At Last, 11.12.2013

I know the date by heart today because I have been repeating it to my students all morning: ‘Now open your exercise book, write the date and put a heading.’ I have been teaching The Taming of the Shrew and discussing whether or not it is a true comedy. Can a comedy be cruel? I asked the wide-eyed year 8’s. Is all comedy cruel? I asked myself.

Now that I have settled into my ‘nine to five’ routine, I realise with sadness that I will not see Hawisia in daylight on weekdays for many months to come. I leave the boat at dawn and return in the evening. At both stages the river is totally devoid of human presence: the chimney stacks on the boats show no signs of smoke, galley lights are off. The only sign of life is the occasional blast of light from a cyclist’s bicycle as they pass – but almost as soon as I notice them, they are gone, like the fizzled-out tail-ends of comets.

Now that Gideon has gone to Sheffield for a few days it feels extremely lonely here on the boat. Yesterday, I was filled with a kind of elemental sadness. I had a bad time at my parent’s house. When I finally got back to Hawisia: hair wild, hands crushingly cold, I could not get the fire to go for lack of kindling and smaller fragments of wood. So I just went to bed in order to avoid freezing. I held Behemoth tightly in my arms and invited her under the duvet. I fell asleep.

Tonight, on the long trajectory across London on the East to West Overground service, I thought with dread about what might greet me when I got home. Imagine if I could not get the fire to go again? Sometimes life on a boat is almost unbearably hard.

But after forty minutes of minute adjustments and negotiation I finally managed to build a self-sufficient fire. At last! Now it is blazing merrily beside me and I have just popped open a bottle of creamy brown ale. I am almost happy – except that I am on my own.

Then my mind returns to The Taming of the Shrew, one of those strange, early, farcical comedies. Yet in all Shakespeare’s canon it is the supreme example of the play-within-a-play. The story-line that we all know – of Katherine, the shrew, is actually put on by a bunch of players who are commissioned by a foolish noble in the play’s ‘Induction’, to divert Christopher Sly, the drunken tinker. The whole action of the ‘play’ is swallowed up by this strange framing device.

Now I want to think about boats in Shakespeare, since my mind is floating in quotations from the romance plays.

Well there is Cleopatra’s ‘barge’ of course – that is the most famous. Then there is the storm-tossed barque from which Sebastian and Alonso are thrown off in The Tempest. Twelfth Night opens with a boat voyage too, which leaves Viola stranded on the shores of a strange island. In A Winter’s Tale, it is not the hero or heroine, but the nobleman Antigonus who first sets sail upon the seas bound for Bohemia, where he deposits the infant princess Perdita. Boats, ships and voyages by seas seem to be a benchmark of the Comedies. I wonder why? Perhaps it is because the aureole of romantic aspiration that clings to adventure is not a pre-requisite of Tragedy as it is to Comedy. Tragedy must happen upon land; power-play and struggle is more difficult upon the water. One cannot have power on a boat. The water takes away and gives as it sees fit, it is the mistress here, not humankind.

Demolition by Water

What the tombstone or lonely cemetery epitaph is to mortal man, the ship-wreck is to the boater. It is a Boethian token of our earthly transience and the mutability of all things- a momento mori of the tidal currents and high seas.

Flesh to dust seems a more credible reduction that the alchemical transubstantiation of a cast iron-shell to a rusted, nibbled rind, devoured by water and time. It is strange to me that ships with names like The Endurance and The Titanic, are symbols of permanence and hardihood, yet through their very insistence on this fact, imply their own vulnerability and downfall. This exposes the basic paradox at the heart of the boat: the paradox of finite durability. Extending the life of a boat is as difficult as extending a human life: it can only be achieved with hard work, persistence and discipline. Bad habits lead quickly to, extinction.

Downstream from the Hackney Cut in Clapton you can find just such a paradox.

It was once a very handsome boat: painted festively with borders of bright red and bouquets of roses. Now it is a rotting wreck and the owner is nowhere to be seen.

I saw him once, before she sank. He was doing repair work on the boat, working hard with chisel, hammer and saw. He had gathered an untidy tipee of pallet beams and woodchip that was resting behind him on a tree. After that I never saw him again. Somehow the verdict had been pronounced on her: she was a lost cause.  

