter of town. Ed spoke of ‘couscous’ the local speciality, and parts of town where Algerian and African communities would prepare delicious and spicy foods. He spoke of Marseilles as a force of life, which snubbed the other great cities of France. There was a lot of poverty there he assured me, but it was proud of its Mediterranean apartness and its tangible cultural mix. He liked the colonial squalor and the different types it attracted: the young, the rough and ready, the artistic. In my imagination, beaches with sand as fine and white as clouds, absorbed the heat of the Mediterranean sun like an oven. Now, whenever I think of the Mediterranean I think of the late paintings by Graham Sutherland: the flashes of bright poster-paint red, the pergolas and empty decanters of wine.
They slept on our kitchen-table area, which folds out into a double bed. It was an enviable situation – their heads would have been by the chimney of our woodburner and above them, my beautiful new lantern, which reminds me of the tetrahedron in Durer’s Melancholia I would sway ever so slightly. The cat got into the habit of sleeping beside Ed’s head – in a helix of aesthetic completeness and profound content. Then later George, Gideon’s brother, came to stay. He has an impressive and healthy physique – like that of a depression-era labourer, or one of the heroes of a Steinbeck novel. His enormous rugby-players body filled out the central part of the boat, the ‘living room’, where he slept at night. Then Gideon and I were snug as two happy bugs in our assortment of rugs and blankets in the sleeping quarters. Five restful bodies, lined out like sardines across the narrow sternum of our boat. Now they have all gone.
One of the week’s definite highlights was the Paul Klee exhibition at Tate modern. It was very busy and overpriced, but those have become the standard complaints of the more established art galleries. I fell in love with his fish tank paintings. His fascination with his aquarium was stated enough to constitute a sub-genre in his work as a whole.
One of the largest canvases on display was entitled ‘Fish Magic’. This playful, faux-childish title was the perfect epigraph to the painting – which displayed a kind of luminous fish city, scrawled out in etched lines of hot pink and near-green yellow. For Klee, the abstract world, the world of pure forms and colour to which each of his paintings aspired, could not find a more manifest kingdom than the insular, particular and colourful activity of his fish tank. Humour, serendipity, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour and weight – were some of the most iterated preoccupations of this very unusual, ambitious and tirelessly innovative artist.
What struck me too, in his fugue of death-bed paintings, which seemed defiantly bright and gestural, were the series of haunting paintings entitled Hexe – for witch. What had he glimpsed behind the veil? What were his agonies of mind? As death neared terribly, as the result of a degenerative condition, the strange, luminous image of the witch, was his parting diagnosis of the internal life. Coincidentally I had just finished a chapter in Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations (Carcanet Press, 2002) in which he too discusses the ‘magic’ of Klee’s art. Speaking of the Wander-Artist he remarks:
‘Like so many of the paintings Klee did in his last year it exuded a sense of desperate urgency yet remained curiously aloof, inhabiting its own still world. […] Klee knew better than anyone how to give and withhold at the same time…’ (p.97-8)
I spent the whole of Sunday afternoon polishing an old coal hod I bought from a rag-and-bone shop just off Columbia Road. The tarnish has all rubbed off now and it looks like an archaeological ‘feature’, perhaps a bronze-age helmet, with a Romanesque chin piece sticking into the air.
After I bought it I picked up some chrysanthemums last minute from the flower market. I always visit just before the stall holders leave and the prices are at rock-bottom. I bought two pots: one with petal heads the colour of honey, the other the colour of rooibus tea. I stuck both plants inside the coal hod and strung it to the toggle of my rucksack with a piece of twine. I was not an easy cycle, my copper flask kept swinging against my side and getting in the way of my arms.
Now the coal hod is glittering in its rightful place in the stone-tiled hearth. I take pride in filling it with brittle, crystalline lumps of coal. Polishing copper is a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon.
I want to tell a story that dates right back to the early days of our boat ownership. The story is about the China Girl.
It was summertime. At that point we were moored in a very interesting region of Greater London known as Southall. It is halfway between London and Gatwick, and anyone passing through will remember it. The station name is written in an elaborate script – Hindi I think – beneath its English name, and the district is famous for being the home of London’s most significant Sikh Temple, the famous Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Saba. It is about twenty minutes from Paddington.
