Sunset on the Stoke Newington Towpath

Sunset on the Stoke Newington Towpath

Panorama of boats and craft docked in the Lea River. It’s winter and a silver light settles on the water as temperature edge downwards. A frost tends to settle overnight – disappearingwhen the next morning’s sun has risen.

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The River Couriers, 12.12.2013

When we first started living in London on our narrowboat, one of the things that delighted me the most were the trading boats.

These wherry-men were the savvy individuals who had cottoned onto the increasing popularity of boat life and adjusted their business plan accordingly.

The great grandfather of this river genealogy is a man that goes by the name of Paul.

Paul has a beautiful old boat – a nineteenth century coal barge. For this reason most of the boat has no roof, though there is a beam running across the top held aloft by two beautifully carved wooden triangles joined to the boat. There is a separate engine room with shutters which skippers usually leave open to cool the engine. Then there is a small living quarters. In the large space where coal would have once been piled in small, black mountains; Paul carries an assortment of the odds and ends of boating life: 13 kg Calor gas bottles, smokeless coal and red diesel. If you’re lucky he might do you a pump-out, although this is becoming increasingly rare these days.

When we were experiencing engine distress in Kensal Rise I met a young man called Dominic. He told me that when he broke down, a river courier that he knew would top up his water.

“I didn’t even need to ask,” he said. “I just told him to top me up whenever he went by.”

Obviously, when you are broken down, running out of water is a very real and threatening proposition.

But those are bygone days. The river couriers, perhaps once behaved like an ambulance service to distressed boats, helping in an assortment of less profitable ways by doing pump-outs and topping up with water. Now, however, even on the river, the principle of capital reigns supreme. I have heard some boaters complain that river couriers only stop for women, or only stop if you make several purchases at once.

Renée is the name of Paul’s adopted river son. He is French; he growls rather than speaks, his face is pitted and weather-beaten; his eyes glisten and his hair is a shaggy, oily mane of black ringlets.

The precise nature of the relationship between these two men is uncertain: but of one thing all boaters can agree, Paul was there first. So they are not exactly business associates or partners, they do not work as a team. But somebody suggested to me that Renée rents his boat from the older man who allows him to ply his own trade on the river front. I met these men both on the Western branch or concourse of the Grand Union Canal, but their remit is vast: at the beginning of one week they will be in Kensal Rise and by the end of the week they will have already made it to Limehouse Cut. Because of all the precious cargo on their boats they do not moor on the tow-path, but ‘piggy-back’ onto other boats. They are shape-shifters, nomads; forever on the move, ploughing the same familiar terrain across the wingspan of London.

I met Jack more recently. He is the friendliest river courier we have yet to meet, and he has a sort of mutually beneficial agreement with Gideon. The boat he pilots is called ‘The Archimedes’, it has a handsome blue finish and it is a historic boat, built in 1935.

I cannot speak of historic boats without telling a little story about one of our earliest, most enchanting boating encounters. We were cruising the water-course between Brentford Lock and the Western branch of the Grand Union Canal. We had just finished luncheon in a pub called The Fox (highly recommended) at the foot of the Hanwell stairs – a flight of seven locks. We were half-way up the flight when we saw a girl running down stream – she had come ahead as a scout. As their craft was so broad, she told us, they would wait at the top of the stairs for us to pass.

Eventually we passed the mysterious craft, so broad that it took up the entire diameter of a lock. A crew of six or seven people were walking about agitatedly, some with long barge poles in their hands. It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before: it was very flat and square, the colour of carnation red and there was hardly any space for living quarters. I couldn’t understand what it was; it looked more like a vast gondolier than a coal-barge.

A girl with olive skin and a swirl of black sari wrapped around her head explained across the water, “It’s an old puppet theatre! Every year we do the historic trip from Brentford Lock to Paddington Basin.” They were on their way to Richmond they told me. Later I found out that this magical marionette theatre had been established on the barge for twenty-five years and we have caught the company during their annual tour of the River Thames.

And so it was. They got there in the end, and came back, even though the bottom of their boat sagged to the bottom of the shallow canal and the rudder become engorged with mud. A few weeks later I saw a sign in Paddington Basin advertising the travelling water-boat shows.

***

The river couriers are men of every season. In frost, in sun and snow they patiently chug along the rivers and canals, lock by lock, boat by boat. Their trade is in the mineral and elemental properties of life: fuel, coal, food. Through their livelihoods they are a reincarnation of the old spirit of the river, harking back to a time when traders and merchants would regularly ply the waters with trade, or courier heavy loads of goods through London. It is like experiencing a flash of industrial or pre-industrial Britain, they hey-day of the canal artery system. The river couriers have established a basic economy on water and hence the first rudiments of a canal-side society. They are the embodiment of the past made present and active; joyfully anachronistic, inspiringly free.

The English Teacher, 11.12.2013

She gets up each morning before the sun has risen. It is winter. The cat purrs and pads on her cloudy white duvet, making it even harder to leave its soft body smells and warm creped edges. She dresses in bed, allowing her torso to be exposed to the cold air.  Her breasts goose-pimple as they wait for the familiar hold of her brassier. 

