The Armchair, 12.11.2013

I felt like a thief last night, creeping slowly back to the boat along the tow-path near Homerton. I had an accomplice – my father – staggering under the weight of it. I had a getaway vehicle – my father’s car – parked illegally in the driveway of a large office block nearby. I had potential mode of entrance and exit planned down to the fine detail of rule measurement of window frames. Our heist also had an object – but this time we were not plotting to remove something, ours was a reverse-raffifi – we wanted to put something back.

The armchair is diminutive in size. It has the same pin-cushioned look of red leather banquettes in pubs though it is saffron yellow in colour – which has greened a little over time. I associate with my time as an undergraduate, reading feverishly by my bed in Radcliffe Square. I have turned over hundreds of pages in its arms, and turned to it in countless moments of defeat, boredom, loneliness and contemplation. It is not the kind of chair you turn to when you are happy, it’s the kind of chair that I associate with moments of solitude and prolonged periods of hard work.

Above everything else, it has come down the family line. It was a favourite chair of my English grandmother’s when she still owned the house my father grew up in on Robin Hill. Those were the glory days I envied my father in my youth: of sailing, of hard work, of the war, of going to public school of being absolutely and archetypically English.

“I didn’t know,” my father once said to me sorrowfully. He had just returned from a concentration camp. “To think that while all this was going on, we were … playing tennis.” It is a lament that comes to us through History.

My father was brought up in a very particular way, in a way that was once described, strangely enough, as a ‘good’ upbringing. He was forbidden to speak to other boys in the village, except those of his own class. He was instructed how to sail a boat, he was expected to excel in sports at school. He experienced a dressing-down when he did his national service.

There was cruelty abroad, there was cruelty at home.

So it is one of the few things that belongs to me still which dates from that bygone era in my family history. For better or for worse. That chair. But aside from the lode of history, aside from its, by now, worn and impoverished state, it is a very comfortable chair, and the only armchair small enough to fit into the boat.

I had every reason to think that our night-time mission would fail. It was drizzling rain and dark. My father struggled with the weight of the armchair but refused to let me carry it myself. He had already measured the hatch door and windows and said that there was only a twenty per cent chance that it would work. But somehow my stubbornness won through. We’ll find a way to make it work, I assured him.

The chair had become a necessity to me. This was because we had removed the fibreglass insulation at the bottom of the boat which had once protected the pipes from freezing. When the boat flooded and the pipes burst because of air bubbles that had got in via the water pump, the insulation had become unworkable, wet and sponge-like. We threw it out. But now the floor of the boat which is below water level, was noticeably colder, especially as we just had bean bags to sit on. My dream was to sit up off the floor and read by my own fire, insulated by the air of the boat.

Gideon caught us up half-way along the drenched tow-path. He carried the armchair on his back like a primitive water-carrier. Dad returned to the car to re-park, so Gideon and I moved it to the boat alone. Gideon waited outside in the rain. I fumbled with keys and eventually got onto the boat. The lights wouldn’t come on. I had left the water pump on and run down the batteries it seemed (in the winter, our energy supply, mainly derived from our boat’s solar panels are far more paltry than in summer. We are lucky to have enough power to run three 12v lights in the evening without running our engine). So we had to move the armchair on the boat in the dark.

We tried the largest glass slide-window. No luck – we couldn’t get the wooden legs in. We tried the front hatch of the boat – no luck, we couldn’t get the back through. Exasperated I searched for a Philips screwdriver in the tool cupboard and tried to remove the legs, no chance. It was an old chair and its structure was totally solid.

“Is there anywhere else it could go in?” Gideon asked. We had already tried both the entrances I had measured with my father. I was about to say no when I suddenly had an idea: ‘What about the wooden shutter by the desk?’

This wooden shutter is an opening that we do not use much on the boat, due to cold weather. It is not big, but thankfully it was large enough to accommodate the width of the bottom of the armchair. It popped through perfectly, like a pip and I plopped it straight before the fire.