We were still engaged in out exodus East – to Limehouse in London, but had not even penetrated as far as Kensal Rise. We had just passed Brentford Lock a few days before. The canal felt very removed from the hubbub of the surrounding neighbourhoods with its myriads of vegetable grocers and cheap household goods shops. A hedgerow sheltered it from the view of a school playground. We had moored the bank across water from ‘town’, just across a small, steel bridge and rampart. It was while we were moored there that we first met the unfortunate China Girl.
Like a changeling with different coloured eyes, one eye green and the other eye blue, or the lovely pied ‘streaked gillyvor’ Perdita exalts in A Winter’s Tale, the boat was painted red on one side and blue on the other. A more wretched, shipwrecked boat, still above water is hard to imagine. I was amazed that she even floated at all. The steel covering of her cruiser stern had been pulled up in places, the rudder was a sorrily improvised mess. One cheap metal chair with missing slats was welded down to the floor. The paintwork was chipped and crumbling. The glass in her windows was broken, a few tatty yellowed lace curtains still hung on sorry rails. Her hull was a bedrock for algae and weeds.
In short it looked as though she had been abandoned for many years on the water. Her ambivalent double coating of paint seemed a dubious and unfinished attempt at disguise, or yet another botched and unfinished job of which she, as a boat, was the supreme example.
I did not see anyone going to or away from her for many days, even in the intense heat of that summer. I concluded that she had indeed been deserted, and was just waiting for the canal and river trust to tow her off. Her license was woefully out of date – last legitimately allowed to sail in 2011.
Then, one afternoon I finally saw her owners. The back of the 50 ft boat had come loose of its mooring and the boat was drifting downstream. Another neighbouring boater was helping two shouting men on board. They were flailing around stupidly. Eventually the boat was brought safely back to bank.
They were a motley pair – two rascally Englishmen, who had littered the boat with a shower of crumpled cider tins. They seemed totally incompetent and in every way unprepared for life on the water.
To me, China Girl’s romantic state of dilapidation was only enhanced by the story that was later told me by her unfortunate owners, when I finally approached them the following afternoon. They had just returned from an unknown location after hauling her large and ungainly engine out of the back of the boat. They were very open and seemed at a loss with what to do with her.
“Where did you get her?” I asked them.
“A fella sold us the boat a few weeks ago”, they explained.
“How much for?”
“Why, how much was your boat?”
“Over twenty thousand”, I replied. (I felt a little uncomfortable saying this, as I didn’t know them very well, but they were very inquisitive. Actually, almost every boat on the water, if it’s not chronically damaged or old, costs above that figure, and many are above the 30,000 mark.)
“What’s wrong with the engine?” I asked.
“Absolutely f*****”, one of the men replied. “When we bought the boat it started. But now it’s not starting at all. It’s all choked up. One of the other men from the boats had a look at it and says we need to buy a new engine.”
This is almost the worst news that any new boat owner could receive. Other problems can be fixed. But engine trouble is very dangerous. It could cost thousands to repair.
“Didn’t you get a survey done?” I replied. Surveys are meant to highlight essential matters such as defunct or problematic engines.
“Nah, didn’t get a chance. The bloke wanted to sell it in a rush. We thought it was alright.”
Unfortunately matters only only worse for them the following day. I saw an official-seeming man speak to them (they were about four boats up from me on the tow-path). As I was passing with my bicycle I asked them if there had been any further developments.
“It’s getting even worse,” one replied. “Apparently the boats listed. The authorities have been after because the previous owner didn’t have a valid license for years. We’ve got to get a new license.”
It seemed amazing to me that the pair of men had bought the boat within realising that you need to buy a license to use it. It probably came as a nasty surprise that an annual license costs around £900. Their bills were mounting.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, wondering even to myself if it would be worth the financial and physical effort to make China Girl sea-worthy again.
My question returned blank stares. They had no idea. The dreamy, impromptu decision to buy a narrowboat for next-to- nothing, (although five thousand pounds is still a lot of money to throw away), had landed them in catastrophe.
But still the boat, and its story, did have undeniable charm. It was like an episode from a water-based cowboy and western: a renegade, get-away vessel for years, black-listed and forever on the run, China Girl, had finally run aground. Her mountebank previous owner was now, most likely pirating in other parts, hoodwinking whomever he came across.
