The Fire, 10.10.2013

It’s nearly 8 o’ clock. I have a lovely hot fire crackling beside me. It reminds me of something lovely that Roger Deakin once wrote:

“I really do want people to come home to a real fire. A nation without the flames of fire in the hearth, and birds singing outside the        open window, has lost its soul. To have an ancient carboniferous fire brought to life at the centre of your home, its flames budding and shooting up like young trees, is a work of magic.”

     Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, p. 155

Our wood burning stove is right in the middle of the boat. It heats up the surrounding air like an agar oven. The other night, just as we prepared to go to bed Gideon and I were suddenly worried that something had caught on fire. There was a peculiar smell in the air. It didn’t smell like wood smoke… There were still some coals smouldering in the grate, but it seemed surprising that the smell was so distinctive and acute.

Gideon scampered outside in his underwear to check that the chimney wasn’t on fire. Silly us. It turned out that it was the coals after all. Gideon had loaded the hearth up with them. The smell they produce after a while is very different to the smell of wood smoke. It is deeper, richer, more oaken.

Jobo said that during the winter he has become so expert as setting up fires that he could make up exactly the right sort of fire in the morning to last the rest of the day – even if he left the boat. That way, when he returns, the boat is snug and warm in the evening for his arrival.

The wood and coal in the intensity of their heat have broken down into a kind of piping hot orange stew. Their skin is petrified by the heat and brakes off in scales or crusts of heat. They have become like crackling spines. When I nudge them with my brass poker the scaly crust breaks apart tenderly or yawns open like segments of an orange. I think of the recipe I wrote up for the charity earlier, or perhaps that marvellous description of summer heat in Bruno Scholtz’s lovely collection Cinnamon Shops.

A cold wind has blown through England over the past few days. Gideon has left to go to Sheffield so I have no company to keep me warm in the evenings. I spend most of my time reading and writing, and occasionally watching something online. I have been watching Kenneth Clarke’s ‘Civilisation’ series recently. That, and with Harry, Jeremy Brett’s wonderful adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novels.

Recycling, 09.10.2013

I have had a very frustrating morning engaged in the mundane and highly unglamorous task of disposing of our recycling. Normally this is not a difficult job, especially with those lucky enough to have doorstep recycling. But recycling is yet another aspect of daily life that is considerably more difficult for water-dwellers than land-lubbers.

The downward bent began before midday. I had a good morning dealing with some perfunctory work tasks and rescuing a lost ring (though I did rifle through the whole of this week’s rubbish to find it). As you can imagine, after the party, there was a lot of recycling to do. I had binned it up into black bin bags and smaller bags and it was awaiting me on the deck. Initially I tried compressing it all into my panniers. But the sodden, heavy bags in their cheap and ineffectual black bin bags did not fit inside. So, with my hands covered in an unpalatable confluence of muck, old beer and filth – the alluvial deposits of the weekend fun – I wheeled my bicycle with its haphazard castle of black bin bags along the Mile End section of towpath to the Victoria Park boat facility. After twenty minutes of awkward pushing and messy readjustment I made it. But there was no recycling there, only domestic waste disposal. There were directions to a recycling spot 0.2 miles away.

It would not have been far for the average human being, but the weakened bags were beginning to belch out their contents. There were oozing and sagging like my spirits. Another twenty minutes of bicycle pushing ensued. At last I reached Victoria’s Crown Gate by the Old Ford Roundabout. I saw the small fuchsia-coloured recycling bins and dashed across the pelican crossing. As I dropped Bellissimo (my bicycle), at last the contents of the bags which had threatened to fall out all afternoon, avalanched onto the ground. Smelly tin-cans moistened with beer, misted bottles of Prosecco, plastic brownie-bite boxes, sodden Amber Leaf packets and rancid milk cartons were disarticulated from their wet bin-skins and popped into the open mouth of the recycling point one by one. But I was happy.

