It’s Hard Not to Dream…

It’s hard not to dream of tobacco when you’re sitting by the fire, listening to the radio. Handel’s Saraband was just striking its pure cellist strings in my ear, now it’s something else. A violin swoops and soars like a song-bird, singing in sadness, wringing the heart.  It’s Mad Man Moon by the Genesis Suite. The energy has run out of our wind-up radio; this year’s best Christmas-tree yield.

 Radio silence and the seed-flames of fire guttering in the wood-burner.

I am sitting in my chair like a nut resting in its husk. My feet are snug in a pair of warm slippers that my sister gave me for Christmas. Behemoth is out – she has become nocturnal again. She’s is an in-between place that I can’t understand; neither domesticated nor wild. Sometimes I think I understand her, then she becomes hostile when I least expect it. It’s strange to think that I often think about my relationship with the cat. She is a friend to me, but an eccentric, unpredictable friend.

This is one of the first evenings that I’ve had free for the past week. Teaching has absorbed the attention of all my waking hours. I rise at 6.15 and often I do not return home until 8 o’ clock. Sometimes I sit on the floor of  London’s busy rush-hour Overground service marking my books, watching the scrawl of my red pen making its tracks across the books with the same detached curiosity as one of the many observers, watching me. 

Teaching often absorbs my sleeping hours too, when I sleep lightly and amorphous and strange projections of anxiety and fear hijack my mind. I wake up and grope for the mobile phone alarm on the wooden storage panel beside my bed. Is it time yet? I question the white-violet face. 3 am, the screen reads. I shiver and flop back onto the freezing pillow, burrowing my body as deep down into the furnace of warmth beneath the duvets as possible.

But sometimes I sleep as soundly as a child. Then waking up in the dark to my alarm is a kind of horror, followed by the mechanical movements of my morning routine and the familiar clockwork of Homerton Station’s morning rush-hour furore – the last train passengers desperately running for the train, the disappointment of the empty yet serenely-blue oyster card. For even now, at this age, I still have never topped-up more than £20 a go – a protest against the system that I have long since out-grown, and whose original purpose remains as murky and obscure to me now, as that tender age itself.

I think about teaching when I am teaching. I think about teaching when I am commuting. I think about teaching at school when I am lesson planning after the children’s school day has ended. Even when I am in bed I think about teaching. Then it feels like an effort to inhabit my physical body again, remembering that I am not just a disembodied mind, a channel through which information flows, but a human being with a woman’s wants and needs.

During the week I generally have two or three hours before I go to bed, after I come home from work. It is difficult to write in these hours. I want to eat or talk: I need to make the fire or wash or play with the cat. My mind-core is empty of ambition. I am tired.

And the boat? How does it fit in with all of this? I wonder if I am the only person in London who is leading the ridiculously hyphenated and paradoxical life of a teacher-boater. It’s not easy, I can tell you. Looking after a boat is already a part-time job in itself. And teaching? Well it must be one of the most intensive and demanding jobs in the world. And I’ve only just got started.  

What’s it like, playing this Jekyll and Hyde game with the world?

 I leave the boat wearing up fleece-lined boots, a tight suit skirt that my mother gave me and a pair of high heels mentally stored away in a cupboard office at school. I hitch up the elegant skirt, until it is riding immodestly high. But I don’t care – I have the darkness and my coat. Then I mount my bicycle and make my way along a towpath thick with silted mud, harrowed-through with deep rivets and tracks.

Sometimes when I teach in the classroom I wonder whether the children can see that my finger tips are stained with coal, that the tights beneath my elegant skirt are laddered and lacerated, that my hair is wild and knotted though it is tied into a bun. Sometimes I fear that they can see the tiny dials of mould-pores on the collar of my shirts or whether their senses – for children are like cats – are alert to the faint whiff of wood-smoke that their books give off after I have marked them.

It is a funny kind of life – a life of extremes – that I am living now.

The Beginning

A fragment I found written many months ago about our very first night on Hawisia.

We bought our narrowboat Hawisia on the 11th July 2013. It was moored in Egham Marina, west of London, near Staines in a small boat-yard that was destined to be the location of the hand-over.

You can get to the town quite easily via Waterloo, from central London, but at that time both Gideon and I were working full-time and the earliest we could reach the boatyard were Hawisia was stationed was 8 o’ clock at night. It was a long commute from the Bethnal Green Road in East London, where we both used to live and work.

The former owner was in a rush to leave when I arrived. He and his two boys had been waiting for some time. I felt a little like a thief in the presence of the two small, curly-haired boys, and could imagine myself maligned forever afterwards by them as ‘the one’ who took away their boat. The varnished furniture and freshly-painted cream interior added to the impression that I had just acquired a rich man’s toy – something fun and precious, but with little practical value, like an antique rocking horse. But to my surprise the two boys seemed very indifferent to the brokerage, that ancient exchange of money for property that was going on before their eyes, and instead performed the few tasks delegated to them by their father, with a slight air of sulky reluctance. I realised that I had probably caught them on the school run and they were impatient to get home for tea. So when I asked them if they would miss the boat, they just shrugged their shoulders. I suppose at that age it is difficult to be sentimental and nostalgic about change – that comes later.

