News and Summer Sale

I’ve been a bit quiet here lately, returning to life on land and up North. I managed to write over 75,000 words of drafts over the winter, only a third of which made it onto the blog. It was hard to live life that fast and document it in real time!

I’m now getting into the business of organising this all into some sort of sense, as well as making sure my historic research is as good as can be. I’m starting to put together a tour for next spring, aiming for 20 shows with Marit, so that sets me a deadline for the book and album that will come from this. If you’d like us to perform near you, get in touch with venue suggestions and we’ll approach them.

As I head into the quieter period of putting all this together, I’ve decided to have a sale of various merchandise items to raise a bit of income as I write the manuscript, as well as reduce the canyon of cardboard I appear to live in now.

Pretty much every album I’ve made is on sale in the link below, plus both my books. The Seasons of Change book is now back in stock, having been reprinted. I’m also selling the final few copies of ‘Rushes’, my debut album with Gren Bartley from 2007 and the last few copies of ‘Wayside Courtesies’, Pilgrims’ Way’s award winning first album from 2011. Neither of these will ever be repressed, so it’s now or never if you want one!

If you’re missing some combination of items that I haven’t specifically listed, please get in touch and we’ll sort a special sale out. I’ll spotlight some of the specific items in the sale on my dacebook page over the next week or so.

Thank you again for your continued support. I really appreciate it. I’ll continue to add things to the blog as I work, although it may only be about once a month from here.

http://www.tomkitching.co.uk/shop/

Jason’s Trip

Little Venice is the public face of the London canal system. It has been kept clear of residential moorings, something of a sore point with much of the live-aboard community who regard it as further evidence of the creeping gentrification of London’s waterways. This triangle of canal that connects the Regents canal to the Paddington branch of the Grand Union canal, fitted as it is with a central island completely overrun with competing, bread stuffed, honking waterfowl, is one of the few places in London where a casual walker or tourist can directly engage with the canal and the various amenities it can offer, and I have no problem with places like this being kept clear of liveaboards, so long as those essential residential moorings are properly catered for elsewhere. There is a café boat, a floating puppet theatre, hotel boats, a podcast boat, and several trip boats. From up the branch in Paddington one can hire an electric go-boat or dine on one of the restaurant boats. The water here is genuinely the focal point of the area, with plenty to see and do.

It all began with Jason’s trip in 1951. The original trip boat was an old wooden steamer called ‘Jason’, which ran until 1958 when it suffered the fate of nearly all wooden boats and rotted to pieces. It was replaced by a ‘Josher’, a Fellows Morton and Clayton boat, (reckoned to be ‘Portugal’ by name, although nobody seems entirely certain of this) which took on the ‘Jason’ name and duties, a service that has continued unbroken ever since. As the first and longest running trip boat on the UK canal network, I was honoured to be invited for a day to see how it works.

Portugal had been built as a horse boat in 1906 and was subsequently motorised at Yarwoods in Cheshire in 1937, the same year as my boat, Spey, was built. It had even served briefly as a tanker in the Clayton’s fleet, but metal boats and tar never really seemed to get on, and it had soon left that service and was the ideal choice for the experimental trip boat traffic in London. Carrying passengers has been Jason’s job ever since 1958.

I arrived at Little Venice, picked up a coffee and waited. Jason’s space was empty, and the first run of the day was due back from Camden shortly.

James was on the tiller today. Like most skippering jobs around London, it’s a freelance role, and James can be found on many of the boats from time to time it seems. But Jason’s trip has a special place in his heart, as I was to learn.

He brought the boat under the road bridge and into Little Venice, swinging it round to the left and reversing smartly onto the mooring space. There were three trips today, right at the very start of the season, and the first had just been completed. Passengers from Little Venice to Camden, and then return. Commentary on the outward leg only.

Returning empty to Little Venice with Maida Hill tunnel in the background

The rain had cleared so James set about polishing the many pieces of brass as we waited for passengers to turn up. Jason’s trip is antiquated, largely catering to a walk-up, cash paying crowd, although cards and reservations are perfectly possible. It reminded me of the sort of day out my parents would have taken me on as a small boy.

The London Waterbuses were also out and about, and the trip boat season was underway in earnest.

Our other crew member was Sara, her job to take the money, organise the queue, and provide the commentary on the run to Camden. She exuded a kind of fierce competence, equal parts welcoming and formidable depending on what was required.

We picked up a dozen customers and cast off. James took the boat up to the tunnel and I briefly went into the engine room for safety. The back cabin is now a spacious engine room, Jason not requiring any accommodation or catering, and I sat on the step and watched the engine power us through the darkness. As we emerged from Maida Hill, so did I.

“I enjoy doing this one.” Said James. “It doesn’t really pay as well as some of the other jobs, although we did get a rise this year, but there’s something more important about it.”

“Yeah?”

“It belongs to a tradition. Some of the trip boats, and Jason’s in particular have been going so long that they’re a direct link to the rich heritage and culture of narrowboating.”

“As in how it’s operated or how it looks?”

“Bit of both. They started it during carrying days, and the early skippers were all working boatmen. They brought their skills and ways of working to the boat, and that has been continued in the face of modern pressures like making money. It could make more, but it wouldn’t be right.”

“Like what specifically?”

“It still has a wooden bottom. Most of these have been converted to steel because it’s easier. We maintain the brass work, the roses on the doors, the signwriting. We run a historic engine. Ropes have to be handled and stored correctly. Everything is kept just so.”

Jason’s trip then is a direct link to the carrying days. A working boat of considerable age, still earning a daily living, handled and kept as it always has been, crewed by people who appreciate and value what it is, what it represents, and who actively participate in keeping the traditions alive, respectful of their place in the history of the waterways.

Camden

At Camden we offloaded our small but happy cargo and with nobody on for the return leg I was allowed the tiller. Through the railway underbridge with the ultraviolet lights to prevent drug users being able to identify a vein, past the always entirely occupied guest moorings, to the big turn. I was allowed to wind the engine right up on the run through Regent’s Park and the boat handled impeccably, cutting the water, planted neatly in the channel, just the right weight on the tiller. The only difficulty was the large wooden topped canopy that ran the length of the boat, significantly obstructing vision at the front end. At Maida Hill tunnel, Sara was concerned about me chipping the corners of the canopy, so I became to determined to pilot the boat through flawlessly. James knew he could trust me and went into the hold for safety.

At Little Venice, I too swung Jason across to the left and reversed the boat back into the mooring.

“You did that better than me.” Said James. I didn’t, but it was nice of him to say it. Sara had the boat tied up in a flash, lightning quick coils of the rope, rhythmically falling into place.

“I started in 2001.” She told me. “Every year I resign. And here I am.”

On the next trip, I became a punter and enjoyed the commentary with the customers, clambering into the hold, now a piece of the cargo myself. Sara was excellent, a concise, informative, and interesting commentator. Some of the other trip boats focus on celebrities and who owns what, but Jason’s trip is about the canal and its relationship to the land and people around it. Jason is the perfect boat for it, exuding age and history, and Sara quickly sets the scene.

“Boats like this had a tiny cabin at the back and people lived in just that little space. No toilet, no shower, just a little coal range for cooking.”

I looked at the small children taking this in. Of course, nobody would live like that now.

At Camden, the skies opened, and it began to hammer it down. Jason has two canopies that fold out all along the sides and keep the worst of it out, almost like wings, ultimately widening the boat from 7ft to about 11ft. Navigating back would be more of a challenge than the time before, and for reasons of insurance it seemed better that I was kept away from the tiller.

We passed Jenny Wren, another trip boat that starts from Camden, and I spotted my friend Will taking his mum out for her birthday. He spotted me too and took a picture as the two trip boats moved away from one another.

We finished the final trip and there was time for a quick pint in the Warwick Castle, still the boaters’ pub. The continuity of the canal trade here and the overlap of the trip boats with the carrying days has meant that this tradition too has survived, and the Warwick Castle remains the place where boaters go when the work is done. James and I got a drink and made our way to the corner. Sara soon appeared, having locked up. It became clear that several of the punters around the room had a waterways connection. Nods were exchanged. Information on specific bits of canal shared. You wouldn’t know this at all if you just walked in off the street, but it became apparent that there were centuries of waterways knowledge scattered around the room, loosely congregating here because that’s what you do, and unlike so many other places no outside force has yet broken that chain.

In the carefully cultivated gloom of the Warwick Castle, I mused to myself that the traditions of the waterways are a tenuous thing. The links between past and present are few and far between now. It is not enough to preserve objects, as objects alone do not make a tradition. A tradition comes from knowing exactly how they work and what they do, why things are done the way they are, and what that means to the people who do so. Tradition is the sphere of vital knowledge, held across many heads, sharpened and deepened by practice, shared in the right spaces with those who are ready to learn.

In museums, old working boats come to a rest, emptied of their final cargo, encumbered by rules that prevent people from using them, from living upon them, from understanding the complex relationships between object and human, and they become mute, their knowledge and potential traded for an distant aesthetic mystery. Roses and Castles pointed out, brasses gleaming, but the operation, practicality, and even humanity of them lost to history.

