Monday, March 30, 2009

The wonder of Woolies' woolies

Returning to the Wellingborough wheat topic once more... One of the reasons I find this, the last days of the working boats, so fascinating, is that it falls - just - within my lifetime, and yet is still another world. While Nutfield was being bow-hauled down the Rothersthorpe locks, I was picking forget-me-nots and painting with water on the faded peeling maroon paint of our shed door in Thornton Heath.

And this is brought home to me all the more keenly by the feature in Waterways World. See there on page 66, the little boy sitting on the bollard, and again, in the bottom corner of page 67, trotting down the towpath. He must be about my age; maybe a year older, no more than that. But even more to the point, look at the jumper he's wearing. I know that's a Winfield jumper from Woolworths, because I had one exactly the same (only with the welts in blue not brown). They were made to last in those days; I still have it somewhere, after me and my sister, it was worn by my own children. A strange link with the past, but a link all the same.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Well, well, well...ingborough

When the latest bright shiny wipe-clean NarrowBoat magazine landed on my doormat half an hour ago, the first thing I spotted was 'Last Traffics: Wheat to Wellingborough'. Not quite coincidence, of course, as it's a Waterways World publication, and it was WW's feature last week that put the idea into my head. No more pictures of Tarporley, but lots of other nice ones and historical detail, and it really has whet my appetite.

I wonder of there is any enthusiasm among the historic boating community for setting up a trip (starting from Brentford, it would appear) - or indeed, whether anyone already is (I certainly haven't heard anything, although next month marks the 40th anniversary of the last commercial traffic). Or whether it's been done recently - I'm sure it has been at some point in the past.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Wheat to Wellingborough

The most exciting thing for me in this month's Waterways World (I can't tell you the page number because I've left it on the boat) was an article about the grain traffic in the late sixties, illustrated inter alia with a big photo of Tarporley - a Tarporley that had clearly seen better days, like most of the boats just clinging on at this time - but how facscinating to see the evidence that it had still been carrying so late.

Maybe because this is a bit of route that I'm relatively familiar with, my first thought was how splendid it would be to re-enact this particular run. The Jam 'Ole run is supposedly historically significant as representative of the very last long distance contract, but this is not universally agreed, and the re-enactment, brilliant as it is, is marred somewhat by the complete obliteration of the Jam 'Ole itself.

Whitworth's mill at Wellingborough on the other hand is very much extant, and still in operation. The starting point of the journey could fairly (possibly completely; I haven't researched this at all yet) accurately be Limehouse. Surely someone, at some time, has done this before?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Report from the Eastern Front

Jim is currently on Warrior at Bill Fen, mending oil leaks, fitting gauges and sorting out the bilge pump in preparation for our Easter trip to Cambridge, as well as extending the back cabin bed in readiness for his and Craig's June trip to Northampton. Until a couple of days ago the weather had been fairly good, but today he has had northerly winds, hailstorms, snow and lashing rain - and that was just by the time of the last update. What an adventure. Still, I hear that he is keeping warm by polishing the brass and now he also has the latest Russell Newbery newsletter for entertainment. It will all be worth it when we set off in a couple of weeks, glinting and glittering in the sun (it will be sunny then, won't it?)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A photo of my cat

Well, that's what the web's for, isn't it?

And here's a little something for people with very special interests...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Doing my brass

Whilst feeding Carl and Sean's cats last week I noticed (or so I thought) that Carl had been polishing his brass door furniture, which quite put mine to shame.

So today I set about attacking it with Brasso, scourer, rag and elbow grease, for - I'm ashamed to admit - the first time in years. I had to do a bit at a time and keep coming back to it - to have tried to tackle the whole task at once would have been so daunting I would never have started - and it's not quite finished yet but it looks a whole lot better.

And then Sean tells me that theirs hasn't been polished at all - they'd got a new letter box!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

ASBOs for all

Is conversation soon to be considered antisocial behaviour, I found myself wondering yesterday. Is it, perhaps, already? Now, I like peace and quiet as much as the next person - more, in fact, I would hazard a guess. But that preference doesn't extend to thinking I have a right to peace and quiet wherever I go.

