Friday, February 29, 2008

Walking into Ramsey

Even when we've got the car at Bill Fen, I still like to walk into town each morning to get the paper and various little bits of provisions. It's a nice undemanding walk - no tricky junctions or decisions about which way to turn (just remember to turn right once you find the river in front of you and don't keep going straight), so it makes for a bit of nice quiet thinking time. It may well be said that there is no pretty scenery to distract you either, but the stark emptiness of the vista has its own awesome beauty; the blackness of the earth and the distance of the horizon, followed by the grubby mundanity of car and lorry breakers, abandoned buildings, and industrial sheds cheek by jowl with the prettified Town Quay and Rivermill flats.

So come with me on a virtual stroll, out of the marina - at the far end, we are, by the caravan club CL, and turn left onto the first stretch of dusty track. Actually, this road is well maintained by John, with a steady supply of hardcore. The marina is behind the hedges to our left, and to our right are open fields, with only the odd wind turbine breaking the horizon. After a little way the road bends to the left, and leads us on towards the river, the High Lode or Great Whyte, which used to run all the way through the town of Ramsey, up the middle of the high street, until it was culverted in the nineteenth century.

To the left now the ground falls away sharply, behind hedge and fence, and derelict (farm or industrial?) buildings crumble under the brambles. Then we arrive at the smart new fencing of the breakers' yard on our left, and the river is in front of us. We turn right and walk parallel to it, and on arrival at the Town Quay join the main road.
Opposite us is the Railway pub - an unprepossessing establishment which was boarded up when we first visited Ramsey in 2003 but which now appears to be the local for the marina. Its stark interior echoes the lack of decoration in the environment generally, but you are assured of a decent pint (Adnams or Greene King) and a genuine, albeit gloomy, welcome from Keith the landlord. In my experience there will always be one or two boat dwellers, of varying degrees of sanity, in there ready for a chat. You can also phone out for a curry from the Chilli Hut in town. Should you wish.

But we're not going to the pub today - it's only eight thirty in the morning for heaven's sake! We're turning left into Stocking Fen Road and going to the Co-op Rainbow, home of the mysterious Rainbow Bag. We will buy a copy of the Guardian and quite possibly the Hunts Post, some milk and cheese and beer, and then we will turn around and come back again.

(In case you missed the first link, there are photos to accompany the commentary here)

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

ebay excitement

I don't usually get involved in Jim's ebaying but I happened to be watching just as this one finished. Well, Compo always said you can't have too many spare injectors. And as a bonus, we might be going to Uxbridge to pick them up.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A matter of principle

figure 1:

figure 2:

Monday, February 25, 2008

Don't I know you from somewhere?

Well I never thought I'd see the day I'd do a lot of things, and going to meet a bunch of people whom I know only from an internet forum is certainly one of them. To be honest, I never thought I'd see the day when I'd be participating in an internet forum. But there you go; get to my age, and suddenly throw caution to the winds.

So Saturday night saw me on an enormous mass blind (or at least partially-sighted) date, courtesy of Moley whose fiftieth birthday we were celebrating, with some forty-odd (or, indeed, forty odd) members of the Canalworld forum. I had approached the event with some trepidation, but have to say it was the party of a lifetime (as Moley later noted, I don't get out much, but I think that would still be the case even if I did). I have learnt, over the years, that I don't really like parties. Having graduated from sitting in the corner looking desperate, I now tend to sit in the corner looking aloof. Of all the people there, I had met only three before in the flesh (Moley himself, as he sailed past Stretton one day last spring when we were on the towpath painting. I registered the name of his boat and without thinking shouted 'Moley????', and he tied up and came down to say hello; and Chris and Lise from Baldock, met very briefly at St Ives last year).

All the others, although I didn't know them, I sort of did. I wasn't even surprised (much) by how they looked. Bones rather taller than I'd imagined, perhaps. The food - this was at the Boat Inn at Stoke Bruerne (of which more anon) - was excellent. I suggested to Jim that we sit separately so as to meet more people, so I plonked myself down at an empty table - and found myself sitting between the legendary Carlt whose knowledge renders me speechless, and the preternaturally charming Eugene Baston, opposite lovely Purple Fairy and Smudge. For entertainment there was a man in a codpiece with a hurdy gurdy... who could possibly ask for more.
Smudge, Moley and Ye Tudor Musician

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Birthday boy! (again)

Can it really be that another year has gone by since the last birthday of Sebastian, formerly known as Baz, formerly known as Lockboy (and many other things that we've promised not to call him now he's eighteen)?