Their stoicism also amused me a little. They appeared to me to be already comically small embodiments of their confident father, who spoke and walked with the practised ease and gait of one who had done well in life, and had everything to show for it: the chestnut-haired boys, the Jeep, the thriving restaurant business in the West End. His insouciant manner and reassuring love of the boat, was a master-stroke of salesmanship, and of course, we snapped it up straight away.

As we paced her up and down, he kept on letting slip alluring details about his family’s life on the boat, telling stories of their weekend trips away – the eagerly awaited fruits of happy and idle summer afternoons in the school holidays. So they had used the boat mainly for recreational reasons – taking it off down the Thames to go swimming or find good climbs on long weekends. And so emotive images were conjured irresistibly to mind: of piping hot chicken pie, gingham tablecloths, tree-climbing, hearty luncheons washed down with bracing dips in the Thames. This was the legacy of enjoyment that we were inheriting.

After Mr P took the last of the odd spaghetti sauces lying around in the kitchen cupboards and unscrewed the lingering family albums from the walls, he gave me a quick tour of the boat’s control systems.  But he left my life as rapidly as he had entered it, and following real or imagined pressure from his wife at home, drove off swiftly with the boys, leaving the keys dangling portentously from my hands.

It was a good hour later that Gideon arrived to meet me.

Ownership is profound and strange for young people or anyone who has never experienced it before. The world over, the same universal feelings must be experienced by those who ‘come into’ their first real property.  I felt proud and exhilarated but also suddenly intimidated, and a little frightened by this lode of responsibility.  I later realised that it is a mistake to think of a boat as though it were a machine, like a car. Boats are like children or demanding pets, they are alive. You need to look after them, and they give you back what you put into them. But these convictions grew and strengthened within me as the weeks passed by. The only thing I could be sure of as I felt the cool, flat metal of the keys in my palm, was that my life would never be the same again. There is a wonderful Thomas Mann quote that springs to mind: he said responsibility is the other face of freedom. So I realised that warm evening on the boat, while I was alone and a pale sickle moon signalled day’s end was near, that I had bought myself a type of freedom but I had also acquired a vast new responsibility.

When Gideon arrived it was already night time. I met him by the meadow outside the Egham marina where we were moored. It is a lovely piece of common land with one straight bridleway crossing through it. The moon lit up the pathway and the thatched field of corn around with soft silver light. As Gideon cycled towards me I felt like it was destiny that was bearing him closer to me and our first home together, and the thought of it made me tingle all over with fear and excitement.

That night we slept together under an old towel on an unmade bed. We had brought only a small rucksack each of possessions as we were both cycling. Loading the boat up with our possessions was to be a slow, laborious and cumulative process that is still not complete. But I suppose that is all in the nature of home-making. Each space makes new demands, and requires an organic generation of objects.

The mysterious process whereby a space becomes a place and then, eventually a home, has been something that I have watched and guarded over for many days now. Every new spoon, fork, plate, every pillow-case and kitchen cloth, every mundane object and pair of tweezers has brought us closer to that undefined end-point of homeliness.

Hawisia became ours on Thursday night. We decided to move the boat on Saturday when Gideon’s parents came down. As the date of departure loomed closer, our apprehension grew. Though we barely admitted it to ourselves let alone our fellow boatyard dwellers, neither of us had driven a boat before, let alone a 60 ft narrowboat. We didn’t know the first thing about it, or about locks, tides and currents – the common currency of life on the water.

Because of the unique placement of the boat when we bought it, we knew that we had a challenging journey ahead of us. We had to navigate the Thames down to Teddington – a long day of boating, perhaps 8 hours or so – and from there to Brentford Lock. The section between Teddington and Brentford was tidal, but the next day of navigation, from Brentford to West London was going to be plain sailing on the Grand Union Canal. We estimated that all together the journey would take us three days.

Youthful optimism! As it turned out, the journey has taken almost two weeks and we are still not arrived at our avowed endpoint – the River Lea.

At Last, 11.12.2013

I know the date by heart today because I have been repeating it to my students all morning: ‘Now open your exercise book, write the date and put a heading.’ I have been teaching The Taming of the Shrew and discussing whether or not it is a true comedy. Can a comedy be cruel? I asked the wide-eyed year 8’s. Is all comedy cruel? I asked myself.