Have you noticed the proliferation of signs on trains - and now in the scrolling announcements too - reminding you to be 'considerate'? This includes not having your ipod turned up too loud, not eating smelly food (that one's on the tube, admittedly - and I did always opine, in the days of non-smoking carriages, that there should also be egg sandwich free carriages too) and not holding loud mobile phone conversations.

Now I have never really been able to understand why mobile phone conversations are considered more irritating that face to face ones. OK, it might be because it's frustrating only hearing one side of the conversation, but that's not really a legitimate complaint, is it. I suspect the idea set in in the early days of mobile phones when a. reception was patchy and people tended to have to shout and b. the only people who had mobile phones were the sort of flash gits who would have been extremely annoying anyway. My contention is that our current disgruntlement with people going hello, I'm on the train, is a hangover from that rather than having any basis in current experience.

On occasion in the past when fellow passengers have tried to make me complicit in their eye-rolling and tutting about people making phone calls, I've asked why it's considered worse than having an ordinary conversation, just like the one that we are having now, and often they haven't really been able to give a reason. But that just makes them more annoyed of course.

However, since yesterday I've concluded that this whole issue is having a sinister knock-on effect. I was on the train, and soneone was on the phone which, to be honest, I hadn't even noticed, when another passenger started berating them for having their conversation 'on a public train'. The caller remonstrated, and I joined in, saying, ' yes, what's wrong with having a conversation?' The phone call continued in a whisper and it was then that I realised that everyone else was sitting in silence. A carriage that was pretty much full, and no one dared speak.

Conversation itself has by extension come to be seen as an unacceptable infringement of other people's peaceful journey experience. Being sociable is now antisocial.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sodden and unkind

Hmm. Hilaire Belloc. I was planning to follow up yesterday's post with a bit about how I rather liked Belloc because he had written a paeon to my local landscape, The South Country.

The Downs aren't butch and rugged and attention grabbing, but they were always nice to come home to, soft and billowy, with a bosomy hug and a scone out of the Aga. After a while the comforts of home pall and one longs for adventure again, but it's nice to think that the green grass and the white chalk and the bright blue sea will be there to come home to.

But then I went and looked the poem up and read it properly, and I must say I think it is the most dreadful, pass-the-bucket, sentimental doggerel after all, and I fear that it was Belloc himself, no doubt ensconced in a cosy corner of some Sussex hostelry coming up with this drivel (he never even gets as far as the East before he starts rambling), who best deserves the epithet 'sodden and unkind' for being so dismissive of the delights of the rest of England.

Still, he was French.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The last of England

When we went to Braunston last Saturday, we ended up in a pub in the high street called, I think, the plough. It was a perfectly nice pub (Adnams Explorer and Black Sheep), but I wonder whether, if it hadn't closed last month, we might have gone to the Admiral Nelson instead. I always thought I would, one day, visit this legendary canal pub where generations of boatmen had drunk; where Leslie Morton held court in the sixties. And now perhaps I never shall. Which goes to show that you should always carpe diem, for one thing.

The loss of one pub is only the tip of the iceberg though. According to CAMRA, pubs in Britain are closing at the rate of thirty nine a week. Once closed, most won't reopen. Some of the big 'pubcos' are even selling former pubs with restrictive covenants preventing them being reopened as pubs. Some of these might represent no great loss - but others are of historic or architectural significance, or are the heart of a community which has already lost its shops and Post Office. The reasons and the chain of blame for this sorry state of affairs is long and complex, and while this is probably the direst things have ever been, the issue is not entirely new. Hillaire Belloc wrote in 1912 (in a Sussex pub)

From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most... Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bearded. Did beer.

I am a great fan of real ale. It is refreshing and nutritious, environmentally friendly and socially responsible. I love beer. So it pains me greatly to have to report that I have never in all my born days seen such an unappetising bunch of individuals (male, to a man) as were congregated at the London Drinker Beer Festival this lunchtime. It wasn't just the fact that well over half of them had beards; I have nothing against beards. Many boaters have beards, albeit luxuriant, freshly washed and lovingly combed ones. It wasn't just the clothes, the decades old Scruttock's Old Dirigible* T-shirts that hadn't been removed for... well... decades. It might have been the smeared spectacles; it might have been the wobbling stomachs, and the shuffling trainers, the dandruff. This was not masculinity at its alpha male best, it has to be said.