The story is an unfinished one. I never knew what finally happened to The China Girl, we left before her fate was decided. But in my mind’s eye I see her still, half-collapsing into the water, playing a den to thieves, perhaps, for many years to come.
Cats cultivate the body and the mind,
Attracted both to silence and the dark;
(The nether world could have put them to work
As couriers, had they been so inclined.)
Bemused, their attitudes evoke the style
Of sphinxes lost in thought beside the Nile,
Absorbed into a dream that never ends.
Sparks coruscate all down their fertile thighs
And golden particles, like desert sands,
Scintillate in transcendental eyes…
Extract from ‘Cats’ by Charles Baudelaire, published in ‘Charles Baudelaire: The Complete Works’, translated by Walter Martin, p.133
The majority of London’s residents will probably never have heard of Hackney Wick, let alone been to visit. I, myself, was a Londoner for twenty-four years before even hearing of the place. The reason for this obscurity? Hackney Wick is only serviced by one means of transport – The Overground – and even then, not very well. Infrequent trains slam their brakes on at midnight, when Hackney Wick becomes, to all means and purposes, shut off to the rest of the world. Having a bicycle is a prerogative of living here, and therefore, being young and fit. It is the only dependable means of entrance and exit. It reminds me a little of that Roald Dahl children’s book The Minpins, with its haunting refrain, ‘Once you go in, you never come out…’
Except that, for those who know this small, strange locale, it is a most willing incarceration. There is probably no freer and truly creative place left in London, at least not on the North side of the river. Hackney Wick with the lovely-named Fish Island on its right shores, is like a pariah state, or small semi-autonomous province. It has its own rules and a devoted following.
The Hackney Wick family is made up of a rag-tag crew of boaters, hipsters, artists, hobos and architects. You earn the right to know. Appreciation of the place acts as its own kind of self-selection. If you know it, you will want to be near it. Why? Because it feels free. And by that I do not mean only that it is mainly compromised of a large landscape of warehouses and factories, the night-time kingdom of London’s best ‘free parties’ and a place where people come to get stoned and forget themselves. It is free in other senses. There is little or no advertising in the streets and hardly any businesses around, there is no policing. One small newsagent serves its eccentric population – and their clientele are not at all ordinary. The other day as I was buying a bottle of red wine I noticed a girl ahead of me in the queue. “No plastic”, she said with a grin and gestured for the merchant behind the counter to put the mushrooms into her doffed top-hat.
So what does happen in Hackney Wick? Well there is some commerce, just not of the globalised variety that has become the unhappy bread and butter diet of most Londoners. There is the White Building – built upon principles of sustainable design, a vast white complex which sells beautiful dark, craft ales and artisanal pizzas. There are cafes and art galleries, homes, squats, boats, drinking holes, bread factories, peculiar cult temples. I once said to a friend that it is the only place in London that feels like East Berlin. I think I would still stand by that comparison.
The Wick’s very particular geography – tagged with urban art, murals and graffiti – exists in a semi-precarious state. Its impermanence is probably the reason that it feels so cool, and twinned to that, the only reason it exists. It is a forgotten space between the landmarks of the Olympic stadium and its cursed, lifeless peripheries, gone to wrack and ruin, and the em-placed and residential regions of Leyton, Leytonstone, Walthamstow and Hackney. Resisting stasis, its luminous, chemical glow and clouds of electronic music diffuse throughout Hackney Marsh and Wick Wood, between Bow, Stratford, and several motorways.
It is a growth, a blemish, a biological spot that has seized life in the unpromising and dead wastelands of the city. While it lasts – the revived and the underground, music halls, waterways, dreary dingy places that come alive at night, thrive. While it lasts, its affirmative beauty is a stage for freedom and some of the greatest personalities that live in England.
Long live the Wick!
In honour of this ‘borough’ as I will dub it for convenience’s sake, I have decided that Behemoth’s full name will be Behemoth Wick.
The storm of St Jude hit the South-West and South-East coast of England last night. So-called after the saint of bad news and strange events, whose feast day falls on Monday, the tempest was indeed a strange and unexpected event that brought more than its fair share of adventure and hardship (what an appropriate noun this is!).