Jason’s Trip is a rare example of the preservation of something more than a mere artefact. It has something intangible that cannot be laid out in any rule book or interpretation board. It has a loose community of skippers and crew who are drawn to work there because in doing so they get to belong to a continuity that extends back centuries. To draw from a pool of knowledge, perhaps deepen it a little further where the modern world demands a fresh input, and pass that all on again. Such an environment cannot be formalised, but instead exists as an ephemeral cloud around the boat, carefully nurtured and cherished by the owners and the staff who work it. It requires constant care to maintain it and could be lost in the blink of an eye with the wrong management. It relies on everyone to believe in its value and to want to sustain it. It is the opposite of the museum experience and vastly more valuable than mere preservation of an artefact can ever be. It is a living boat.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

Indus and Pictor

Perhaps the most commonly recurring feature of a winter on London’s waterways is to round a bend or rise up a lock and meet Indus and Pictor on their journeys. A pair of fuel boats, operated by a small group of extremely amiable Poles, forever on the roam, from Brentford and Uxbridge to Hertford and Bishops Stortford and all places between. Their schedule unknowable, a ‘take it as it comes’ attitude, and a wide range of operation. And yet on almost every trip I make they appear, all skinny as can be, with at least one very well fed dog on the cabin tops, shouting “How are you, my friend?” and raising their hats.

I saw them moored up at Little Venice and popped the question.

“Can I join you for a day?”

“You are most welcome! Tomorrow, we go to Camden and to Islington. The wind is too much today so we stop here.”

And so, I returned to Camden the next morning and joined Indus and Pictor below the bottom lock. Now the spring is here, and the load has lightened a little, the current crew is two men both called Tomek and their enormous guard dog and general good luck totem, Lucky. I stepped on as Steerer Tomek brought the pair in, and Lucky gave one enormous booming woof.

“Is ok, is ok.” Said Steerer Tomek to the dog, before addressing me. “Go round the outside away from him.”

Indus and Pictor were breasted up as they usually are. Indus the motorboat, a powerful three-cylinder Ruston Hornsby thumping away within, and Pictor the butty boat and main cabin. The traditional boatman’s cabin here has been expanded with a large pod that provides extra living space. The drawback of this is that when loaded, the butty tilts forward in the water somewhat like a plough with the cargo predominantly forward of centre.

Steerer Tomek worked the speed-wheel continuously, adjusting every few seconds. There was a fierce wind and awaiting a new delivery of coal the pair ran high in the water, light and tall sided, a sail for the wind, which blew them around in unpredictable ways. There was no consistency to it, with the waterway winding beneath embankments and buildings, and a gust could appear from anywhere and any direction. The other Tomek spent his time at the front fending off obstacles with a long pole and progress was hard. It was a difficult day.

On the mid deck of Pictor, a large speaker was plugged in. It was pumping out disco classics at a volume high enough to cut through over the exhaust of the engine. For a while, as we served a customer and the engine idled, the four stroke tickover became a perfect backbeat.

The disco accompaniment set the mood. A disco cormorant flew by. Disco dogs walked along the towpath. A feelgood atmosphere prevailed. After a few customers we approached St Pancras cruising club.

“Not going in the marina. No. I’m on top of the water! Blow about too much. Too much trouble.”

On top of the water. It was a lovely way of putting it. Experienced boaters are always so aware of how their boat relates to the water. Tomek was unloaded and too high and was struggling against a fierce wind. How much easier it would be to be in the water rather than on it.

At St Pancras lock, Steerer Tomek went inside to change the music whilst other Tomek and I worked the lock. As we raised the paddles, the speaker began playing smooth saxophone classics, and Lucky stood up proudly on the butty cabin top, like it was his personal playlist. A workman came out of the lock cottage, where my Australian friends had clearly now moved into full renovation mode, and looked at Lucky, seemingly on his own by the speaker.

“Look at that dog. That’s the smoothest dog I’ve ever seen. It’s like he’s making a video for his dating profile.”

Below the lock was an absolute chaos of boats. The wind had found out every insecure mooring, every badly tied rope, every loose pin, every last unattached piece of junk. The sharp bend towards Kings Cross was unnavigable with a boat stretched right across it. Bearded and earnest young men were trying to pull it in and secure it and our journey became slow motion pinball. The famous book barge was away for repairs and had been replaced by a temporary book barge. The proprietor flagged us down for some coal. He too had a speaker playing smooth saxophone classics, and as I dropped the coal off and stood in the diffusion zone between the two it felt very surreal indeed.

Steerer Tomek was approaching the end of his current stint on the boats and would be handing over to another steerer in a few days. It’s an intense and unremitting life, coal-boating every day, and he was looking forward to a break.

The wind was so strong that the pair had to go at 15 degrees to the canal to make forwards progress, and we inched through the eco-moorings towards the tunnel. At the portal, Steerer Tomek put the bows of the pair into the tunnel so that nobody would gazump us from the other end, then led Lucky round the cabin tops, into the deck well of the butty, Pictor, and inside. I went inside with other Tomek to wait out the journey under Islington hill.

It is a privilege to be invited into another boat’s cabin. It is an intensely private space, a privacy that not everyone respects. Cameras come round the door of Spey sometimes, and although I never deny anyone who asks first, I come down heavy on those who assume they can invade my home without first talking to me. I knew I was lucky to be in such a space and did not photograph it out of respect.

The pod was basic, but also practical and homely. A toasty range was set up, with the ruined remains of a once grand armchair by it. A large dress mirror on its side ran along one wall, and a bed was tucked under the mid deck. Lucky occupied most of the floor, spread out once again like a meat duvet, and growled at me when I tried to say hello. I was tolerated, not welcomed. On the wall was a card from a distant partner, ‘Big Birthday Hugs’ and by it a sign that read ‘Danger, 400 volts’. A lucky horseshoe sat on top of the range.

The far end of the tunnel was announced by the big speaker kicking back into life as signal was recovered and Spotify resumed streaming to it, and we emerged to a serenade of saxophones and drumbeats.

At City Road lock, their journey was done for the day. Rather than a three-day mad dash for maximum tonnage like Clover and Emu, Indus and Pictor roam a little each day, racking up the miles slowly, appearing for those customers that forgot to place orders elsewhere, forever going up the lock just ahead. Politeness and friendliness their calling cards, a pair of boats that never single out, a raft of coal that appears when you least expect it and most need it, with a knack to appearing exactly when they’re really needed.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

Disturbances

A floating home is always alive with motion. It can be very subtle, but even in the still of night, when you’re in bed and on the verge of sleep, you are still conscious of a gentle restlessness, a sense of looseness and freedom that feels deeply comforting. Like a sleeping animal, the boat seems to gently breathe and stir and stretch upon sprung lines. Should you ever moor up on mud and be solidly aground, it feels wrong, and sleep can be hard to come by, the utter stillness as troubling as a grandfather clock that has stopped ticking. A grounded boat feels tense, stiff, trapped.

A narrowboat owner quickly comes to recognise each little movement’s character and assign it a likely cause, be it a passing boat, a gust of wind, a lock drawn off above or below. Or the unmistakeable shift that means a visitor has stepped aboard.

I was writing one afternoon in my little back cabin when I felt the definite rock of having been boarded. I put my head out and could see nobody. The sun was shining brightly, and spring had arrived on the water. The day sparkled, but I was alone. I must have been mistaken. But a boatman is never mistaken on such matters, being so deeply connected as we are to every movement and mood of our subtle homes. Half an hour later it happened again, and I set out to investigate more thoroughly. On the deck, stretched out on the slide that covers the middle hatches, sunbathing on this warm slab of brown board, was an enormous orange dog of highly amalgamated pedigree, a fine pair of big balls hanging out and getting a good toasting in the first warm weather of the year. I walked up to him and said hello. Without opening his eyes, he gave one thumping wag of his massive thick tail and continued to sleep, and I did what must always be done with sleeping dogs and let him lie. It is better to gain a guard dog than anger a sunbather.

A couple of weeks later, in Limehouse basin, I again felt my world tilt a little. This time it was 10pm, and all seemed quiet. I peeked out and saw a couple of young lovers sat on the deck of Spey, sharing an important conversation, gazing over the sparkling open water, and I did not seek to disturb it. My cabin is so small, tucked away on the end of such a large cargo space, that people frequently assume nobody could possibly live in it and therefore the boat must be deserted. Long they remained, enjoying what they assumed to be a private pontoon. Eventually I needed a wee and had to travel to the engine room. As I tinkled, I heard, through the engine room doors,

“Hey! There’s someone in there!”

“Shit, we’d better go before he finishes.”

A week later I was moored up the Limehouse cut when I felt a disturbance once again. Peering out of the engine room doors, I could see a lady feeding geese on my deck.

“Excuse me! Don’t throw bread on my deck please! I have to clean up all the bird shit afterwards.”

“I’m not throwing bread on your deck.” She replied, indignantly, in what was an impressively brazen performance for someone who had an open bag of bread crusts in her hand, was stood by a deck covered in more bread crusts, was furthermore surrounded by a vibrant, honking goose party in full swing, and perhaps most importantly whom I’d just watched throwing fistfuls of bread onto the deck.

“I literally just watched you do it.”

“If you don’t like wildlife, you shouldn’t live on the waterways.” Was her next angle.

“I love wildlife, but I don’t like it shitting in my home. Just feed them in the water, not on my boat.”

“I’ll do what I want.”

“Ok, where do you live then? I’ll come round and fill it with animal shit.”

“There are far worse things. I think you’re very rude.” She walked off, and I brushed the crusts off my deck, being followed around by honking Egyptian geese who also thought I was very rude for breaking up their gathering.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

GOOSE PARTY – 7PM. ALL WELCOME

The Essex Coast

When the sun shines unexpectedly and the English find themselves with a free day, the coast calls. For a Northwest man like myself, this means Blackpool, Morecambe, New Brighton, or even Rhyl. For the Londoner it might be Brighton, Broadstairs, Southend, or Clacton on Sea.

Clacton called to me. I dreamed of returning to my boat with the traditional boatman’s trophies of a day at the sea, a stick of rock with ‘Clacton’ written through the middle, and a new lace plate to hang in my cabin, hopefully bearing the legend ‘A gift from Clacton on Sea’.