But hell, I wasn't there to size up the talent. I was only there for the beer (and the commemorative glass and the T-shirt. Cos it's got a boat on it). In fact I wouldn't have gone at all but for the fact my lunch date cancelled and I got an email reminding me to support the event because CCNA (aka Tarporley) is the festival's chosen charity this year (although worryingly I failed to spot any collecting tins).

And what an amazing event it is. Turning up at the first session, a Wednesday lunchtime, I expected it to be fairly quiet, but the former St Pancras Town Hall was absolutely heaving; there was barely space to weave through to the bars that took up two entire walls of the hall - and that's without the cider (14) and perry (6) and the foreign beers, which had their own spots. It was - as these events usually are, for who would invite the inevitable opprobrium of doing otherwise - very well organised. There was food too - I had a very nice sausage; apparently they have a different one every day, which made up for not going to Carluccio's. I couldn't stay long (well, to be perfectly honest, I was running out of places to put myself) but I sampled two of the beers on offer; they weren't chosen entirely on the basis of their names, but one was called Navvy, and the other, brewed especially for the festival by Brighton brewer Dark Star, was Battlebridge (as that was 5.6% I thought I had better make it my last).

So if you can stand the clientele, it's well worth dropping in.

*With apologies and/or grateful acknowledgement to Alexei Sayle circa 1982 - it has stayed with me ever since. You may recall the distinguishing features to be found in the bottom of the glass; if not, I don't think I'll repeat it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wiggly lines

Whenever we go to Ramsey I'm struck by the similarity between the logo of Cambridgeshire County Council and that of our own dear East Sussex County Council. Given that ours - redesigned imperceptibly but at great expense many years ago when I was interested in such things - is meant to represent the chalk downs and the sea, shouldn't Cambridgeshire's be two straight lines?

Monday, March 16, 2009

The age of the train

It's probably just as well I don't do air travel, given how amazed I am by the potential even of the railway to whisk one into another world before you even know it. At seven o'clock this morning I was on the boat at Bill Fen, which feels like the quietest, remotest place in England (quiet apart from the peacocks that is, which I think could quite easily drive you mad if you were that way inclined); at seven thirty I was at Huntingdon station and even allowing for the train being delayed by overrunning engineering works at Stevenage, at half past eight I was part of the stream of humanity flowing up the Euston Road. At my desk by nine - unheard of.

It has been an interesting weekend, which I started writing about last night, but was just too exhausted, so I gave up and went to bed at half past eight. Must have been either the fresh air or the excitement. Yesterday I was laying on the grass next to the river, in the spring sunshine, working (!) on my conference paper, and on Saturday we went to Braunston for the HNBOC AGM and slideshow of photos of the BCN in the 50s and 60s. Must be that that wore me out I guess.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Apologies for absence

In fact, I'm only doing this now as a displacement activity because I should be knocking a conference paper into shape before we go away for the weekend... But though I have been busy, that doesn't usually stop me posting; no, this time it's been compounded by an ongoing... ahem... disagreement with Pipex, who without a by-your-leave took over the previously trouble free and really rather good Toucan a couple of months ago, lost any trace of our having paid them, and cut us off, leaving us in the position of being put on hold on a mobile for half an hour at a time to try to sort it out. Grrr. So as soon as that is sorted out it's bye bye Pipex, hello... Post Office? Virgin? Anyone got any recommendations? Also, soon I shall be in the market for recommendations for USB broadband, if anyone has any. I'd be particularly interested in hearing about genuine PAYG deals, as there will be some months I probably won't use it at all.

Ah well, back to work. Perhaps I'll just have another cup of tea first. And do the shopping.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Radio star

Jim has been off today getting his VHF licence (I meanwhile wrote 2,833 words not counting these). I am not sure precisely what he is planning to do with it, although the fact that he has been going around the house for the last few days muttering 'Trent Lock, Trent Lock, Trent Lock' under his breath is not necessarily reassuring.

(Isn't that an American senator, I wondered, delighted at the coincidence, until I realised a bit later that the senator's surname was actually Lott. I was at school with a girl called Susan Lott who was rather uncharitably known as 'Gibbon' because whenever she knew the answer (which was frequent) she wouldn't just put her hand up, but would stretch wildly towards the ceiling, bounce up and down on her chair, and go 'ooh, ooh, ooh'. Gosh. I hope neither she nor anyone who knows her is reading this.)