I seem to recall last year promising that this time I'd embarrass him with a rare short-haired Baz photo... well, I found this one, but I don't think it's too embarrassing.

It's all rather sad. I now, officially, no longer have any children.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Plans. Well, aspirations.

Plans for the summer are starting to take on a bit of shape. We have got some idea at least of what we want to find out about, regarding bringing Warrior to London this summer. The original impetus for coming to London started quite a long time ago when there was first talk of closing the Bow Back Rivers for the Olympic development. It's too late for that now; they've been closed since last year. But the London idea has stuck.

I hesitate to commit such vague aspirations to writing, but here are some of the ideas we're considering... I get five weeks leave, which I can take all at once provided it's not in term time. In theory that means July, August and September, but there are exam boards in July and admissions stuff in September. Last year we neatly went off for the whole of August; this year we could start, hopefully, earlier (if I plan my exam boards right). Here's one ideal scenario, of which parts (or all if we're very lucky) might happen... come down to London, but not the obvious way (save that for going back), rather via the South Oxford and the Thames... use whatever time we have left to mooch about and explore ... then - and this is the tricky bit ... we wouldn't have time to go back so would have to find somewhere, or more likely a succession of somewheres, to leave Warrior, maybe until Christmas even, or at least until we have a spare week (Canalplan gives the direct GU route as nine days so I'm pretty sure we could do it in a week. Stoppages permitting any movement at all of course, so maybe it would have to be before Christmas).

The advantage of this would be the possibility (or more likely obligation) of lots of long weekend cruises in and around London (Lee and Stort?), and I could entertain my workmates and friends from down here who with the best will in the world are not going to travel to East Anglia for the pleasure. It's the moorings that are going to be the killer, but I have asked on Canalworld and have had some encouraging noises...

So that's the shape things are starting to take. What do you think?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

So, poor Max Gogarty

That name rings a bell, I thought, when I saw the story in the paper today (and the opinion piece about it). Normally I try to avoid getting into one of those circular situations where the blogosphere incestuously feeds off itself, as if it actually mattered, but hey, I'm one of the few people that have read The Water Road. I practically know this guy.

And first off, I would like to say that the unfortunate Max has nothing but my sympathy, if only for the sick-making way his father wrote about him in that book. He's done well to recover from that, so good luck to the boy I say.

Secondly, just because he got a coveted spot on the Grauniad blog to write about his gap year (oh, just what we need, another gap year blog) and his father happened, occasionally, to have written bits for the paper, that doesn't mean we have to cry nepotism. It may well be that other people, equally well qualified, equally (un)interesting, didn't get the job, and it may be because of what his dad does that Max did - but it doesn't have to mean that his father pulled strings. It just means that he knew that there was a Graun blog, maybe that it was looking for contributors; he knows what it is to be a writer because he's grown up with it in the family. It would hardly be fair if it were barred to him on that basis.

No. 2 son has just had an offer from the slightly unconventional university where I work. I haven't pulled any strings for him - I'm not in a position to even if it wasn't in a completely different faculty and department anyway. But it's highly unlikely that he even would have applied if I hadn't got a job there, for the simple reason that it wouldn't have occurred to us. So Max has my sympathy, up to a point.

It's the reporting of the story I have to take issue with. The headline 'Hate mail hell of gap-year blogger'. Comments on a blog are not hate mail. They are comments on a blog. If it's your blog, delete them. End of story. I accept it can be disappointing, even upsetting, when people you think you know turn around and say something nasty - but in Max Gogarty's case these were total strangers. What he probably didn't need on top was his father weighing in on his behalf and adding his own sarcastic two penn'orth (but why am I not surprised?). Having a gap year, writing about it for a bit, and anonymous strangers voicing their opinions, no matter how vitriolic, do not constitute 'hell'.