I was accompanied once again by my friend Kate, who having already helped me with a run through London besides having broadened my mind with a trip to the ballet, shared with me the thrill of the prospect of a brisk stroll on a sea wall and the greasy, gaudy atmosphere of a classic seaside pier.

Clacton pier was hibernating. The main run into the sea was either derelict or mothballed for the summer. From attraction to attraction, it was hard to tell which. The tattoo artist had a sign that said, ‘Open at 10am’. It was 10.30am, the door was fast, and so we remained untattooed.

The aquarium was open, having no alternative, fish not easily furloughed until summer, so we bought our tickets from the bored lad in the refreshment stall. A short and irritating voice message played on loop, informing us that this was ‘Edutainment’, delivered in plummy mock Attenborough. The fish mouthed along in their tanks, having learned every word.

The main tank was very large indeed and contained around 50 shimmering bass. When we turned our backs, they gathered nearby, staring at us, and when we turned to face them, they gently swam away. We repeated this a few times to prove it was really happening. We were clearly the highlight of each other’s weeks.

The coast here is littered with Martello towers, built to keep the French out, and as far as I could tell still performing this function flawlessly. We had a short walk that took in three of them. Two were largely abandoned, whilst the third had recently been a children’s petting zoo but was now boarded up, overgrown, and exuded a truly sinister atmosphere, like the final petting session had gone horribly, horribly wrong and the fleeing staff had simply nailed the doors shut and never returned to address the darkness that roamed within.

On the main street, a beautiful building dominated the 5-way junction.

“What do you reckon that was? A corn exchange?” I mused.

“I’m not sure there is very much corn to exchange in a seaside town.”

“Ok then, a whelk exchange?”

It proved to be a bank that had become a bookmakers, which was definitely a metaphor for something. We walked on. I was able to buy some sticks of rock with ‘Clacton on Sea’ written through them from a confectionary stall and was well pleased with my morning’s work.

Clacton was everything I’d expected. Sleepy, awaiting the summer season where thousands will head in from London, a resort no longer glamorous but instead thriving on being easily achievable in a day without the need to plan ahead. Clacton can be visited on a whim, and sometimes, that’s all you need. You wouldn’t boast about coming here, but when the sun shines and the day is clear, why the hell not?

But out of season there didn’t seem a great deal else to do. A van drove by, advertising ‘Beserk Security Services’. The crazy golf was closed for maintenance, most of the pier attractions were shut, we couldn’t get a tattoo, and the children’s petting zoo had been transformed into the set of a horror film. We drove to the next town along, Frinton on Sea and had some lunch.

Ready to spring into action

The café we chose had a range of soft drinks on the menu, all with the suffix ‘Dude’ in the name, no doubt a gimmick imagined up by a middle-aged manager in the mistaken belief it would make their establishment much cooler. We sat outside and awaited our lunch. A retired couple and their dog sat down at the next table and ordered two flat whites and a cold sausage which they then sliced up and fed to the hound. The teenage waitress came out and announced Kate’s drink with a glorious lack of enthusiasm, visibly embarrassed at having to name it.

“Who ordered the Grapefruit and Passionfruit Dude?”

We sat with our Dudes and invented seaside towns that sounded like they might be fun to visit.

Outfall Bay

Cokehead Sands

Cockle-on-the-Brow

Much Crumbling on the Cliff

Sourmouth

Fritton was smart, rather better off than Clacton. Every gaudy seaside resort has a slightly more upmarket cousin just along the road to which people graduate as they age and find they now prefer the antique shops and tearooms to arcade games, air hockey, and infinite varieties of pink sugar. Collectibles and vintage clothing dominated the economy, and in a particularly dusty second-hand porcelain shop I wondered if I might find my lace plate.

The proprietor was an elderly lady and she gingerly limped out from some mysterious hinterland beyond the kiosk at the back of the shop after we entered. She was nearly deaf and clearly could not see all that well.

“I’m looking for a lace plate.” I ventured, hoping to put her at ease.

“A what now?”

“A lace plate.”

“Ah. Well, you look around, take as long as you need.”

And she sank into a chair by the kiosk, weary and frail.

 I carefully sifted through piles of plates, failing to find what I was looking for. Feeling rather guilty about wasting this old lady’s time, I grabbed a dirty old pint glass, unremarkable and generic, as a means of at least paying a little something back. It did not have a price tag, a fact that was to prove my downfall. I took it to her corner and handed it over. Her eyes cleared, her physical presence swelled, her stride grew confident and powerful as she carried it to the kiosk, suddenly fixing me with laser precision, weighing exactly how much she could rinse me for. It had been an act of such brilliance that I could only marvel as I found myself handing over my high denomination bank note, trancelike. She wrapped the awful glass in sheets taken from last week’s thumbed and spent edition of the Clacton, Frinton, and Walton Gazette as if it was every bit as valuable as the price she’d invented. Three sheets, counter wrapped, expertly sealed in tape from a dispenser. Kate stood at the back of the shop, watching the performance with amusement, enjoying my minor misfortune as only a true friend can.

“I liked her.” She said, as we walked away from the scene of the robbery.

Frinton’s main street also featured a vintage shop brimming with memorabilia, a Dad’s army vibe that reduced what had been the prospect of imminent Nazi invasion to a cosy nostalgia of a mythical, simpler time. I hated it and left as quickly as I could, keen not to end up with any more expensive pint glasses. We walked the cliff, a wide grassy park. A dog barked once, drawing his owner our way.

“Excuse me. Would you like to buy a poetry anthology?”

“Absolutely.” I replied.

“They’re only £3.” He continued, not yet having realised I was already sold. He tried to remove one from his little stack but dropped it on the grass.

“Whoops! There it goes!”

He bent down very slowly, and it was clear he was a very old man indeed. Recovering it, he handed it over to me. The cover was a picture of the field we were in, and it was titled ‘Poems’. I handed him £3, and he continued to propose its merits, unwilling to waste a well-rehearsed speech.

“It’s all about what I call instances of life. It’ll always be relevant. Five years I’ve been selling it now. I never thought I’d sell a dozen, but I’ve sold over 1200 now. I wrote them all, and my friend encouraged me to publish them, and well, here I am today.”

We wished him well and continued on our way. He meandered aimlessly, his little dog scouting potential marks, giving a single bark when one came into range.

Later, alone and unobserved, I read the poems. They were a mixture of devout Christian prayer and somewhat misogynistic pieces combining both his unfulfilled longing and also disgust for Essex girls, all in unrelenting rhyming couplets. It was all terribly sad, a window into a lonely, introspective, insular life.

I hoped at least that getting his words down and selling them like this provided him with some measure of comfort. Perhaps it was a vital cathartic exercise, in much the same way that I believe the laminator to have saved more lives than nearly any other of humanity’s inventions. Angry, pedantic, passive-aggressive people, who might easily bottle it all up until they violently rupture, instead write little notices, laminate them, and affix them in offices, doors, and windows, releasing the pressure from within and in so doing avoiding murderous thoughts. “There! That’ll show them!” they think. A lonely old man wanders the cliffs of Frinton, happy to know his feelings on fake tans, short skirts, and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ are finally being read and understood by growing army of over a thousand poetry lovers.

We completed our tour of the coast at Walton-on-the-Naze, modest terminus of the railway. The pier was an overpowering presence, an enormous windowless block of broad corrugation balanced on so many unequal wooden limbs, sea-bleached yellows and greys. It was undergoing heavy surgery, a last desperate attempt to breath life back into it. Workmen in high vis milled around the cordoned off entrance and the sound of drilling came from within. We walked down onto the beach and beneath this sleeping leviathan.

May Walton pier rise again

Walton pier, 3rd largest in the country, is mostly built on the remains of older piers. Stumps pierced the sand, some tall and not quite connecting to the structure, others eroded and ancient, square timbers becoming round again as the water and sand works into the rings of the tree, abrading away at the exposed endgrains. The tide had retreated as far as it felt able, and we hung around on the low water line in the darkness of eclipse, kicking against a scatter of fallen concrete slabs and seawood, between ungeometric rows of posts, stretching out haphazard into blackening water. The sound of power tools from within the space above carried clear on hard, wet sands, transmitted down so many soundposts into the diffusion of wavelets and pier flakes, amplified and contained beneath this undercarriage of cheap thrills. It was a powerful space and we let it dominate us for a while.

Elsewhere on the beach, thrown up sand was evidence of dogs performing handbrake turns whilst chasing balls. Numerous banks of brightly painted beach huts lined the small cliffs like a rainbow shanty town. I bought a large rubber duck with a hairy chest, scars, and tattoos from an assortment bin of rubber ducks in an otherwise deserted shop on the sea front, my enthusiasm for the purchase not remotely rubbing off on the bored youth within. I’d given up on the lace plate. Such trinkets have fallen from fashion. We no longer bring gifts back from the coast, it’s just not remarkable enough anymore. Gifts from foreign shores perhaps, but who cares if you’ve been to Skeggy or Lowestoft?

“I went to Minehead, and I’ve brought you back this impractical, ornamental plate.”

“Why?”

The Naze is the final spit of land projecting into the Orwell estuary, and we walked along to the end, overlooking the industrial mega-landscape of Felixstowe and its overshadowed cousin Harwich, where I’d once had an infinite espresso incident in the docker’s café. They found a Megalodon tooth here a while back. That fitted. Walton-on-the-Naze felt like the sort of place to which one comes to lose a set of dentures.

I returned to Spey with my mementoes. Five sticks of Rock, a dirty old pint glass, a book of awful poems, a tin of Brasso from a hardware shop, and a large rubber duck. On the train, I placed the duck on the seat opposite and was yet again miraculously untroubled by other passengers for the duration. As I rolled through the Essex night, I imagined myself a new lace plate, bearing the picture of a rubber duck with tattoos, scars, and a hairy chest, and the motto “My friend went to Clacton-on-Sea, and all I got was this lousy plate.”

