Tag Archives: canals

Leaving the canal

I wrote this piece for a recent issue of Waterfront, the Canal & River Trust’s superb magazine for canal lovers.  

In theory, it doesn’t take long to move off a canal boat. When I finally left my floating home of seven years, all I really needed was a couple of hours with some sturdy cardboard boxes and a roll of bin bags, such is the lack of storage space for anything other than the most basic of life’s essentials. But how long does it take to get over moving off a canal boat? I’ll tell you when I manage it.

I left for love, having bought a flat with my girlfriend, but also for central heating, storage space, flushing toilets and a water supply that never ran out. The decision was helped by the fact my boat was in poor condition. I’d been spending less time there, and the neglect was starting to show. I’d never been the most diligent of handyman and a boat deteriorates quickly, so by the time I moved away the boiler, fridge and cooker were condemned or unreliable. Then there was the toilet. The terrifying condition of this medieval contraption was the main reason my girlfriend wouldn’t spend much time on the canal, and helped make dry land – with its ready access to an actual sewer – seriously appealing.

There was more. Now at least I wouldn’t have to mentally filter every item I acquired – every book, CD, mug, apple or pair of socks – to decide whether I could really afford the room. I’d never wake frozen to the core having come home too late to light the fire. I’d never run out of water in the middle of a shower because I’d forgotten to refill the tank. That time when I ended up taking a shower in diesel after a can of oil leaked into my water tank would, surely, never be repeated. I’d be able to have a bath, and my mum could stop worrying about me accidentally falling in the canal when I arrived home, unsteadily, after midnight.

All this was true, and yet from the start there was much I missed. Quite simply, living on a boat never gets boring and it was never something to take for granted. I had never grown tired of returning each evening and unlocking the mysterious gate in an unremarkable wall that allowed me to descend from noisy street to the secluded world of the towpath. I felt privileged to be part of this secret universe, populated by fascinating people. It wasn’t just about seeming cool – although that had something do with it. Boat life really is interesting, both as a concept and as a way of life. These were the rewards you got for the discomfort.

It could also be exhausting and at first, I revelled in the luxurious space of my tiny flat but even this proved illusionary. A good boat has excellent storage but also genuine, unbreachable limitations on what you can accumulate; flats and houses have no real limits, you can continue stacking stuff almost indefinitely in corners and under beds and sofas until you are so suffocated by physical objects you find yourself desperate to move. On a boat, you cannot hoard. It was an excellent discipline that in some ways I retain – I don’t keep newspapers or magazines, for instance, and am always getting in trouble for instinctively throwing away any letter or piece of paper that seems to have been abandoned in the same place for too long.

I didn’t return to the canal for several years after leaving my boat – canals being easy to avoid unless you go out of your way to find one. When I did go back, I was struck by a disorientating sense of saudade, a nostalgic melancholy for what has passed. As I wandered down the once familiar towpath, noting old boats in new moorings, new boats in old moorings and the excellent paint job on my former home, I realised how much I missed the chaotic camaraderie of boat life. We lived on top of each other in a way that was as close to communal living as you can get outside of student digs. In my flat, by contrast, I took the stairs rather than get stuck with a stranger in the lift.

Even now, years later, there are times I miss the canal most painfully. The pang can be triggered by the slightest thing – the smell of coal smoke on crisp winter evenings, the sight of a perfect blue sky in August, the sound of hard rain late at night. It comes back most powerfully every time I step aboard a boat. There is that initial give and roll, the subtle shift of weight that comes every time you leave dry land, and then the short descent into the comforting darkened corridor of a cabin with its warm smell of water, smoke and diesel. One day, I think, one day I will come home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nostalgia corner: Zola, bitumen, Paolozzi and the great ‘is London shit?’ debate

Because of a frantic start to 2015, I’ve neglected Great Wen recently. Hopefully, I’ll find something to stick up soon but in the meantime here are a few interesting bits and bobs.

First, here’s me, writing for the Canal & River Trust, about the experience of taking a narrowboat into drydock, where you whack it with mallets, coat it in tar and get pleasingly sozzled with strange Irishmen.

Second, I really enjoyed this piece by Callum West on the great Chelsea team of the 1990s, and the extraordinary revival of fortunes that preceded the salad days of Roman Abramovich. This isn’t the side I grew up with, or the one that won the most trophies, but it’s the one that gave me the greatest pleasure to watch.

Finally, the great London debate – is it turning shit or isn’t it? – is gathering pace. The constant stream of negative stories, the latest being Eva Wiseman’s pretty dismal contribution at the weekend, has finally been met by counter-argument in Brockley Central.  Is Nick’s point fatally wounded by the use of Giles Coren as a defense witness? Or is he simply missing the point, which is that the death of fun by over-development in central London is a prevailing trend that is already starting to infect areas far from the West End, and we sit and sneer at those uncomfortable at the increasing inequality, inaccessibility, unaffordability and general dreary Dubainess of it all at our peril? Both, probably.