Also, one does have to ask, if it weren't for his father's contacts on the paper, would this story have been printed? Do I see the hand of Gogarty senior in this? And if so, is he really doing his son any favours?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Vinyl countdown

One of Helyn's attractive features is that she has retained many (sadly not all) of her original vinyl cushions, and all the cabin linings. These are in dark blue grained vinyl with white piping and are in excellent condition. Presumably Helyn was the de luxe model, or else these were ordered separately. In order to clean and paint the boat out, Jim removed all the linings, taking the vinyl off the hardboard backing, replacing the inner foam layer and, today, replacing the original vinyl over the top. All the foam has been taken out of the cushion covers, and both foam and covers have been washed and dried. Amazingly, this 1970 vintage foam is still in good shape.

The most frustrating thing, which has haunted us ever since we bought Helyn, is that the previous owner, immediately prior to selling her, thought it would be a good idea to brighten up the interior with a coat of white emulsion. Ever since we have had the boat, this steadily flaked off. Indeed, the main reason for removing everything from the interior was so that we could finally strip it all off and paint it properly, which has now been done. However, the flakes of white paint which wouldn't stick to the walls and ceiling are adhering resolutely to the vinyl, having to be scraped off individually with fingernails. Grrrr.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Regular reads

No, I don't want to 'subscribe' to 'feeds'. Go away!!! I have my favourite blogs that I click on every day or so to see if there's anything new. That's part of the fun. I don't want them 'delivered', eviscerated and filleted, to my 'desktop' or whatever. Some I know I will see something new every day - Granny, and the excellent Diamond Geezer; others I drop by occasionally to see what they've been up to - Carrie, Mort, JT. Occasionally I forget one for a few weeks, and then I have the pleasure of catching up with a good, solid read. I did this recently with Nev, now of Waterlily. I promised I'd give him a mention and then completely forgot! Sorry Nev. Nev's blog is another good read - it's fascinating to have a glimpse into the randomly selected lives of people whose only common feature is boat interest. He is also an early (if nervous) convert to the cause I am currently zealously espousing, i.e. draining colanders the right way up. I reckon Waterlily is definitely a boat blog - Granny hasn't picked it up yet; maybe I got there first. But Andrew will read this now, via his 'RSS' (exaggerated Homer Simpson style air quotes there) 'feed' and will no doubt castigate me again for being such an old stick in the mud, before adding Nev deservedly to the boatroll.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Simply brilliant

You know how sometimes someone suggests something, and as soon as they say it, it's so obvious that you can't imagine why you never thought of it before. There's such a thing in this month's Canal Boat, from Tony Brooks. When we put the fridge under the worktop, naturally we put a grille at the back above it to allow the warm air to escape. Tony (if I may be so bold) suggests drilling holes in the floor, too, behind the fridge, so that cool air will be drawn from the bilges to dissipate the heat extracted from the fridge and help it run more efficiently. So simple; so brilliant. It would also help to keep the bilges ventilated.

Sadly the rest of the mag has been a bit of a disappointment. Maybe it really was having its heyday under Kevin's editorship. I spotted two typos in this one (including a large 'blige pump'), and some of the letters on the letters page make sufficiently little sense to qualify for the Sussex Express E. Shipsey prize (I made that up. E. (Ted) Shipsey of Peacehaven used to get a really mad, rambling, nonsensical letter published in the local paper most weeks. Sadly ill health now prevents him from doing this, along with rigging the model boat in Newhaven Museum. As I learnt from the Express last week. Perhaps I should take up my hobby of getting letters published under the names of randomly selected philosophers, again.) Oh yes, and the page numbers on the contents page didn't relate to reality either. Come back Kevin, they need you!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Vauxhall Bridge from Millbank

As the lovely weather continues, it is once again a pleasure to be travelling to different parts of the city in the course of adding to the stock of (local government related) knowledge. This morning I was off to see a nice man at the Local Government Association (hint: if you are going to move your organisation into a very famous building like... ooh, I don't know, Transport House, say, and change its name on all your stationery to something like, perhaps, Local Government House, it would help to have a much bigger sign outside the building with the new name on to save would-be visitors walking past it several times).

But who cares. It was a beautiful day, and I got to look at the river from another angle on the way back.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Public vs. private ownership

Ownership of what; that is the key sub question. Canal systems or boats, for example. Having waded into the economic fray, I thought I should think this through a bit...