She clips it into place and puts on one of the shirts she has left out on the other side of the bed, ready for the morning. Her tights are still on from the night before. She pushes the cat to one side and gets out of bed. She climbs into her skirt. She pushes her untidy mane of hair into place before a vanity mirror. She pouts and puts on some mascara.

She switches the light off and moves up the boat. Another skylight flicks on and another bar of light shoots across the galley. She gives the cat her breakfast first, spooning out congealed lumps of trout and god-awful-looking processed fish into a small white ceramic bowl. Then she moves towards the boiler, cooker and control board. ‘Water pump’: On. Boiler: pilot light then puff! Nudge the ‘hot’ tap, after one minute a stream of piping hot water charges through the faucet. She washes her hands with the old bar of soap her mother gave her. Eventually the smears of coal fall from her hands. Fill up the kettle. Put it on the boil. ‘Water pump’: Off. Large frying pan, out, gas ring, on. The dented old pan warms itself up for toast. 

After breakfast, she swiftly puts on her coat and scarf. That whole preparation has only taken fifteen minutes. It is as familiar to her now as her body itself; that rehearsed feel of the morning, and her snowy, woollen mind. Her hands search for the wet hatch-roof. Cold wet metal stings her finger tips. She pushes and lifts it back. Suddenly her head emerges into the outside world. It is still dark and spools of white mist cover the river. The towpath is empty. 

Sometimes her bicycle is frozen. Then the seat feels like a hard lump of wood. The metal bars are sugar-coated with frost. The wheels have become ice-lollipops. When she tries to take off, away from the towpath and up the hill, she glides like a skater. The brakes are locked; the gear shifter has frozen. She is riding a frozen contraption like a jilted mechanical toy, on her way to work in the acute frost of early winter. She has become an English teacher. 

The Christmas Tree, 08.12.2013

This morning I bought a Christmas tree from Chatsworth Road market for the boat. I was very lucky to get such a plump, bushy one. The adolescent twin brothers who were offering local delivery services for one pound a go had already stalked off with another lady’s Christmas tree – a six-footer. So I had to cop my load alone. I slung the young spruce pine up onto my shoulder and savoured the fragrant smell of the tree, as fresh needles found their way onto my hair and woollen coat. I held onto the trunk of the tree and marched back home, almost entirely eclipsed by its branches, to the delight and amusement of almost every person that I passed by. 

When I got back to the boat I had to negotiate both the tree and the cat back inside through the narrow gallery and past the kitchenette. I released my cumbersome pine tree into its new home beside the fire and hacked away at its caul of plastic netting with a pair of scissors. In a moment its canopy of young branches bounced down with the elastic spring of rubber. I realised with misgiving that the tree was enormous, and filled up at least half the width of the boat. It was a tragi-comic moment – Christmas was upon us whether we wanted it or not.

I have made a resolution to decorate the tree entirely from home made objects this year. Some girls at the Christmas party gave me good ideas – using dried fruit and spices hung from ribbons. The ‘Crafty Christmas’ page on the Friends of the Earth webpage also had some ingenious suggestions (including painting popcorn to create mini baubles and making cut-outs from baked dough).

 The towpath by Clapton is very seasonal at this time of year. A group of well-wishers from a local church invited me to their christingle service this week. Passersby walk by in neat family groups, wearing hats, scarves and gloves. The Chatsworth Road market has been a success on almost every weekend this December and throngs with mistletoe vendors and organic vegetable stalls. I saw little plastic punnets of mahogany chestnuts and the deranged towers of brussel sprouts balanced in wooded boxes. 

The Chatsworth Road, 09.12.2013

The passage of the Chatsworth road curves like a rainbow from Clapton Park up along the spine of Marsh Hill, past Homerton Hospital and up towards Homerton Station. Along its narrow axis thrives a row of local businesses and shops: from printers and bookstores, to French patisseries, vintage furniture outlets, second-hand clothes shops, crêperies and West Indian takeaways. Each Sunday there is a jumble sale in the car park and grounds of a lovely Victorian red-brick primary school. The newsagents and grocery stores there offer one of the best and cheapest sour dough loaves in East London.

The Chatsworth road is a well-spring of thriving local trade, creativity, and community spirit. It is an artery of life in Clapton, and could almost, on its own, be justification enough for living in this area. Ponderous and lovely signs fill the notice boards of cafes,

the backrooms of bars crumble in chic disrepair. There is a noticeable Francophone influence: small Parisian bureaus, dressers and chapeaus in the second-hand oddities shop, baguettes in the Epicerie. Yet the long street is not yet completely gentrified. Its primary purpose is still to exist for the pleasure and service of the local community; it is not yet commoditised to the point of farce like Brick Lane or parts of the Kingsland Road.

The road is crammed with unique and surprising offerings during its night-time incarnation too. It is bordered on one side by the enigmatic and anarchic venue ‘Lumiere’* and on the other by the gaudy folk glamour of Chats Palace, home to East London’s itinerant folk scene.

