A wake is better than a funeral. Rather than finishing with the necessary sadness of the previous entry I discovered this fragment of writing that I wrote – I hazard a guess – perhaps in early spring of this year. It seems an appropriate way to end this journal, re-directing us towards the beauty of boat life and why we all do it to begin with.

“I feel that I should record that, for no particular reason now more than ever – I really love Hawisia.

There have been times when I have doubted the boating life – found it too difficult, too draining. But now the gentle rocking of my boat is one of the few true pleasures that I have to look forward to when I return home from work. The smell of old cinders and smoky wood fills my brain like a cloud of ambergris, the worn armchair, in its place, offers an envelope of calm peacefulness that counteracts the trials of the day. The scatter-gun effect of rain hitting my roof like a thousand tiny plastic pellets, is a kind of familiar melody, which brings, oddly enough, comfort. The miniature tornados of wind which throttle down the chimney and rock the boat, one way, then the other, are almost old friends. Sometimes the wind lures and draws the flame of the fire into a fine, silken tongue through the shaft of the chimney, but at other times a downwards draught can stamp out a fire like a blot of black ink. Then puff! And a globe of smoke appears from underneath the stove riddle, which gradually fills the boat like church incense. The sound of wind whooshing and flooing down the chimney, the whistle of the kettle, the ephemeral but soft feather-like brush of Behemoth’s tail against my leg: these are the pleasures of boating not to be forgotten. Then the sleep upon water, oceanic yet still, is far better than any sleep upon land. It is a kind of elaborate return to the womb, this life upon water, but not in a fleshy but hard shell – returning us to the universal memory of the mother.

So if I ever have cause to doubt my choice – for hard labour, and damp and cold and sometimes fear – I will always read this entry and take heart, that if anyone can love a boat, I love her – Hawisia – my wide-keeled battle maiden.”

Goodbye to Hawisia, 22.07.2014

This is a very difficult and sad entry to write – not least because the loss of the boat has been only one of among a number of losses I have suffered this week, losses of the subjects and characters that coloured and constituted my life, identity, my love. Now I have lost Gideon, the Boat and Behemoth: the three points of my water-borne trinity. The feeling of loss is almost too difficult to bear or begin to write about, but as this boat blog had a beginning – so it shall have an end.

The re-homing process had been a long one. Overall it has taken a month from my leaving the school in Wembley and beginning to redecorate the boat (inside & out) to the point where now, I have finally looked upon her for the last time and wished her new owner the very best of luck. It has been a month of drifting and mental vagaries: a month of labour in the sun beside Victoria Park, interspersed with driving lessons, strong lattés, the occasional conversation with friends at the Pavilion Café, a few jogs and a medley of meetings with hopeful boat-owners. Throughout this time Gideon was away on a family holiday and so my time alone with boat and the cat, and my own exhausted mind – fogged with thoughts of school and summer exams – was dominated by a sense of excitement about his return, as well as a slight trepidation at the thought of the bleary and undefined future that awaited us all.

Though there were some moments of fear or loneliness, in general, this was a time of quiet, systematic work, in which I managed to relieve a degree of the admin and paperwork that had been building in the ‘desk’ corner of the boat for some time.  Every home-owner will recognise this ordeal, the fuss and nonsense of changing your home, contacting the insurance, concluding the bills. But I was not just carefully tying up ‘Hawisia’: I was mining a newly updated personal identity. It was as though the energy of the boat sale had galvanized a much more profound and intrinsic desire for inner change and restoration. Therefore each letter, each new application or cover letter, announced a shiny, new, film-packaged ‘me’ – or at least a potential one; from the pastel shades of my new driving license to the soft leather jacket-cover of my new passport. I had elicited a kind of paper-work transformation or metamorphosis of myself.

