Friday, 6 May 2011

Big waterways Society?

We shall fight on the canal banks, we shall fight on the mooring grounds, we shall fight in the tunnels and in the locks, we shall fight on the aqueducts, we shall never surrender… is this the mood of live-aboard dissenters of the Big waterways Society?

As the amoebic rumblings of the 'new waterways charity' invite debate, fresh gunfire from the live-aboard corner is smoking predictably. And, true to form, the live-aboard remains either loathed or loved (ho-hum, better than neither loathed nor loved?)

Of course, the generic title has its contradictions – is the 'live-aboard' an economic migrant, a quirky misfit, a tourist attraction, a secretly envied escapee? The truth is, people who live on boats along Britain's inland waterways are just as diverse as any other community - old Mrs Jones and the new kid on the block, artists and writers, builders and mechanics, vicars and sinners, city bosses and jobless old-timers. Bless us all, we're one Big waterways Society!

When I was a live-aboard with a continuous cruiser's boat licence (significantly cheaper than permanent mooring fees), I kept on the move all year round. (Don't tell British Waterways but...) I cheated and overstayed at some of my favourite moorings... if I thought I could get away with it... and I happily stuck to the rules... when I had to. That was the way it was.

The Guardian (Andrew Mourant, April 27) tells us that live-aboards now fear for their lifestyle as the new waterways charity herds us to the future with plans to tighten rule enforcements. I've known canal-life since the 1970s when rules were less stocky and the waterways code only had to be implicitly passed on from boater to boater. But this is no time for selling rose-coloured specs. Since the 70s, derelict waterways have been restored (at unimaginable expense) and the networks are healthier, making our 'rights and responsibilities' operate differently today.

Thankfully, rule-abiding live-aboards who care about the canals will speak up for themselves, despite the loudest rogue live-aboard shoving his 'something-for-nothing' banner in the way. But, parallel to the debate, I wonder what will become of the silent squatter – the unknown boater, the lost soldier of landlubbers' conformity, the vulnerable soul that might be labelled a mental health service user if they were just the other side of the hedgerow in landlubbers' patch.

His half-tarpaulined floating shack has been moored in the same spot forever, and become the local Robinson Crusoe Wreck. He is the invisible dweller no one sees, yet his mark is stamped. His towpath patch is worn threadbare, his tyre-free bike is growing into the hedgerow, and his dangled contraptions (of unknown purpose) decorate the gunwales of his boat. He and the wretched few like him, spoil our views with their filthy noise from ungodly generators and wafts of salmonella from the portholes of their maggoty galleys. The Crusoe blight has been championed as the eye-sore of Britain's canal landscape. A common enemy, a fabulous scapegoat. We'll moan about him, safe in the knowledge that he'll stay inside his boat, passively ignorant, keeping his murky curtains drawn and his daily solitude to himself.

The Big waterways Society is home to these countable few. Now, as the battle for the new status quo on the waterways gets brutal, and passions roust for everyone's opinion (and cash), we'll find out if our unwilling Crusoe castaways from landlubbed society should become castaways from the waterways too? Is the 'new waterways charity' really the enemy?

(Please don't shout at me for my laziness: no gendered politics implied – read all he as he/she)

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