Love on the Boat

The fire cracks and pops like a tiny Vesuvius spraying flecks of flaming debris across the hearthstone. The wood is coming up in scaly welts, melted from within by the dry flames of the fire. The door of the wood-burner is open as I failed to  jam in a rather large square of wood. Wisps of smoke are escaping to penetrate the boat interior with a rich oaken perfume.

It is Thursday night so I am waiting for Gideon to get back from the bike shop. He will come back with his hands grimed with bike oil, his faced flush and hot with sweat worked up in the quick race back home. His route is not long: gliding along Hackney Downs then cutting across the Lower Clapton Road to the Chatsworth Road and then along Millfields by the estates. In fifteen minutes time he will see the grass green light glaring from our nearest bridge. My heart accompanies him in each fleet swoop of his click-in peddles, each miniature circumference that brings him closer to me.

I do not dream of love because love is the very essence of this boat. It expresses itself in each kind and giving act that the boat demands. Love is implicit in the tiny bathroom, which fits just one; or the cold wet cabin where we sleep. Only loving kindness can make these difficulties bearable, and yes, even beautiful. I have never slept so well as I do in this boat, despite the moulding wainscoting of the walls. Within the acorn on my lover’s arms I am safe and warm and we glow and grow as we dream.

For H, 13.03.2014

Carrots or Spuds?

We lived beside Murphy back up by the filter beds. In that part of the river a sandy-brown Victorian garden wall snakes beside the tow-path, marking the outer limits of the old Thames Water cleaning facility; now the charmed garden gates of the “Middlesex Filter Beds and Wildlife Conservation Area”. The former industrial project site has now become home to a number of different colonies of birds, that you can see hovering among the branches of the thin, sickly-looking trees. The discrete set of tiny concrete lagoons, overgrown with weeds, is now the only clue remaining as to the former function of this oddly quiet and sequestered place beside the Hackney Cut, once the site of a productive nineteenth-century industrial mill.

Murphy was the sort of neighbour that would make a more respectable sort of person wary. The strip of bank beside his boat was always cluttered with a mind-boggling assortment of junk: scrap metal, old refrigerators, ship heads, shopping trolleys and leaky car batteries. Though I did not speak to him many times personally, he made it clear to me that he was “the man to speak to if you were after metal or batteries.” Sometimes at night, the sounds of Cockney voices could be heard piercing the cool, still envelope of Homerton-night air; and then it was almost tangible: the suspense of secrets, the volleys of curses, the fragments of an argument so heated that it made the hairs on your arm stand on end. Who knew how many anonymous, shadowy confederates lurked in the corners of Murphy’s boat? They always came and went in darkness, leaving the boat palpably more weightless and innocent by day.

Once I made the mistake of looking too closely at one of Murphy’s belligerent friends.

“Get off! You’ve been here too long! It stinks!” – insults and oaths were being traded between land and water, while Murphy stood on his cruiser stern gesturing angrily at a stooped figure on the bank.

Alert, concerned, curious to see how the scene would develop, I stopped midway in my descent into Hawisia’s kitchen. The figure on the bank immediately realised he was being watched,

“And what exactly are you looking at?! Do you want a piece…?!” The terrifying hooded figure started walking towards my boat.

I most certainly did not want to tangle with this man and scuttled into the safety of the boat as soon as I was able – bolting the locks firmly as I went. I felt a little shaken by the abrupt threat – the harassing gesture, the morbid intensity of anger fixed on the man’s dirty face.

The next morning, Murphy knocked sweetly on our hatch roof. I hid in the bathroom allowing Gideon to take over. “Good morning!” he said brightly.

“I just err…. Wondered if you wanted some water… I’m going down to the Wick to fill up…”

I could see his bicycle trailer waiting expectantly on the bank.

“Oh, don’t worry, we’re fine for now, but thanks for asking!” Gideon piped back.

I watched him hop off the boat and onto his bike. “It was his way of saying sorry”, Gideon explained.

Occasionally other suggestive puzzle-pieces of Murphy’s life would come to call. Once or twice groups of ‘extended family’ would lurk outside and all of a sudden, clamber mysteriously on board. One little girl with lank brown hair, bored by adult conversation, preferred to glide up and down above the bank, where Murphy had built her a makeshift swing. What could that huddled congregation of visitors be discussing on board? I speculated.

Then, unexpectedly, I saw Murphy again this morning. We are further down river than previously, closer to the busy Lea Bridge Road and The Anchor and Hope pub. It was a very windy day and the boat was rocking and creaking considerably. Suddenly I heard a rat-a-tat-tat on the metal hatch door and promptly opened up. A bald head, wide woozy eyes, at least five gold teeth: “Oh, Hi Murphy!” I cooed. “You’re not normally this far up river.”