I realise now, how bleak this sounds, and how polarised I felt at that time: as though the very water, stricken with sun and rubbish, had begun to signify a dualism to me; both restrictive and nostalgic. The sense of lost scale was ramified by the intensity of my meetings with others, the psychological burden of the ‘sale’ and the sense of being so far from Gideon – my centre of gravity. Perhaps, all these feelings, more plainly summed up as being lost and disorientated, are ones we can all recognise in situations where we have been obliged to remain amongst the places and objects we have internally determined to say goodbye to.

Who can compass the metaphysics of loss? The gymnasium of emotions, trauma, hope. I cannot even comment on what happened with Gideon, the sudden absence, like the loss of a body part, creating an absurd fissure bordering on the irrational – a pain which bound the mind to the body and made me feel constantly hollowed out and sick. Suffice to say that the trauma of that goodbye, squibbed out the pathos of the boat-departure; though I did find the hardihood to throw a leaving party so as to wish her a formal ‘farewell’.

Perhaps when I have a little more perspective on the event, I will be able to write a more philosophical goodbye. However, that night on which, I was pleased to see my friends were at least enjoying themselves, where I, at heart, could not – wryly reminds me of the necessary destruction that change brings, the unpicking and unmaking to re-make that you have to do with your life, as poor folk used to do in the past when they wished to recycle their clothes.

So Hawisia’s formal goodbye was toasted by the banks of the Lea, beneath the silverlink railway bridge which transverses the river, very close to the Anchor & Hope pub. Before the mental picture fades into darkness, I will recall it now: the smiling faces of my friends sitting in a ring in the high grass, the rumble of the occasional train and stuttering sleeper frets singing beneath their heavy weight and the long, low blush-pink sunset which bled out a scalpel-thin edge of cloud; bruising and staining the sky with colour. Normally such fine sunsets do not presage bad weather, but that was the night of the great ‘electric storm’ which passed across London. So as Theo lay quietly on the make-shift bed and Gideon and I lay quietly in our own; ruminative, sad, sweaty; the night-sky performed its very own operatic symphony – in honour, as it seemed then, of the great tragedy of our ending, and the boat’s ending and the ending of the story altogether. So huge, cracked forks and shivers of silver light fraternised in the rain-soaked air, great veils of rain fell like hail upon the water and steel body of the boat and mighty tremors of thunder passed over our faces and skittered along the riverbank.

The next day, warm, clear and mild, allowed us to sit together, like compatriots, eating a cheap fried breakfast on the Cambridge Heath Road. Then each tiny day passed, 3 in total, like pinches or heart-beats, rationalised down to clearly defined ‘tasks’ so as to omit as much pain as possible. Each object that made Hawisia our home was carefully extricated and packed away, till only the husk of the ship remained, painted a sterile glossy white. I dusted the shelves, scrubbed the windows, gave away the garden, apologised to the cat. Then, in just a few tasks and heart-beats later, she was gone. I thanked the bin-men, shook hands with the owner, looked upon her for the last time beside the lime-green bridge. Weary of the sadness, weary of the sorrow, I took my bike and trailer and started the long cycle ride to my parental home in Camden.  It was time to start a fresh adventure, a new chapter in my life – leaving the waterways of London behind me for good.

So fare thee well my own true love, when I return united we will be. It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me, but darling when I think of thee.

The Garden, 11th July 2014

The cruiser stern of my boat is now overflowing with life: it has become a nursery; a garden. Flowers, weeds and herbs thrive in the places I would least expect them – among the severed white roots of last spring’s nasturtiums, in empty pots of compost. It is the summer – teasing the life out of everything and leaching the soil with sun.

Among my nursery I have some stalwarts, such as the frilly Odessa I planted in Mr Jimson’s teapot and the large barrel of thyme that Jobo (an old friend) gave us, when we first rode the boat into London. I smile happily to see Gideon’s favourite pot plant, the succulent, shedding the tentacles of its old reddish skin like a discontented octopus, and leaping forwards with new life. I realise that because of its connotations – old and new – my garden is a Tapestry of memory; a living incarnation or palimpsest of our time on this craft.