The best and most moving account of a shipwreck at sea during a long voyage that I have ever read is in the third Canto of Don Juan. The persuasive rhythmic lilts of Byron’s verse line, reach heights of beauty and excellence in this passage that you would be hard-pressed to match elsewhere in this work. For a cosmopolitan man like Byron, who travelled far and freely and was often at sea, it was clearly a subject in which he took enormous interest. I am sure that he had heard many accounts of deaths and calamities at sea, and may even have experienced something similar himself.
Strange to say, but last night, as the gusts of gale-force wind tore against Hawisia’s flanks, ripping our mooring pins clean out of the ground and setting us perilously close to being cast off into the turbulent current of the River Lee, I thought, not that much has changed across the centuries. At least on water. If you live in a boat and depend on it for your welfare, events like storms can be very serious. So can losing control at critical moments of navigation, or when going through locks. Then, bad seamanship can be, well, fatal.
I first heard about the approaching storm the previous night, on Saturday. I went to my parent’s house in Camden and my father quickly ushered me into his office away from mother’s hearing.
“I hope you have made preparations for the storm. It’s forecast to arrive on Sunday evening. I’m worried for you on the boat.”
By that point I had not heard a thing about it the storm, and told him so. But I assured him with a confidence that I did not entirely feel, that we would be absolutely fine.
We were already moored in the River Lee by that point, and had no chance to move as we were both working on Sunday. I felt instinctively that the current-less, shallow waters of London’s Grand Union Canal would be much safer that the wide, deep banks of the Lee River near Bow, exposed, bare and prey to tunnels of wind ripping around the sides of the Olympic Stadium. But, as I said, we had no opportunity to move. The best recourse open to us was to tie ourselves down as firmly as possible, grin and bear it.
I made a resolution with Gideon: the night of storm was to be a romantic night in, a ‘super date’. I imagined us like hibernating wolves in a cave, holing in against the battering, desperate wind.
When Sunday evening arrived we were both exhausted from our respective days of work. My feet were sore and swollen from serving customers all day and doing the dance between tables, Gideon was tired from fixing bikes. After making the fire and making dinner we had little energy left to do anything else. I fell asleep by the fire prematurely, lulled to unconsciousness by a hearth stoked hot with dense-cylindrical logs of wood. These were the last of the batch left to us by the previous boat owner. They had served us well.
I woke up at eleven o’ clock. Weather conditions seemed rather average outside, though it was a little gustier than usual. So we went to bed, nesting like small mammals under the slightly damp sheets and duvet of our bed, moistened from the beads of condensation unfortunately inherent to our boat.
My sleep was restive and disquieted. I kept waking up to hear the murmuring of the wind and the rustling of branches on the young trees outside. The cat was meowing insistently from the other room. By three o’ clock I was wide awake. The force of the wind was now unmistakeable and strong, shaking the boat to and fro like a rattle. We were very lucky that we could lash our ropes onto strips of protective metal sheeting plugged into the bank-side, there, I imagine, to help prevent erosion.
Even as it was, the rear mooring- pin of the boat near our sleeping berth, which had no sturdy metal sheeting to attach it too, kept on coming loose. The long steel pin, ripped out of the muddy, slippery ground, pulled up clods of earth and grass. Three or four times, Gideon or I braved the howling winds outside, often in our underwear to mallet-knock the pin back into the ground. At one point, before Gideon found good purchase for the pin in the ground, the boat thrust back with a sudden upsurge of wind and Gideon was almost pulled in.
We did not sleep again till 8am. I remember regularly checking live coverage on the internet. The Daily Mirror, of all the newspapers, reported that the worst of the storm would leave London by 9am. We had one hour left. After we lassoed two spare anchor ropes between our boat and the metal sides of the bank, we returned to our beds and palpably distressed boat cat. But then, amazingly, we feel asleep and didn’t wake till 10.30.
We awoke to a different world. The boat was no longer shaking, and the sky outside, cerulean blue, looked just as if it had been polished by the departing storm and all the errant clouds brushed away. Ochre-yellow leaves agitated against a serene sky. I knew we were safe and managed to survive the storm.
It was impossible to repress a huge sigh of relief. Exhausted, elated, HGideon and I cycled to Roman Road to the laundry and treated ourselves to two enormous, recuperative English Breakfasts.