More correctly, the splicing of variety is life afloat.
When moving my boat around the English countryside I feel rather as someone might do moving about a house using secret doors and passageways. In books these shady characters furtively slip through doors that masquerade as dusty oil-paintings or they shuffle past cunningly-designed revolving fireplaces controlled by pressing on just the right section of the mantelpiece. In my life on the canals I suddenly duck out of the crowd and disappear using overgrown and hidden steps down the side of ancient bridges, or I simply carry-on walking at the point where the dog-walkers stop to turn around, and I fade like a ghost into the overgrowth. Sometimes, on misty early mornings, it must seem to the bricks & mortar dwellers that there is more than a touch of the Merlin about how I am in view one moment and gone the next leaving nothing more than a swirl of vapour on the more familiar path.
In my several thousand years on this planet I have moved between bricks & mortar houses dozens of times, but nothing has changed my outlook quite so much as living in a home that has itself to be moved every few days. Since the month of May of this year I have slept in my own bed, eaten at the my dining table and have browsed my own bookshelves daily, but have also had twenty-seven different addresses, some of them overnight, some for as long as a fortnight. Home has travelled roughly a hundred and ten miles, and will move at least another couple of hundred before the licence-year is out. I expected new experiences onboard nb Cardinal Wolsey, but I didn’t expect quite such variety, and quite so dramatic a change in my world-view!
In the past I have, as others have, had a life laid out on a pattern of motorways and client offices, with movement set to the metronome of business hours and short weekends. Since moving onto my boat this maze roads and unmoving buildings has faded into at most a minor significance, to be replaced by a narrow ribbon of shallow water, by Shanks’s pony for off-boat transport and if not exactly by a natural metronome, by the insanely irregular beat of the English weather. I used to use my rinky-dinky retro seventies-style wristwatch to time my arrivals and departures to the second, now whenever I look at it it’s to find out what day of the week it is.
I’ve been living on my narrowboat, Cardinal Wolsey, for just twenty months and yet the change in my mind-set has been profound. A few days ago I had cause, as a pedestrian, to cross a very busy road (there were Ginger Nut biscuits for sale on the other side…) and it was terrifying. The speed of the traffic, the incredible noise, the obviously lackadaisical approach to the individual driving of each ridiculous wheeled-beast – not to mention the utter, total disregard for pedestrians – was mind-boggling.
On the canals a thoughtless or reckless fifteen-ton boat passing moored boats at five miles per hour is perhaps two or three miles over-speed, and is an annoyance (the annoyance being to be bounced around while pouring hot water into a cafetière, or perhaps having the boat’s mooring pins pulled loose). To be standing at the side of the A41, looking for a human gap in the vehicles and protected only by jeans, granddad-shirt and cloth cap from the hundreds of forty-eight-ton leviathans roaring along at better than sixty miles per hour, with each driver suffering from indigestion, on his mobile phone, listening to an ill-tempered sat-nav and juggling for lane position approaching a roundabout is, I can tell you, an experience akin to a flammable teddybear’s picnic in the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell.
On the one side of the canal hedgerow is the old world, with this maniacal traffic, with people all rushing hither and thither without ever quite knowing why, and with a totally fixed routine of moving between fixed places to sleep, fixed places to work and all with no time to stand beneath the bows and stare as long as sheep or cows. On my side of the hedgerow is the narrow ribbon of slow-moving, shallow water upon which my boat is moored, and there is me – quite at home with boughs, the sheep and the cows, and moving to a timetable that has more in common with our rural peasant distant ancestors than with sirens and pedestrian-crossing beeps and motor-bicyclists weaving through everything at double-velocity.
To cross the hedgerow in either direction between these two worlds is to do full justice to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, although if you ask me – and you ought to ask me – “Alice” is a terrible name for a grumpy, semi-civilised, ill-dressed human-orang-utan crossbreed with a heavy-set forehead and rope-burned knuckles that drag on the ground. I am grateful that my parents did not choose it, naming me instead (at least as far as I could tell as a young child, listening carefully to what my parents said most often whenever they saw me) “Take it away, Nanny, and bring it back when it’s clean and not quite so noisy, possibly next week…”
Of course, the divide, while dramatic, is not entirely free of blur. There are many, many insane people on the canals just as there are some magnificently grounded characters on the other side of the hedgerow, on land. There are pleasant and unpleasant places in my new Olde Worlde world and my newly old world both. The great advantage that living on my boat has afforded me is that when I poke my snout up over the parapet of a canal-bridge I get to look before I leap, and to choose whether to bother at all.