Now that I have settled into my ‘nine to five’ routine, I realise with sadness that I will not see Hawisia in daylight on weekdays for many months to come. I leave the boat at dawn and return in the evening. At both stages the river is totally devoid of human presence: the chimney stacks on the boats show no signs of smoke, galley lights are off. The only sign of life is the occasional blast of light from a cyclist’s bicycle as they pass – but almost as soon as I notice them, they are gone, like the fizzled-out tail-ends of comets.

Now that Gideon has gone to Sheffield for a few days it feels extremely lonely here on the boat. Yesterday, I was filled with a kind of elemental sadness. I had a bad time at my parent’s house. When I finally got back to Hawisia: hair wild, hands crushingly cold, I could not get the fire to go for lack of kindling and smaller fragments of wood. So I just went to bed in order to avoid freezing. I held Behemoth tightly in my arms and invited her under the duvet. I fell asleep.

Tonight, on the long trajectory across London on the East to West Overground service, I thought with dread about what might greet me when I got home. Imagine if I could not get the fire to go again? Sometimes life on a boat is almost unbearably hard.

But after forty minutes of minute adjustments and negotiation I finally managed to build a self-sufficient fire. At last! Now it is blazing merrily beside me and I have just popped open a bottle of creamy brown ale. I am almost happy – except that I am on my own.

Then my mind returns to The Taming of the Shrew, one of those strange, early, farcical comedies. Yet in all Shakespeare’s canon it is the supreme example of the play-within-a-play. The story-line that we all know – of Katherine, the shrew, is actually put on by a bunch of players who are commissioned by a foolish noble in the play’s ‘Induction’, to divert Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker. The whole action of the ‘play’ is swallowed up by this strange framing device.

Now I want to think about boats in Shakespeare, since my mind is floating in quotations from the romance plays.

Well there is Cleopatra’s ‘barge’ of course – that is the most famous. Then there is the storm-tossed barque from which Sebastian and Alonso are thrown off in The Tempest. Twelfth Night opens with a boat voyage too, which leaves Viola stranded on the shores of a strange island. In A Winter’s Tale, it is not the hero or heroine, but the nobleman Antigonus who first sets sail upon the seas bound for Bohemia, where he deposits the infant princess Perdita. Boats, ships and voyages by seas seem to be a benchmark of the Comedies. I wonder why? Perhaps it is because the aureole of romantic aspiration that clings to adventure is not a pre-requisite of Tragedy as it is to Comedy. Tragedy must happen upon land; power-play and struggle is more difficult upon the water. One cannot have power on a boat. The water takes away and gives as it sees fit, it is the mistress here, not humankind.

Demolition by Water

What the tombstone or lonely cemetery epitaph is to mortal man, the ship-wreck is to the boater. It is a Boethian token of our earthly transience and the mutability of all things- a momento mori of the tidal currents and high seas.

Flesh to dust seems a more credible reduction that the alchemical transubstantiation of a cast iron-shell to a rusted, nibbled rind, devoured by water and time. It is strange to me that ships with names like The Endurance and The Titanic, are symbols of permanence and hardihood, yet through their very insistence on this fact, imply their own vulnerability and downfall. This exposes the basic paradox at the heart of the boat: the paradox of finite durability. Extending the life of a boat is as difficult as extending a human life: it can only be achieved with hard work, persistence and discipline. Bad habits lead quickly to, extinction.

Downstream from the Hackney Cut in Clapton you can find just such a paradox.

It was once a very handsome boat: painted festively with borders of bright red and bouquets of roses. Now it is a rotting wreck and the owner is nowhere to be seen.

I saw him once, before she sank. He was doing repair work on the boat, working hard with chisel, hammer and saw. He had gathered an untidy tipee of pallet beams and woodchip that was resting behind him on a tree. After that I never saw him again. Somehow the verdict had been pronounced on her: she was a lost cause.  

Over the autumn period, we were moored beside this ghost ship for many week. So I watched its gentle disintegration into water: the disentangled gut of its rope fender unwinding – the well-jointed wood splintering; the walls of creaking timber breached by probing fingers of water.

Once an empress upon the water; now, I reflected, its mysterious interior would play host to only chambers of dark, still water.

Then, at night, the thought of its silent, skulking presence just beyond the leer of our prow would haunt me. Its comical slump in the water seemed to prefigure, the abyssal depths to which all boats would eventually, sink.

To Fridge or not to Fridge? That is the Question

Well at least it was in the beginning, when we first bought the boat. At that time in the summer, the absence of a fridge in my life was one of the things that disturbed me most about boat life. How do you feel if you have to throw one pot of hummus in the bin? Mildly irritated; by the third or fourth time? Utterly desolate. For a vegetarian who likes sandwiches you can imagine what this meant to me.

