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.

The Launderette

The energy-saving rationale of everyday life means that a fridge is not the only item on the list of embargoed modern conveniences. Even those who are prepared to make the financial and kinetic sacrifice required to run a fridge full-time are rarely interested in having a washing machine on board. As a result, paying a fortnightly visit to the launderette is a custom that comes hand in hand with owning a boat. And, like any ritual, familiarity over time has worked away the old brass patina to reveal a lustrous shine beneath. Now there is a dependable charm about paying a visit to the launderette that has become almost attractive to me.

Each successive place we moor, I experience a different kind of launderette. Many of the variables remain the same: £4-5 a wash, £2 in a dryer, a discounted price if you bring your own detergent. The performers are aluminium tanks watched over by a (mainly female) audience of forlorn mothers and young singletons who sit patiently observing the swilling machine drums, lost to their thoughts.

But there is also something about soap, suds and dirty linen that is strangely conducive to conversation. Then the spontaneous bubbling of local gossip and idle chatter wobbles above the inane humming of the machines, and expresses a multifarious, though frothy contentment. At these times the brute energy and iron zeal of the machines imposes a kind of temporary parity among the waiting, who seize upon the thing they have in common: the clock and the lather. There can be no doubt about it; the launderette is a social leveller. So it is my observation that there is always a tale to tell or listen to in the laundrette. More than a place to clean, it is quintessentially a place to talk.

When we were moored by Ladbroke Grove I used to visit a launderette at the bottom of Chamberlyne Road. The proprietor of the place was a softly-spoken man called Mohammed, with a very modest and gentle manner; always happy to play host for an hour or so to the customers that would jingle the bell on his peeling white door. Mohammed was the master of all things domestic, and a dependable authority on everything from detergents to quick repairs. Like a male Scheherazade, he would spin countless tales and yarns from the throbbing air, thriving in his uncontested dominion of that particular space.

I remember once sitting beside Mohammed and another lady who was watching her family rugs being cleaned. Mohammed was talking about the Notting Hill Carnival. It was last summer and carnival was on the horizon. Mohammed shook his head, highly doubtful about the whole thing: “When the Carnival comes, I go!” he explained. “I put the family in the car, and then we leave, take a holiday!”

 Suddenly a petulant businessman came in with an armful of shirts.

 “Could’ya have these ironed for me by midday?”

Myself and my neighbour winked at each other conspiratorially and she tittered a little.

“That will be £10”, Mohammed replied and half-winked back.

“I could do it myself for that money!” and he huffily left the shop.

So what do I love about the launderette? On one level it is the glimpse of a vanishing London: whether in Kensal Rise or Clapton Pond. The nebulae and bottom-feeders of every community are forced together by the simple necessity of washing. The ceremony of the wash creates its own experts: whether it is the balding Italian gent who smiles at my ineptitude and gives me advice on how to avoid burning my clothes in the drier or the Caribbean shop-owner who helps me tug my shrunken rug back into shape. In fact I half like making mistakes in the launderettes, in order to be corrected and assisted by such well-meaning strangers.

Then, of course, there is the aesthetic: the mustard or grey wallpaper, wooden benches and cracked, plastic baskets; the aerosoled, toothpaste-white clothes. In a more abstract mood I like to watch the way clothes hover in dryers, and come out soft and smooth as clouds; or listen to the centrifugal humming of a few dozen machines spinning their loads. A universe in miniature, all of God’s Creation is brought together by the chemically-resolved, contained energy of the Launderette.

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.