Ice Boating and Pro Wrestling – Where There’s Brass

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 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 refocusing on fitting the new gunnel plans.

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 neighbors 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 coats seemed to only have grown in number. There are more coats 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 tire 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 honor 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 pajamas, 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.

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