 But hummus was just one of many things that I have had to siphon out of my diet, or learn to adapt to and eat in a new way, in order to accommodate my new life on water. Such changes ranged from mild re-adjustment (making sure I didn’t overcook) to out and out system change (not buying hummus, not eating my favourite breakfast of muesli and yoghurt in the morning). So there have been some undeniable sacrifices.

But I found a very helpful article on the internet which put my tribulations about fridgelessness into perspective. The author of this article spent her time on a cruiser boat in the Amazon for half of the year: conditions were humid, tropical and wet. If she could survive without a fridge – and she was assured that she could – why shouldn’t I? After all, England’s climate – with our mild summers and chill winters – is far more favourable to those without fridges than the subtropics of South America.

The article explained that it was much easier to survive without a fridge than you imagined. Probably three quarters of the food in your fridge doesn’t really need to be there. The author explained that some fruit and vegetables are more perishable than others, and fresh meat isn’t a good idea. In general, dairy products will experience a quick turn-over.  But life without a fridge is very manageable once you learned the “ABC” of what works and what doesn’t.

My experience of living on the boat has shown her to be correct. There is no reason this shouldn’t be the case, after all, the fridge as we know it is a recently modern invention – the ungainly birth-child of a post-war boom in the American economy. Before this statement piece of bourgeois domestication – people made do with larders and cellars, pantries, and if you were very lucky – an ice-house. Ice houses became yet another eccentric addition to the Victorian upper-class garden grotto. Small, conical and compact with domed roofs, they were packed with ice and snow and then insulated with materials such as sawdust and hay to keep the ice from melting. I saw a lovely example of one myself in Kew Gardens, almost by accident, while we were wandering around an outdoor sculpture exhibition last summer.

This digression reminds me that at one point ice cream represented the sine qua non of luxurious food – the pinnacle of man’s triumphant, though fleeting conquest of natural improbability. In the 18th century ice cream was served on the banqueting tables and feasting platters of kings and queens, flavoured with fruits and natural extractions. Even in the Victorian period it was a rare luxury and children would flock to the stalls of Italian emigrant vendors covering the streets Maida Vale and Little Venice, to buy their penny-licks.  As I learned from the Canal Museum in Kings Cross Wharf, these tiny capsules contained ice that had been lugged all the way by ship from Greenland. It is strange to think now, that at one point frozen water was such a rare and expensive commodity. In short, centuries of experience had developed ingenious schemes for preserving and artificially prolonging the shelf-life of food – drying it, salting it, smoking it, pickling and preserving it.

Veganism is a strong advantage to those who choose boat life, as the things that tend to go off fastest are obviously meat and dairy products. In fact, if I were a vegan I don’t think I would ever require the use of a fridge. For me, the biggest thorn in my side is milk. Mind you, in winter, milk on our boat kitchen has the same life expectancy almost, as refrigerated milk, because it is so cold. I can keep cheese in biscuit tins and it survives at least a week, and my butter, kept away from the cat in its butter dish on the top shelf, can last more than a fortnight. 

I have learnt over time that the best way to keep food is to jar it and contain it. Because of the humidity and condensation on the boat, paper packets and semi-open film packets of food quickly fall victim to mould. Not just a trendy gimmick – it is genuinely necessary to have a good store of tinned veg, dried pulses, cans, tins, wheat, grain, corked and vacuum packed neatly in jars. Nothing without skin should be openly exposed to the indoor elements of the boat. So a well and lovingly maintained boater’s diet tends to consist of the wholesome stuffs of life.

Perhaps there are some boaters who do have fully functioning fridges on their boats – but I am yet to meet them. Your average fridge requires too much energy to run on a nomadic (“cruising”) boat that is not plugged into the mains in a marina or permanent mooring. Marine fridges, specially adapted to run on 12v circuits do exist, but they are at least £500. Even then, leaving a fridge on all day will drain your battery. It is a matter of compromise and priority. Would you rather run a fridge or your computer? Or charge your phone? Something has to budge.

This is a good example of the ways in which you are changed by living on a boat. Fridgelessness is not a tragedy – but it does define certain patterns in your daily routine, as does the constant quest for energy.  Believe me, boaters are like energy vampires. If you see an individual sitting in a pub, charging his phone, computer and ipod, chances are, they are a boater. So boaters are more guilty that most of committing that commercial impropriety so hated by the hospitalities industry – the I’ll-swap-you-one-cup-of-tea-for-an-afternoon-in-your-gaff syndrome.

No one sees the stark equivalency between energy and value quite as clearly as the boater. Power is something you ration and collect, like tokens in a game. So for me, a fridge represents a level of power expenditure above and beyond the benefits it brings. And the result? A type of practical creativity and experimentation with substances; the occasional mouthful of acrid tea. But also, an awareness and newfound respect for certain edible products – a new way of feeling and understanding food.

I have disgorged myself of the status symbol of modern man, the disembodied machine-belly. I am free from the insatiable appetites of, the fridge.