New Internationalist

Floating trailer-trash recycled


We are a mere dozen of the 20,000 or so people who live afloat in Britain. We have chosen to live a little closer to nature, on the fluid borders between water and land, for reasons that are hard to explain but compelling all the same. Sometimes we may even refer to ourselves as 'floating trailer trash'. Scarcely, you might think, the stuff of insurgency.

But when a society becomes so obsessed with property that it has fewer homes than people, and then falls for austerity, an internal migration begins towards whatever refuge remains - like ours. Our situation is now more commonplace, though choice may have less to do with it.

The river bank opposite where I live on my barge, almost uninhabited when I came here more than five years ago, has since been colonized by a small flotilla of disused lifeboats, superannuated pleasure craft, semi-bouyant cruisers and the like that recall Dunkirk, in spirit as well as appearance. This is the down-scale bank.

On our up-scale bank, we have tended to submit to the self-proclaimed owner – a Napoleonic figure who demands exorbitant fees for non-existent services and assumes semi-feudal powers. These rely less on any obviously legitimate claim than on an implicit threat to cut the mooring ropes of anyone who shows the slightest sign of dissent. The threat was at one point reinforced by a Harley Davidson motorbike – before he fell off it - which hinted at some sort of liaison with local muscle.

The colonization of the opposite bank, over which he wielded no such powers, must have spoiled his imperial view. With persistent subterfuge, he did his level best to have the flotilla cleared away. One May Day a couple of years ago its inhabitants built a giant bonfire, put his effigy on top and played cricket by the light of the embers. A few months later Napoleon motored his own imperial barge away to the nearby harbour, and has yet to return.

On our bank we began to take stock. We share such useful skills as welding, joinery, electrical engineering, computer programming, web design, fishing, fairy cake-making, brewing, acupuncture, airport customer care, a beautician and a roadie. Those of us who can offer only fiction, slam poetry, film-making, daytime TV presenting, journalism, an experience of the Burning Man in the US or flying on a trapeze, find it a little harder to prove our worth. But we have the makings of a robust, dynamic, good-natured assortment of people who will not be pushed too far.

We began to conspire. Early plots hatched in the pub across the river were hindered by the effects of alcohol and the risk of being overheard on the 'towpath grapevine'. So we held a furtive meeting on one of our boats, where the full scope of Napoleon's duplicity became horribly clear. He was not the owner of the land. With other people's money, and behind many backs, he had secured some sort of lease from a local property magnate. All of us had been ripped off in an escalating sequence of scams, threats and false promises. Even our water supply was being stolen from the mains.

Then he made his big mistake. Just before Christmas, on a whim, he tried to evict a family with young children, who had nowhere else to go. If there had been any remaining doubts among some of us, they were dispelled.

We circled, as it were, the wagons and prepared our defences. In the best insurgent tradition we made a secure social network in cyberspace, where we could post alerts, tell tales, plot more openly or report a nocturnal encounter between the cats and the resident otter. I recall attempting to explain our difficulties by phone to a local councillor, over the racket of an outboard motor, as we made our way in semi-darkness from a game of pétanque outside the pub upstream.

Now, there seem to me to be at least three fatal flaws in the superficial charm of the Napoleonic approach to life. One is greed, which may or may not be a bad thing in itself, but knows no bounds and is forever impelled to over-reach itself. The second is cowardice, which inflates bombast until it is overblown and deflates very fast when challenged, while relying on the dirty work being done by someone else. The third is contempt for other people, whom it underestimates as a matter of belief, convinced as it is that they must truly wish to be Napoleonic themselves but lack sufficient talent.

Oh, and it also makes enemies until it runs out of friends. The local muscle declined to be flexed. Napoleon staged a hasty retreat.

We began to discuss the possibilities of co-operation that Napoleonic greed and paranoia had previously precluded. We built the Hentagon, an architectural wonder where we now coop a flock of free-ranging surplus chickens from the local city farm. We compiled a handbook of useful information. We began to share power from generators, and made access to some boats less perilous for children by building a pontoon. We hatched plans for a cider press and brewery in a straw-bale meeting house. We considered how permaculture might be applied to the land, the coppicing of overhanging trees for renewable firewood, the conversion of the chickens into heaters or tractors.

And we began to have fun. The fairy-cake makers and brewers came into their own at a Christmas party with the children. On Christmas Eve some adults and a dog donned mullet wigs, a shell suit, pirate hats or feather boas and dragged a train of dinghies upstream to the pétanque pub for some refreshment, then broke up driftwood for paddles and raced back downstream to the pub opposite. Here, no longer mistaken for Napoleonic foot soldiers, we can finally become better acquainted with our neighbours, if not without some risk to the cool sobriety that our insurgency still demands.

The thing about insurgencies is, of course, that they are never complete. We have, with some difficulty, tracked down the property magnate who owns the land. We found him on a run-down trading estate in a temporary building beside a duck pond with an ostrich. He may be torn between the inconvenience of breaking the lease with Napoleon and the appeal of collecting a good deal more of the cash currently trousered by Napoleon rather than him. The discovery that he too may have been fleeced by Napoleon may play on his mind in unpredictable ways. Or perhaps Napoleon will fire up his imperial barge and steam back from the harbour – where he has, of course, already come to blows with the harbour master.

Somehow I doubt it. And somehow I doubt we need Napoleon to keep us together, which is what matters most. From insurgency you discover things, possibilities, you cannot then forget. If we, of all people, can discover them, who can't?


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