Over the autumn period, we were moored beside this ghost ship for many week. So I watched its gentle disintegration into water: the disentangled gut of its rope fender unwinding – the well-jointed wood splintering; the walls of creaking timber breached by probing fingers of water.

Once an empress upon the water; now, I reflected, its mysterious interior would play host to only chambers of dark, still water.

Then, at night, the thought of its silent, skulking presence just beyond the leer of our prow would haunt me. Its comical slump in the water seemed to prefigure, the abyssal depths to which all boats would eventually, sink.

To Fridge or not to Fridge? That is the Question

Well at least it was in the beginning, when we first bought the boat. At that time in the summer, the absence of a fridge in my life was one of the things that disturbed me most about boat life. How do you feel if you have to throw one pot of hummus in the bin? Mildly irritated; by the third or fourth time? Utterly desolate. For a vegetarian who likes sandwiches you can imagine what this meant to me.

 But hummus was just one of many things that I have had to siphon out of my diet, or learn to adapt to and eat in a new way, in order to accommodate my new life on water. Such changes ranged from mild re-adjustment (making sure I didn’t overcook) to out and out system change (not buying hummus, not eating my favourite breakfast of muesli and yoghurt in the morning). So there have been some undeniable sacrifices.

But I found a very helpful article on the internet which put my tribulations about fridgelessness into perspective. The author of this article spent her time on a cruiser boat in the Amazon for half of the year: conditions were humid, tropical and wet. If she could survive without a fridge – and she was assured that she could – why shouldn’t I? After all, England’s climate – with our mild summers and chill winters – is far more favourable to those without fridges than the subtropics of South America.

The article explained that it was much easier to survive without a fridge than you imagined. Probably three quarters of the food in your fridge doesn’t really need to be there. The author explained that some fruit and vegetables are more perishable than others, and fresh meat isn’t a good idea. In general, dairy products will experience a quick turn-over.  But life without a fridge is very manageable once you learned the “ABC” of what works and what doesn’t.

My experience of living on the boat has shown her to be correct. There is no reason this shouldn’t be the case, after all, the fridge as we know it is a recently modern invention – the ungainly birth-child of a post-war boom in the American economy. Before this statement piece of bourgeois domestication – people made do with larders and cellars, pantries, and if you were very lucky – an ice-house. Ice houses became yet another eccentric addition to the Victorian upper-class garden grotto. Small, conical and compact with domed roofs, they were packed with ice and snow and then insulated with materials such as sawdust and hay to keep the ice from melting. I saw a lovely example of one myself in Kew Gardens, almost by accident, while we were wandering around an outdoor sculpture exhibition last summer.

This digression reminds me that at one point ice cream represented the sine qua non of luxurious food – the pinnacle of man’s triumphant, though fleeting conquest of natural improbability. In the 18th century ice cream was served on the banqueting tables and feasting platters of kings and queens, flavoured with fruits and natural extractions. Even in the Victorian period it was a rare luxury and children would flock to the stalls of Italian emigrant vendors covering the streets Maida Vale and Little Venice, to buy their penny-licks.  As I learned from the Canal Museum in Kings Cross Wharf, these tiny capsules contained ice that had been lugged all the way by ship from Greenland. It is strange to think now, that at one point frozen water was such a rare and expensive commodity. In short, centuries of experience had developed ingenious schemes for preserving and artificially prolonging the shelf-life of food – drying it, salting it, smoking it, pickling and preserving it.

Veganism is a strong advantage to those who choose boat life, as the things that tend to go off fastest are obviously meat and dairy products. In fact, if I were a vegan I don’t think I would ever require the use of a fridge. For me, the biggest thorn in my side is milk. Mind you, in winter, milk on our boat kitchen has the same life expectancy almost, as refrigerated milk, because it is so cold. I can keep cheese in biscuit tins and it survives at least a week, and my butter, kept away from the cat in its butter dish on the top shelf, can last more than a fortnight. 

