New Internationalist

Buoyant resistance


In the shade beneath the trees, a trail of multi-coloured bunting leads up past the chicken coop to the hillside clearing where we have just celebrated the 30th birthday of one of our number.

Two padded Sumo wrestling suits lie like dismembered corpses within a ring of rope – it is, by way of warning, next to impossible to get out of the things, or get up once you have fallen over. This, like the Pagan May Day we marked in torrential rain, would never have been possible before, though it seems like the way this place was always meant to be.

The insurgency by our community of boat people I blogged about way back in the darkness of last winter eventually blossomed into a spring and has grown through a fertile summer. Whether it will have a fruitful autumn remains to be seen.

It began for me personally when I found a squad tampering furtively with the mooring ropes on my neighbours' boat. By convention one asks permission before boarding a boat. Since my neighbours were taking their children to school at the time, and had been threatened with eviction, I asked the squad in no uncertain terms what they thought they were doing. Within hours I received an email promising me immediate eviction.

We spent some time devising a joint letter of complaint about the general mismanagement of our moorings, with the aid of a sympathetic commercial lawyer, who was not optimistic.

Boat people have few rights in Britain, illustrated well enough by the fact that there are some 20,000 to 40,000 of us but a mere 2,000 spots where we are officially permitted to live. When a legal case reached the courts recently a judge didn't know if there was any relevant legislation at all.

Nonetheless, a yell eventually issued from the darkness outside one of our boats. An emissary from a firm of solicitors had fallen down a ramshackle pontoon (just one of our own complaints) and lay in agony holding out a letter of eviction. Similar letters were deposited on the boats of everyone who had signed the letter of complaint. The expectation seemed to be that, as ever, a mere threat would be enough to make us all disappear.

It is, however, a common weakness of people who fancy themselves strong that they misjudge the potential strengthen of people they have grown used to thinking of as weak. We resolved to stand firm and sit it out.

We kept a tense vigil to prevent our mooring ropes from being cut. From time to time the squad from the self-styled neo-feudal ‘boss’ would turn up accompanied by the police, until the police wised up. We denounced the boss to officialdom – including the tax authorities – and got some coverage in the local media. We were befriended by other enemies, some of them with legendary muscle which the boss had been making in profusion.

Then one day I happened to be visiting the local harbour where the boss had been living on his giant barge for some time. It was sitting on a truck bound for the Low Countries. He had done a runner, leaving behind a bemused serf and some sort of ‘contract’ on the legendary muscle.

So now we await a new deal with the land owner. Much relies on our co-operative. As we have discovered for ourselves, co-ops are not just (or even) cuddly - they can have a cutting edge. They are effective when they pool their cunning. They are efficient because they don't have to make money for someone else.

A co-operative's durability depends not just on the endurance of meetings, but on what happens after a common foe has been seen off – on what remains of the trust that once was all we had. What else do we now have in common? That we are about to find out.

There is much still to do. The new deal with the land owner would pay him much more, but still much less than the old regime extorted from us. Had we lived in Mexico we might by now have plugged in to the power lines that pass over our heads but cannot be accessed officially for less than $100,000. Had it not been for the slugs we might already be feeding ourselves more amply from the gardens we cultivate. We have yet to establish where we wish to draw such borders as there may be between, say, nature and neglect.

But I can now apologise most profusely for my previous blog, where I styled one of my neighbours as a 'roadie' rather than a sound engineer well known to Radiohead.

Some things are best left unresolved. Others resolve themselves. By the time the deal we want with the land owner runs out I shall be 80 years old - if I'm spared. And well before then, even before this time next year, we should have welcomed another two new-born members of our growing community.

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