I 'believe' in the free market; that is, I believe that it exists, not that it is necessarily, always, an unqualifiedly good thing. But I do believe that it is an enevitable manifestation of individual human freedom, which I do value very highly. People, if not prevented, will always want to make exchanges with each other for perceived mutual benefit. To prevent this would require enormous, intolerable oppression. I'm with Robert Nozick and Friedrich von Hayek on that one.

But - and it's a big but, and where I part company with Nozick - I do believe that the state, acting on behalf of all of us members of society, has not only the right, but the duty, to mitigate the unequal and frequently unfair effects of the free market, through regulation and redistributive taxation.

More importantly - bear with me - from the boats and canals point of view, is the question of efficiency. On top of its being a fundamental expression of individual freedom (which might be reason enough in itself) Hayek makes a very persuasive case for the free market being the most efficient means of distributing goods. In short, he suggests that the millions of interactions and exchanges that take place every day embody far, far more knowledge than any state planner or government department could ever accrue; knowledge about what goods are required, to what quality, where and when, and how much people are prepared to pay, for example. (There is a flaw in this argument, which is that the needs of people without the ability to pay are not taken into account. Hence a role for the state in providing them with the means to pay and thus to play their part in the market along with everyone else.)

Starting with Margaret Thatcher, whose minister Keith Joseph was reputedly so taken with Hayek that he made The Road To Serfdom required reading for all the civil servants in his department, but continuing to the present day, governments have been so smitten with this argument that they have sought to extend the free market into all areas of provision. Initially this was through privatisation (and anyone who remembers what BT was like before privatisation may not think this is always a terrible thing); the literal selling off of state owned assets into private hands (initially, and famously, to private individuals, but all to soon to be agglomerated into corporate holdings); followed more recently by arms length organisations, pseudo markets (e.g. within the health service and local government), Public Private Partnerships and the Private Finance Initiative. This, it appears, is not a good thing, insofar as it appears, on the evidence, to lead to deteriorating services at an ever increasing cost to the taxpayer.

For all its faults, it would appear preferable that British Waterways remain wholly public. Any kind of PPP arrangement, where private companies nominally (but experience shows, in the end, rarely if ever actually) take the risks, and invariably take the profits, assured by the prices they're paid by the government to take on the job in the first place, appears to be a recipe for inefficiency and expense (viz. the Tube). The breaking up and selling off of what surely only functions as an entire system would lead only to cherry picking and asset stripping.

But what I really want to talk about, and the reason I began this rant, is boats. In particular, historic boats; historic boats of the kind withdrawn by BW from their auctions last year on the grounds that they should go not to private owners but only to recognised or bona fide charities, voluntary groups etc (I don't have the exact wording, but you probably know what I'm talking about). This, is seems to me, is wrong in principle and absolute madness in reality. This is an area where the free market really does work. Go to the rally at Braunston and look at all the beautifully restored boats - at least 90% of them privately owned. Go to a waterways museum - a bona fide cause - and look at the boats rotting and written off for the lack of the funds to restore them. OK, if you let a boat go into private hands, there is always the chance that it will be wrecked, deliberately or accidentally, by its new owner. But most people who seek to buy a historic boat these days do so with the desire and intention to restore it (even the indignities inflicted upon poor Dover are largely superficial).

OK, private owners may run out of money, or time, or enthusiasm - in which case they may be more than happy to sell their project on to someone with more of all three. When a museum runs out of money, they have no choice but to leave the boat to its fate - their constitutions and charity law won't generally allow them to sell assets onto the private market. Of course there is a place for museums, and they should be properly funded. They may well have a role in preserving unique examples (although there are also cases where only private dedication has achieved this) and, most importantly, in presenting these to the public and in education. But it is madness (I suggest) to say that historic boats are safer in their hands than in the hands of dedicated, nay, obsessed, private individuals.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Jolly boating weather

Ceci n'est pas un bateau

The first real hint of spring is in the air at last. I know it doesn't do to complain, when the winter has been so mild (and there's still probably some to come) but I do love to see a bit of sunshine. It's generally accepted that the darkness of winter can be depressing, but to me it's as much the cold, that keeps you huddled and shrivelled and indoors, that's oppressive. So as soon as a shaft of sunshine cuts into the corner of my little garden (which gets hardly any sun in the winter, being surrounded by buildings), I'm out there standing in it, leaning over the fishpond, trying to sense the first touch of warmth. In the summer, you will never catch me complaining that it's too hot. Firstly, England really doesn't do hot, and it's a bit of an insult to people where it's really hot for us to complain about temperatures in the mid 20s c. Secondly, I reserve absolutely my right to complain about the cold, to huddle and shiver, and go round banging windows shut and lighting fires, and it seems a bit greedy to try and have it both ways.