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

Fuel Boat Clover

I was back at Ponders End. Having already been upriver with Ben and Emu, I had invited myself onto Clover to do the citybound run with Michael and Nicola.

“Be ready for 7.30. That’s when we leave.”

My body clock was already set early by last week’s goose alarms at Brentford so by 7.20am I was breakfasted and enjoying a second cup of coffee in the drizzle as the blowlamps went on in the fuel boat engine rooms. Emu was using gas like we do on Spey, whilst Clover was still sticking with the traditional paraffin blower. Both engines kicked off first time, coughing up chaotically to life and then settling down to a healthy tickover.

Supplies came aboard for the next few days. Nicola had prepared bags of vegetables, bread, snacks, meals, kitchen rolls, drinks, and spare clothes for Clover, whilst Ben had provisioned Emu with two dozen cans of Monster energy drink. Both boats were declared ready for service and slipped out of the yard into the main channel of the river.

It was clear that boating on Clover would be a slightly different experience to Emu. Ben had been slightly surprised that I’d lit the range on Emu, living his coal-boating life at the ragged edge, running the engine hard, putting trust in reverse, and generally living like the wild man of Essex, returning to base entirely feral and with the coaldust and exhaust fumes having given him a skin colour that would see him banned from EFDSS for life. Michael and Nicola preferred a somewhat more relaxed and homely approach, getting the kettle on as soon as possible and gently floating alongside customers.

The rain squeezed out a final bitter squall and then passed, yielding to brighter skies and a pleasant afternoon. We worked downhill into Tottenham, a mixture of pre-orders and flagdowns. Some recognised me as the man off the boat that sounded like a fuel boat but wasn’t, which only confused them further. Clover sat low in the water, piled right up with wood, gas bottles, and coal, so heavily loaded that getting about the boat was difficult.

Michael was compiling his order book as we ran, steering with his behind whilst converting dozens of texts into a coherent log. His is a particularly complex run, with several thousand boats between him and Kings Cross, a great many of which order from Clover from time to time, and many of which move around every week or so, and so must be spotted, hidden behind other boats. A missed order is a disaster for a live-aboard boater who might be relying on that bag of coal to keep warm this week. Each set of moorings must be scanned for possible orders, and each boat correctly identified. In two days, they did not miss one, even when on the inside of a triple moored row. They must be able to name over a thousand boats by the sight of just a corner of a cabin or a glimpse of a fore-end. It really is not just a question of boating around with a load of fuel on, hoping for custom, it instead requires vast organisation and a great personal understanding of a great many boats, their owners, their habits, their needs, their quirks.

With two jobs on the go, Michael would frequently bring us alongside boats without telling us what they had ordered. Sometimes customers couldn’t remember either.

“What did I ask for this week?”

“I don’t know. I’m not privy to the order book.” Replied Nicola.

“We’re basically Oompah Loompahs.” I explained from within the hold. “Only the work turns us black rather than orange.”

All continuous cruisers must move on every fortnight.

“Thing is,” Said Michael, “They’re all still in rhythm from lockdown,” (When the moving requirement was suspended) “So they all still move on the same weekend. Nothing happening this week, it’s an off week.”

We continued downriver and enjoyed conversation in the gaps between customers. I asked, slightly tongue in cheek, if I might be allowed to consider myself to be ‘Artist in Residence’ at Ponders End for the duration of my stay, and they agreed to humour me.

Progress was good, and we approached Hackney in what had become a pleasant afternoon. In another contrast to Emu, Nicola went into the cabin and produced a tremendous finger buffet of hummus, vegetables, dipping crisps, olives, and falafels. I looked at my fingers. They had never been less ready for a finger buffet, having achieved the sort of ground in blackness that can only ultimately be fully overcome by growing new skin.

One for the palm readers out there.

On a short run between rows of moored boats, I considered that as ‘Artist in Residence’ I had probably better attempt something creative, so I made a throne out of bags of ‘Homefire Ovals’ and ‘Supertherm’, sat in it, and started trying to invent some names for brands of solid fuel.

Domesto-scorch

Grate Blasters

Thermobaric Clusters

Octagonal Immolators

Scullery Eruption

Home Arsonist

Radiant Dodecahedrons

I tried them out on Nicola.

“My brand would be ‘Day-glo’ because I forget to close down the range and get it so hot it turns pink.” She told me.

At Hackney Wick, we made our way between the achingly trendy bars, all lights and music as dusk fell. An extraordinary old hippy sat at the back of his boat with a lifetime’s collection of dreadlocks piled high on his head and smiled at us over his shades. Bar boats full of bright young things danced to the beat of the engine as we slipped by and graffiti artists toiled away at every wall, laying art upon art like a sedimentary rock forming at the bottom of a lake.

“The rules on the big wall here are that you can paint over anything, but only if yours is going to be better than what’s already there.” Nicola told me.

“That would explain why that 100ft penis is no longer there.” I replied, wistfully.

There was a boat tied onto the lock landing at Old Ford, so we tied outside them as the light fell away and called it a day. Nicola ordered some takeaway, still a risky business on a boat, which by definition does not have a postcode, and sure enough, half an hour later we could see the white helmet of a confused rider on the other side of a lock and received the inevitable phone call. “Where are you?”

Next morning began much as the day before had finished, we pushed Clover away from the moored boat before firing the engine, a courtesy to the sleeping occupants, and then dropped down onto the lower section by the Olympic stadium.

“It’s like an open sewer, this bit.” Said Michael as we struggled through the mud and filth from side to side, catching customers tucked away in odd corners. The channel is awkwardly wound between embankments and warehouses and has a bilious green tone that filters through from the depths.

I was carrying a bag of coal along the side of a customer’s boat when my front foot slipped off. The coal was over my shoulder, and its weight spun me outwards. Reacting instinctively, I jettisoned the coal and crashed my knee down on the gunnel, catching myself with my free hand. Hearing the splash, Nicola and Michael were quickly along to see what exactly had gone in, and I rushed to rescue the coal, knowing I had about ten seconds before the air left the bag and it sank. Hauling it up on the counter of Clover it leaked filthy water and I looked at it sheepishly.

“It’s ok, I’ll still have it.” Said the customer, charitably, perhaps feeling slight guilty for the difficult route the coal had to take, so I hauled it onto her roof and mopped down the back end of Clover, aware that I had come very close to falling into what Michael had only just described as an ‘open sewer’.

Perhaps seeing I was a little crestfallen, and with a pile of paperwork to address, Michael handed me the tiller and let me steer for a while. This may have been as much to keep me safe as anything as I got over the slip, but either way I was much more in my comfort zone, and I soon figured out the minor differences in our engines and had a very happy time steering through Bow and along the Limehouse cut, landing neatly on customers, pivoting the loaded hull through the water. A loaded boat steers much further forward, the pivot point closer to the front.

At Limehouse, another cloudburst struck, coinciding with Nicola producing a pile of sausage and black pudding sandwiches, so we took a ten-minute break in the cabin to fuel ourselves and let the rain pass. I wolfed my sandwich down and looked at the sausage packet next to me in the bin. It said “Contact us online! We love to chat!”

I wondered how one might begin such a missive. “Dear Sausages, how was it for you?”

In Limehouse basin there were many boats to serve, and we needed the full extent of the fuel line to reach them, a great toughened rubbery hose that can reach several hundred feet. We trailed it all over Dutch barges and along pontoons to get to those hard-to-reach boats. Boxes of logs and bottles of gas were trollied around the pontoons. Care must be taken manoeuvring here, as some of the seagoing yachts are worth a fortune and would not appreciate a little kiss from a fuel boat.

One customer handed us some anti-vax, global conspiracy newspapers and I grumbled, but Nicola took them.

“There are plenty of uses for free newspaper.” She told me as we walked back.

One of my favourite moments was when Nicola realised she’d been leaning on the ‘print’ button on the card machine whilst it was inside her jacket.

We started the steady climb out of Limehouse. Nicola demonstrated her skill at rope throwing. It’s one thing to know how to throw a rope a good distance, quite another to throw a loop and catch a stud or dolly with it from a moving boat. Too much throw and the loop snaps shut, not enough rope and it falls short. Nicola could hit just about anything at any distance, snaring dollies twenty feet away with pinpoint accuracy. To add a level of difficulty, many of the London boaters bunch vast quantities of rope around their studs and dollies, obstructing them with plant pots and junk. If catching difficult studs with rope was an Olympic sport, Nicola would clean up the medals.

At Victoria Park the work intensified. I was determined to show I was not just there for the ride, and I made sure I knew the order from Michael before we pulled alongside, jumping down into the increasingly empty hold to raise the coal and wood up to the boards. The final two hours were hectic, a nonstop service with innumerable bags shifted, Clover rising higher in the water all the time. We received a call from Ben to say he’d shifted so much stock he couldn’t get Emu under the bridge at Hertford and had had to take the cratch down to fit.

Nicola produced another magnificent finger buffet of cured meats and French cheeses, which we grazed at in snatched moments between sales. At Haggerston gasworks, Nicola introduced me to London’s most difficult T-stud to hit, at the front of a 40ft steel cruiser, encased in a perfect ball of random ropes, surrounded by plant pots full of solar lights and flags. I had three goes at hitting it, failing and knocking a solar light into the water.

“It’s basically the final boss of fuel boating, isn’t it?” I said, retrieving the light as it floated past.