I have learnt over time that the best way to keep food is to jar it and contain it. Because of the humidity and condensation on the boat, paper packets and semi-open film packets of food quickly fall victim to mould. Not just a trendy gimmick – it is genuinely necessary to have a good store of tinned veg, dried pulses, cans, tins, wheat, grain, corked and vacuum packed neatly in jars. Nothing without skin should be openly exposed to the indoor elements of the boat. So a well and lovingly maintained boater’s diet tends to consist of the wholesome stuffs of life.

Perhaps there are some boaters who do have fully functioning fridges on their boats – but I am yet to meet them. Your average fridge requires too much energy to run on a nomadic (“cruising”) boat that is not plugged into the mains in a marina or permanent mooring. Marine fridges, specially adapted to run on 12v circuits do exist, but they are at least £500. Even then, leaving a fridge on all day will drain your battery. It is a matter of compromise and priority. Would you rather run a fridge or your computer? Or charge your phone? Something has to budge.

This is a good example of the ways in which you are changed by living on a boat. Fridgelessness is not a tragedy – but it does define certain patterns in your daily routine, as does the constant quest for energy.  Believe me, boaters are like energy vampires. If you see an individual sitting in a pub, charging his phone, computer and ipod, chances are, they are a boater. So boaters are more guilty that most of committing that commercial impropriety so hated by the hospitalities industry – the I’ll-swap-you-one-cup-of-tea-for-an-afternoon-in-your-gaff syndrome.

No one sees the stark equivalency between energy and value quite as clearly as the boater. Power is something you ration and collect, like tokens in a game. So for me, a fridge represents a level of power expenditure above and beyond the benefits it brings. And the result? A type of practical creativity and experimentation with substances; the occasional mouthful of acrid tea. But also, an awareness and newfound respect for certain edible products – a new way of feeling and understanding food.

I have disgorged myself of the status symbol of modern man, the disembodied machine-belly. I am free from the insatiable appetites of, the fridge.  

 

The River Couriers, 12.12.2013

When we first started living in London on our narrowboat, one of the things that delighted me the most were the trading boats.

These wherry-men were the savvy individuals who had cottoned onto the increasing popularity of boat life and adjusted their business plan accordingly.

The great grandfather of this river genealogy is a man that goes by the name of Paul.

Paul has a beautiful old boat – a nineteenth century coal barge. For this reason most of the boat has no roof, though there is a beam running across the top held aloft by two beautifully carved wooden triangles joined to the boat. There is a separate engine room with shutters which skippers usually leave open to cool the engine. Then there is a small living quarters. In the large space where coal would have once been piled in small, black mountains; Paul carries an assortment of the odds and ends of boating life: 13 kg Calor gas bottles, smokeless coal and red diesel. If you’re lucky he might do you a pump-out, although this is becoming increasingly rare these days.

When we were experiencing engine distress in Kensal Rise I met a young man called Dominic. He told me that when he broke down, a river courier that he knew would top up his water.

“I didn’t even need to ask,” he said. “I just told him to top me up whenever he went by.”

Obviously, when you are broken down, running out of water is a very real and threatening proposition.

But those are bygone days. The river couriers, perhaps once behaved like an ambulance service to distressed boats, helping in an assortment of less profitable ways by doing pump-outs and topping up with water. Now, however, even on the river, the principle of capital reigns supreme. I have heard some boaters complain that river couriers only stop for women, or only stop if you make several purchases at once.

Renée is the name of Paul’s adopted river son. He is French; he growls rather than speaks, his face is pitted and weather-beaten; his eyes glisten and his hair is a shaggy, oily mane of black ringlets.

The precise nature of the relationship between these two men is uncertain: but of one thing all boaters can agree, Paul was there first. So they are not exactly business associates or partners, they do not work as a team. But somebody suggested to me that Renée rents his boat from the older man who allows him to ply his own trade on the river front. I met these men both on the Western branch or concourse of the Grand Union Canal, but their remit is vast: at the beginning of one week they will be in Kensal Rise and by the end of the week they will have already made it to Limehouse Cut. Because of all the precious cargo on their boats they do not moor on the tow-path, but ‘piggy-back’ onto other boats. They are shape-shifters, nomads; forever on the move, ploughing the same familiar terrain across the wingspan of London.

I met Jack more recently. He is the friendliest river courier we have yet to meet, and he has a sort of mutually beneficial agreement with Gideon. The boat he pilots is called ‘The Archimedes’, it has a handsome blue finish and it is a historic boat, built in 1935.