What it means in the short term is that Jim and Moomin will have new toys to play with at Bill Fen next week.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Three short years

To fill up the space when I can't think of anything to say during the month of March, I shall be reminiscing about our first voyage with Warrior, when we brought the boat from its mooring at Hargrave, on the Shroppie just south of Chester, to Stretton Wharf where it was to remain for the next year. This was just before I started the blog - at least in earnest - and I have raided my drawer full of shiny prints to bring you.... some pretty smoke rings, just before we set off. We began our journey - me, Jim and Baz - on April 9th 2006, after first having visited Huddersfield to replace Andante's window and clear up the broken glass following what must have been one of West Yorkshire's least productive burglaries.

I know what we did and when because it is all in The Red Book, a hardback notebook that I bought in Wilko's in Huddersfield to be our log for our new boat. So far we have kept it up fairly assiduously. It is interesting to note that on this day Warrior's engine was difficult to start and running very hot... which was solved by removing the thermostat. I suppose we should have known then not to put it back.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

T-shirts and anoraks

Much excitement this morning as the latest HNBOC Newsletter dropped onto the doormat, in time for me to take it to read on the train, in the hope that someone will lean over and ask, do you like old boats too... Two copies, in fact, as the CCNA one comes to me as well, as I was the one who signed them up.

And the AGM is the weekend after next, complete with slideshow. I've never liked to go before, feeling a bit of an interloper as a mere associate member. But now, as the representative of a genuine bona fide qualifying craft I can hold my head up. Perhaps. It's all still a bit vicarious but I think I can cope. It was announced at the committee meeting on Tuesday that the Tarporley T-shirt order has finally been sent off, and the garments should arrive within a couple of weeks. I really really want one to wear to the AGM...

Anyway, I had tea this afternoon with a colleague, and asked him if he could possibly cover for me at a Saturday School on June 27th, and then explained why... and told him about Tarporley as well (marketing officers are never off duty) and I think he might have been foolish enough to look interested so the next thing was I had whipped out the Newsletter and was going ooh look, well that's a Royalty Class and...

... and he started rather pointedly looking to see where I had left my anorak, before giving me a copy of an article he'd written about the Labour Party's attitude to retailing between 1931 and 1951. It was very interesting actually.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Much as I love beer, I don't go to beer festivals very often - in fact the last one was at the Star in Huddersfield, that's how long ago it was.

This is largely because , in the words of my most apposite, if not my favourite, Shakespeare line, 'I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking.' I've been working on it, over the years, putting in lots of practice, and I think I'm improving, but I don't really have the capacity for alcohol that full appreciation of a beer festival demands. Wimp.

But even if I don't go myself - and I might pop by one lunchtime. Or two - I thought I would put in a plug for the North London branch of CAMRA's festival, very conveniently located round the back of Camden Town Hall just off the Euston Road. During the course of the event they are going to be collecting money for charity - and that charity is the Camden Canals and Narrowboat Association, aka Tarporley.

If you're thinking of going, do let me know.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Spring in my step

Everyone, it seems, is full of the joys of spring, and I shall be no exception. The days are growing longer, the mornings lighter (harrumph, go the government, we shall soon do something about that) and I have broken out my spring footwear.

I don't have summer and winter wardrobes - that would require far too much planning and storage - but I do have a strict footwear rota. November, December, January, February - boots; May, June, July and August - sandals, and March and April, September and October, Sensible Shoes.

Which reminds me tangentially that when I was at primary school, the arbiter of whether or not there would be swimming that day was whether Mr Fletcher was wearing shorts in assembly. Those were the days, when teachers could come to work in shorts. I am not sure though why swimming was such a cause for excitement, given that the 'swimming pool' was something like a very large wooden packing crate lined with wrinkled slimey polythene, and full of cold green bitter tasting water, garnished with dead greenfly.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Ghost ship

Yesterday I was due to go out as crew on Tarporley for the first time proper, so I was very excited at the prospect of getting some boxes ticked off on my training sheet and starting the process towards becoming a Community Boating Association qualified steerer. So I left home bright and early to catch the rail replacement bus (oh yes), thinking I would be there in plenty of time for a ten thirty briefing and eleven o'clock departure.

