Sundown on the marshes
Sundown on the marshes
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.
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.
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.