Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Big Lie...

“I tried to make sense of the madness, but it seems like I’m wasting my time. It’s best I just go get me mine, find some inner peace, climb to higher heights, embrace the lie...” - Rodney Smith.

One of my closest friends, at the age of 28, decided that he believed in god, and ran away to work at a live-in Christian drug-rehabilitation centre in Hong Kong - to do said deity's bidding. He told me that part of the rationale for his decision was that if God didn’t exist, then his dad, a vicar, had at best dedicated his life to a lie and
was at worst mad.

I told him that, while it was definitely a bit mad to believe in something that you not only can’t see but have no proof whatever for the existence of, the fact that it’s a widely held belief meant he probably wasn’t insane, as such. We base a lot of what we think of as ‘mad’ not on a lack of reason or logic, but on how far removed from the consensus it is.

And rather than feeling panicked by the impending global economic collapse, I feel a sense of serenity and sanity. Indeed, as the Big Lie starts to unravel, I sometimes feel a sense of excitement...

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Squattastic goes on tour...

Why not come and be Jerry to the Tory Toms?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Baraka @ Queen of Hoxton

Baraka is not like normal films. This is a good thing, because a DJ playing live to a normal film be would be awful - more sound clash than soundtrack. No, Ron Frike's Baraka is a sublime montage of moving moving-images, a 96minute dialogue-less exploration of the relationship between humanity and its environment. A thing of beauty indeed, but only visual beauty - which means the audio's up for grabs. Step up JD Twitch (of Optimo fame) to provide the DJ set soundtrack, in this audio-visual musical movie mash up. And if that wasn't enough artful juxtaposition for you, try juxtaposing the whole thing with the Queen of Hoxton's roof. Surely the best way to get glassy eyed this Friday evening…

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The boat freaks: James Bentley and Wuff Bark Donkey...

Vyvian Raoul meets the unicycling boater James Bentley, organiser of the annual Pirate Regatta

James Bentley is a bit of a legend down by the canal. If you don't know him by name, you may know him as the owner of easily the most interestingly monikered narrowboat on London's waterways; you may also have noticed him lurching up and down the tow-path on his second favourite mode of transport: the unicycle.

He's also one of the boaters behind the Pirate regatta, an annual event that brings the cruisers together - in the spirit of renegade rebelliousness - for a big ass two-day party. And Wuff Bark Donkey is literally centre stage: James' double wide roof - all edged with lightbulbs - hosts both bands and sound system each year.

Hackney is his water and we caught up with him (listening to rock n roll records) by climbing through a set of railings on the opposite side to the tow-path, near the gas works at Haggerston…

Name: James Bentley (and Ships, the ship's cat: 'he's better known than I am')

Age: 47

Place of birth: Liverpool

Occupation: Juggler, unicyclist and Elephant Man tours guide.

Name: Wuff Bark Donkey

Age: 10

Place of birth: Liverpool

Length: 57' (and 10' wide. Oh yes, this is our first wide beam)

Top speed: [laughs] 'Top speed?! Er…6 knots? That's really thrashing it, that is.'

How long have you been a boater?
I've been on the boat for five years, and before that I lived in my flat for a good 15 years. That's how I bought the boat: I'd bought my council flat and when I sold it I used the money to buy a boat. And it was the best move I've ever done.

I mean, you can describe it as a mid-life crisis, I suppose. I was just turning 40, so you can think about it in those terms. A lot of people get a Ferrari - but, hey, I've got a home! I bought myself a whole home. And I can move it, and it's been lovely. The whole point, the joy of the boat, is that it moves. Every time I move the boat, I just think: this is what it's for.

Most Londoners pay about a third of their salary in rent: how does cruising compare?
My licence is about £700 a year, so about a tenth of my salary. The boat permits a certain sort of lifestyle, because it's a lot cheaper than a house - certainly in London. Part of the whole exercise is to live cheaply. It's ridiculous how expensive it is to live in London.

What would be your advice for anyone thinking about living on a boat?
You've got to go through a winter before you really find out if it's for you. Because it get's cold and you get frozen in. There's been mornings I've woken up with ice all over the canal and my cat can walk across the water!

No, it's alright, as long as you keep your fire in. You just know that you need to get wood together. The whole point is, there isn't a switch. It's all about organising for it.