What a lovely weekend this would have been to go boating, in the fresh, bright, newly warm air. Instead, I have been, to put it vary loosely, gardening. Or rather, working in the garden. Well, really, the back yard behind the garden wall, in the dampest corner where the sun never shines and all the old pots of plants are left to die, a place of drowned snails and green slime, sodden bricks and the sinister vestiges of the outside toilet that presumably used to serve both our house and next door. So I moved the piles of bricks, swept up the never-ending crumblings of render and flakes of old distemper and generally Let The Air Get To It (a pretty much universal panacea, in my experience. Except for fish. Oh, and I suppose old wooden boats); I emptied and scrubbed the rather impressive collection of plant pots built up over the years, and replaced them in rather winsome fashion. I can now go and hang out the washing without losing the will to live. What's more, it might even dry.

But I still wish I was boating.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Meanwhile in Newhaven....

I'm making another effort with the Newhaven blog. Just posted some old(ish) photos today with hopefully more to come, but as I'm a bit hard up for wet material for here, I shall give you a sneak preview. Here's the Rhoda B seen from the now defunct pedestrian bridge, circa 1990.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Lots of noughts

How much was BW's budget cut by last year because of the cock ups at DEFRA? Seven or eight million pounds, from memory? Cut from the funding of a directly government-run organisation. I read in the Guardian this morning that the government has found two BILLION - yes, not seven or eight million, but two million* million - £2,000,000,000,000 to bale out Metronet, who have cocked up running the tube under the Public Private Partnership forced through by Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, against the wishes of both the Mayor of London and the then Chief Executive of Transport for London.

The idea of BW being privatised, when it was floated (or flown as one might a kite) last year was met with horror - not least chez nb Warrior. But this just goes to show, if you want the government to dole out the cash, it pays to have the private sector on board. Canals can dry up, tunnels collapse, and fees rise for the sake of relative peanuts, but no private company can ever be allowed to lose money, despite one of the selling points of PPP supposedly being that they are taking the risk, this also being offered as the justification for the enormous returns they can garner on the rare occasions when they don't cock it all up. Why should they bother trying not to when they know that the taxpayer will have to fork out in the end anyway. How much of the twenty five billion sunk into Northern Rock will the government or the taxpayer ever see again?

And people worry about benefit scroungers and asylum seekers.

*If the Guardian has unexpectedly and inexplicably adopted the US interpretation of a billion, you can knock three noughts off that. Still leaves a hell of a lot though.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The rainy road to Ramsey

This is not a great picture - I took it with my phone, which was all I had on me at the time, but which is much better than nothing. There were these perfectly circular pot holes all full of rainwater shining in the low winter sun. In the summer the road is all dust and grit, past the lorry breakers and the scrapyard; in the autumn the fields are sprayed with acid (I suppose as a substitute for burning off the remains of the crops); in the winter they're black earth.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Ah. More tradition....

Found the notebook! Hurrah! Sadly only two more ideas left in it. Here we see Sebastian modelling the traditional way of lighting the stove, using a diesel soaked rag.

A fortnight this weekend, we'll be back up there again, using Warrior as a base for visiting Stoke Bruerne (OK, it's fifty miles away, but that's a lot closer than home). I've not been there before, so it's quite exciting. Prior to our evening engagement, I hope we'll be able to visit the museum - I must check though whether it's open at this time of year. So hang on in there, hopefully there will be some new stories and pictures soon. In the meantime I will have to entertain you with my thoughts on the contents of Waterways World in the 1970s.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Going loco

This is by way of a mindless interlude. I have lost the notebook in which I had written a long list of ideas for blog posts. Once downloaded onto paper, these are deleted from my brain. So here is a random thought: is it not ironic that the Blogger spellchecker does not recognise the word 'blog' (or, actually, 'Blogger' or 'spellchecker').

To accompany the interlude, here is a picture of Huddersfield's famous Locomotive Bridge. You may imagine (or indeed play) any music of your choice to accompany this, and hopefully normal service will be resumed shortly.