We are many things but one of them certainly is the product of our experiences. We are shaped by them. Sometimes we embrace them. Sometimes we react against them.
I lived on the canal in Oxford for very nearly 13 years. I bought my boat, Beryl, just after my finals and I finally moved off when I was 34.
My boat Beryl was a piece of history, the last of the River Class boats, themselves the last class of working boat built for Britain’s canals. All the boats were named after rivers with three letters in their names; Rye, Wye, Dee etc, but after 24 boats they ran out of rivers and the last two, a motorboat and a butty, were named for the boat-builder’s wife and daughter – Beryl and Ann.
There was something deeply romantic about the boat. I wasn’t the only one to be seduced by it. There was a lot of romance and a fair amount of seduction.
It was also all consuming and, at times, a great deal of trouble. Boats, someone once said to me, are a hole in the water into which you pour money. Everything for boats seemed to be more expensive than it should have been. Nothing was piped in. It all had to be fetched. I had to carry coal and gas bottles up the towpath. For years I had to punt the boat to the water supply two or three miles away – a real pain. The toilet had to be wheeled along the canal and emptied into the septic tank or a sluice leading to the sewers.
The stove wouldn’t always stay lit. I’d sometimes come back from a weekend in London or Sussex late on a winter’s night and fall asleep before I knew for certain the stove would stay alight only to be woken by the cold of a sub zero three a.m.
Then there was the seemingly never-ending fight with British Waterways simply to be allowed to stay put and not to have our boats towed away. In their minds we were second class citizens in every possible way and we were treated as such.
And yet there were moments of bliss, when no one alive felt luckier than I did. I used to sit at the prow, back against my gas bottles, look down the canal and fix the image in my mind – like bottling summer fruit for dark winter days. It was a time of living in tune with the seasons. The outdoors was never quite out. I was never wholly alone. There was a real and tight community living around me. That had its own problems but it was also a source of strength and deeply human. Not many of us are lucky enough to live in a modern tribe. But that’s what we were – not a coherent group, not all of a mind, but we were, somehow, an entity and people were welcomed and belonged. When people left there was even a sense that they had somehow let down the group. And yet when the time came for me I didn’t look back.
I’d expected to live afloat for a year or two but not for a decade and more. The very business of living afloat had dominated my life and when I started to develop a life beyond the boat something, eventually, had to give.
No, I didn’t look back.
A few years later on a rare occasion when I walked down the towpath I found my old boat and was invited in by the new owner. I couldn’t. So much love and so much work went into making that small space mine that I couldn’t face seeing it made someone else’s.
But on Sunday I went back to the canal, above the lock at Wolvercote. It’s a place of dark memories. Beryl was attacked there and set on fire one evening when I was away. That was the first of a succession of attacks over the course of four years. A neighbour and her two young daughters died in a fire there as, years later, did Pissed Rob who I knew well.
The canal was life in the raw, and death in the raw too. But revisiting it somehow left me at peace with that period of my life. Next time I’m in Oxford I’ll go back and walk along, see who is in and catch up. Maybe there’ll be a friendlier fire next to the towpath and we can spend a spring or summer evening in a magical place celebrating our magical lives.