The herb garden is looking springy and sprightly in the honey-dew sunlight. Small purple violets and pansies are erupting in the nooks and crannies of every pot on board. It is a delight for me to be among my plants in summer when  I am at leisure to follow my own thoughts. This is a pleasure that I begin to think comes with age and understanding – the sheer joy of being surrounded by life that you have nursed and sustained. Whether it be the French lavender, the wild dandelions and clover, the swaying wands of my beautiful white foxglove delicately spotted with purple, the wide-eyed exclamation marks of my pansies or the linear assertion of the lupin: the language of plants and living things, is as beautiful and satisfying language to learn as any human demotic. Sitting here, among my plants, with Behemoth at my feet, wrapped up in a ball (a customary position for her) I feel proud of all the life that I support (and that supports me!)

Beside the banks of the Lea, back by the filter-beds, among the tangled blackberry thickets and hawthorn– dizzy with life and birdsong – it suddenly occurs to me, that the primary and most basic act of creation is that of helping something to grow. In that case, shepherds, husbanders and horticulturists are the world’s true artists and their profound acts of creation and life-giving: birthing animals, growing plants and crops, is the origin for all creative and artistic gestures.

This summer’s mandate: make something grow; nourish it and give it life.

One of Life’s Great Secrets, 12.07.2014

Today, I feel that I have learnt one of life’s great secrets: do a somersault at least three times a week and preferably one every day, and lead a better and more fulfilled existence. The foolish and simple action of performing a somersault seems a sometimes necessary reminder of the essential joyfulness and frivolity of life, and reminds one of the powerful innate love of acrobatics and play that we all exhibit as children. (In saying this, I can’t help but hear myself echo the words of Gavin Maxwell and his own astonished analysis of the roguish and supremely playful spirit of otters.)

Since my spate as a teacher finished in late June, I have been filling my days with boat tasks, some menial, some not so menial (such as redecorating the inside and re-coating the exterior with thick, gummy blacking). This literally very material two weeks has also proselytized another form of material reawakening: my body’s of itself. This auto-reflex has been brought on by a sudden enthusiasm for physical conditioning, exacerbated – no doubt – by the sunny weather and the proximity of Victoria Park, on Hawisia’s very doorstep.

I have always had a very ambivalent relationship with jogging. I tried it once or twice in my teens, but found it laborious and anonymising. But now that everyone seems to have a gym membership, the simple physical expression of the ‘run’ seems quaint, even a little archaic; it is the cheap, ‘no-frills’ approach to keeping yourself fit.

Sitting on my cruiser stern, blasted by sunlight, I felt an encroaching sense of guilt at the sight of the joggers incessantly rolling passed the boat. Some of them seemed positively elated by a sense of their own body’s worth: brandishing toned torsos and buoyant biceps. Perhaps inspired by their own example and my sense of personal bodily weariness, and blessed by the serene weather; for the first time this week, I attempted a round of the park. It was during this experiment that I first became, almost painfully aware, of how long I had neglected the basic maintenance of my body and its functions; relying on youth and resilience to do it all  the hard work for me. Now, performing my slow, almond-shaped jog around Victoria Park, I noticed how my whole respiratory tract ached and how singularly conscious I had become of my lungs and heart – constricted and needled with pain.

Today, has marked my third jog of the week and possibly fifth in my entire life. My bruised respiratory tract was no longer giving me cause for concern, and at certain points I spontaneously leapt up into the air, or capered, or performed a moving version of the yogic ‘tree’. I experienced, ridiculously, a kind of dynamic euphoria.  Then, for my wind-down: three cartwheels, 3 somersaults, 10 press-ups and 10-push-ups.