Only the bus driver couldn't make the turn into the station car park and we had to go round again, and by the time we had disembarked the train had gone, and we had to get another, much slower one (I've lived round here for nigh on forty years and I still had no idea there were so many stations between Brighton and Victoria). So, having left the house at half past seven, it was twenty to eleven when I finally arrived at Kings Place full of apologies to David the day's steerer (I cannot bring myself to say skipper - I'd be going aye aye cap'n next) and fellow crew member Graham... but no passengers.

After an hour and numerous attempts to contact the customer, we decided that as it was such a nice day we would go anyway, to Little Venice and back (a stoppage in the other direction made this our only option, but I wasn't about to complain - I'm just about becoming familiar with the route). Shortly after we left we learned that the booking had been cancelled, but was going to be re-booked... and by this time we were well on our way.

The weather was perfect - the sun even struggled through a bit, my fellow crew members were excellent company, and standing at Hampstead Road with the sun on my back, waiting for the lock to fill, smelling the food (etc.), listening to some rather nice Peruvian nose flute music, and watching the people watching us, it occured to me that if there's anything better than taking a Grand Union motor boat through Camden Lock on a sunny afternoon, then it must be pretty damned good.

Once we got to Little Venice and spun round the island I took over the tiller and brought us all the way back to Kings Place without hitting anything (lock gates not included but I didn't hit any very hard, even when I did momentarily forget which way the throttle turned. (Tarporley = volume control (thanks Moomin); Warrior = tap). I even managed to put the boat in various correct positions to pick people up and made a reasonable fist of parking when we got back. In many ways the big boat is easier to handle; the steering is more intuitive (if physically more demanding) and it is more likely to stay put, at least as long as it's not windy. I love the Grand Union gear wheel, and suspect that I'm more ready to use it, and thus make better use of the gears, than Warrior's push/pull control - now I've thought of that I shall try harder. So all in all a most enjoyable outing and a great confidence booster.

Just wish I'd remembered to take the bloody training sheet with me.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cry freedom (and buy the T-shirt)

If you are an avid reader of the Guardian or the Observer, you might have read about the Convention on Modern Liberty that took place yesterday in London. Well, I think the convention bit refers to the event, but there is also a sort of organisation; at least it has a website.

As soon as I heard about this event, I signed up, although it cost £35. I did this for a number of reasons. Firstly, the issues on which they are campaigning are those that have always been dear to my heart: civil liberties, human rights and the gradual, quiet erosions of our freedoms and privacies over recent decades which has escalated in the last few years to a quite frightening degree - the same reasons that cause me to be a member of Liberty and to support NO2ID.

Secondly, I'm about to start work on a book about freedom; more specifically about how the idea of freedom has been shaped and used by politicians through the ages. So this also seemed a good reason for going. Thirdly, there was quite a star-studded cast. I went to sessions on press freedom, with Alan Rusbridger, Nick Cohen and Andrew Gilligan, and on liberty and republicanism - where there was a really interesting discussion, and I finally got the chance to see Quentin Skinner, an academic whose work I've long enjoyed, speak live. Whilst watching David Davies give his plenary oration on the big screen in the foyer, a strange man caught my eye and half smiled as if he thought he knew me... but he didn't, because he was Billy Bragg.

And finally, I met someone who I have long admired for not just talking about it but really doing it - Peter Tatchell. Whatever you think of the causes he stands up for you would be hard pushed not to be awestruck by his dedication and the sacrifices he has made, over decades now, to defend human rights. Although in the media he can come across as a bit 'worthy', in person he was absolutely charming - and a brilliant soap box orator to boot.

Will the Convention on Modern Liberty make any difference? Will the fact that the Shadow Home Secretary clearly and unequivocally promised to scrap the ID cards scheme, and to repeal a good deal more of the 50 or so recent peices of legislation that chip away at our freedoms really be remembered after the next election? Will the government take a blind bit of notice of a gathering of the Guardianistas they already so despise? Or were we just talking to each other, articulating our unease and our fears, and making ourselves feel good by buying T-shirts? Well, even if we were, that's no bad thing. Yesterday's convention may have been preaching to the converted, but the converted will have had their confidence and their arguments bolstered, and the coverage of the event will hopefully bring these issues to a wider audience.