‘Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down': life on London’s floating bookshop

An interview with Paddy Screech, a floating bookseller, for a piece I wrote for Time Out in June 2013.

Paddy Screech, 47, Word On The Water

‘By terms of the continuous cruising licence I have to move to a new mooring every two weeks. In the winter I try and stay around the urban bits and in the summer I stay near the parks. We try and stay north-east because my business partner has a little girl at school in Stoke Newington. We go to Paddington, Camden, Angel, Broadway Market, Mile End Park, Victoria Park and Springfield Park. We can’t go much further because our supply lines start to get stretched as we have relationships with five or six charity shops in this area. These are our friends and were we get our stock and also this is where our boating friends are. If we move to far afield we don’t have a world there.

What’s the appeal? Well, on a day when I have a carpet wrapped around a broken propeller and I have to have my boat towed in a strong wind, I can’t quite recall. Generally, I love the freedom and the less regulated life. London can be a chilly place. On the canal, people behave like they are living in the country even though you are only four metres from the road. As soon as you put a towpath there, people start talking, being friendly. It’s true of everybody, boaters and passersby. It’s very strange, like magic. On the other side of this fence there is a different culture.

It’s like a village. There are a lot of boats in London but if you put them all together you’d have a village, but a village where you can get away from people if you want to just before you start annoying each other. I have a little world in each place I stop: I usually know some of the other boats, I have a favourite coffee shop, I know how to get to the launderette. I like Springfield Park the best. Everybody makes the book barge feel welcome, whether they are permanent residents or not.

I’ve been on this boat for two years, running it as a bookshop, and I’ve been on the canal for six years. I try not to leave the canal. Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down. I lived in Upper Clapton for seven years. In all that time I met one of my seven neighbours once, as I sat rotting in front of a computer and seeing one of my dozen friends each week. Now I have about 300 friends, only look at the computer for an hour a day and never watch TV. I spend most of my time trying to stop the barge blowing away, or trying to light a fire.

The boat is called Diante, which means diamond in Italian. She’s a 1920s coal barge from Amsterdam and was converted into a houseboat in around the 1960s. She’s beautiful, but has a very thin bottom so will need replating. The engine is very old and just about clinging to existence. Every four years you need to take a boat drydock for a bigger service but if you do that properly a boat can last for decades. I’m not very practical but am much better than I was seven years ago. Anything that requires expertise or tools I need to call in favours. The fun thing about a Dutch barge is that it has no weed hatch so I have to put on a wet suit and get in the canal with all the urine and clear it with a knife.

I have a sea toilet which can’t be used on the canal so I visit the local establishments when I need the loo. There are lots of pubs and cafes that are sympathetic. It’s a simple life, I have no hot running water. I had a gas boiler but took it off because it wasn’t going to pass the safety certificate. It seemed a bit of luxury. My shower is now used for book storage. I wash with landlubber friends. Thanks to the kindness of friends I get a bath every other day. Working boats come up and down the canal delivering coal and diesel to all the moorings.

I have no mains electricity but a substantial amount of solar panelling that runs the lights and a 12v PA. There’s also an alternator on the engine, which creates electricity when you run the engine. It means there’s one less corporation in your pants. I do all my electronic stuff on my smartphone. Some boats have widescreen TVs and generators, but I’m not interested. Boats take up a lot of time and so I’m always pottering around doing something, I’m done with sitting on my arse watching bad television.

My business partner is John Privett, we started the shop about two years ago. We survive against overwhelming odds, but our costs are low and in the winter we live like feral water rats. We don’t get much custom when it is raining so in the winter we contract our horns and live on less. For our stock, we get given donations but mainly we select the best from charity shops.

The main expense is the licence and safety certificate. The business license for a trading boat is the same cost as a residential one as long as you are making less than £60k a year. There are around 15 trading books in London now, including a hat boat, a sandwich boat, a cocktail barge, a vegan cake barge, a herbal practitioner and a Slovak restaurant. We are hoping to find a permanent site for a floating market. It’s nice to move every two weeks but we might do better if we could stay in the same place.

I have absolutely no interest in going back to dry land. As long as I can borrow a friend’s bath every now and then there’s nothing about land life that appeals to me. I’m in the city now but when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be in  park underneath some trees and I’ll still have my coffee and my cats [Queenie and Skitty]  around me. To take your house and plonk it into the countryside after 24 hours is pretty special.

I don’t wish for more space. Boats change your expectation about how much space you need. I got rid of four-fifths of my items when I moved aboard and I don’t miss them. You just learn not to accumulate things. Except books. I can usually find something to read.’

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3 responses to “‘Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down': life on London’s floating bookshop

  1. Pingback: London News Roundup | Londonist

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  3. Pingback: Movement and pace in London | Ravish London

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