New Internationalist

Ship of Fools

Apologies for this - the last of my barge posts for a good while, I promise. Other things are quite rightly much more important to you. But, as I hope you will be able to appreciate, not to me at this precise moment.

To recap a little... During a wedding at the end of May we were told that some guests had made great efforts to attend - from Toronto, Dubai, Australia, the US, India, around the world. But the prize had to go to the uncle of the bride (me) who had taken two weeks to arrive by barge from Bristol. Now that I come to think of it, though, I must also have expended the least effort and travelled the shortest distance, since I never actually left my home on the barge.

There is a lot to be said politically, economically, socially, environmentally, even emotionally for slowing down. But I have yet to master the arguments for grinding my home to a complete, indefinite standstill, more or less in the middle of nowhere.

For the better part of a month now I've been stuck at the benighted Bull's Lock, just outside Newbury. Water levels have fallen in the canal, making this lock - and now the bridge behind me as well - impassable for 'deep draft' craft like my Dutch barge. There is also a 'failed summit pump', some distance up ahead, which has closed the canal to absolutely everyone.

More immediately, I am at the mercy of nature, still awaiting prolonged torrential rain to raise the water level and get me through Bull's Lock. For a month, none has come or been forecast - in Britain's summer, scarcely to be believed. But I would be in a small, reviled minority if I were to pray too loud for rain, so I prefer to whisper.

My biggest asset is that I'm not now required to be anywhere else. So I have been spared one - if not the only - widely recognized form of absolute necessity. Never before have I been entirely free of this obligation, and it takes some getting used to. It is, however, also a liability: for if no-one expects me to be anywhere else, am I a person to be reckoned with at all?

Meanwhile, survival is just about possible. Thanks to the careless sun, my solar panels provide me with plentiful electricity. I have a mobile phone and this internet connection. Shops and a railway station are within walking distance. Salad vegetables and herbs sprout from pots on my roof. As long as I don't wash anything, I should have enough fresh water to last for a few more weeks yet. I read a lot, listen to the radio and ration The Wire, series three on DVD, to one episode per night. It's months since I've watched any TV.

I do struggle with cabin fever. I ruminate, or hallucinate, about intricate bids for freedom. Sometimes I call British Waterways to suggest a plan of action, only to have my knowledge of local hydrology called into question, their budgetary deficit or the potential violation of a Site of Special Scientific Interest raised as an impenetrable barrier to action of any kind.

Then the apprehension that I do not exist, which otherwise I have experienced only in hospital, returns. Never before, even in motorway pile-ups, have I more desired a better appreciation of fatalism. With climate change in mind, I have in theory included drought as well as flood among the possible snags of living on a barge. But this is not how I planned to retire - at state of being which does imply the ability to move, if only backwards.

Now I have been joined by Bas, an amiable flying instructor with one home in Tucson, Arizona. I visited there a few years back, for a Rolling Thunder rally, so we can swap stories. He also smokes a pipe. His boat, named 42 (the meaning of life, of course, thanks to Douglas Adams), grounded in the lock too. He nearly came to grief under the bridge behind us when his boat escaped him on the current and he had to chase after it back down the river. Now he's moored beside me, acting as a useful fender between me and passing boats.

As yet, Bas is less fatalistic than I, perhaps because of his years with the RAF. As darkness fell over his first night of confinement he opened all the sleuces on Bull's Lock, in the hope of raising the water levels beneath us. Before long, an irate boater from above the lock came to protest that his water levels were falling - and to challenge the thinking behind Bas's experiment. The argument was settled by the arrival of a British Waterways official, whose sensors had been triggered. Our confinement, it seems, is more watchfully devised than any means of escape.

Soon - well, within a week or so - the school holidays will be upon us and boating on the canal will become feverish. Bas's favoured approach to the relevant authorities is to emphasize 'health and safety' - the threat of injury, or worse, quite possibly to innocent children. Mine is more functional - it will take just one or two more boats to be marooned at this spot and the canal will be blocked here as well. From my home base in Bristol my neighbours suggest the threat, at least, of a law suit.

British Waterways will doubtless take cover behind their impenetrable barriers, the 'unforeseen circumstances' (sunshine, that is) they refer to on the official notice that is pinned to my barge. So nothing will happen. Or rather, everything will go on just as if nothing had happened - until it finally grinds to a chaotic halt. This, indeed, reminds me of motorway gridlock, and it's not something I feel bound to accept on a barge.

But at least then we'll all be in the same boat - most probably, I fear, the Ship of Fools. And, sure enough, as I write, another Dutch barge (all the way from the Netherlands) has arrived and got stuck. Blessed chaos surely can't be far away.

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