New Internationalist

Spaniel vision

Early this morning I cycled into the nearby town to buy the daily newspaper. The place might well be described as unpretentious; an old church, the remnants of a village, a railway station, surrounded by featureless 20th century suburban sprawl. But is has a Town Council, a leisure centre (including a swimming pool, where the showers, I’m told, can come in quite handy) and, on the signs around its ill-defined perimeter, the words: ‘A Fairtrade Town’. Though I have yet to find any fairtrade products, I like the place very much.

For a start, it has an old-fashioned High Street, with small specialist shops where you can find almost anything: a Post Office, two pharmacies, an optician, a ‘Hearing Centre’, two greetings-card ‘warehouses’, three hardware stores, two Indian restaurants, a ‘Homebrewing Centre’, some charity (thrift) shops, a smaller outlet for a larger supermarket chain, a greengrocers, a ‘Pet and Garden Centre’, a funeral director. My barge is also quite close to the cemetary, though I don’t intend to be buried.

I swear you can get all your shopping here while walking less far, and with less disorientation, than in one of those parks. In the sun, people bump into each other and stop for a chat.

All very appealing - but more expensive? Well, no. For a start, I haven’t had to use my car. And then there’s Spaniel Vision. I needed to get my TV reception on the barge sorted out. Normally, I suppose, I’d have gone to an electrical megastore, spent money on aerials and stuff, taken it home, set it up, found it didn’t work, gone back to the megastore and, after several hours, got nowhere at all.

Not so at Spaniel Vision. I fell into idle chat with the gent in the back room of this tiny ‘TV & Video’ shop. He’s just back from the Azores, pursuing his interest in volcanology, which he leavens with occasional church bellringing. When I phoned to say the stuff I bought off him didn’t work, he told me his ‘specialist’ had just been admitted to hospital with kidney stones. So he and his mate arrived at the barge themselves, when I was in the bath. They spent a good couple of hours, replacing cabling, testing things with impressive-looking machines, until it all worked perfectly. I asked how much I owed them. Oh nothing, they said, all part of the service. I had paid no more than what I know is the universal charge for the basic standard equipment I’d bought from Spaniel Vision.

An idle calculation suggests to me that I’d have to get in my car and pay about ten visits to the retail park before I’d recoup what it would have cost me if I’d gone there rather than to Spaniel Vision - and my TV would probably still not be working properly. If Mr Spaniel might seem insufficiently ‘businesslike’ to some, and to derive too much satisfaction from providing a good service, or from my gratitude, then he’s still got his volcanology and bellringing to fall back on.

Today is another brilliantly sunny, hot day. The lock on the river just round the bend from here acts as a sort of traffic signal. On busy days like today, recreational boats that pass through it together trundle past in little clumps, sending me snippets of passing conversation. At about 11.00 am there were a few minutes of mayhem: another clump was passing; my own generator was running; Dan the water rat was mowing the ‘lawn’; across the river a young couple attacked stinging nettles and brambles with a motorized strimmer; Bob the dog was barking monotonously, perhaps after her ‘owners’, who are in the Netherlands.

Last night the ‘party boat’, the River Empress, with 50 or so young(ish) people on board, set off at dusk to the tunes of Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’, returning in darkness to the sound of a good deal more shouting and screaming, accompanied by heavy metal. Early this morning the Empress set out again empty, with glasses of orange juice and paper napkins laid out neatly on vacant tables. She’s a lovely little boat, made of wood, I think, and designed for rivers so well that she leaves no wake at all.

After the ancient footpath that runs along the other bank, the ‘canalization’ of this river in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the next step up for transportation. During the nineteenth century the canal was overtaken by the railway, which impudently followed the line taken by canals all over the country, and pretty much put them out of business. The first bridge on the lane from the mooring takes you under it. The second takes you under the main road, which almost did the same to the railway. Beyond that you pass beneath the flight path of the nearby city airport. On my barge I feel as if I’m going back towards the beginning.

Hot sunny days here are, indeed, blissful. You might have thought that a steel barge would act like an oven and become unbearably hot. But good insulation seems to have prevented that, so far, added to the fact that the bottom is in the water. Good insulation should also help, I hope, to keep me warm in winter and reduce the condensation that can plague boats, impregnating their residents with whiffs of mildew and diesel. I rather doubt whether I’ll escape this myself, though someone else will have to tell me if I don’t.

I wouldn’t want you to think that I’ve dispensed entirely with the conveniences of modern life. Yesterday I experimented for the first time with the washing machine, unconvinced that such a thing could ever work properly on a small boat, and a bit concerned about what might happen if it didn’t. Well, it did, and I proudly hung my de-mildewed and -dieseled clothing out in the pretty little clearing in the wood where washing lines are discretely hidden away. Encouraged by this succees, I cooked myself a perfect roast in the smart little electric oven.

At some point, when I may be a little less likely to make a fool of myself, I’ll bore you to death with an attempt to explain how the energy thing works on the barge, and what I plan to do about it.

I try not to get gripped too much by the alternating flood and drought panics that accompany climate change. Through last winter, while I was negotiating the administrative hurdles in the way of moving here, my main preoccupation was with flood. Now it is drought. I’m not sure that a blog from a barge grounded on a dried-up river bed, as if in the Aral Sea, would really be worth the effort.

Meanwhile, across the river the young men in the vagrant boat have made a pile of wood that I suspect must be in preparation for their ‘party’ this evening. I don’t think I shall go. My inflatable dinghy has a puncture. I just hope that, driven by drink and the heat, none of them tries to swim across to our side of the river. If they do, we are well prepared to repel them with an assortment of barge poles, grappling hooks and, of course, Bob the bitch.

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