The equivalent of Bowser or Dr Robotnik

The last boat before Broadway market wanted six bags of kindling, a baffling order that happens surprisingly frequently. There is no reason why anyone needs six bags of kindling. I have used one in the last 12 weeks. Michael doesn’t like to enquire, taking the view that the customer is always right when they’re buying things from him, but we do wonder what they do with it all.

“Maybe he has a kindling fetish. Covers himself with it at night.” I suggested.

In the lock, we found ourselves sharing with another boat as daylight left us.

“Everything is going up.” I told them earnestly as we sat on the top gate, waiting for the water to equalise. “Diesel goes up daily. 25kg bags going up £2 on the next load.”

They immediately bought a wide range of products and I realised I was getting the hang of it.

Clover stopped for the night above the lock and I left them. They’d be receiving six tons of coal in the morning by road before continuing. I popped into the wine shop on Broadway market for a bottle of red, and I must have been a truly horrific visitation, covered in coal dust and mud, blackened of skin, clearly bleeding at the knee where I’d fallen onto the gunnel earlier, damp, smelling of diesel and waxed jacket. The atmosphere was immediately uncertain in my presence. I sought to reassure them.

“After a hard day selling coal, there’s nothing I enjoy more than a glass of decent Beaujolais.” I declared to the room in general in a BBC sort of a voice, selecting a very decent bottle and paying promptly. On the train back to Ponders End, I had my own carriage.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

Brentford

Spey made her way back across London once again. I wanted to get down to Brentford, a once thriving port now reduced to a quiet backwater, round the corner and away from the main focus of London waterways life. The greatest density of boats in the capital can be found from Kensal Town right through to Tottenham on the river Lee. It thins out West of Kensal Town, and whilst there are still a great many boats, the waterways are not at capacity on this side of the city and there’s a certain gentle melancholy about the journey West.

I was joined for the trip by Bridget and my parents, down in the big city to see how their strange son was getting on in his latest offbeat chosen life, as well as my good friend May and her tiny baby, a boy named AJ with whom I had been surprisingly entrusted with interpreting the godfather role as I saw fit. Not being religious, I had declared myself to be his ‘hairy uncle’ and was very pleased to welcome him to the boat for the first time. Indoctrination in such matters should begin as young as possible. He was wrapped in numerous layers of colourful woollen clothing, looking very much like a rolled-up bundle of Tibetan prayer flags. The first time we’d met, he’d screamed uncontrollably at me for hours, which had been slightly disconcerting, although I had not held this against him as a true artist knows that any passionate response is a success of some sort.

Here he stared out at this new, noisy, vibrating, fragrant environment, wide eyed and silent. Through Islington tunnel we went, the engine noise near unbearable confined in the archway of the 1000 yards between portals, and he listened and learned. At Regent’s Park, my dad noticed that some of the magnificent cast iron columns supporting the overbridge had been rotated at some point as the grooves worn by generations of horse towing lines were not aligned.

We broke the journey at Paddington again, May and AJ leaving us, after a successful first taste of waterways life for the young child. He had been uncharacteristically silent all day, soaking it in with big eyes. In the cabin, where we all retreated to warm up, my dad had taught him how to stick his tongue out. Apparently, he has not stopped doing this since.

Onward to Brentford then, the Southern end of the Grand Union proper, where the inland waterways connected to the Thames and the wider world. Fleets of working boats loaded and unloaded here, cargoes of aluminium, orange peel, timber, paper, shite.

My parents had sensibly opted for a hotel rather than attempt to stay down in Spey’s front tank, where a few rough bunks are pleasant enough in mid-summer. With a decent journey to make, we were away by 8am, powerful squalls of rain blowing straight down the canal into my face, pushing hard enough against the cabin that you could hear the engine labouring against the worst of them. Water ran down my jacket in rivers and began filling my boots. My parents joined the boat again at Old Oak Common, and the worst of the weather passed. Hanwell locks became a wintry delight, the ease of working with family, no need to communicate much, just natural understanding.

We winded by the gauging lock in Brentford and moored above the railway bridge, back doors facing the wide-open basin and warehouse frontages, steel frames and corrugated iron overhanging the water. I left the boat to attend a recording of ‘I’m sorry I haven’t a clue’ whilst my parents and Bridget went out for a meal. I returned at 1am and serenaded Bridget with my complementary kazoo, perhaps attracting the goose Karma that would follow me through the week. In the morning, I was left to enjoy Brentford by myself, and my companions melted away again, trains back to the North.

Where the defined network of inland waterways and the infinite possibilities of tidal water meet, the echoes of a busier time still rise and fall gently with the water. The interface is a maze of small docks, tidal pools, boatyards, a jumbled-up collation of workboats and secret little floating homes, weirs, a jigsaw of stacked metal sheets waiting to be cut and welded, corrugations, bostocks, silty greys of mud and the marmalade oranges of rust.

The slow pace of boatbuilding accumulated into conversions and repairs in the yards, men with welders slowly working around mute hulks. Beyond the tidal lock the Thames slipped by, already modest, not one of the world’s great rivers, only recently liberated from being a minor tributary of the Rhine by the great post ice age flood that ended Doggerland as a going concern and carved the channel, a geological Brexit whose 26-mile slice in the land shaped our island history more than any other event. Rowing teams practiced their art on the muddy water and didn’t look dwarfed. The Thames already a provincial river winding slowly out of the Southern lowlands, placid and unthreatening.

At the museum of Steam and Water, further assertion of subjugation of the river was on display. This vast pumping house was home to a succession of ever greater engines, starting with a Boulton and Watt, sibling to the engine at the Hartley Colliery in Northumberland whose failure caused the appalling deaths of over 200 miners, trapped at the bottom of the shaft when the great overhead beam split and tore and tumbled in, the colliery company having failed to dig a second access to the mine on grounds of cost.

Cast iron can do that, fracture without warning, and two of the four vast engines here on site suffered failed beams in their time. It seemed hard to imagine that it could ever have happened. These engines are so huge that it is not possible to see all of them in one go. You might walk around the forest of legs, seated in the stone floor, or on a gantry look at one end of the nodding beam. You might take a walk around the 90-inch cylinder on the third engine or go to the end of the row and stand beneath the 100-inch design of 1849, thought to be at the very limits of what could be created. This one had failed too, the overhead beam so monstrous and bulky, fully 54 tons itself, so thick and permanent that the idea of it just tearing in half and crashing to the floor in this cathedral-esque space did not compute. The two largest engines were run synchronously in opposition to reduce stress on the building that houses them.

I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – POWER

This line up of overwhelming power lifted water from the river to feed the growing demands of London, sensibly drawing from Brentford, before the river had the chance to thicken and teem with the combined effluent of a newly invigorated industrial megacity.

————

Tucked away behind the main street of Brentford, the next road inland, a backwater now, bears witness to what has gone. Exquisite merchant’s houses, St Mary’s Convent, the Boatman’s Institute, all set back from wide and charming boulevards. Wherever goods must change vessel, that is where the money is to be made. House renovations offered a higher class of skip ratching, leaded windows, marble, mahogany.

The football ground was at this end of town too, surrounded by Victorian houses, now vacant and melancholic, Brentford having moved to a state-of-the-art new ground on the other side of town. Pubs mouldered at the corners, hanging on or failed entirely. I peered through the gaps in the hoardings and saw the rubble of memories, this cherished space now secured from the ingress of further affection.

A spring tide poured over the river lock, back up the weirs, and lifted every settled boat right up, tickling the residential basin with the dangling tips of willows. The pub car park flooded, just a little, and the small island by the lock, some sort of commune of artists, was briefly cut off from civilisation. The rise and fall of water is built into the fabric of Brentford, and the Thames lock gently opens itself to receive guests from the river when the levels equalise.

In the basin above the gauging lock, another era was coming to an end. The vast warehouses that overhung the canal were being demolished. Triangle ended, corrugated, dominating the skyline, where overhead cranes loaded endless narrowboats with raw materials for the journey upcountry to the manufacturing heart of England, returning with goods for the Empire and Europe. Men on a long-reach cherry picker were gas axing away at the frame whilst a colossal crane held the sheets steady. When the supports were whittled away enough, more men in high vis came out and closed the temporary floating towpath and the final struts were severed. A vast piece of warehouse, perhaps 70ft square came loose and was lifted away to be set upon by more teams of scrapmen. I photographed it and shared the picture online. Old boaters reminisced about loading cargoes beneath the shadow of overhang and we all imagined the flats that would surely spring up to take their place, the tenants who would move in, and their inevitable letters of complaint against the smelly boats that would moor outside.

By the next morning the demolition was well advanced, and many more people arrived with cameras to document each bite that came out. One slice came out untidily, springing and swinging towards the cherry picker, suddenly many tons of metal out of control, and there was a long and profane argument between the crane operatives and the gas axe team about whose fault it had been. The manager had to climb up and act as peacemaker.

The pattern of the days asserted itself. At night, around 8pm, a small open boat with an outboard motor would come past with two empty, open topped oil drums, and then return with them full from the water point. Sometimes a party on a barge would come through in the dark, the chattering and music reaching me across the flat open water than funnelled sound into the mouth of the railway bridge, the shape focussing it all into my back cabin.

In the mornings, waterfowl became territorial as the spring neared and nature urged them to reproduce. A male Egyptian goose, colourful and flamboyant, as if God had delegated the design of the duck to Tim Burton, chose Spey’s deck as his personal stage and worked up to an astonishingly full-throated selection of honking as the new light filled the river valley each morning.

“I like to rise when the sun she rises” sang the Watersons. On the water, the geese see to it that it is not a choice. By 7am, what had been intermittent and uncertain honking throughout the night intensified into endless braying, as if a donkey had swallowed my kazoo and was now trying to hawk it back up. My personal goose seemed to lead the congregation, call and response with those lesser geese denied the amphitheatre of Spey’s deck on the river bend.