A lovely new, plain-fronted book and print shop has just opened opposite Glenarm road. I had a conversation with the proprietor and some friends of his in this establishment on the first weekend of its opening. Perhaps it is worth recording; it was all about the Hackney Marshes – our back garden.

The bookshop was a new business that had just opened this month. The man who bought the property had returned from Dorset, where he had tried, for a short period, to make a living with his wife.

But he was not new to the area. His father had lived on the Chatsworth Road his whole life and he was brought up here. When I began to speak about the mysterious power of the marshes, their beauty, and their silence – he paused a little to tell me what he knew of their history.

“They say that after the war ended – and you know how the East End of London was obliterated by the bombs – the authorities dumped all the rubble right in the marshes. It’s still there,  just underneath the football pitches,” he explained.

“Best quality pitches in London,” another voice chipped in. The man was small, and bald. “They say it’s because of the rubble, it does something special to the pitches, absorbs the water.”

I stopped to think about this vivid proposition: that the land of the Hackney Marshes was a lodestone of rubble from the Second World War like East London’s very own sunken Atlantis or lost city. I imagined examining the cross-section of underground detritus, like the strata of the inside of a cake after it has been sliced and lifted into the air.

“Can I ask you a question?” I asked, sensing that I was in the presence of experts.

“Of course,” they replied.

“I know it must seem very obvious to you, but I never know how to spell the River Lee. I notice that on all the old fashioned signs it is spelled with an ‘a’, like a meadow, but sometimes it is spelled ‘ee’.”

“You can spell it either way,” the bald man returned. “But most spell it with an ‘a’.”

It suddenly seemed very silly to me: this tautology. Why would you name a river after a meadow?

“Used to mark a boundary line between the Saxons and the Vikings, did the Lea,” the bald man continued quickly. “It was represented the outer limit of Saxon territory, during the raids, that is. On one side it was the Saxons, on the other, the Dane men. It has a very interesting history, this part of London.”

I replied in the affirmative and then prepared to leave the shop. My heart was full of pride, inspired by the stories I had heard of the Lea Valley; that mystical kingdom, that viscose boundary-line…

* A Digression Upon Lumiere

Lumiere poses a tantalising blank on my constellation of East London landmarks. The magnetic and lurid appeal with which it exists in my mind is a product of its illusiveness. Somewhere between a public and a private space, it appears to be one of the most original and unique venues in London. The venue is owned by its namesake Lumiere himself, who refuses to conform to regular opening hours. In order to know when the ‘space’ is open, you must ‘know’ Lumiere himself or contact him. It is probably the only club-cum-bar-cum-god-knows-what in which the proprietor knows everyone who patronises his place. Perhaps that’s the point.

Amazingly, I have still not managed to visit Lumiere properly. But I have come tantalizingly close. Now and then Gideon and I will walk up to its glass door guarded by blue fairy lights and shrubbery. We peer in to see if tonight is one of ‘those’ nights when it’s open. Once we tried the door – it opened. We stepped inside. We were at the top of a stairwell by an old bar. We could see no one.

“Hello,” Gideon half-called, half-shouted.

“Hi,” the sound of footsteps climbing the stairs. She was wearing microscopic, blue-sequined hot pants and a very small corset. Psychedelic eye make-up and a ridiculous fountain of blonde hair made her face scintillate.

‘Do you know if it’s open tonight?’ we asked awkwardly.

“Oh, no, sorry, no,” she replied. “I’m just here for a photo shoot.” Pause.

“Oh no, but you must come”, she continued, looking at us. “Do you know Lumiere?”

“No,” we replied. “No, not yet.”

“Oh, you must meet him. He’s amazing.” She said, drolly.

“Have you been to Lumiere before?” she continued.

“No, no, it was our first time, that’s why we wanted to see if it was open.” We explained.

“Oh no, not tonight, but you must come,” she said. “You should meet Lumiere first. He really is an incredible person…”

Her voice trailed off downstairs beneath the creaky wooden floor boards. We had no choice but to leave.

First experienc…

First experience is protected by a sense of enormous power; it wields magic.

The distinction between first and repeated experience is that one represents all: but two, three, four, five, six, seven ad infinitude cannot. First experiences are discoveries of original meaning which the language of later experience lacks the power to express.

From ‘G’ by John Berger, p.111 (Bloomsbury, 2012).

A Fragment; On Board Hawisia; Cruiser Stern Deck- Hampton Court Palace, The River Thames, 14.07.2013

At the moment Hawisia is lilting gently on the River Thames. It is sundown; the water has turned a boggy green and is reflecting back ringlets of bright silver.

Every time a small craft pilots down the water, the boat sways slightly. The sun has smeared to a pale golden yoke behind a veil of blue cloud. It is evening; Gideon is making carbonara below deck but within my line of vision – I am exhausted.

The real first day of ownership was not this one – this is actually a mid-week stage, but it is the end of the first leg of our journey and, at this point heroic-seeming effort to bring the 60 ft narrowboat, back to East London.