I cannot speak of historic boats without telling a little story about one of our earliest, most enchanting boating encounters. We were cruising the water-course between Brentford Lock and the Western branch of the Grand Union Canal. We had just finished luncheon in a pub called The Fox (highly recommended) at the foot of the Hanwell stairs – a flight of seven locks. We were half-way up the flight when we saw a girl running down stream – she had come ahead as a scout. As their craft was so broad, she told us, they would wait at the top of the stairs for us to pass.

Eventually we passed the mysterious craft, so broad that it took up the entire diameter of a lock. A crew of six or seven people were walking about agitatedly, some with long barge poles in their hands. It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before: it was very flat and square, the colour of carnation red and there was hardly any space for living quarters. I couldn’t understand what it was; it looked more like a vast gondolier than a coal-barge.

A girl with olive skin and a swirl of black sari wrapped around her head explained across the water, “It’s an old puppet theatre! Every year we do the historic trip from Brentford Lock to Paddington Basin.” They were on their way to Richmond they told me. Later I found out that this magical marionette theatre had been established on the barge for twenty-five years and we have caught the company during their annual tour of the River Thames.

And so it was. They got there in the end, and came back, even though the bottom of their boat sagged to the bottom of the shallow canal and the rudder become engorged with mud. A few weeks later I saw a sign in Paddington Basin advertising the travelling water-boat shows.

***

The river couriers are men of every season. In frost, in sun and snow they patiently chug along the rivers and canals, lock by lock, boat by boat. Their trade is in the mineral and elemental properties of life: fuel, coal, food. Through their livelihoods they are a reincarnation of the old spirit of the river, harking back to a time when traders and merchants would regularly ply the waters with trade, or courier heavy loads of goods through London. It is like experiencing a flash of industrial or pre-industrial Britain, they hey-day of the canal artery system. The river couriers have established a basic economy on water and hence the first rudiments of a canal-side society. They are the embodiment of the past made present and active; joyfully anachronistic, inspiringly free.

The English Teacher, 11.12.2013

She gets up each morning before the sun has risen. It is winter. The cat purrs and pads on her cloudy white duvet, making it even harder to leave its soft body smells and warm creped edges. She dresses in bed, allowing her torso to be exposed to the cold air.  Her breasts goose-pimple as they wait for the familiar hold of her brassier. 

She clips it into place and puts on one of the shirts she has left out on the other side of the bed, ready for the morning. Her tights are still on from the night before. She pushes the cat to one side and gets out of bed. She climbs into her skirt. She pushes her untidy mane of hair into place before a vanity mirror. She pouts and puts on some mascara.

She switches the light off and moves up the boat. Another skylight flicks on and another bar of light shoots across the galley. She gives the cat her breakfast first, spooning out congealed lumps of trout and god-awful-looking processed fish into a small white ceramic bowl. Then she moves towards the boiler, cooker and control board. ‘Water pump’: On. Boiler: pilot light then puff! Nudge the ‘hot’ tap, after one minute a stream of piping hot water charges through the faucet. She washes her hands with the old bar of soap her mother gave her. Eventually the smears of coal fall from her hands. Fill up the kettle. Put it on the boil. ‘Water pump’: Off. Large frying pan, out, gas ring, on. The dented old pan warms itself up for toast. 

After breakfast, she swiftly puts on her coat and scarf. That whole preparation has only taken fifteen minutes. It is as familiar to her now as her body itself; that rehearsed feel of the morning, and her snowy, woollen mind. Her hands search for the wet hatch-roof. Cold wet metal stings her finger tips. She pushes and lifts it back. Suddenly her head emerges into the outside world. It is still dark and spools of white mist cover the river. The towpath is empty. 

Sometimes her bicycle is frozen. Then the seat feels like a hard lump of wood. The metal bars are sugar-coated with frost. The wheels have become ice-lollipops. When she tries to take off, away from the towpath and up the hill, she glides like a skater. The brakes are locked; the gear shifter has frozen. She is riding a frozen contraption like a jilted mechanical toy, on her way to work in the acute frost of early winter. She has become an English teacher.