My home, which is still stuck fast on the Kennet and Avon Canal near Newbury, has begun to resemble a prison. These missives into cyberspace come to you, I suppose, as an attempt on my part to stave off sensory deprivation during my indefinite sentence, the length of which will be determined by the whims of the English weather. It seems anxious to deny me the torrential rain I need, which otherwise comes so readily to it, to secure my release.
‘Narrowboats’ (floating corridors designed for the minimalist British canal system) pass by unhindered, with the thoughtlessness of freedom, thumping into my hull as if striking a gong. I stay inside the barge, no longer willing to emerge on deck to remonstrate, or tell my sorry story once more.
Sometimes, especially with single-handed craft, I lend a hand through the lock. In this way I have encountered an American novelist, a sizeable battalion of elderly divorcees heading for the Bristol Channel, and a disturbingly benign fellow with long grey hair who appears at random intervals along the canal and carries a spare lock handle in his shoulder bag.
Just as I write, a beast of a barge that is double the size of mine has come the other way down through the lock - and, inevitably, jammed. Gentle rocking, combined with ominous acrid smoke, eventually gets them through, which is encouraging for me. But they emerge from the lock only to confront a couple of on-coming ‘hotel’ narrowboats, and run aground on the bank opposite. They are now firmly beached, straddling the canal. In my experience, the only thing for it in such situations is to wait for a couple of hours (or perhaps days), have a cup of tea, then try again.
Is there, I’m tempted by my cultural traditions to ask, anything distinctively ‘British’ or ‘English’ about any of this?
True, the canal system we have inherited looks very pastoral. But it is in point of fact on the verge of collapse. Treated for a generation or so as some sort of property development or leisure facility, the simple but vital maintenance needed to keep any artificial waterway in good working order has been hopelessly neglected.
True, low levels of water result in part from the lack of rain. But there is no drought. If the whole system leaks like a sieve then even the shortest of dry spells - rather like the ‘wrong kind’ of leaves or snow on the British railway network - rapidly produces chaos.
True, my Dutch barge, and the barge still firmly beached opposite me (now they’re settling in for the night), were not designed for these waterways. But I got stuck at exactly the same spot as one barge a week earlier, and now another almost a week later. Might not some precautionary measures have been wise?
True, inland waterways are usually tame, and driving these things along them is not rocket science. In Britain, you don’t need any qualification to do so. However, the unexpected can happen quite quickly, and the inexperienced can panic quite easily. I have lived aboard for three years now and have got to know my boat pretty well. I am the proud owner of what is possibly the world’s most useless qualification (‘Shore-based Skipper’), which does at least teach the bare essentials.
Elsewhere in the world you need something like this before you can take charge of a boat. In Britain you can load up with lager and set off into, say, the Bristol Channel without having taken charge of so much as a pedalo on the Costa del Sol. I put that down to our piratical origins.
Some might be tempted to think of all this as a bit quaint, eccentric - ‘British’. And so what if ponderous, blundering ineptitude fleetingly troubles, say, a few superannuated idlers on their Dutch barges near Newbury? Were it not for the fact that I am personally imprisoned and serving an indefinite sentence, that would be my feeling too.
What makes me a trifle indignant, even so, is the drone of self-styled political leaders in Britain pontificating about British values and world-class this that or the other, when all the while the British canal system leaks like a sieve.
And I happen to be imprisoned within a stone’s throw of the Aldermaston nuclear weapons establishment, where treasure is at this very moment being poured into fresh ways of making a nasty mess of humanity - presumably in the belief that this will help these very same leaders make their point.
There’s only one thing for it. Barging about must become an Olympic sport in 2012. That way we might get some of the leaks fixed. Or maybe not. The London Olympics have, I fear, looked Dome-shaped to me from the start.