I think Harry is right. The next thing on the list is to build a trailer, a beautiful bicycle trailer. I think I want to name it Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

The Birthday Party, 07.10.2013

I had my birthday on the weekend so Hawisia became, for a time, transformed into a party boat. But she was not one bit like the steamboatsand paddlewheelers that used to plough up and down the ‘chocolate’ brown Mississippi. There were no proud steam funnels piping out smoke or paddles churning the water round. She remained very much moored to her posting by Victoria Park.

I chose that place for my birthday party because it’s lovely spot. Oak and ash trees from Victoria Park splay their branches out above the canal, from behind the fence, like a ceiling. The colours of the bank and the gardens of the semi-detached Victorian houses which back onto the canal are soft and green. The boats tethered along this strip of canal are very pretty and well maintained; their occupants tend to be younger and more fashionable than those of the boats in central London, on the Paddington Branch of the Grand Union Canal.

As we boated past today I peered into the windows of the wide-beams and barges that didn’t have their curtains drawn. (You see boaters normally keep their curtains drawn on port, or by the bank, but wide open on theirstarboard. So you can play peeping-tom best when you are on the move.) One wide-beam owned by a robust looking young man with a blonde beard, had a tall, mahogany dresser in the main galley of the boat. The day before I had spotted a cluster of apples spread out on his kitchen table on a nice piece of white cotton.

The party went well, though the boat rocked a little under the weight of so many strange feet. I had spent all morning cleaning and scrubbing her so that new guests were sure to see her in her best light. Happily a boat does not take as long to clean as a house. In fact, altogether it is probably the size of one large room in a London townhouse, stretched out narrowly across 60 ft.

After the party ended and the last of my friends had jumped off the deck into the dead of night, Gideon and I went to bed. We were warmed by the hearty beams of our wood-burning stove and Gideon’s delicious beetroot and fennel dips.

We woke up the next morning – the morning of the sixth of October, my birthday, to the most beautiful day of the autumn so far. It was a day of summer snatched by October – bright blue skies and warm wind. I don’t think I have ever had a more pleasant birthday morning as I had that day with Gideon, cycling along the Hertford Union Canal and up the Lea Valley, fleeing from the stale smell of post-party and problematic red-wine stains. We cycled along the glorious Lea River Valley, passed the spiked peaks of the Olympic stadium by Hackney Wick,  passed Fish Island  and through Hackney Marshes and Wick Wood in the direction of Clapton and eventually Stoke Newington.

The Lea glittered and gleamed – it seemed to be the Promised Land. My heart swelled with joy at the thought that we were finally – at long last – approaching our destination. The mythic lea river valley – the boater’s valle d’orado.

The weekend is the chosen day for moving. For now we moved on a little to Mile End to fill up our tank. There is sadly a little leak somewhere, although we have no idea where. But somehow the bilge is filling with water, and it is certainly from the tank. Poor Gideon is so weary with drilling out two layers of floorboards and fiddling around with plastic piping. It is not easy work. But we have water! The kitchen utensils haven’t smelled so clean for many weeks.

Tonight we have the wood-burning stove on and watched an episode of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes. Soon we will sleep. I have work in the morning.

Boiled Eggs, 04.10.2013

There is no better breakfast in the world than a par-boiled egg with an accompaniment of bread and butter. The egg is sitting in a wooden cup-holder. Its speckled shell is cracked and peeled back to show its rubbery white flesh. A pinch of salt has been sprinkled over the top. The bread is wholemeal. I have not toasted it today. It crumbles on my plate and in my mouth with goodness. The butter is unsalted, it sits in an Oxford green butter dish. My tea is the best I have ever known and one of the real treats in life: ‘Smoky Early Grey’ by Fortnum and Masons. It is a blend of lapsang souchong and Earl Grey. Its woodiness and smokiness set off the misted windows and the slightly damp air, with perfection.

The Singing Woman, 04.10.2013

The sound of bicycles passing at night – tyres skidding on wet gravel. The Doppler-effect of their rear lights form receding red splashes against our cotton curtains. Sometimes the voices are genial, sometimes slightly drunk. Groups of friends held in discussion. As the hours slip by, and the hour hand slinks into deep night, there are fewer passers-by. Their presence is shadier and more enigmatic. Sometimes noises slice through the darkness and the slight glass sheeting of our windows and the ice-cold hand of fear, grips me.

