I fell in to talking with a perfect stranger who was sticking his head out of the bow doors of his boat, calling on his lurcher who in spite of her XX chromosomes, he proudly paraded as an alpha dog. Greek letters, i concluded, cannot ever be accused of gender bias.
But this is quite superfluous to the point. The thrust of what we really discussed had more to do with the people living aboard narrowboats in various states of disrepair that it did the elevated status of a female lurcher. The length and breadth of the canal we both concluded was nose-to-tail rammed with boats. This, i told him, had come as quite a surprise to my unsuspecting self. I had pictured, i told him, a meandering waterway dotted with the odd canal boat. That’s the image I had in mind when, casting my mind back, I decided to make this stretch of waterway my home mooring. It would be here I would make my last stand against the encircling forces of itinerancy and deeply ingrained nomadism.
‘When i came here, oh, twenty-five years back,’ he said, ‘there were only six boats, at most, up and down this entire length, from here to Bathampton.’
For theatre, I let out a noticeable sigh of disappointment. ‘God! if only. Look at it now. Teeming with boats.’
A smile of nostalgia came over him. ‘Yip, it was fantastic. All mine and not even a path where there’s one now.’
I had to know what had happened in the intervening twenty-five years. How could it have come to this? A conscious lifestyle choice to turn one’s back on an evermore soulless mainstream society with all its fancy mains electricity and drainpipes, its accruing debts and its quiet desperation, and for what? Because those fools out there on Civvy Street work jobs they hate so they can buy shit that no one actually needs other than to release five seconds worth of serotonin before the disaffection sets in again? They buy into the 4-bedroom detached dream, living out their days in concealed panic for fear of never paying off what they never had in the first place. No, he said. But, look at those living here on the water. The way they live; how they dress. These people are a living, breathing part of a counter-culture that’s been going since Glastonbury got going in 1970. Life is about choices, i argued, and you’d better bet they’re the wise sort. And anyway, Glastonbury is just down the road. Bristol is a hippy city. This is merely the overspill, albeit in a fairly stuffy, bourgeois enclave they call Jane Austen’s Bath. No, he said. You’re wrong. The reason you see this today, this canal lined with these old boats is not for the reasons you might think.
His alpha lurcher slunk off into the galley. Midday on December 1st and the thermometer couldn’t be arsed with any of it. My canal dog for the day, clearly unimpressed with the blether that two men above him were engaging in whimpered impatiently to get his walk underway. Intrigued by the man, this veteran of a quarter century on a highway of slow-moving water, the type you’d rather avoid in your ice cubes, i let my dog go bounding off after squirrels while the man proceeded to explain the whys and wherefores of how we live today.
I went on with my pampered attitude. ‘You know, i’m fed up with these chancers playing the system. Not moving on when they should. What’s the point of me paying three hundred some quid a month to get precisely the same privilege as these fuckers who spend their days playing the system, avoiding payment, ignoring rules? For that matter, let’s all just make a mockery of it.’
He reproved me with a look of anguish. Yet again, he must’ve thought, another newbie on a flash boat judging the less-fortunate. ‘Look at some of them. Before they were on boats, clogging up this canal for you, they were in benders.’
‘Benders?’ What the hell are they?’
‘Shelters. Piece of shit tents. Rough sleeping. The woods around Bath were full of them.’
I had seen the woefulness of indigence in and around what is a beautiful civic space dating back to Roman times. Homelessness, demeaning homelessness, sharing one’s sealed eyelids with every Tom, Dick and Harriet who walks past in Italian patent leather, and this state of affairs in not just any old town, but a UNESCO World Heritage Site no less. I had clocked the state of the nation and i knew the vital statistics were not good. The contrast was so fucking ridiculous it could’ve been in a Dickens novel. But through all that doorway desperation I had not stopped to think that the litany of crappy old boats clogging up the waterways was the difference between one hundred homeless scattered around one or other of Bath’s Georgian architraves and one thousand, an intolerable number that would offend even the city fathers into finally doing something decisive about Britain’s homeless hell.
‘They might be playing the system and not moving the boat as often and as far as they should be,’ he claimed, ‘but its’s either that or having hundreds of them hiding in the woods.’
I felt the chill in the midday air penetrate deep.
He went on to say that the way things are in this country, those who have don’t want those who have not to have. Those on the right side of private assets, why would they want social housing built en masse to accommodate these burgeoning numbers of former inhabitants of down-at-heel benders made of twigs and polythene in the woods, those people you cite as living on eyesores and flouting the rules that you, on your nice little floating palace, wouldn’t dream of because you’ve never had to? Why would they? That house you paid fifty grand for thirty years ago now worth half a million. And if enough new houses are built to take the strain off the canal, because that’s where the majority would rather be, in a house over a boat any day, that equity you found yourself the lucky recipient of, what of it? It shrinks to nothing, and suddenly your half mil house, the one you got for a song under Thatcher, is worth not much more than it was to start with.
They’re flouting the rules of engagement on the canal because they can. But they’re on the canal in the first place because the alternative is to see them tramp down to the woods in shitty weather and sleep in a bivvy night after night. Out of sight, out of mind.
Life is about choices, i continued to assert. I only have this boat because i chose to compromise five prime years of my life by going out to work in one of the most sterile, dangerous regions in the world. I could have stayed at home and got nowhere. I earned danger money, and so my conscience is clear. Though, in spite of my pride, i knew in my heart of hearts, he was right. Living on a boat in the midst of nature is, on the surface, a conscious rejection of all that’s wrong in mainstream society. But that is no more, no less than the romantic interpretation. Yes, Glastonbury is nearby. No, most liveaboards are proud, self-satisfied sorts who would repudiate the chance to live at No.12 or No.65 of some bland, nondescript housing estate. What we think is purely a lifestyle choice is, when you scratch the surface, an economic necessity borne of existing in a greedy, debt-ridden, overcrowded nation. What seems unsightly in a shop doorway seems less unsightly behind the bushes, and even less unsightly, and therefore just about ignorable, inside the pitted hull of a nearly-wrecked, but nevertheless warm and dry, boat.