One morning I gently chased it off the deck. Next morning it began outside my back cabin doors, beady eye visible over the counter block, impervious to the heavy rain, a story to sing and a turbo charged rasping honk with which to deliver it. Sleep became a precious thing. After a week, I left uncertain, reduced, goose-infested Brentford and made my way out.

Days of rain had swollen the river Brent, so I waited till the afternoon, which allowed the flow to drop off a little. At the first lock, a flock of orange jacketed workmen were having their lunch. I nudged the gates of the empty lock open and worked my way up. The engine stalled and I restarted it with a bang, which caused a couple of them to spill their fortifying glasses of Drambuie. On the main Hanwell flight, I met a walker who offered to help. I gratefully handed him a windlass and he introduced himself as Ian and told me he was the volunteer lock keeper on the gauging lock back at Brentford.

“I grew up by the lock. My dad was lock keeper there. Watched the traffic come and go, then decline. I moved to Australia for an aerospace job. I retired a few years ago and came back. Now I volunteer as the lock keeper at the same lock my dad used to keep. Full circle really.”

Brentford gauging lock is electrically operated, and consequently Ian was not familiar with the manual locks of the Hanwell flight. I showed him the basics, and showed off a little, strapping top gates shut behind. To do this, you need a longish line off the near dolly in the counter, step off as you’re coming through the top gate, run the line round the strapping cap, round the paddle gear, and then loop it off around the gate handle. You must start the gate off yourself so that it’s not too straight a pull, and then the boat will close the gate up behind itself and stop neatly at the end of the lock approach, allowing you to step back on and continue. We are not sure if this is an old technique, as in working days gates were rarely closed behind and so such a trick would not have been needed, but it is a satisfying one to use, and a good timesaver if crew is short.

Halfway up the flight we met a man hauling a fibreglass cruiser the other way. He was struggling with the locks, finding it all rather complicated. He’d tie off his boat to a bollard, raise a paddle and then panic as the rope pulled tight, rushing back to free it again. Then he’d climb down the ladder, attempt to get on, but push his boat away by mistake and have to hold onto the ladder to avoid doing the splits.

“What’s up with the engine.”

“It’s a pain. Just easier to pull it between locks. It’s not very reliable.”

“Where are you heading with it?”

“Ireland.”

I wished him luck.

At the top lock I wished Ian goodbye and continued into the dark, mooring right outside Sainsbury’s in Alperton.

In the morning, I pushed on back into the city. The first signs of spring were emerging. Snowdrops clustered around still naked trees. One boater said they’d seen the first floating coconut of the year. At Kensal, the Polish fuel boats were making their way ponderously along a line of moored boats. They reversed back for a customer, and their front ends swung out across the canal and into my path. I went for reverse and the engine stalled. I dashed down the gunnel and into the engine room, restarting the Bolinder on my second attempt, before throwing it into reverse and hoping I was in time. I emerged to see Spey gently touch the fuel boats with the same sort of delicate kiss a mother might bestow upon a tiny infant. The Poles watched on with typical humour at the unfolding scene.

“It is good to see you!” They shouted, as I bounced the flywheel back into forwards and continued.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

Ice Boating and Pro Wrestling

It was time to leave Ponders End again and head back to central London. The morning of my departure saw the heaviest frost of the winter so far, and Spey was frozen white, silver prickles foresting her deck and muting the bright paintwork, only my tiny enclave at the back kept colourful by the warmth of the range within. The engine did not want to start, and I kicked the flywheel time and time again, using every trick I knew, but the extreme cold had rendered the fuel unwilling to combust. After much effort, that saw me strip to a t-shirt, I finally got a lucky kick and the flywheel picked up. I just let it run for fifteen minutes to settle in, getting everything ready to leave.

The river was frozen over, which was not something I had expected at all. Rivers are usually the last to freeze, after canals, as the moving water needs to be somewhat colder to crystallise, but after such a dry winter there was virtually no flow and a thin crust had formed right across.

The River Lee at Ponders End, frozen right over.

The river Lee round here is a complex and contrived thing anyway. The entire valley is an industrial complex of reservoirs, concrete channels, canalised river sections, tubes, streamways, all managed to provide feed to the giant ring-main deep and secret beneath London, an enormous pipe that provides both storage and transport for London’s water supply. The river here is almost a by-product of that, a place to dump excess water, part of the system, subservient to London’s needs. The tall banks on the East of the waterway mark the reservoirs, pinned up between two low ranges of hills. The marshes make up the rest of the land, floodplain, contested moorings, rowing clubs, walkers, cyclists, a space shared with differing degrees of willingness, an uneasy stalemate between the basic needs of floating homes and the whim of leisure users.

In the floating dock, Michael was hard at work renovating another boat, Pegasus, to move onto the coal run. The growth of London’s waterways community has stretched Clover in particular to the limit, with the London bound run now taking as long as five days to complete in cold weather when demand is at its peak. The fleet needs another boat, more capacity. I waved goodbye, and he waved back before refocussing on fitting the new gunnel planks.

Alone on the river, the atmosphere was crisp and pastelled. Early day sunlight expanded over embankments, tangible in shape, muted mixed citrus. The ice broke before the onrush of the boat, the most extraordinary sound, electric, sparking, metallic, each long fracture contributing a tearing, sci-fi weapon noise. Spey has ice-plating for just such occasions, strips of metal sheet fitted around the waterline to prevent abrasion from ice fragments. Without this, even a day’s boating in the ice would damage the planks irreparably.

During our most recent major docking, we replaced an ancient plank that bore a deep ice scar from working days. I couldn’t bear to see such a relic scrapped, so I cut a 7-foot section out and now keep it in the downstairs toilet. During heatwaves the pungent smell of gas tar begins to seep out of it and fragrance the house. Gas tar is a by-product of making gas from coal and is the cargo Spey carried from the mid-50s until her retirement. It is a powerful smell, and one you will rarely encounter these days now that gas tar is banned as a carcinogen and marine pollutant. As the boat ages, and more is replaced, the more these connections with her working days matter. On the bulkheads, spatters of tar from loading can be found, dried and flaky, but still bearing witness. They pumped it straight into the hold, and on cold days needed a steam lance to loosen it enough to pump out again. Thick, strong smelling, noxious, Spey’s job was to take it away for processing.

The water sparked and pinged along to our passing, and we left a gash through the ice. Sound reflected off the smooth surfaces and each little echo felt like a private whisper right in my ear. At the lock, I struggled to get the boat off the bank, trapped in by more and thicker ice, having pulled in to set the chamber, and had to break it up with the pole to free her again. A flock of geese got in behind us, grateful for open water to have returned.

By Tottenham I had entered the urban heat island of London and the ice was gone. The river moves more here, stifling the formation of the ice, and the strange, flat, sound-filled fantasy landscape was already fading away behind me. At Hackney I was flagged down again, but instead of it being someone mistaking me for a fuel boat, it was our boat safety inspector, currently inspecting one of the church boats. I pulled in for a quick chat, doing my best to look as safe as possible.

“Quite a remarkable boat this, it has a sort of re-tractable steeple that comes up when they need it.”

There’s the book cover sorted.

I crossed Clover heading back to base as I headed back up the Regents Canal, and again Spey was on best behaviour, reversing neatly into the lock. Ben and Nicola were running her today, and as we exchanged news of the road ahead, Ben told me he’d once filled up the church boat with diesel, and they hadn’t paid, so he’d gone back on the next trip and pumped it all out again which had really upset them.

Characters appeared from an already descending dusk to help with locks. A man who introduced himself as Gabriel and who was dressed in a manner that made me near certain he must be a poet began helping with locks. At Islington tunnel I could see a light shining through, so I waited. It didn’t appear to be moving, so after a while I went for it. Reaching the other side, it turned out to be the light on top of the electricity pedestal on the first eco-mooring, exactly aligned with the tunnel entrance and a perfect example of equipment being installed by people who simply don’t have any knowledge of how canals work.

Back on the eco moorings I was now an old hand. New people arriving and trying to make sense of the numerous confusions could be easily advised, I could catch lines and help. Spey was moored up outside a smart 60ft narrowboat whose owner was renting it out online. My neighbours had hired it for two nights and were somewhat bemused by the entire scene, especially the arrival of a wooden oil tanker through the dark, piloted by a bedraggled yet cheerful caveman. This had not been in the brochure.

Spey settled in and I did too. The coots seemed to only have grown in number. There are more coots in central London than anywhere else I have ever seen. One boater let me in on why. There had been an inadvertent breeding program.

“They can’t move you on if you’ve got nesting birds on your boat. So people like to encourage them, putting out tyre fenders at water level. Suddenly you’ve got months at the best spots and they can’t touch you.”

Between that and the numerous people who enjoy feeding the waterfowl, there were now dozens of coots between each bridge. People in masks would turn up and make mounds of sweetcorn on the bank or throw handfuls of oats in all directions. Twice I had to sweep my deck down to stop it being a shit covered buffet. Coots fought violently over the little hills of food whilst feeders looked on adoringly.

I got a call from an old friend I hadn’t seen in years.

“I hear you’re in London. What are you doing on Saturday?”

“Not a lot, why, what’s on?”

“It’s a secret. Just keep the afternoon free.”

And so Vin turned up to Spey, bearing a big bag of artisan cheeses by means of a gift, and after we’d made a small dent in it, we set off to Camden.

“So where are we going?”

“I’ve got tickets to the wrestling.”

“Of course you have.”

In the Electric Ballroom in Camden, we took our seats for the show. Promoted by ‘Progress Wrestling’, this was all British, all action entertainment.