Last night, in the dead of night, the outside sounds broke through my subconscious sleeping mind and woke me. I heard a woman’s voice outside. Lost and strange, she was singing. In the obscurity of night it felt like an evil sound, a shamanic warbling sung in warped melodies. I allowed my warm sleepy night-skin to slip out of the chamber of heat underneath the duvet. I peered out beyond the curtains.

There she was, I could see her quite clearly, crouching in the undergrowth. It is dark by Victoria Park and so she was lit only by moonlight. Her dog, a large (caramel-brown?) setter stood – his neck straining, his tail wagging vehemently. What was this woman doing there, scrambling about in the undergrowth, in this unpleasant cold night, spattering rain? What was she singing and who was she singing to? I was frightened, but sunk back in the pillows.

A little later I could hear her singing voice fading back along the towpath towards the Cambridge Heath Road. Whatever she was looking for she had found, and then, like a demonic banshee of the night – fled back along the desolate road to Hackney.

The Terrapin, 02.10.2013

What do I have to show for today?

An aching jaw. One brand new enamel filling. The dentist showed me a digital photograph of it on a screen, all blown-up so the cavity was perfectly visible. It looked like a glacier – frosty and white. He kindly treated the tooth with a mysterious substance that would act as further ballast against infection, a protective coating.

Then we decided to move the boat. We cycled home to Hoxton from my parent’s house in Camden Town. Nothing seemed amiss at first, but then when we stood on the cruiser stern of the boat it was clear that she had strayed from her mooring once again. Some considerate stranger had pulled her back. We could tell this was the case because her mooring pin was different – an old rusted pin that had seen better days, with the rope-eye, or tether missing.

This was the third time that the boat had come away from her mooring while we were away in Hoxton. I had tried to hammer the pin down in a number of ways, but nothing seemed to work. To make matters worse we had a 50 ft narrowboat doubling up with us and putting even more pressure on the precarious pin. Now it was gone. The previous times a friendly Polish boater a little further down the way had helped bring her back safely to the towpath. If not she would have been bobbing about helplessly in the canal till god-knows-when. He was a friendly fellow. I think he had bought a ‘shell’ a few weeks away and was doing some rapid welding work on the main body of the boat. One morning he had called for a fire extinguisher because a bottle of white spirit had caught fire from one of the sparks that had flown from his welding machine. Gideon ran down with one from our boat. One good turn deserves another.

But then this time it did seem a little more mysterious, because we had a stray end of rope on our stern. Someone had clearly cut our rope. But why? Did they want to steal our new metal pin? If so, could it have been a boater?

I felt a little ruffled but as afternoon ripened into early evening it was clearly imperative to get the boat moving as soon as possible. There was a little discussion about trying to fill her up (with water) by Islington, but then we would have to brave the tunnel as there was nowhere to turn round. In the end we decided to simply make a move towards Mile End, after all, by that point we hadn’t had running water working properly for months. I felt we could wait a few more days.

The towpath around Victoria Park is lovely. It is quiet too and the sodium lighting doesn’t burn through the windows at night like it does on some parts of the Grand Union canal. The neighbours seem friendly, and some lucky sods have beautiful gardens that back right out onto the canal opposite us. Their gardens are overrun and full of character.

As desirable as these mooring spots are (bordered by Victoria Park on one side, and terraced gardens on the other), there is also a reverse side to the coin. One of our neighbours on the Jack Merrick in Hoxton had told us that there had been trouble recently by the Park. Small gangs of youths had managed to break into boats and rob owners at knife point. I hadn’t heard anything about it in the news, but that might just reflect an institutional prejudice. Rumours like that fly up and down the riverfront. Once you pass the safe haven of Angel through the Islington tunnel and enter East London proper, one gets the feeling that canal life begins to get gradually more unruly and unpredictable.