Professional contrarians like Coren will get in bed with anyone if it gets them attention, but I’m not sure many other Londoners should be siding with the developers and speculators.

By illustration, the latest landmark to get the chop are the great Paolozzi murals at Tottenham Court Road. Still, that’s the price of progress! Yay to cultural vandalism!

“In winter, we hibernated”: Christmas on a London canal

I wrote this piece for the Canals & River Trust about winter when I used to live on a canal boat in London.

Everybody has a dream. For London cabbies, it’s ‘riding the green wave’ – that is, to hit only green lights when driving along the Euston Road, surfing the inner city highway entirely unhindered by reds and ambers. For boat dwellers, the dream was a little different: we wanted to ride the red arc, to light a fire at the start of winter that would keep burning until spring, a constant five-month blaze that required no further feeding from firelighters or matches.

I’m not sure anybody managed it. There were rumours about the more calloused boaters, the ones who could measure out their boat life by the decade and bled pure diesel. I know I didn’t. Far from it. For the first few years I lived on my narrowboat at Lisson Grove, I could barely keep a fire alight for a single night. I blame it on my stove, a gargantuan pot-bellied top-loader that was far too big for my tiny boat and practically impossible to control no matter how diligently I layered firelighters, kindling, newspaper and coal, or fiddled with the grate, trying by fractions of an inch to get the perfect draft. Instead, it would burn ferociously hot, so much so that if I wished to sleep amid the inferno I would have to fling open the back and front doors no matter what the weather outside. Invariably, I’d wake icily at 3am to find the fire burnt out, and bury myself in blankets until dawn. A cold boat was not a pleasant place to spend the morning; often I’d have to break the ice that formed in the sink overnight.

Later, I acquired a more controllable stove and would pride myself on keeping it burning for weeks at a time. This allowed me to appreciate the smothering splendour of boat life in winter. For half the year, living on the canal was an outdoors and sociable affair. This was partly a matter of comfort. Boats are largely made of glass and metal, so get very hot very quickly. It’s like living in a car. To combat this, doors were always open and much time was spent on deck, gossiping with neighbours. This easy familiarity would lead to impromptu barbeques that became boozy weekends, with individuals dropping in and out as the mood struck but the essential body of the party remaining intact from Friday evening to Sunday night.

Then in winter, we hibernated. Returning in the evening gloom, even before you reached the canal, you’d catch the homely smell of smoking coal. The towpath would be still, and on every boat, doors and curtains would be closed against the cold, chimneys puffing cheerily away. While summer was a buzz of conversation, hailed hellos and clinking bottles, the sound of winter was the stolid rattle of a coal scuttle being filled. We still visited each other, enjoying wine and warmth and admiring our neighbours’ stove-lighting technique, perhaps exchanging views on the best type of coal to use. But this was an altogether more internal time, drowsy days spent deep within the boat, and, as winter peaked, in contemplation of the view outside. Almost every year the slow-moving canal would freeze grey-white, startling, beautiful, and so close at hand it felt as if your boat had moved overnight to another planet. This virgin layer of ice would gradually get more battle-scarred as the kids from the local estate attempted to smash the surface with increasingly oversized objects, graduating from stones to bricks, until with inevitable surrealism, you’d wake to find a shopping trolley embedded in the ice.

Although our winters were essentially insular they were not entirely so. Many boaters spent Christmas Day on the canal, staggering sociably from boat to boat, admiring each tiny decorated fir and fairy lights slung along gunwales. And, for the Millennium, we held a party every bit as spectacular as any summer barbeque, watching the Thames fireworks from Primrose Hill and spending four solid days carousing, before, one by one, we slipped away, to see out the rest of winter from the cosy comfort of our floating dens.

London’s floating world

When I first moved to London in 1996 I lived on a boat. This is one of a number of articles I’ve written about this experience. It appeared in ‘Talk Of The Town’, the Independent On Sunday’s short-lived New Yorker-style supplement, on April 20, 2003.

Heading north from the Surrey suburbs, the back seat of my dad’s car stacked with clothes, books and CDs, it all seemed straightforward. I was a boat sitter, pure and simple, looking after a canal boat moored in Lisson Grove (where was that? Who cared?) for a couple of months, just the summer, while I waited for something better, something drier to come along. It was a foothold into London life, but no more. I certainly wouldn’t be there for long.

That was seven years ago. This summer, I’ll finally be packing up my bric-a-brac, much of it the same in fact, and heading back south over the water, back to dry land. Boat life is over; while it lasted, it was everything.