What are the bounds of your cruising?
My kids live in Stoke Newington, so I'm between here and Springfield Park - maybe I'll go up to Angel, sometimes. I'm never more than a couple of miles away, which is nice. When they get older, I do plan on cruising a bit more, taking in a bit more of the country. But in the meantime I'm based around here and Hackney. I really like being able to come here. This is one of my favourite spots because my flat used to be around the corner, so I've lived here for twenty odd years.

And that's enough, in terms of continuous cruising, to keep British Waterways happy. I mean, I pay for a licence for all the waterways in England and Wales, and I only use a tiny bit of it.

Do you feel a connection with your fellow cruisers?
As well as freedom, cruising enables access to a community. You get that when you move into a block of flats or whatever, but it's a lot easier on the waterways. And if you come across someone you don't like you can always just move; if you're in a block of flats you're stuck with them aren'tcha?

It's been so much easier to make friends with people, and for people to make friends with you, and to get to know people. It's weird…I guess you're all 'in the same boat', as the saying goes. But you are, and, therefore, you look out for each other, and people look out for you. Also, because we all continuously cruise, there's an element of, 'oh yeah, I haven't seen them for a while, I'll stop there.' And then you go on to the next person and stop there for a while. It's all very sociable.

And that community all comes together for an annual two-day party that you help to organise, doesn't it?
The pirate regatta has been happening for three years now, and this was the best one so far. It's for boaters by boaters, and that's what it's about. All the boats are lined up along the river - it's very linear - somewhere in the Lea Valley nature reserve. It was just a spontaneous happening; now it's an established festival for continuous cruisers

This year, we had a 75 year old Elvis impersonator. He was hilarious. He was a friend of the people who had the music system, and they invited him down on the spur of the moment. So he came and did an Elvis-fest. It took three of us to get him up on the roof. But he got on the roof - full Elvis regalia, really spangly suit - and I said, 'do you want a life jacket? and he said, 'yes'. So there was this 70 year old Elvis impersonator on the roof in a full spangly suit, with a life jacket, and loads of kids dancing with him.

Is their a certain sort that lives on water?
People have always lived with the water, haven't they? Civilisation grew up around waterways, around coasts and rivers - people have always lived next to rivers. There's something about the water that's very calming, there's something about the river…it's a good place to retire from stressful society.

It's a burgeoning community. As rents increase and housing is more and more of a problem in London, people will find these ways of living. And it's an alternative lifestyle, isn't it? And there are lots of different people who are exploring various lifestyles in lots of different ways. And, of course, that's a good thing…

Take a look at James' Elephant Man Tours website.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

A question of style...

'Revolutionaries often die young. They're not in a position to invent New York. They cross the sea, the sky, gardens. At night they go into rooms and kill or hide, bumping against the furniture. Their most peaceful movement is like a flash of lighting. The world below, our world, for which they'll all be killed, lives day to day. It cooks its meals, goes to bed. But supermen stay awake and eat anything that comes to hand, at any old time. Even when they're serious, revolutionaries are only playing, hatching schemes to be worked out properly later. It's all a question of style...'

Jean Genet - Prisoner of Love

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The boat freaks: Tara, Du and Bee – aboard Love.

These laid back cruisers introduced me to the concept of boat time: a manana, manana, manana attitude, born of taking each bend as it comes, that puts boaters on their own clock entirely. Over two hours late for our meeting, they blamed ‘serendipitous meanderings’ when they did arrive. And who could argue with that?

When I met them, Tara, Du and Bee were making their home 200m south of the Lea Bridge in Clapton. As we sat in their impromptu, open-air, tow-path parlour room – odd furniture against a wall opposite their boat – we spent as much time talking to passers-by as we did talking about them.The trio were the nucleus of their stretch, and things seemed to be happening in the vicinity of their boat.

Tara and Du exuded the come easy, go easy attitude that is typical of the cruisers. And though they’recertainly rebellious, and show signs of staunch individuality, it’s as parts of their community that they thrive…

Name: Tara, Du and Bee

Age: 26, 37, and 3 weeks and 3 days

Place of birth: Bath, Lewisham and the River Lea, aboard Love.

Occupation: Boating

Name: Love (previously, Gods Will. Then An FiachDuvh, meaning Raven of Prophecy in Gaelic)

Age: 41

Place of Birth: Whitchurch, North Wales

Length: 43ft

Top speed: Du: ‘What, our boat? Four and a half miles an hour? We just measure it roughly by if people are walking a lot faster than us.’