The first time I did a somersault, I did so awkwardly and fearfully. I gradually lowered from a squatting into a crouching position, and hesitantly tucked my head beneath my knees. I caught myself wondering, is this how you do it? Has my instinct been mistaken? Surely it’s too dangerous to roll over, with your neck on the ground! Ah, it is in moments like these that you realise how incrementally but definitely old age is creeping up on you; when you begin to doubt the very actions that you thought of as gifts when you were young. When I finally overcame my own temerity and performed the roll I felt a foolish grin spreading across my face. A passerby, who stopped on the towpath and had observed the whole spectacle, suddenly made a warm but teasing comment. I was transported, and felt a vital reconnection established by virtue of this simple roll, between myself, the earth on which I was sitting and the rest of the world around me. I brushed off the dry leaves , bracken and debris from the ground from my hair and made my way back to the boat, this time smiling.

A Cat and Mouse Game

One of the many realisations you discover upon becoming the owner of a young, wild cat is that your conscience will never be the same again. Every night you become, indirectly accessory to some crime or other. These vary in their degree and type; sometime it is the indignity of discovering a poor, blind baby mouse trodden into your carpet, or the entrails of some anonymous prey cast onto your companion lid, or, as has been the case most recently, finding the carcasses of small, glaucose, white-bellied frogs delivered propitiously onto your bathroom floor.

When Behemoth is embracing the wilder side of her nature, she enjoys returning home with trophies. This is not unusual, and almost every cat owner will have similar semi-tragic stories to tell: of the mouse cadeaux; of the little bird corpse left turgid, feet-upright on the doorstep or on the kitchen floor. But Behemoth is not as good a hunter as she might like to believe; often her prey are not yet dead. Whether this is because – like a maliciously playful Roman emperor – she desires to draw out and the moment of death till its excruciatingly climax, or whether she is simply ineffectual, is impossible to know.

A few times Behemoth has jumped through the hatch with a tiny mouse wriggling in her jaws. Comic scenes have ensued. The cat drops the mouse, I jump onto a chair, Gideon tries to pounce on the mouse to stop it from disappearing in the boat – the cat is in hot pursuit. Funnily enough, both times this has happened Gideon has proved himself to be the better hunter, catching the mouse before Behemoth has even had a look-in.

So Behemoth, being the fiendish and nefarious creature that she is, has little regard for the animal and reptilian populations that depend so fragilely upon life on the river-bank. Night-time for her, is hunting time, and it has not been uncommon to discover her leaping across our sleeping bodies from the cottage window, with an as-yet live victim throbbing in her small, clenched jaw.

During winter we could contain the problem, and as we have no cat-flap (expensive, tricky and insecure to install as it is), we clamped the windows shut and thereby doomed Behemoth to prowl belligerently indoors. But now, come Summer, when the boat becomes dusty and stifling at night, we have no choice but to leave windows open, and so our small demon-Diana has been able to feast as gluttonously upon the lesser mammals as she wishes, roaming about the precincts adjacent to the boat.

Being responsible for the life of a small cat has entailed many shifts in the habits and patterns of our boat life. For example, when we choose a mooring we do not only have our own wishes to consider, a secondary question is always would Behemoth like it here? I scan to see that a mooring meets our requirements: is there space for her to play and roam? Are there trees for her to climb and shrubbery to conceal herself in if she desires to hide from the incessant tow-path traffic of intrepid bicycles and large, inquisitive dogs? But often her needs coincide with ours, as it is always pleasanter to moor beside the green spaces of Victoria Park or Hackney Marshes than the more crowded thoroughfares of Kings Cross and Camden Town.

Frogs are her new fascination. Last night, while Gideon was away in Sheffield and I was lying in bed, on a night which would transpire to be my last as a teacher, I was wakened several times by her plaintive mewing. In my half-delirious, somnolent state, I found it difficult to locate where she was, unsure at first if she was baying by the cottage window in the prow (as she was wont to do in winter, as a signal that she wished to retire for the night and be let back in), or if she was beside the small window by our wardrobe. When I peeled back the light duvet, and groped my way out of bed I discovered her in the bathroom – an uncommon place for a cat. Her glittering gold-green eyes looked piteously up at me, so that when I spied the prone body of a small, white-bellied frog at her feet, I was unsure if she was proud of her kill or heartily ashamed of it. The dear, small frog was dead but not mutilated, he had been brought back to the boat as an offering – a token. But Behemoth, her expression so unreadable and at odds with her act, looked as confounded by her position as I was. It was a dumb, primordial act of killing: a reflex for a creature who loves the rush of pursuit and capture; killing more in the spirit of play than material necessity.