I whelped with happiness when I realised it would go through. Then Gideon came on board. We ran the engine, the lights came on again. Then we found dad and told him the good news. It had not been a wasted mission. Now Behemoth has somewhere to curl up at night and I have somewhere to toast muffins from.

– May it have a long and prosperous life!

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Strike while the iron’s hot, 16.11.2013

Our Morso in full working order

I think even the most hardened and experienced of boaters learn new things everyday on the river. It is one of the most beautiful things about this lifestyle – that never-ending sense of developing and acquiring new knowledge and better ways of solving the same problems. I can see why some people I have met in my life have recommended the practical path so strongly to me. There is something as complex, compelling, infinite and challenging about simple, practical problems as there is about the most abstruse problems in mathematics or literary criticism, say.

Our recent experiences with our Morso ‘squirrel’ wood-burning stove have shown this to me. Of course there are some boaters who would “bah” at us for not knowing this sooner, but with boating as with life in general, you must make your own mistakes and learn your own lessons. Excellent advice is easily lost on deaf or uninformed ears.

The Morso stove is the perfect case-in-point. We knew that the stove we inherited with the boat was not performing optimally. It was a strange creature – I don’t know where Richard got it from. It had gone through several hands, and therefore several designers. Someone had angle-grinded a large hole at the back of it (presumably to fit a back-boiler), and had since covered the hole with a sheet of loose iron. Someone else had gutted the inside of the stove and removed all its parts – probably to sell on. (Morso parts fetch a high price on the market, even on ebay, it is hard to find one of these well manufactured Scandinavian parts for less than £30.)

Despite this, it was still possible to build a fire inside it that could get hot enough to burn coal fairly well. But we did not know enough about boats and woodburning stove too know just what we were missing out on.

Over the past five days Gideon has been treasure hunting. Scouring the online marketplaces and official stores we have put together the wonderful internal steel jigsaw puzzle of a Morso stove. We bought stoves ‘bricks’ (not at all like normal bricks it turns out), we bought an internal ‘grate’ and a ‘riddle’ (for riddling coals and sifting ash). Best of all we bought a ‘baffle’ to help insulate and protect the stove as well as help draw the heat better. Our handy new vehicle ‘Rocinante’ the trailer, played his part in all these purchases.

Our Morso in full working order

Today, on one of the blissfully clear, cold days that has blessed the south of England recently, we assembled her. The transformation is astonishing and even more noticeable that I expected.

Before, even when I built a ferocious fire the actual warmth produced was only noticeable in the immediate environs of the stove. We both were usually wearing more than two jumpers in the evenings. Our bedroom, by the prow of the boat, was still freezing, and worst of all, a little damp. Now after just twenty minutes the entire boat is so warm that we are walking around in T-shirts. Even our bedroom is temperate. Clothes hanging up by the fire dry in a matter of minutes.

Our life has dramatically improved for the better. It is as significant a moment as when we finally changed to a dependable 12 volt circuitry for our lighting. Now we have heat and light and plenty of fuel from felled trees and stray logs in Wick Wood. I can finally imagine lasting out this winter – our first winter on Hawisia.

Condensation, 20.11.2013

Sometimes it feels that living on a boat is nothing more than a daily battle against the element of water. Water on the outside of the boat is life and prosperity, water on the inside of the boat is disastrous, whether in the form of leaks, burst pipes or worst of all, condensation.

Condensation (and by that I do not mean of the courtly kind), is the internal enemy of boat life; the anti-revolutionary. It slowly strangles the life of a boat until it is unendurable to live there anymore because of dampness, fungi, and wetness. It is easy to ignore until this slippery salamander of a foe has snuck into your wardrobes and drawers, onto your carpets and into your pillows, infusing every porous surface with a fine and unmistakeable covering of mould.

How does it come about? Nothing has made me hark back to the GCSE classroom as much as this irresolvable dilemma of condensation and its effects of mould and dampness. It is the by-product of life, of breathing. It is the by-product of heat. Both essential in the winter! The kettle excretes it when it boils and whistles, the fire emanates it with its steady glow, our breaths when we kiss and talk. It is, in a word, inescapable.

