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.