“Ah, no…” he replied doubtfully. “It’s because we’re selling…” And as way of explanation he suddenly held up two fist-fulls of vegetables: one large potato, one thick carrot. “Need any carrots or spuds? We’re selling them for £2 a kilo. You can get some now, or if you ever need anything just give me a ring – you know where to find me.”

Anxious to support this fledgling river economy – for Murphy was not a rich man – I said I would check in my wallet and see what I could find. I returned with a five-pound note.

“Two pounds of carrots and two pounds of potatoes please”, I requested, and watched him stagger uncouthly back up the steep muddy bank by the boat, past thicket and bramble.

By this point his trousers were rapidly drifting away from their intended position, as he swam and staggered towards a friend at the top of the bank who was leaning over an old shopping trolley. I recognised him immediately: the scowl, the dark look, the hooded, slumped figure. I watched as they brought out a battered Newton meter from their trolley and began weighing up the vegetables and plummeting them into plastic bags.

After a few minutes Murphy returned and held the bags out to me. I thanked him and we had a little chat: I asked him if he was still by the filter beds, he replied that he was. He said that he was not very well, so had to be within close walking distance of Homerton Hospital. Suddenly it all made sense: his kindly smile, the extended family visits.

Without warning his chronically dissatisfied friend began growling at us from the top of the bank.

“Oh, it’s your friend”, I said, as though he hadn’t noticed.

“My brother”, he replied.

“Your brother?” I repeated, incredulously (I still remembered the multiple rebukes, threats of eviction, traded insults and oaths.)

“Better get on!” he said brightly. We hugged and then he staggered on down the mud path towards the next boat.

A little later I saw him clambering back up the mound. He was still there: waiting, watching, intent and beady-eyed. Suddenly it made me think of the opening of Great Expectations. Murphy and his choleric, quarrelsome brother were like Magwitch and his hated partner, hopelessly chained together in steel manacles. Like lovers or enemies, locked together in a bitter, secret, never-ending feud.

Ewan the Fish, 18.02.2014

There’s a big fish called Ewan that lives underneath our boat in the Walthamstow Marshes.  I can tell he’s there because every so often, when the boat rocks, he lets out a little burp which travels like a water pearl along the hull of the boat and “blips” as it bursts into the air.

The marshes are full of sounds: squishing, slurping, burping sounds; the sounds orchestrated by all the imaginative combinations of mud, rain and river water. There’s Ewan (that Gideon in his more paranoid moments thinks might be a hole in the boat), and then there are the slurping and sloshing sounds that people make outside as they slip on the mud of the towpath by the thorny raised bank. Sometimes you hear the odd splash when an over-eager dog careers into a puddle beside Marion, a green boat next to ours. The puddle is as deep as your ankle. I tried to solve the problem once by placing a bit of plywood into the watery hole, hoping that it would perform the role of a makeshift bridge. But it just sank pitifully to the bottom of the miniature lake, covered with dirty rainwater and stray bits of grass. I hauled it out and chucked it onto another, slightly less water-logged puddle.

It is not uncommon for me to return to the boat in the early evening, to find a jubilant Behemoth prancing through the long grass in happiness at my return. Often I just need to call her name and she emerges from the scrubland like a tiny, safari leopard, sprinting and leaping. This particular evening, I humoured her, chasing her around the boat and up the mound. It was then that I noticed that a number of large dynamic swarms of midges had decided to meet together by the port-side of our boat, in an ill-fated witches coven. They were bumping into each other and knocking heads, popping, fizzing and effervescing with useless energy.

It suddenly dawned on me, almost newly, that we were living in a marsh beside a river swollen with rainwater. The slippery mud and the buzz and hum of flies; the deceptive and deadly glitter of the uppermost river currents, the boggy plank, sucked like a plug into the slippery bank, those circling whirligigs of midges – all made me feel a little nauseous.

The noisy indent my boots make after I alight the mud and hop onto the boat and the new ‘no shoes’ policy onboard, also feel like signs heralding a change of tempo in the daily rhythms of boat life. And the new element of mud has been added to that of water – as one of the most presiding mediums and textures of my life. I live in that slippery, viscose, saturated place – a place I have in common with the walkers in Port Meadow in Oxford, or the dwellers on England’s flood plains or the inhabitants of that vast mathematical salt plain that I visited in Bolivia. It is most definitely wellington boots territory. Every time I make the precarious passage down the side of the muddy bank to the boat, I watch my footing like a falcon. One wrong or badly judged step and I would be down on the mound on my bottom, or straight into the water below.

