A boater's perspective

September 2018 - Jenny Maxwell, an experienced boater, felt moved to write a personal polemic that we feel will chime with many boaters, so we asked and she agreed that we could share it more widely with our readers.

“Huh! YOU’VE got a nice life!” Today, this remark came from a man on a disability scooter as he and the woman who was walking beside him passed me and Dru and Jim when we were sitting on the log bench outside our boats drinking coffee.

It was midday, or a bit later, and, had we been sitting outside a factory or an office block, I think it would have been assumed we were taking our lunch break.

Yes, I believe I have got a nice life. It’s one I chose, certainly, and I chose it largely because I wanted to live within my means. I could have taken the advice of people who understand finance, and invested the advances from two of my books in a nice little pension fund, and rented a nice little flat, and generally lived in a nice, conventional way. By now, the pension fund would have been looted by the fat cats, and a landlord would have taken most of my earnings.

So I rejected the advice, and I bought a boat, and I live on the waterways. For a while, I worked, I was a wage slave, which meant I had a permanent mooring. It was still a nice life, but now it’s even better, because I cruise. Continuously.

Those who claim to envy us our lifestyle might be surprised if they realized how much of what they take for granted in modern day living we have sacrificed. Hot and cold running water, as much as you need, two showers, or even baths, a day? Well, why not? You have to keep yourself clean, don’t you? I’d be searching for a water point every two days, and I, too, like to keep myself clean.

Main drainage for sewerage? Electricity? Yes, of course, what do you expect? Oh, I have electricity. My domestic electricity comes through three twelve volt batteries, charged with solar power and my engine, when I run it. So I need to be just a little bit careful. Washing machine, tumble drier, a dish washer …. Now, some boats do have them, but I couldn’t fit them into forty five feet of narrowboat, even if I wanted to, so it’s the launderette for me, or hand washing, and as for a dish washer, well.

“YOU don’t pay council tax.” I am therefore a non-person, hardly fit to live. In fact, a boater with a marina mooring does pay council tax, and gains a few of the benefits as a result. A continuous cruiser doesn’t.

Benefits cheat, social security scrounger, thieving bloody gypsy. Pikey.

“My dad says it’s okay to throw stones at the boats, ‘cos they’re only fucking gypsies anyway.”

No, I don’t pay council tax. I don’t have my rubbish collected once a week from within a few feet of my front door, I have to find a disposal point, and carry my rubbish until I do, which could be a long time, because they are few and far between. My towpath isn’t swept on a regular basis to clear it of litter, fallen branches and other tripping hazards, nor is it lit to provide me with a little security should I return home after dark. I take my chances on uneven surfaces, in dark and sometimes threatening places, and, if I do get into difficulties, I’ll be lucky if the police come to my aid.

“Can you give me a post code, please?”

“No. I’m between bridge 63 and 64 on the ……. Canal.”

“What about a street name?”

I’ve been told time after time that the emergency services can find us with a lock or a bridge number, but it still doesn’t happen. That time I was threatened by two men because I wouldn’t take them on my boat to Rugby and they said they’d be back, and they’d steal my generator and do for me, too, and I, on my own, telephoned the police and got the usual problems with telling them where I was, but they said they’d find me, and they’d send somebody.

I sat up all night with my tiller bar and a torch beside me, and nobody came, but the next day I got a telephone call from Inspector Charming, who apologised most courteously, said I had not received the support I was entitled to expect, and it was because the two adjoining police forces could not decide which of them was responsible for the place in which I was moored.

Well, Mister Council Tax Payer, is that a problem you’ve encountered?

Most of us work. A lot of us have jobs, and we move around the canals trying to stay within reach of our places of work. Others are self employed.

Oh, and that brings to mind something else. Self employed does not mean it’s a hobby. It does not mean that, if you buy a lovely piece of hand-painted glass, a pair of knitted gloves, cards, jewellery, plants or painted canal ware you are therefore entitled to take up the next hour of the seller’s time chatting. You wouldn’t expect that in a high street shop, or even on a market stall. Pay up, smile nicely, and bog off.

There is friendship on the waterways, there is genuine camaraderie, and help is usually at hand in times of difficulty. It is a precarious lifestyle. It is said that most people are only two pay cheques away from destitution, and possible homelessness.

Most liveaboard boaters are one engine failure away from serious difficulty. Engines cost a lot of money, and many boaters, just like land-based people, do not have a big cash cushion to help in these cases. That’s when friends really count, friends with tow ropes, tools, skills, and the willingness to help, if they can.

I’ve towed boats. Once or twice I’ve helped fix them, to my astonishment, and to that of those who know me. I’ve written a few letters, too, when a friend in need is in need of something strongly worded because somebody is making life unpleasant, and I’ve been helped, by people I hardly knew, when I’ve had problems.

Boaters understand the precarious nature of the lifestyle we share.

Injury or illness, Mister Council Tax Payer? Yes, we can get appointments with doctors, although it takes a fair bit of form-filling and explaining, we can even get into hospitals, although operations, unless life-threateningly urgent, can take a lot of arranging. It’s not something we can take for granted. We can’t simply telephone and ask for an appointment. “We’re not taking any new patients. Aren’t you nearer Blanktown than Ourtown? I’m sorry, the doctor’s booked up for the next three weeks, if it’s urgent you should go to A & E.”

Winter’s coming. Boaters are checking their stoves, making sure they have firewood and coal. Thinking, and planning, and becoming, some of them, just a little anxious. I’ve been pinned against a bank by gale force winds, with sleet driving into my face every time I step ashore, running low on water and diesel, the boat full of damp clothes, struggling along a rutted and muddy towpath with my shopping. No smooth pavements there, no convenient bus stop either.

Yes, I believe I have a nice life. I’m nothing like as sure that you know much about that life. And that is why, when I respond to your comment, there might be just a touch of acid in my voice.

“You should try it some time.”

Photos: (1st) Jenny Maxwell - author and boater, (2nd) Jenny Maxwell - politician.

User login