Most people will be familiar with wrestling from one of two sources. Either the American wrestling that reached a zenith of popularity around the late 1990s, starting the stratospheric careers of people like Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, or the English stuff that you might have watched with your grandma on ITV, a sort of pier or circus show touring the town halls of England, producing household names like the Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks.

This seemed to split the two worlds. The music, the athleticism, the showmanship of American wrestling, but the humour and characters of England. Characters slapped in the face would shout ‘Bloody Hell!’ or ‘That’s a bit mean’. The crowd, clearly a loyal and fully bought in group would chant things like ‘Fuck him up, Deano, Fuck him up’ Clap, clap. ‘Tralalalala, Mayfair is a bell’ and ‘Shit pants, no fans.’

Wrestlers fell into two main categories, those whose gimmick was carefully designed with an eye on making it to American and going big, and those who couldn’t care less about such things. This second type were always the best, usually referencing some very specific part of British culture, like Martina who wore pink fleecy pyjamas, acted drunk, and despite an Irish accent seemed to embody the caricature of an Essex girl from about 1999. It would make no sense whatsoever to anyone else, but right here it worked a charm and everyone cheered her to the rafters.

There were characters with very English names, Sterling, Mayfair, and the physical storytelling, the grand costumes, the witty asides, the immediate distinction between those you cheer and those you boo reminded me very much of a mummers play. It was very representative too, men, women, all ethnic backgrounds, and plenty of heroes and villains from each.

One villain or heel was played by Anthony Ogogo the former boxer now turned wrestler, who cut a mean physical presence, but who was also available outside the ring for a chat and a photograph in exchange for a £5 note, where he was transformed into a warm and likeable man. I paid my fiver and posed for a photo too, looking about as tough as a duvet full of flumps propped up next to him. I felt a slight nostalgia for the days when the pretence it was real was maintained outside the ring too, and infuriated grannies would attack the heels with their handbags.

Not his toughest challenge.

The best bout of the night was the tag team match, where the athleticism and daring reached such levels that even the heels were able to take cheers and applause at the end for their role in the entertainment. The event culminated in a championship match that was highly technical. It was a best of three falls match, and everyone was deeply bought into the story.

“That was a murder! Oh, but it didn’t count.”

Six-way match to determine the next challenger to the title.

After the champion had successfully defended his belt, it was time to go home. Vin wandered off into the night. I wondered if it would be another ten years before I saw him again, and what unexpected afternoon might then occur. Back on Spey there was a mountain of cheese to eat, and coots were violently attacking one another in the dark.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

Drumsheds and other short stories

Firstly, apologies for the long break between blogs. I caught Covid which cost me a fortnight, followed by a tour that took another week. I will update again this week. While I’m writing a longer piece, here’s a collection of smaller pieces with no overarching theme that I’ve been saving up.

Drumsheds

It was late in the evening and I was on my way back from a wedding gig I’d been booked to play for, a ceilidh in one of England’s many repurposed barns, out in deepest Kent. Farmers all over England have worked out that wedding parties pay rather better than agricultural work these days. I parked my car in a housing estate north of Tottenham, the first place free to leave it north of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone and started to make my way back to the boat via late services on the public transport network. I walked to Meridian Water station, somewhere I’d investigated before and remembered as an empty set of platforms in a completely deserted industrial estate. At this time of night, I thought, I should be the only customer, and I looked forward to having the train to myself.

As I approached the station, I found myself being swept along in the most enormous crowd, a slowly flowing tide of young people, flooding out of the Drumsheds, a large blue building made of corrugated metal by the side of the river Lee. I asked what had been going on, a question that took a while to get across, owing to the chemically enhanced state of the participants of this crowd and the difficulty of comprehending there being someone being in the crowd who hadn’t just shared their experience.

“What do you mean? Weren’t you there?”

“I’m just coming back from work.”

“Oh! Last ever night at the Drumsheds. Incredible lineup.” And he reeled off a list of acts I was far too old and unfashionable to have heard of like they were household names. Perhaps they should be. “Absolutely incredible lineup.” He concluded and looked at me for validation, a little unsteadily.

“Absolutely amazing.” I agreed, “All that in one evening?”

“Started at midday.” And he steadied himself against a lamp post. “Excuse me, I’m somewhat pissed. My friends are high but I just stuck to the drinks. I don’t know where they are. Tried to buy cigarettes in that big Tesco there but they had left the counter unstaffed. Don’t know why.”

The police were in attendance, not because there was the slightest chance of unrest in this sated mass of humanity, but to politely ensure that we kept moving and didn’t just sit down wherever we were to watch the kerbstones settling or discuss the constellations. We were slowly corralled into a long series of barriers before the station and we flowed ever so slowly along. It really was the most chilled out queue I have ever been in, and despite the train leaving in five minutes, there was a total lack of urgency, with people stopping to roll cigarettes, inspect the railings in detail, just taking it all in for a moment. Nobody minded.

There was something almost voyeuristic or duplicitous about being the only person there not engaged in what must have been a transcendent shared experience. I felt like a spy behind enemy lines, only able to report back to my masters what an excellent and chilled out place it was. I couldn’t even pledge to become one of them, for this was their swansong, the final night of something definitive for so many. I recognised the feeling, a cultural moment so intense and emblazoned on your soul by the fires of youth it becomes that by which all others are measured. The mood was tranquil beyond words, and one reveller stood by the entrance to the platform, struggling to stand, but gently fulfilling his civic duty of reminding every one of us to pay our fares.

“Don’t forget to tap in!” He repeated, and each person in turn bumped up against the barrier, stared at it for a moment, working out what it was and what action it demanded of them, before fumbling for a card.

On the platform we washed around like flotsam and our train drew in. I found an abandoned wallet on the floor and shouted, “Has anyone dropped a wallet?” There was some searching and a woman identified it as hers, confirming the name on the driving licence. All her friends began chanting “Legend” at me, not loudly but with gentle voices, and those around broke into a smattering of applause. I was uncomfortable now, exposed as intruder, and slunk off to another carriage.

The entire train was suffused with the afterglow of something magical, and I wished I’d shared the experience with them. There was a togetherness about the mood that manifested in a calmness and quiet. There was nothing that needed to be said because it was already entirely understood.

With a degree of sadness to see the party breaking into progressively smaller fragments until each reveller was at home and asleep, scattered all over London, I changed for the Victoria line at Tottenham. On the tube I sat opposite a man with a stack of Tupperware boxes all containing chips and a tattoo of what appeared to be Elvish around his ankle, as if Sauron had poured his vast power into some dude’s leg by mistake.

What is he doing? I recognise washing his hair, but what are the others?

The quiet of the evening allowed a moment’s reflection on tube advertising. The difference between North and South is particularly pronounced in the posters you encounter on public transport. A Northern advert might read “Grimthorpe’s pies. As good as the day we opened our first slaughterhouse”, but here it was Contemporary Male Grooming, ‘Humanery’, whose poster showed a young man indulging in four different sorts of self-grooming activity, only one of which I was able to identify with any confidence. Another poster warned me that ‘A stronger, fitter you is just around the corner’, which simply felt like a threat.

—-

Just down from Spey on the moorings was a lifeboat, bright orange, and very much looking like a hungry hungry hippo from the game of the same name. It had some tentacle murals painted on the sides, the name ‘Milda’ on the bows, and a couple of windows let into the structure, and I stopped to have a look. The owner came out. I’d been hoping to ask about one of these. There are quite a few now, around the London waterways, lifeboats from North Sea oilrigs and elsewhere, converted into homes. I mentioned the hungry hungry hippos, but he hadn’t heard of them. As a conversational ice-breaker, it hadn’t been my best. Still, he was happy to tell me more.

“They’re very safe. Built for idiots really. We fitted a vintage Lister engine, mostly heat and bubbles and off we went.”

“Oh aye, where have you taken it?”

“Bulgaria was the furthest we got. We did 2000 miles on the Danube over two years. The channel was the scary bit, nearly got run down by some container ships. Other than that, this thing is pretty indestructible, it has to be really.”

This certainly put my own trip into the shade. Bulgaria and back in a bright orange lifeboat.

——

Sometimes the details are fleeting. Heading towards Islington I got a momentary glance through the window of a houseboat, and I swear I saw a plump little Kim Jong-Un throw cushion.

Another boat has a gigantic bone on the roof. It must be six foot long, and I’ve wondered about it all winter. Finally, I was passing whilst the owner was present.

“Why have you got an enormous bone?”

“Enormous dog!” he shouted.

At Maida Hill tunnel, it was clear something extraordinary was happening. A dazzling orange light was flooding through, like everything the other side was on fire. It was half an hour till sunset, and this was not the setting sun itself, but its reflection on the strip of flat water between Little Venice and the tunnel. Spey entered the tunnel, and we were spot-lit by the far portal, the sun illuminating the entire space and casting our shadows behind us. In a lifetime of boating, I had never seen anything like it.