Three times that night I awoke, three times deposited the small, limp cadavers of white-bellied frogs from out of my bathroom window. Behemoth would not cease.

Over the months, Gideon and I have become quite expert at capturing mice, sometimes Gideon joked, more effective than Behemoth herself. Often she would bring live-specimens back to the boat, and Gideon and I afraid of an infestation on our small living container would exercise all our ingenuity to catch it, before it had eluded the cat and sought refuge in some small, inaccessible space beneath the floorboards or in the tool cupboard.

On one memorable occasion in the winter, I remember unconsciously reaching for a piece of wood behind me as I stacked the fire. Instead of the expected rough, hard texture of wooden off-cuts, I scooped up the body of a small, soft mouse in a state of partial bodily decomposition. It was not a nice surprise! On another occasion, during one of Behemoth’s sprightly leaps across the bed in the sleeping cabin from the cottage window we discovered the body of a small, squirming mouse on the pillow beside us – fallen from her jaws mid-flight.

But for all these bloody incidents, my love and respect for the small, tenacious creature has not diminished one jot. Her feline instincts, her beguiling, beautiful face; her stripy flank and slinking manner elicit a daily joy in me, that feed and nourish me my spirits when they are low or are in need of some comic, absurd or wonderful distraction.

Time Passes – The Islington Tunnel

I haven’t written an entry for a long time. I have no real excuse – except I’ve been working on other projects.

Since I last wrote the season has changed – from winter to late spring. We have stripped down the insulating film from the windows and Hawisia has emerged from the long winter, covered in dust and scratches. From the outside at least, she is no longer the beautiful boat we first bought, though that will change when the paint pots are lined up and the summer’s hard work begins. We have also changed our course and left behind the gorgeous Lea River, our home for the winter and my what my heart will always consider our one true home on water. Now we are performing a reverse horizon-line, streaming back along the track that brought us east – due west.  Perhaps this is the last time that we will do this arc – before we leave the boat and the river-life and return, atavistically, like defeated cavemen, or the sorrowful Icarus, back to land…

I feel very wistful and divided about the thought of selling the boat. On one hand I am sad to say goodbye to a craft whose internal life and necessities have determined the rhythms and paths of the past year – on the other hand, I feel worn down and tired at last. I long for a fridge, a shower, the very trappings of civilisation that I disdained to live this life. The dampness is so intrinsic to our sleeping berth that Gideon now has trouble breathing at night; pillows of moss grow up in the cracks of our windows; we have not pumped out our toilet for months and the economy of shits and wees now occurs to me as a inconvenience I would rather live without.

Then there are the other concerns, CART and boat-dwellers are at constant logger-heads. Meetings are held, but privatisation threatens the very stretch of river that is most native and congenial to boaters in London – the majestic Lea. Can this fragile society upon London’s waterways last for long? Its very survival is imperilled by the capitalistic system which has identified it as a threat and an anomaly. There are places in Europe where counter-cultures can exist, and are protected by the people. This is the case in Berlin, but not in London. So that is my reluctant verdict: it will not last for long.

Even now I feel the magic name Provence tugging at my heart and urging me away, to begin a new home, a new life, beside new, less familiar waters in the deep, lazy heat of the South of France.

However, now I want to leave these sad and pensive meditations to one side. Let me tell a story.