Another memorable thing happened just as we rounded the bend from the distinctive ‘robert eels’ poster near Broadway Market. We saw a lovely mud-coloured terrapin in the canal, sitting on a piece of just-surfacing bark. His black leathery neck stuck neatly out of his shell and he seemed to be smiling at us as we passed. What a strange ecology of Pygmalion life-forms the canal supports! Like us, I thought to myself: amphibious, hybrid, a little weird.

The Handgun, 28.09.2013

This morning, after breakfast, I opened the hatch of our lovely boat Hawisia.

To my surprise I saw something in the late-September sunshine that I did not expect to see: two men outside on the tow-path, right by Hawisia’s cruiser stern.

It was almost midday. I had some housekeeping tasks to do, but I noticed that these men (Cockneys by the sound of it) were still lingering on the tow-path beside the boat.

A few minutes later, after putting on my blue linen smock coat, I locked up the boat and approached the men who were where I had seen them last. They were talking eagerly, but they had also seen me emerging from the boat galley and clearly expected me to say something to them.

Cued by their eyes, the words tumbled from my mouth,

“What have you found there?”

No sooner had I said it than my eyes were directed away from their faces, towards the boot of the second man. His foot was delicately poised beside an object nestling on the grassy bank.

“A hand-gun,” he said. “Forty year old.”

“We called the police. They’ll be here soon.”

The gun was small and rusty, covered in a blanketing of furze and underwater slime. It did look ancient – perhaps the guilty partner of some long-forgotten crime chucked anxiously into the canal to avoid detection.  

“Where do you find it?” I asked, amazed.

“Right by your boat!” One man replied jollily. “Maybe it’s yours!”

“It’s not mine – I’m a pacifist!’ I replied, not knowing what else to say.

We all laughed. I unlocked my bicycle from the rack above the boat and slung my lock round my waist.  What a find! And right by the abutting rear-end of our Lister engine compartment.

The water is very shallow in this part of the Grand Union canal and in good weather you can see the sediment and murky detritus on the river bed very clearly from the bank. They had seen it, and plucked it from the gloomy waters like oyster catchers or divers. Who knows how many years it has lain there, unremarked, at the bottom of the Regents Canal?

N.B. Since writing this blog entry I had noticed several interesting objects languishing at the bottom of the canal in states of semi-liquid preservation. The River Lea, where the waters are deep are especially good hunting grounds. Once by Fish Island I noticed an entire sofa-bed, motorbike and car sunk to aqueous depths, their presence half-revealed and half-unannounced by the rippling water.

Light, 01.10.2013

Yesterday was a landmark occasion for Hawisia and her crew. Finally, after months of languishing in the darkness – reading by paraffin lamps and tea lights, we emerged into the light. The dramatic transition from the pre-industrial to modern age was enabled by two modest innovations supplied by the excellent electricians Maplins. These devices were small pin-ended LED lights. Now instead of rolling out 240 volts of electricity to ensure that we have lighting on the boat, and hence running out of energy very quickly – we can rely purely on our 12 volt supply.

The small pin-points of light look like stars behind the mica-like glass of the lampshades. They have transformed our lives. We are no longer scrambling in the darkness, as strange stragglers of pre-modernity or atavistic cosmopolitans. I feel like a civilised human being once more.

There was something romantic about our incarceration in the boat with only lamp oil and tapers. But even this ‘romance’ began to wear down and grind on me after some time. After all we still have the hurricane lamps, we still have the lovely, ceramic ‘squirrel’ (our woodburning stove). But now we have also engineered a way to read properly at night, or watch our friends faces when we invite them over for dinner.

They are not all done yet. We have put up three – two LEDs in the old light casements in the kitchen and one spotlight. We still have to fit them in the bathroom, bedroom and living room. We plan to fit three downward-facing lights in the belly of the boat – more atmospheric that way. The brass LED ‘Knightsbridge’ light fittings from the chandlers are also quite expensive – £18 each. I imagine the more money we find the more, light will eventually spill from the small windows of our 60 ft boat into the surrounding night.