New Internationalist

Stormy waters

As the sun set last night behind the woodland that runs from the mooring up the valley side, and I sat on the back (I mean ‘stern’) deck reading, I heard the squawk of a bird close to my ear. Looking round, there was a tame crow gliding past within a few feet of me, perched atop a plastic crate on the bow of a black narrowboat quietly sliding downstream. Steering the thing from the stern was a short and rather plump man sporting a black three-cornered hat and a pigtail. Two rather glamorous young women appeared from inside the boat to stand beside him as they all vanished around the next bend in the river.

Violent thunderstorms overnight. My father always assured me that it is impossible for lightning to strike you when you are inside a car, though during a thunderstorm at home my mother would sometimes, for reasons of family folklore, sit me in a chair with its legs in bowls of water.

I don’t know about Dutch barges. Steel must surely be quite attractive to electricity, though I can’t figure out the theory of ‘earthing’ afloat. I do know this boat currently lacks any ‘sacrifical anodes’. This sort of thing I am going to have to learn, if I can. Reasoning that a bolt would be more likely to strike the electricity cables, way overhead, than my barge, I relapsed back into fitful sleep.

Today, though I am supposed to be working, I will have to sort out the hot water tank. Early tomorrow morning I shall return to the NI office in Oxford, where I shall remain until Thursday evening. That’s the deal – I work three days a week in the Oxford office, two days ‘from the boat’. As yet I have no internet access, so for the time being these blogs (written on the boat but posted at work) are the only hard evidence I have of my labours here – and the virtues of the NI’s progressive ‘flexible working’ regime.

At least, since I returned here from Oxford last Thursday night, I have not used the car once.

It was there in distant Oxford, for the better part of two weeks before I moved here, that I had to face up to the harsh demands of ‘downscaling’. This meant dealing with the stuff I accumulated over the years. Only guessing at the space I would have on the boat, I began to look at my treasured possessions, and my books in particular, differently. Instead of deciding which I could bear to part with – answer ‘none’ – I imagined which I would actually read, or reread, and they turned out to be few. The rest had to be given away or ‘recycled’.

Easier said than done. Covered in buises after shifting heavy boxes aimlessly from one place to another, my entire body began to ache. I ventured to an Oxford recycling depot that has grown into a small suburb in the few years since I last visited. There was a queue of cars at the entrance. Inside, an array of containers for old TVs, computers, paint tins, CDs or tapes – thanks, presumably, to the recent spate of MP3 players – bicycles, batteries, cardboard, soft plastic, garden tools, bits of trees, zimmer frames. The noise suggested some sort of civil catastrophe as dozens of people flailed away, flinging stuff from the back of their cars into resonating steel containers, as if in some cathartic ritual.

I am told that in some canny British cities very good shops have been set up in these ‘recycling’ depots, selling off the entirely serviceable stuff that is the by-product of ‘upscaling’ – which is a good deal more fashionable, not to say essential to the health of our economy. But in Oxford regulations apparently stipulate that nothing can be reclaimed in this way. I wonder what the scavengers I came across on a dump outside Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, using metal spikes to sift through rotten food in the desert heat and dust on the other side of the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, would have made of this treasure house.

To be candid, without the need to save money and find a cheaper way to live, I would probably have postponed this traumatic and exhausting process indefinitely. I suppose I am going through a personal economic recession, a very tiny microcosm of what happens to all but a very few undesirables when capitalism hits one of its psychic storms.

It’s impossible to imagine an election in Britain’s non-participatory democracy in which any party advocates this kind of downscaling or ‘recession’ for everyone - let alone wins the election. But I can’t help thinking that in a regime where 80 per cent of the world’s resources are used up by the ‘lifestyles’ of 20 per cent of its people, trashing the place as we go, something like this is bound to happen sooner or later, and perhaps the sooner the better.

In the months and years ahead I will discover whether this is, indeed, a cheap enough way to live. Quite what I shall do if it isn’t, I have no idea. But that’s the kind of thinking it’s blessedly easy to ignore on a boat. Of course, this kind of life will never suit everyone. It may not, in the event, even suit me.

And, of course, whatever I may do by myself, I will remain as entangled in consumer capitalism as everyone else. But I’m already having to think a lot more carefully about what I use, why I am using it, where it comes from and where is goes. Whether mere thinking about things will prove to be enough remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, my neighbour Bob – who has a seemingly limitless supply of vital skills – and I set off after that copper hot water tank. The one in the superstore is functionally perfect but externally damaged. We haggle and pay half price. I have never pulled off this sort of thing before.

On the way back, just outside the locked gate to the mooring, we stop to chat to an Irish guy about mechanical diggers. He runs horses from a nearby farm and knows someone who may be ‘a bit gone in the head’ but can sell us fine chickens, ducks, lambs, whatever. ‘Extreme Dan’ the Irish guy is called, for reasons I’m told become obvious when alcohol is anywhere within his grasp.

The tank is now fixed. A bath, perhaps – for the first time in four days.

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