Two weeks ago Hawisia was moored by the Islington Tunnel on the Kings Cross side. For those who have never experienced it, a fifteen minute boat-ride through London’s longest tunnel is one of the most engrossing and exhilarating experiences that London’s inland water-ways have to offer. In this narrow, subterranean, shadowy conduit that flows beneath Upper Street, the old Victorian brickwork is thick with lichen and moss. Delicate streams of water trickle down the porous walls, which ooze and glitter beneath the pale light of boater’s navigation torches. Dickens himself would have delighted in the dark, mildewed underbelly of the Islington tunnel, especially as it represents a key structural position between west and east London. For the river-pilgrims and party seekers it is the emblem and gateway to East London, Hackney and the Lea.

Our first crossing through the tunnel was the most memorable; as our excitement and trepidity were heightened and sharpened by a fear of the unknown. Tunnel etiquette for boaters is rather simple. You must have your headlight on to warn boaters on the other side of your approach and if you cannot see a boat on the approach, then you are clear to go. We later learnt that the tunnel was just wide enough to allow two narrow boats to pass each other side by side, if it should come to that, but we did not know it then, and with traffic on the waterways being what it is and given the length of the passage, we could not discount the possibility that we might meet another boat in the darkness. Adding to the drama of the crossing is the uncertain and deceptive nature of the light at the end of the tunnel itself. As it is so long and dark, the cynosure of light that you can see as you enter – that eventually becomes a round, golden coin and then a rotunda of colour –  looks uncannily, at first, like an approaching headlight.

On that memorable first occasion when we piloted into the darkness with a small crew of three (myself, Gideon and a friend from university Mike), we were convinced for at least 5 minutes that we were doomed to a collision, before we realised that we had become victim to the mirage of the tunnel and our own paranoia. But this was only one of the distempers of the mind that the tunnel can induce as you pass through it. Equidistant from Angel and King’s Cross, in the most drear and dim heart of the passage, a quiet and meditative mood descended upon all of us. I had heard before, in Russia, of hermits and religious recluses who seek the utter solitude and darkness of caves in which to think and meditate. There and then, in the Islington Tunnel, I could suddenly see why. It is not only that the tunnel’s peacefulness and quietude is conducive to thought and reflection, and at a deeper level that the darkness returns one, instinctively to thoughts of death; but that there is something in the visceral appreciation of the raw elements of time, darkness, linearity and motion which uncannily allows the mind, the thing that thinks, to see its own reflection. A tunnel is like a metaphor made real of the mind itself, and in its abyssal darkness, conscious momentarily glimpses the unconscious.

But let us return to that summer’s day, many months later, when we had already bypassed the tunnel and were moored, happily on the King’s Cross side.  Gideon and I were just preparing to go out, when we suddenly stopped on the stern, arrested by the alarming sight of clouds of thunderous smoke pouring out of the mouth of the tunnel. A few minutes later a craft emerged, a narrow boat, with two noticeably harried owners running alongside the gunnels in a race to moor up. A few minutes later, when the tunnel has disgorged its contents of smoke, another craft churned out – one of the boats carrying tourists and sight-seers. A large party of boisterous men were gathered in the fore-deck around a large table drinking larger and jeering at passers-by.

I wondered what had happened in the Islington Tunnel to cause such an emission of smoke. A few minutes later we were to find out, as the first boat, seeking a semi-temporary mooring, roped up alongside Hawisia. Her owners were  a full-bodied Englishman with a very friendly manner and steaks of grey in his tousled black hair, and a wild-looking woman with skin tanned naturally to the colour of hide, long tresses of blonde hair and  a thick cockney accent. Their story perfectly illustrates the danger that tunnel can still pose, even to very experienced boaters.

They explained that they started the long journey through the tunnel on a boat they both knew well. They noticed a few minutes later that another boat – the tourist boat – was following quick on their heels and rapidly catching up with them. Unwilling to hold up the line of traffic building behind them, the man decided to rev up the engine, pushing the boat to exert her maximum speed, against his will and better judgement. Five minutes later the exhausted engine, unused to the pressure put upon it, gave up and started pouring out large quantities of smoke from the exhaust. Deep in the tunnel the smoke had no-where to go, but swirled about the heads of those in the tourist boat behind them. Being too narrow for the tourist boat to pass them and give them a tow, the unlucky couple had no choice but to manually push their boat through the tunnel using only their hands clawing against the slimy, ancient walls. After a Herculean effort and many minutes later, they had managed it, but were understandably a little shaken up.