In the summer of 1996, Dazzler was – is, the old girl still exists after all – a small, slapdash, cosy vessel, ineptly painted in green and red and just 23 feet from bow to stern. But inside was everything that young man, newly freed from home, would ever need. TV, fridge, oven, shower, toilet, double bed and an 0171 telephone number; Camden was a mile in one direction, Notting Hill a mile in the other and the West End just a short trek south. Idyllic.

The mooring itself was ludicrously unattractive, a slab of urban ugliness slapped between the twin charms of Regent’s Park and picture perfect Little Venice (‘Do you live in Little Venice?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply). On one side of the ragged and uneven towpath, weeds spilling through the cracks, was a huge brown-brick electrical substation that, we would proudly boast, had once been a target for IRA bombers. Periodically, it would let forth a monstrous, shuddering belch as it poured electricity through the wires that ran along the road at the top of the towpath. On the other side was a massive, grey, sprawling council estate, built upon the site of an old schoolyard and now home to lairy kids who, every school holiday without fail, would pelt our pretty, targetable boats with bricks and bottles. ‘A narrowboat? It must be so peaceful,’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

At first, my fellow boaters were an intimidating lot. They’d gather by the largest boat, so big it was moored parallel with the towpath rather than sticking out into the canal as the others were. It was a long, hot summer and the crowds would stand at the nearby barbecue drinking, chatting and laughing, everybody brown and weathered, with hands and torsos lined by ropes and engines the hard outdoors. They’d fall silent as I, pasty pale and thin with unmarked skin, scurried past. One or two would maybe nod in vague recognition. ‘New lad, Dazzler,’ the whispered explanation would follow me aboard, where I would shut the curtains and turn up the music to drown out the carousing that lasted long into the night.

It was thanks to my next-door neighbour that I broke through and become an honorary boater. She was my age, bright, attractive, posh and loud. Great fun. A bit loopy. A powerful personality, she forced her friendship upon me, and me upon my neighbours. I learnt who they were: the actors, perennially resting, the couriers, students, bankrupts, welders, writers, dossers and drinkers; riff-raff, drifters from the acceptable fringes of society. Once a year this patchwork neighbourhood would, in its entirety, up moorings and take their boats round the London ring, from Paddington to Limehouse, Limehouse to Brentford, Brentford to Paddington. Friends and neighbours waving to each other and taking photographs as they floated past the Houses of Parliament.

Nights on the ring, like nights on the towpath, would be fabulous social affairs. Barbecues would last all summer long. Sometimes, you’d be on your way home, or heading out, on a Friday night and be asked to stop and have a drink with one of the gossipy groups that would inevitably congregate along the towpath at the first sight of sunshine. Bottle followed bottle and so Friday would slip into Saturday and Saturday would become Sunday. Lazy, warm and indolent. Before long, I came to recognise another pattern: one of new arrivals. Although I felt it had taken me an age to be accepted I soon realised that it had happened practically overnight. So it was with others. You’d meet them briefly one weekend; a week later they’d be taking to your old friends as if they were their old friends. Also routine was the way I’d been dragged in – renting for a few months and staying for a few years. Fresh faces – passing friends or overnight guests – would still be there weeks, months, years later, joining the throng round the barbecue, laughing at joggers and in turn scrutinising new faces. It had that appeal, that attraction for a certain kind of person.

Time passes and things change and London’s creeping gentrification is difficult for even this hardbitten community to avoid. A new breed cottoned on to our secret life. ‘But boats in central London must be very expensive?’ people would ask. ‘Not quite,’ I’d reply.

Boaters realised that the floating houses they owned were fetching London property-market rates. Drifters by nature, they moved on and away, to other ways of life, to other moorings in other parts of the country. Having appeared abruptly, they faded away, appearing less and less often, their places taken by bankers and accountants and managers and assorted nine-to-fivers. Or so it seems.

Some remain, those who make a living of the boats and off the new green boaters, still gathering in ever-decreasing to chuckle about the newbies and exchange news about old friends. Stories are swapped. Of Pump-Out Mick, who sold a boat and disappeared, they said, when he was told he had months to live. Of the bon vivant banker turned vicar, who married my next-door neighbour and took their boat to Cambridge. Of Irish Eddie, whose wife would return from work to measure his humour by the amount of wine he’d consumed – ‘so it’s been a tw0-bottle lunch has it Eddie?’ she’d say if he was being particularly gregarious. Of others: Frank, the one-time ‘Dr Who’ monster, Buzz the publican, Yorkshire Mick, the ice-cream seller and Smiley Pete. ‘You must have met some interesting characters,’ people would ask. Oh, quite.

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