Now I feel not only like a boater – a liminal traveller on the waterways and canals of London –  but also a martian – I mean somebody who lives on a marsh, and it makes me smile because it reminds me of the BBC adaptation of The Silver Chair in the Narnia series and the fantastic visual vernacular of that film: the marsh folk, the moss huts, the woodland creatures, the men with green hair and gruff voices. C.S. Lewis’s conception of the boggy swamplands stuck vividly in my mind as a child because it meant more to him than just a geographical feature; marsh-land was a whole kingdom of people with distinctive habits and mannerisms.

It seems oddly pertinent now, this illustration of marsh culture as a demented place where odd people live. It is true. Marsh life is one of the strangest lives of all; people make do in a primeval, anarchic way. Marsh-boats are patched together with stray bits of timber and plastic; their weatherboarding is paltry, ad-hoc and cobbled together through serendipity. But somehow I admire these alien vessels, strange and desperate, that grow up on the margin of the Walthamstow riverbank like pores. They are statements of creativity, freedom and yes, iron endurance. They seem to defy the rising house prices and the entrammels of bourgeois domestication springing up all around them in monied Hackney and Stoke Newington. Mesolithic, atavistic, they seem to whisper: In London you can still live as you want. In London you can still be free. In my opinion, marsh boats are the best of all.

The marshes are littered with the bric-a-brack of marsh life just like the flotsam and jetsam that is washed up with the surf on beaches. Strange objects and treasures are disgorged by the mile-deep mud every day. One thing that has particularly caught my attention in this urban tangle is a tarnished fork of metal shaped like a shepherds crook, just outside my window. The shepherd’s crook is at the bottom of the mound, in the heart of the water-logged path. Its unexpected protuberances, echoes that of the spiked briars and brambles on the mound, with their thin, ugly red tendrils. I hacked away at these petulant arms one morning with a pair of scissors as I was doing some path-clearing.

My feeling for the place seems to be epitomised by this metal wand, the rusted trident of the swamp-land-King, or so it seems, thrusting through the boggy soil. Like the spear of Eliot’s malevolent fish-king it shakes menacingly in the wind.

‘All of us, I b…

‘All of us, I believe, carry about in our heads, places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that ‘feels its life in every limb’ in Wordsworth’s poem ‘We are Seven’, our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far away from them.’

Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways, p.242

High Water, 01.02.2014

We woke up to a balmy Saturday morning. Gideon and I decided to take advantage of the good weather and finally do a (long overdue) pump-out at the dock by Springfield Marina.

The weather felt even more irresistible because of the persistent squalls of January rain that had been plaguing London that month. The boat had suffered its part: the walls of the bedroom cabin were increasingly yielding to damp, the wooden panelling had become distinctly humped and warped in places by the disfiguring rain. Each evening that I pumped out the engine compartment, at least four litres of rain water came squirting through the extractor pump.

So when I drew the curtains of our bedroom window that morning and found a square of enamel-blue sky glaring back at me, I felt both surprised and grateful. Comforted by the sort of gentle hangover that makes your stomach and retinas feel warm, Gideon and I decided to make a dash up river towards Stoke Newington in order to use the Springfield Marina facilities before they closed at 1pm. By the time that we had breakfasted on eggs and toast and drunk the compulsory pot of tea, it was already 10.30am.

Seduced as we were by the good weather and clear sky, we failed to really take account of how gustily the wind was blowing, or what the effect of several days’ heavy rain might have on the River Lea’s current. In addition we had never piloted further north than the Hackney Cut and the Hackney Marsh filter beds so we were in unfamiliar water.

To begin the going was very calm, but this changed when we emerged at the Cut. The Cut (as the name suggests) is a point at which the river divides in two: most of the water joins the quick-flowing branch of the river that charges down the weir and around the outside of the filter beds, the rest flows along into the ‘navigable’ arm of the river Lea which the boaters use. So, as we were rounding a bend and approaching the Cut I suddenly noticed that our embattled old 1970s pleasure cruiser was being sucked  towards the weir. Inconveniently enough, the strong wooden posts which once may have acted as a ballast against unpropitious calamities, had fallen down, so that it was at least possible that our boat could have been dragged down towards a very inhospitable part of the river indeed. However, I revved the engine into maximum speed, while Gideon piloted, and at full throttle the stalwart Lister Engine summoned up just enough oomph to fight the current and clear the hazardous Cut.

The stretch of the River Lea between Hackney Cut and Springfield park is very lovely indeed; it  meanders along, broad and serpentine, flanked by the flat banks of the Walthamstow marshes. The passage here is wide enough to make easy turns in a 60ft vessel if you would wish to, and the prospect across the marshes is wide open: allowing you to see straight across to the miniature aluminium city of the Walthamstow water reservoir.

This part of the river is also home to the Stoke Newington rowing club which is perched on one side of the banks very close to the marina. It is the central terminus from which a number of small craft – rowing boats, kayaks and canoes – cast off, in order to perform their morning peregrinations. These rowing boats have a long trajectory, and even in Hackney Wick, Gideon and I became accustomed to seeing strong crews of fit young men and women each weekend morning, making their fleet and stream-lined journeys up and downstream, alongside flocks of wild swans and water fowl.