A town! Sniff, sniff, sniff. Does it have shops where I can buy comestibles such as fine, mud-splattered potatoes, dark-green cabbages and Spitfire-pilot-worthy carrots? Are there charity (“thrift”) shops where I can buy books and, just in case of a hankering for “something visual that’s not too abysmal” (although I do draw the line at old Steve Reeves movies), those new-fangled DVDs? Can I get to the shops on Shanks’s tired old pony – and then back again, carrying whatever I’ve bought in my ancient, old-fashioned, hemp shopping bags? Has the icy, alien claw of the banking world stretched thus far and left the fresh corporate-scat spoor of a cashpoint machine from which I may conjure promissory notes of the realm, the better to stop my pension piling too high for the bank’s comfort?
Some of the towns that I visit are the usual dreadful fare; mere dormitories of ticky-tacky boxes thrown up in the most minimal footprint possible as mortgage-prisons for hapless souls trapped like flies in the Establishment economy’s web. Others are most splendid places indeed, generally built in the happy days before Estate Agents (“realtors”) were even a twinkle in The Devil’s eye.
One such town that I visited recently boasted a proper, old-fashioned High Street with a church, an inn and a selection of proper, old-fashioned shops along its length. There was a bistro-cafe cheerfully serving the most generous vegetarian (vegan in my case) breakfast for something akin to tuppence-ha’penny. At the grocers shop there while purchasing my cardoons, burdock roots and nasturtium tubers my social-radar gland began to tingle and I sensed that I was being somehow assessed. I was indeed under scrutiny, and whatever the test, I must have passed muster because Sir found himself being ever so gently offered the opportunity to purchase magic mushrooms. The spirit of the nineteen-sixties, which I missed, largely by being aged nought to ten years at the time, lives on in a sweet little floral-pinafore wearing grocer-lady with grey hair, slightly muddy fingernails and a superbly accurate nose for character.
My business in these towns transacted to my deeply groovy satisfaction, my shopping bags and I generally keep pace with any foot-traffic on the pavements and then choose our moment to step aside and disappear down the side of a canal-bridge and back into my alternative world. A world where clocks tick whenever they feel that they have the energy, where cattle aren’t the least bit embarrassed to be seen cooling their hooves with a paddle about in the water, and where rainbows flash about like colourful Slinky coils playing in the sky (the mushrooms help with this).
Having taken what little I need from the old (new) world I can turn my attention again to noticing trees that have stood in the same field for centuries, to watching people on other boats casually emerging from tunnels as though Hobbits from Middle Earth, and to watching the nearby star setting under often outrageously dramatic cloud formations.
One or two things that I have seen remain a puzzlement. For one, there’s a “memorial bench” officially installed by the local Canal Society in memory of a certain individual – installed facing away from the canal. Presumably the chap hated the canals (for there is no view at all in the direction in which the bench does face). On the occasions when I walked past the bench (alright, I admit it, when I dumped down my shopping bags and flopped onto the bench with gratitude, closed eyes and feet crying “no more, no more!”) I couldn’t help but picture the spirit of whomever the chap was sitting there alongside me, cursing the damned canal and the rotten boats upon it. You have to chuckle.
I can’t say that I necessarily get wholly the best of both worlds, but I do see an awful lot of variety, and I have more time and opportunity than one might seriously shake a stick at in which to appreciate what I do get. I dip in and out of the sillily, inhumanly-paced daylight world (isn’t “sillily” a lovely word?) and I live in general and rest my head in a hidden, almost twilight zone known by few and visited by even fewer.
Happiness isn’t a new Ferrari – although, Enzo, if you’re reading this, I am open to testing this theory with a complimentary GTC4LussoT in Rosso Scuderia with the more generously-proportioned seating option and a decent stereo – and happiness isn’t even reaching the tape first in the Rat Race. Whoo-hoo, I’m top of the corporate pile, look at me – oops, I’m dead… Happiness may, though, it just may be something along the lines of that precious time to stare as long as sheep or cows.
Life everywhere, however you live it, is a compromise. Life on a narrowboat is a huge compromise and most certainly it is not all Victoria Sponge, tea and roses. The proverbial devil though is not so much in the detail as it is in the perception. Beauty and the mote share the same propensity for meddling in the eye of the beholder, and it is entirely our choice of how we view the world about us. You can stare down at your iPhone or you can look up at the sky.
My personal favourite viewpoint, when not actually wrestling haplessly with the tiller or hefting shopping bags of soya milk, basmati rice and questionable mushrooms, is obtained by sitting on a branch of a friendly old canal-side tree with my boat somewhere in sight, eating a Marmite sandwich and listening to the towpath grass grow. It works for me. Will I ever go back to the real world? I think that I’ve only just found the real world!