I posted the pictures online. One reader suggested that it might have been a trick by the engineer, John Nash, just like Brunel at Box Hill tunnel, the sun shining through on his birthday. A brilliant and slightly arrogant demonstration of engineering prowess. We checked the dates. Nash had been born on the 18th of January and this had been ten days later, so it didn’t seem to fit. Then someone else pointed out that Nash had been born in the final months of the Julian Calendar being used in Britain, and if you allowed for the 12 days slippage between the two then it was pretty much spot on. It’s a beguiling theory. Nash would have known that the lie of the land would have prevented the setting sun from shining through as it would have been obstructed by buildings and higher ground but using the reflection on the approaches would buy the extra couple of degrees to pull the trick off. I doubt I shall ever know for sure, but I love the idea that we were the first to work it out, a chance journey where perfect timing and conditions combined to create an effect first imagined as an Easter Egg, a little riddle in the mind of a great engineer, two centuries prior, and never before solved.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

The Coal Yard and the Nutcracker

Nicola and Michael, my hosts at the coal yard at Ponders End, invited me over for dinner. They run fuel boat Clover, which heads into the city from the yard once a week and has become nothing short of indispensable for many London boaters, bringing them the supplies that make life on the water possible. We had a vegetarian pie, a delicious quagmire of pastry, mysterious chunks, and gravy, and it was excellent. I brought wine which was added to their already well supplied rack, and we talked boats, engines, coal. Michael really does live the life of the coalboater, a never-ending merry-go-round of chine angles, big ends, injectors, composite bottoms. It’s a lifelong quest for knowledge and once again, despite a lifetime around the waterways, I found myself out of my depth. I’m too much of a butterfly, albeit an unusually fat and hairy one, interested in everything and expert at nothing. Michael is unbelievably deep in his knowledge, an expert not just by study but through the complete immersive dedication of his life to being the best boatman he can. Nicola was brought up to it too, a lifetime of working boats and a work week of 25kg sacks of coal affording her an aura of power and poise. They are impressive in their dedication to the art.

Clayton, Nicola’s dog, interjected our conversation by getting his head onto the table with the entirely reasonable view to clearing up the mislaid scraps of uneaten pie. He’s a geriatric dalmatian, I think, quite blissfully unaware of his advancing years, still trying to hump everything in sight, a worthy ambition tragically hampered by his increasingly unreliable back legs.

“He’s a good dog.” Said Michael, and I briefly thought the conversation might move on from coal and boats. “But he’s got a real problem with the eco-logs.”

“He won’t stop eating them.” Confirmed Nicola. “I Ieft him in with a load of them in the coal scuttle, came back, sawdust everywhere. He loves them.”

The boatyard is just wonderful. Washing up on Spey’s back step the night before, Clover had come back upriver from the city, the report of the Bolinder engine carrying for miles along the flat reflective surface, subtle at first, a pulse from afar that crept upon me like the awareness of the pumping of blood, thickening into a soundscape that poured through my back cabin doors as if rising floodwater, driving all else before it, followed finally by the wandering beam of the headlight, seen first in its reflections, sweeping in soft arcs as the fuel boat made her way home.

It’s not like going back in time, because it is a modern boatyard, but quite simply, some things don’t change. Whilst electricity came to power the world, followed by the information age, the truth is that these ancestral working boats with their single cylinder engines remained the best way to do a very specific job, and the cry of the tall pipe, mixed with the shouts of the boaters trying to be heard over the engine, hands blackened beyond soap by coaldust and grease, rough with the slip of the cotton line, are not throwbacks but the immediate soundscape of the contemporary waterway. Fixed as we are with centuries old locks and infrastructure, it is the working boats whose shapes and modes of operation were so perfected by generations of experience that stand best to do the work that is asked of them. Clover and Emu are magnificent, and to be present in your back cabin, your own tiny confessional, low to the water and looking out across the water’s brim as one of them returns to the yard, empty and riding high, proudly having sold every last bag of coal, is a deeply moving experience. The slow emergence of the physical presence of the boat from within the maelstrom of sound and light it pushes before it like a sensory bow wave, the resolution of cabin and steerer from the kaleidoscope of night, in this case Ben acting as relief skipper, is time spent on the edge, an experience so infused with meaning, so deepened by flat water and cold air, as to be completely timeless. The waterways are shaped that this must be past, present, and future, these boats must do this after we are all gone, because there is no better way, there can be no better way than that arrived at by the collective brilliance of generations of people who had no choice but to immerse themselves as deeply as Michael, Nicola, and Ben choose to now and whose knowledge is measured out and immortalised in both the boat and its operation. Few now really know how to work them, to bring out the best in them, to reap the benefits offered by those hard centuries of incremental gain.

“Ben! … On the outside! …. The outside!”

“What?”

“Go alongside Spey!”

“What?”

“Go alongside Spey!”

Ben reversed the Bolinder and stopped Clover in the channel, trying to work out what Michael was telling him to do. The brief second as the engine stalled before reversing and picking up allowed a moment’s conversation and Ben skilfully brought Clover round and alongside Spey as requested. I caught the back line and we tied her off. They inspected the sales report.

“This is good. We can pay the log merchant.”

Work done, the Bolinder’s fire was allowed to die in the agony of an uncaught stall, and the yard returned to peace. Outside my cabin, in fetid darkness, I was aware of Clover’s powerful presence as she festered and stewed, angry to be so briefly idle, anxious to cut water again.

—————–

As if to prove my point about knowing a small amount about far too many things, my dear friend Kate, already of this journal, had invited me to the ballet for the evening to join her family and partner. We were to see the Nutcracker at Sadlers Wells. I stood outside and waited for them, a little early, and saw no hands black with coal dust, no boiler suits or high vis, no faces cracked with badges earned of light and heat and air, just smart jackets and dresses, designer masks, glowing expectation, the pink softness of prosperity.

And what a night. I loved it. I really did. I like to approach such experiences as a total naïve. There’s no point me trying to review them from any knowledgeable standpoint, and instead I prefer to treat them as if I’ve come from another planet; and perhaps from the boatyard at Ponders End, where the pallets of coal stack high and await their turn on the last ride to a thousand vital personal furnaces, I might as well have been. One can be a travel writer in social class as well as geography. This was a journey into a world entirely familiar to many but a previously closed book to me.

From my perfect seat high up but central, I watched as humans at the peak of physical ability described shapes, found perfection in chaos, and I laughed at the exquisite humour, cried at the beauty of it all. Ballet is caricature, but I mean that as compliment. Each moment as perfect and physically contrived as the work of our finest cartoonists, Giles, Posy, Bateman, the chaos of human life became perfectly planned and geometric, laid out for us finally to see it for what it really is. The skill to create a flow of moments, focussing and collapsing, each cog a sentient player, not merely a shape rotated purely by design, is astonishing. Every tiny deviation from flawless repetition crafted to draw the eye, even the shape of the set a play on geometric shapes, collapsing our perspective.

And I thought again of my inheritance, the people that worked the canals, their physical skill and knowledge of how to apply it. Outside observers, should they pay enough attention, were always transfixed by it. CJ Aubertin wrote ‘A Caravan Afloat’ in 1916, and whilst making little attempt to understand the culture of the people into whose world he’d moved with the bumbling entitlement of an Oxford Professor, he was clearly in awe of how easily they flowed through life, how efficient and effortless they made it. “When the whole operation is over, see if you can point out an eighth of a second wasted.”

Tom Rolt’s seminal ‘Narrow Boat’ gets a little closer to something, his description of Tooley’s Yard in Banbury one of the finest things written on the waterways, even if the rest of the book does at times allow itself to wallow in an overcooked gravy of unhelpful sentimentality. But the delicacy and respect with which he treats the canal person’s skill and aesthetic is as beautiful as it is unusual for its time.

Elly (Kit) Gayford gets even closer, writing in ‘The Amateur Boatwomen’, to within a tantalising whisker of the flawlessness of it. Working on the boats as a form of national service during WW2, she trained numerous other women to take up the work and life, and her descriptions of the eyes watching from boats whose families had done it for generations as she learns to command the boats speaks to her deep awareness of what she was amongst, and it is clear she won their confidence and respect through hard work and learning.

The ballet was incredible. Stunning costumes, humour, gorgeous sets, and movement subtle and exquisite. There is little in the world quite so entertaining as watching a highly trained dancer pretend ever so briefly to be clumsy when the script demands. They simply cannot overcome their grace and balance, and stumble and lurch in ways we mortals can only dream of.

Hearing such rich music played by a full pit orchestra was another particular delight and a reminder that if you want the best, corners can never be cut. The completeness of real music, individual and unique for us tonight in a thousand microscopic ways, musicians and conductor going with the flow of the room and the turn of the dancers, will never be replaceable. It was utterly joyful, music and dance at the top of their game.

And so is watching a boating family operating a lock. And so is watching a rugby league team in full flow. What they share is greater than what separates them. The difference is the social class of the audience that appreciates it. From where I stand, I would say that the ballet was outstanding, as beautiful as a champion rugby league team, as skilful as a boating family in command of their home and income, and I’d mean it as the finest compliment I could muster. Ultimately, culture in all its forms is about appreciating other people being really good at something, and when you strip the prejudice away, you find it in extraordinary places as well as the expected. Whilst prejudice is simply failing to admire something magnificent on account of the people doing it.

I danced down the street ahead of my party, bubbling with a joy that needed to vent, as leaden footed, top heavy, and corporeally unpredictable as an elderly, yet horny dalmatian. So very full of happiness, I hadn’t felt so gloriously physically alive in the street after a show since I’d seen Peter Jackson’s ‘King Kong’ and tried to climb every lamp post in Leamington Spa in honour of the titular hero. I could claim no such kinship with the Sugar Plum Fairy but surely London was ready for me?

Drinks later, we dispersed into the London night, and alone I caught the last train to Ponders End. In the back cabin, the fire was still reluctantly refusing to expire in the bottom of the grate, so I riddled the ash through, loaded some more Excel nuts on and checked the butterfly valve. In the darkness, sweeties twirled and rolled to the tumble of the luscious music, and through it all a Bolinder cut water at loose tempo, playfully stretching and restricting the flow of movement, organic and vital and symbiotic.

In the morning, my head had finally fallen silent again, the hazy sun rose through the crack in the back cabin doors, and thoughts began to return. Cormorants congregated outside my cabin, and I remembered to tap first to allow them to move with dignity before I emerged into a space I shouldn’t ever try to own. London is a space for all of us.

If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.