New Internationalist

Light on the water

I don’t really know why my life has taken this nautical turn.

Just about now I was due to be on a Greenpeace ship in the Mediterranean, preparing for the next New Internationalist magazine I’ll be editing, about the state of the world’s oceans. Mysterious to me, at least, the oceans cover a lot of the earth’s surface and, we are warned, may be about to cover a good deal more of it.

Yes, I do know the Mediterranean is not an ocean. But the Greenpeace ship – originally built to fight fires in Kiev, they say – just happens to be there, en route from the Southern and Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It’s the current focus of a long-term Greenpeace initiative to make us all more aware of what’s out there. While you’re at it, take a look at their Oceans Defenders website and sign yourself up.

It would have been quite easy, maybe even quite pleasant, to spend a few days on board one of these legendary ships – and to find out about what’s happening to the Mediterranean blue fin tuna. These magnificent, succulent, persecuted fish are apparently now being ‘ranched’: captured when young, kept in cages somewhere near Libya and fattened up for market at a very handsome profit. At this time of year the few tuna that have escaped so far are usually to be found near Mallorca. But this year they aren’t. So, presuming that they still exist at all, the tuna-fishing fleet has gone off in pursuit of them elsewhere, and with it the Greenpeace ship, together with my plans to tag along.

That’s one thing. Quite another is the dappled early morning sunlight that plays on the ceiling above my head as I write, reflected off a silent, relentlessly flowing river beneath the renovated Dutch barge where I now live.

I’d like to say that I’m here because of an intricate, deliberate lifestyle shift to downscale my footprint. The truth is less noble. In December I shall reach the age of 60, no doubt with the same sense of baffled astonishment that accompanies some of us through the short human passage of time. Among the many other things I now have to think about, including the bizarre notion of ‘retirement’, is money. Whatever way I care to look at it, I will have a good deal less of it.

So I needed to find a cheaper way to live. A while back I went to the Alpujarras, the last resort of the ‘Moors’ in southern Spain. This is a valley of stark beauty where, all year round, intricate Arab irrigation networks still feed infertile soil with water from the melting ice of the Sierra Nevada near Granada. Appealing – and relatively cheap – though the place was, evading the thousands of fellow superannuated British asylum seekers already installed there would, I felt sure, have been beyond me.

Meanwhile, facing a similar challenge but from the other end of the age range, my daughter in London took to living on a ‘narrow’ (canal) boat moored in a thriving little community on the River Lea. This is just north of where the 2012 Olympics have subsequently been scheduled to take place, in the heart of London’s East End. Surrounded on one side by a public park, on the other by a nature reserve, it is difficult to imagine that ‘murder mile’ is less than that distance away.

Recollections of harbour smells and childhood magic began to play on my mind.

A year or so on, with a saga of administrative entanglements behind me, here I am on my Dutch barge. Unfortunately my footprint is no smaller – in fact, probably a good deal bigger. After six years without one, I now have a car. You see, it’s easy enough to get hold of a barge, but very difficult indeed to find a mooring near Oxford – where my work is – to live on it. Wherever the barge is, that’s where you’ll probably have to be, at least to start with – and it’s quite a long way from Oxford.

My old but – so far – very valiant little car had been sitting on the forecourt of my aunt’s house for a year or more. The day after it was bought for her at auction she had a stroke and is now unable to drive. Though sceptical of my plans, she offered it to me. I toyed with claiming to ‘recycle’ it. But the truth is, once again, less noble. It was cheap – in fact ‘free’. No, I don’t discount the environmental cost… But who knows where me and my barge will go next – if we’re spared?

All the more reason to start learning how to live as lightly (that is, cheaply) as possible – something we ‘floating trailer trash’ must become adept at in order to survive. In the days and weeks ahead I plan to record how I get on. I shall not say exactly where I am nor use the real names of the people I may write about – strange how inhibitions suddenly afflict a journalist who thought nothing of doing otherwise when writing about, say, the people of the Amazon.

Though ‘blogging’ of a kind this probably is, I haven’t yet made a habit of reading other people’s blogs, or familiarized myself with whatever conventions there may be. My motives are self-referential, since writing stuff down and imagining someone else might be reading it is one of the few ways I know of trying – and frequently failing – to make sense of things. You - and I - may quickly come to the conclusion that silence would be preferable.

For now, waking to the rare good fortune (in England) of brilliant sunlight, the conversation of trees, the chatter of ducks and the periodic thunder of a passing railway train, in this gentle little community, makes me feel blessed by all those vengeful gods I don’t know how to believe in.

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