When you are moored at bank-side the sight of pencil narrow rowing boats, with their wholesome cargo-loads of muscle and energy can be a comforting spectacle, even if it does fill you with a sense of your own inadequacies. But when you are piloting upstream, fighting against a strong current, wind and with severely diminished powers of steering, it is not such a welcome sight. Emerging into this popular stretch of the river in the early afternoon on a Saturday, Gideon and I had not reckoned on the number of small crafts out on water. We passed half a dozen small boats with no mishaps at all, and then, at last, the marina was within sight.

It is always a good idea, when boating, to have a strong sense of your end-point. Communication becomes almost impossible across a distance of 60 ft, with strong winds that carry away your voice, when one member of the crew is up on the prow of the boat, ready to hop off with a rope, and the other is bound to the tiller.

As we approached the docking point, we realised that all the space beside the pump out and diesel station was occupied by other boats. So at the last minute we decided to moor alongside a wide beam and wait our turn. But at the moment when it was most vital for Gideon and I to communicate, we were least able to… Gideon had decided to perform a slightly ambitious manoeuvre – a reverse park into the space beside the wide beam. It was all going well, until the nose of the boat began to stick out too far into the river, and was of course quickly dragged round and tugged downstream.

 I looked around and noticed that I had parties of at least four rowing boats surrounding the narrowboat, unsure of what to do and unsure of what we were doing.

“Where are you going?!” one shrill teenage voice cried out to me – it was one of the blonde teenage rowers.

I could not tell her. Gideon could not hear me and in his distress, suddenly looked helpless and unsure of himself. Our long, heavy boat was quickly being dragged by the force of the current straight towards that group of adolescent, girl rowers. Panic seized me, but the volition of the boat could not be stopped. We were heading back down stream whether we wanted to or not.

Luckily we were now parallel to a small river inlet, safe from the strongest of the river currents. Somehow Gideon managed to manoeuvre the boat into it. Greatly relieved, we pulled up beside some well-to-do docked marina boats, and looped our ropes hastily around their mooring posts. We were secure for the time being.

I had heard many rumours about Springfield Marina. Some said that the management was very unfriendly to itinerant boaters such as ourselves – the “uncivilised” ones – without a formal boating address. Others said that you could only top up your water if you spent £20 of more – otherwise you were charged. The pump-out fee was £20 – a price that is now normal on the canal thoroughfares of central London. Though the information about prices was accurate, I found the swarthy man who serviced the boats and helped perform the pump-outs, quite friendly. He was businesslike enough- but it was Saturday morning and he had a lot of work to get through.

Before too long, our turn had come, and we spent our spare moments talking to a friendly boat couple who were also filling up with water and buying coal. One – a man with long, thick clusters of Rastafarian dreadlocks – had a facial expression permanently fixed into an encouraging smile – his beautiful girlfriend with dark hair – perhaps Catalonian – was talking to me about their water tank.

While we were waiting and working, we watched a tense panorama of boats swirling and circling about powerlessly in the river Lea like ducks in a bath. They too were trying to get across to the Marina, but were struggling to stay in control of their steering. In a way I felt relieved to see that we were not the only boaters who struggled with the crossing. One boater – a single woman on her own – was very much in trouble at one point. Though I took hold of her back rope I was unable to pull her in.

“Let go of the rope, it’s not worth it,” the stalwart servicemen commanded.

As I turned to look at him, I glimpsed a long deep scar on his face that proved he knew what he was talking about. So I let go of the poor woman’s rope and watched it sink helplessly into the Lea.

“Pull in your rope! Pull in your rope! It’ll get stuck in your prop!” our new friend called out to her.

She obediently began to pull it in and was rescued by some boats on the other side of the water, but not before she had bumped into a few rowing boats, whose occupants were scowling at her and prodding her boat with their oars.

A bald man who looked like an experienced boater, with a gnarly, weather-beaten face, looked grimly upon the scene.

“It’s so dangerous boating today,” I said to initiate conversation.

He grunted approval, “Yes. The water’s very high. I haven’t seen it so bad as this before.”

Then he turned away.

We were, in the end, unable to top up our tank with water, but conceded this as a sacrifice we were willing to make, given the challenges of the day. We had spotted a lovely mooring beside a high bank covered with brambles and thicket, on the Walthamstow marshes. It’s just opposite one of the loveliest and most genuine of the East End pubs left – The Anchor and Hope.  We made for this spot, under Gideon’s by-now expert direction.

They say the best teacher is experience. The River Lea taught us a lesson that day that will not easily be forgotten: Take caution ye who set sail on a windy day at high water!  It will not be an easy ride.