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.

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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.