What is to be done with this ‘inside rain’ as Gideon calls it? Every morning I wipe down our windows with a cloth or a rag, trying to remove as many beads of condensation as possible. It should probably be done twice a day. Apparently there is a sort of film which you can apply to windows, that helps reduce it, and of course double-glazing helps hugely. The main problem is the disparity in temperature between the inside and outside; that’s what causes the water to form on the windows and sills, and drop down onto the floor or cling to our ceilings and doors.

Boat life is not a static life, you must buzz with energy and a will to overcome (if you do not have a perfect boat, which I am beginning to think does not exist in any case), the threat of obsolescence or integration with the elements of the outside world. You must fight the winds which rock you, the rain which lashes at your windows, the leaves which fall upon your roof. But then again, if you ‘fight’, you will never win. It is only the kind of person that takes pleasure in these daily activities who survives the stern test of the water. Your spirits must be buoyant and not bitter; your heart must be strong and not weak. Others’ pain must be your pleasure. Apathy leads to squalid and unhappy boats with wretched owners.

So the grinding, war of attrition against the water continues…

Robin the “log man”, 14.11.2013

Robin, ‘the log man’, as he calls himself, is a tree surgeon by trade but sells logs to boaters to earn a little extra pocket money on the side. I had first met him by Victoria Park on the morning of my birthday. He was a cheery fellow who knew the East End of London very well.

“Grew up round here”, he explained as we walked towards his pick-up van. “It was much rougher then, of course.”

So a real, genuine Cockney – like Gideon’s father, who was born in East Ham. “They say that you are only a true Cockney if you grew up within the hearing of the bells of Bow church,” he once said to me. Bow church is stranded on the peninsula highway known as The Mile End Road which mounts into the high, desolate disc of city surrounding the now redundant Olympic stadium. At the time that Gideon and I lived in Stepney Green, Bow church represented the edge of the knowable universe, in the same way the Compostella de Santiago may once have done to the old Spanish theologians who walked along the nearby cliffs.

Robin gave plenty of forewarning that he would arrive this evening with a promised delivery of logs. But I was so busy editing a podcast at the charity, and then visiting the vet with Behemoth that it completely slipped my mind. I was on the boat with a very healthy-looking cat, and had just tucked into dinner. In a burst of nostalgia I decided to make myself one of those easy ‘quick –fix’ meals that reminded me of my childhood – mashed potato, fish fingers and broccoli. So I was just about to tuck into my long-awaited dinner when I received a call on my phone.

“I’ll be with you in twenty minutes”, he said. Bugger, I thought. I had totally forgotten to get money out, and had to raid our piggy bank to come up with fifteen pounds. I was three pounds short.

I like using Robin because the thought of buying farmed timber makes me uncomfortable. Buying from the tree surgeon is a much cheaper and more sustainable solution. He gives me what he shears off trees and at a very reasonable price – around three pounds a bag. There is no wastage. It suits us both.

What I had forgotten in my haste, was that Gideon was working late at the bike shop tonight and so I had no helping pair of hands. By the time Robin drove off I was left on the Homerton Road with my bicycle and eight heavy bags of logs. All in all it took me forty minutes to carry the bags of wood down the stairs by the canal and hide them next to a tree, for Harry to pick up later. The air was so cold that my breath was coming out in mist. The weight of the bags made my wrists sore and the tips of my fingers tingle. All I wanted was to be back on the boat, safe and warm, with my fire on and my book out. But I was lugging timber down a flight of slippery stone stairs by some council estates. A couple were having a solitary tête-a-tête at the bottom of the stairs, I kept interrupting them. I wonder what they thought of me, passing them to hide my bags of booty in the darkness. I saw the young girl’s face occasionally when she got up to let me pass. Her expression was sad and when she moved her head scarf to one side I saw that her cheeks were wet from crying. He seemed like a very serious young man too, and perhaps a little cruel.

I can hear a dog yelping in the distance, or perhaps it is a fox, screaming.