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Home > Culture and Society

Keeping it simple

30 July 2005

‘…now it appeared that this was what [civilisation] really was – square miles of meagre modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic.’
- I am McEwan

Modern life, it has been said, is rubbish. This isn’t strictly true of course, as much of modern life is smashing. However, having said that, certain aspects are inescapably crass and hideous. Ian McEwan we feel, rather nailed much of it in the above extract from his novel, Amsterdam. But apart perhaps from a tad literarily enriched, where exactly does that leave us? What can we actually do about it? Surely if we want to participate in modern life at all, and presumably we do, then we have little choice but to knuckle down and grimly tolerate the trash, the tarmac, the telly, the terror…. Well, yes. But not entirely. There are, at least to some extent, and if we’re prepared to make some major changes, alternatives.

At the beginning of the year, a man calling himself Olly found his way - via an Internet search for the words ‘fuck the bid’ - to the TFP talk forums. Olly soon became a regular contributor to the boards, admired by his peers as much for his cheerily violent fantasies as his keen sexual perversity. But what really piqued our curiosity was the fact that Olly lives on a boat.

Seeing as how we’ve always hankered after a life on the locks, ever since we read Three Men in a Boat as a group of miscellaneous youths, we contacted Olly and asked if he’d be interested in meeting up. He was. And what’s more, he wore a cravat for the occasion. Bowled us over it did. Then before we knew it, we were on his boat, barbecuing his chickens and toasting his friends with his wine. It was a glorious evening. We swore we’d remember every last detail and that we’d write a wonderfully evocative piece about a life less ordinary, a life gently lapped by the softly running Thames. We remembered nothing.

A month or so later we decided to let Olly do all the work. We sent him sixteen questions. A week later he replied. He’d answered half of the first one. But shiver our timbers if he didn’t answer it damnably well.

So, Olly, how come you decided to live on a boat?

As a boy of four or five years, I stared from the window of an inter-city train, squinting my eyes, marvelling at the kaleidoscopic effects of stretched cattle, trees, sheep and hedges. I was with my parents, so not much was being said. I don't remember where the train was headed. What I do recall very clearly however, is that one moment the carriage was quiet - though full of passengers, who were either reading or staring out of the window, looking at their nails or telling children to hush or not to stare - the next the door at the end of the carriage swung open and the doorway was filled with a large man clutching a half-full bottle of dark amber liquid.

The man then proceeded to slowly and somewhat unsteadily make his way along the carriage, singing at the top of his voice; a song the words of which were known to him alone. I was fascinated. I looked around at the other passengers. None of them was singing. None would meet his eye; backs were stiff, lips were pursed, brows furrowed with disapproval. The realisation that the only two smiles visible on our section of train were my own and that of the swaggering, staggering chap halfway into a bottle of scotch would later prove a defining moment. Suddenly I knew in which camp my feet belonged - which was not to say that I wished to frequent train carriages already in an advanced state of refreshment at midday, or dedicate my time to alienating people or making them feel uncomfortable - rather that I would endeavour to learn the words of forgotten songs; to look singers and mutes alike in the eye, to be supple of back and smooth of brow, and to follow the smiles wherever they may take me.

And so it was, a year or two later, that I first encountered boats and the people that lived on and amongst them. At some stage my father had acquired a fairly dilapidated houseboat which was moored in an estuary somewhere along the coast of East Anglia. It had no engine, but rose with the incoming tide and sat upon the mud among fast flowing rivulets when the sea reclaimed its waters. It could only be reached by jumping the gaps between large concrete cubes about a yard across, that may have been deployed to calm waves, or slow tanks which, in the end, never arrived.

Before a storm reduced the boat to a pile of firewood and a woeful collection of portholes in a wheelbarrow, we spent two or three glorious summers taking regular trips out to the coast in an even more dilapidated Bedford camper van.

We were always only visitors, but there were those who lived on the estuary all year round. They seemed to me to be an unhurried and unhurryable lot, both wizened and wise, whose eyes sparkled beneath unkempt mops of white hair. They would sometimes help me across the concrete cubes when the gaps appeared to have widened since the last crossing. They would answer my many questions, though their answers often left me more baffled than before. They told tales full of mystery, tales without endings and laughed heartily at jokes beyond my years. I learned quickly that they shared something that would forever be lost on my family: the secret of keeping it simple.

At the time it made no sense to me that we returned to a place called home after leaving a place that *felt* like home, but leave we did, many times, until the storm arrived and tore the boat apart, blew the summer haze from my eyes and kept on blowing till memories of timeless days, mud, and eyes that sparkled beneath white hair left me forever. Or so I thought.

It was in a pub - my place of work - some thirty years later, having decided on a whim that I wanted a canoe in which to paddle up and down canals, that I relentlessly and - to some - quite irritatingly, forced a new canoe into every conversation. Just as this was starting to try even my own patience, I was approached by a fellow who had been quietly nursing a pint alone at the bar. It transpired that this chap worked for a charity boat-club which was disposing of some canoes which were not quite up to the necessary safety standards. It transpired also that he was occasionally required to pick up or deliver a narrowboat in the evening so that it would be in the right place for its cargo of kids to embark on their day's activities, and that he would welcome some company on these evening cruises.

On about the second or third of these jaunts, which did seem to be as much about twelve people getting down to the business of ingesting, imbibing and inhaling as about the journey itself, I asked to have a go at taking the tiller. After seeing that I appeared reasonably competent, the skipper told me that I was the skipper now and that he was going up to the foredeck, where most of the drinking was taking place.

After a brief panic, I settled into it, relaxed and started to feel in tune with the boat as I eased her round slow, gentle curves and under road and rail bridges.

During the next ten minutes, certain things began to shift: layers long laid down over time began to peel back. I was not overly conscious of this at first, but very suddenly became aware that something had changed: the dead candle of a long-forgotten dream had been re-ignited, and wide-eyed I awoke into its glow. It was at that precise moment that, incontrovertibly, I knew that I would pace a deck, not a carpeted lounge; a gunwale, not a corridor. I knew that the view as I made morning coffee could and would change, with a boat's diesel engine heart beating beneath my feet, I would, at a horse's gentle walking pace, cruise the canals; once the arteries that fed the whole country. A dream's candle had been reignited, and I awoke, wide-eyed into its glow. Superimposed over long-closed waterside warehouses and the cast-iron colossi of Victorian gas works, there shimmered and shone an endless summer's day, a boat reclining on pungent charcoal mud, gulls circling, loudly voicing their one word vocabulary;! the notions of hurry and haste lay discarded, disregarded, and something else stood tall, solid and clear in their place. Three words: keep it simple.

Thanks, Olly!

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