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 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!”
“Go alongside Spey!”
“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 engineered, 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. C.J. Aubertin wrote ‘A Caravan Afloat’ in 1916, and whilst making a 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 families 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 had done it for generations as she learns to command the boats speaking 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 honor 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 at 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 into 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.
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