Mixed with my admiration for this extraordinary effort, was my sense of how the couple had that day garnered the kind of intimate understanding and close knowledge of that tunnel, that few could claim. The image of their soft pink hands pressing against the sea-weed green walls of the austere black tunnel, was to occur to me many times afterwards – long after they had left Hawisia, fixed their engine and softly chugged off to continue their journey west.

The Party, 20.03.2014

A few rickety metal chairs and a pile of ash are the only clues remaining now, come Wednesday, of the vast Party celebrated on the banks of the Lea last Sunday for Patrick’s fiftieth birthday party. Even on Tuesday, fingers of smoke were still escaping from the mighty bonfire and the dying embers buried beneath cinder and ash, as if hanging on to the memory of the Party that had conjured them into being. Then and there, in the prosaic morning light, it seemed sadly out of place, like a reveller stunned among the rush-hour crowds. The secret labour of a fire becomes self-conscious and ridiculous in the white morning sun.

The Party was a magical, festive event that belonged more to the cannons of make-believe than real-world experience. In spirit It resembled a glee or village fete – an occasion enjoyed by all age groups; with at least as many animal attendees as human ones. Since I have Northern Lights particularly in mind after teaching it to my Year 8s, the Party was not at all unlike one of the Gyptian “ropings” – a grand river gypsy synod – in which river folk from miles around descended upon the small 60 ft radius of Patrick’s boat in travelling teams of barges, wide-beams and narrow boats. The king of the occasion, Patrick himself, was unmistakeably preeminent in burgundy corduroys, a pair of clown-like converse shoes, a small black Trilby hat and a pair of elasticated braces. His face – browned and wrinkled with age and the strains of river-life – was transported into a welcoming and open smile that stayed with him the entire night, and seemed to deepen and widen with every glass of vodka, tumbler of wine and roll-up cigarette. A hundred boaters had come from all the corners of London to celebrate with Patrick, and Sunday day and night belonged to him.

I first got wind of the event when I was sitting out on deck on Saturday. I could see a man splitting a large pile of logs outside; each dull crack announced another deft swing of his axe. Then the man approached me – the same mad, friendly smile –

“There’s going to be a party here tomorrow night,” he said cordially, he was a new neighbour after all. “Just to give you due notice. It’s my birthday, so it will probably go on till late.”

The night of his birthday was a Sunday night, I thought uneasily of the inevitable pile of marking and lesson-planning that awaited me for Monday.

“I imagine that we’ll come and say hello!” I rejoined, and he nodded his head encouragingly, then wandered off to split some more logs.

Some people ask what the river-side community is like, what my sense of it is. Frankly, from what I have seen, in the winter the boating community is largely invisible. Cold weather and inhospitable conditions force boaters inside to huddle round their coal fires and wood-burners. It is a dull, hard struggle, especially given the infernal damp that arises from persistent rain. But river-life, like some many other things, comes into its own in Summer. Then the river bank explodes with all the colourful creatures hemmed in by the winter freeze; the thaw brings newly-planted flowers, the herby scent of pot, the lyrical strains of music floating in through open shutters and cabin portholes. I am sure that given enough experience and friends, social life on the river could be ever-green, and one could cultivate the kind of floating community around oneself that Penelope Fitzgerald describes in the scruffy, yet dignified account of her Thames life in Battersea Reach.

One of my most envious and intriguing moments on the Lea River, however, occurred in the dead of winter. Gideon and I were cycling back via The Princess of Wales beside the Hackney Cut, towards our boat in Hackney Marsh. As we approached the Filter Beds the sound of thumping guitars and accordions dimly perceptible in the funnels of wind that crashed around cheeks and ears, became louder and louder. Before long, the genesis of the sound was evident: there it was afloat in the river, an unmistakeable open-air party boat, dazzling and glittering on the black river.

The Butty had been created from the shell of an old narrowboat converted for the purposes of primordial enjoyment, with old army-style canvases unfurling down from its sides and lanterns made from jam-jars bobbing around from the makeshift roof. Every inch of the floor space was occupied with chairs and sofas, and revellers lounging with beer or playing music. A pacey reel was heard, played by experts with native ears – the manic chitter of the fiddle, the rhythmic strumming of guitars; the persistent airy sighs of the accordion. As we cycled by, I was filled with longing to be part of that scene, sitting companionably among the music and the chatter, in the comforting heart of river life. But of course we did not stop – pride, fear of the known – and instead pedalled dutifully back to Hawisia.

Now, months on, the party had come to us. I knew exactly what would happen as soon as I saw the large forest-green wide-beam with the famous adjoining Butty moored up beside us. A sign as unmistakeable as the circus marquee, the gilded gypsy caravan or the travelling magicians with fish-eye lenses that Marquez describes in the opening of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

That night I felt a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby vicariously partaking in the excitement of my neighbour’s successes, especially with the blaring of the green light from the bridge so cognate with the haunting green light Gatsby observed each night winking moodily at him from the jetty. Though we had three other narrow boats roped in a queue alongside ours, we were clearly not the attraction; it was news of the party that had spread along the waterways, and drawn everyone to the Lea like a magnet towards its nucleus.

On land neighbours can be close, sometimes uncomfortably so, if their apple tree is seen to encroach on your patch or your cat always takes refuge in their kitchen. But on the river, when someone “piggy-backs” your boat, your cruiser stern becomes the gangway to whatever multiple of boaters living beside you that require a passage between land and water. That night I heard a constant train of footsteps padding across our Lister Engine, tripping on the bunting and upsetting the newly planted bulbs. But I didn’t mind; there is something close and companionable about being moored abreast other boats, as well as that sweet, inevitable moment of contact. At one point I peeked outside and someone quickly threw a rough handshake in my direction.

“Pleased to meet you, I’m Mike, I hope you don’t mind that I’m moored up beside you tonight, I should be gone in the morning.”

“Oh I don’t mind at all,” I said, and I meant it (I had already been spying on his excellent mounted mariners collection of knots from my window). He had a lovely, snug boat, all varnished panelled oak, lit up prettily in places with LED strips. Then I looked over Mike’s shoulder. I saw a woman looking a little uncertainly over in my direction. Her face was plain and unmade, her hair was tied up in a rough bun at the nape of her neck.

“You all right?” she asked – as a slightly lazy “in”.

“Oh yes, just doing some gardening,” I replied, reaching for my nasturtiums.

“Aren’t you going to join the party?”

“Oh I will a little later on, but I have some work to do first…”

And so the conversation glided inevitably towards teaching and to what she did herself, working with children in some capacity.

“I can work with schools”, she said, “but not for them.”

I grunted in affirmation that I didn’t truly feel and went to find my mug of tea. The next time I glanced over in her direction, I could see she was already deep in conversation with someone else, squashed, levitating almost, on her cruiser stern, feet propped up on the control panel.

So the night passed – with the hum of conversation building in spontaneous crescendos outside, and the shadow of dogs running past the outside window in a happy, inexplicable pursuit of each other. Each time I turned over in bed, the chorus of instruments outside struck up another tune, and the babble of conversation lifted and fell. When I peered outside at 4 am, they were still there, though the ring of people standing around the fire had visibly lessened. They looked like trolls or night-ghasts protecting a deep secret. As the silence of the morning lulled me to sleep, I imagined them still sitting there determinedly in patient unison, for many hours to come, waiting to worship the dawn.

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.