How did your journey aboard a boat begin?
Du: It belonged to an old preacher couple – hence God’s Will – and they eventually got too old at some stage, and too shaky in the hands. Well, this guy called Chris bought God’s Will before I managed to buy it. So I prayed to some sort of god type thing for a coupla minutes and then rang the women up and said, ‘here, you wouldn’t give me Chris’ phone number then, wouldja?’ And she was like, ‘he won’t like me, he won’t like me!’ -but she did.

So I rang him up, and I rang him up four times. But he let me say why we thought it was a good thing for usto have it, and how it fit into our dreams. And then he sold it onto us for the same price he bought it for. On top of buying us a meal, and picking us up from the train station, and showing us around the boat, then driving us back to the station. He was dead sound.Tons of luck.

That was Easter, three years ago.

Where did you live before the boat and how does it compare?
Tara: Before I lived on a boat, I was squatting, and I can pretty much live anywhere. But as far as boats are concerned, for sure, it’s a beautiful idea isn’t it, to live on a boat?

I used to have nightmares when I was a kid and so my dad told me stories, and asked me to pick subjects to build the story around. And one of my favourite stories to make me fallasleep was a story about living on a little green boat. With a little family and a dog. And the only thing that’s missing now is the dog.

Do you feel a strong connection with your boat?
It’s like having an extra body; you’ve got to know where’s all the creaky bits in this body. Some boaters do that and some boaters don’t.Most of the moored boats, they get mechanics to do all this stuff for them. They visit their boats, because their life is very busy. I guess that’s what the case is, because they’re not on their boats very often. But the continuously cruising boaters, like a cowboy and his horse, they’ve got to get to know it.

Is there a cruising type?
Du: He tends to get his cans and sits outside his boat drinking with his neighbours. It’s very old style with boaters. The habits are old style - the way of life, the slow pace of life. Your boat slows you down and makes you learn that you can’t race around at modern pace - it just doesn’t work.

And there is a definite sense of community, isn’t there?
[as I ask this question some people come up and they all start chatting about how they know each other, where they’ve been, and what’s going on with the continuous cruising laws. We move on but it’s fair to say: close knit.]

How is continuous cruising changing?
Du: British Waterways is a quango set up by the government – set up for nefarious purposes as far we can all see. Set up in the name of doing something good, which it doesn’t do. Now, next year it’s going to become a charity and then all the old policies are ended and there’ll be new policies.So we’re all supposed to move an awful lot more and pay a lot more if we don’t move fast enough, and all this bullshit, like.A licence is begging permission to do something that you can do anyway.

The tow-path is already a sociable place, but you’ve got your living room out here…

We don’t need no entertainment man, we don’t go anywhere for entertainment. We just sit out here and people stop and chat to us.

Last summer we moored up at a place where nobody usually moors, and we found a garden centre that was throwing away plants all the time - so we just kept bringing plants and planting them. And it had a very transformational effect on all the passers-by, all these people walking their dogs and cycling their bikes, strolling, and all the fishermen. And they’re all going, ‘what’s the story, have you got a mooring here?’ And we’d be, like, ‘nah’.

We stayed for three or four months. And a community formed around us – in this dead end stretch where people used to get raped in the darkness. So there’s a big point about the moorings of these continuous cruising boats: they make the waterways safe. And yet British Waterways isn’t protecting us - we need protecting from British Waterways…

Scrapclub - Olympic edition...

No other area of London has seen as much destruction as the east end. Variously blitzed, bombed, razed and set ablaze since, like, forever, today it’s no different, the Olympic torch setting it alight all over again. Apt, then, that the latest edition Scrapclub should take place in the shadow of that Olympic site. Once more, Wajid Yaseen and Joel Cahen allow you to perform your own controlled demolitions - pitching into products with scaffolding poles and smashing all manner of ‘stuff’ with sledge hammers – in the hope of making something beautiful, something better. Because, equally, no other area of London has seen so much creation: art and life spring up through the debris, seedlings and new shoots poke their way through the scrap heap…

The boat freaks: Sarah and The Book Barge...

Welcome aboard Sarah Henshaw’s floating bookshop. Sarah tells Vyvian Raoul about bartering with books for a shower and a bed for the night, and why she prefers London seen from the canal

Sarah Henshaw shows us the possibilities that continuous cruising has for those with a bit of determination and a lot of time on their hands. She's been aboard her floating bookshop, The Book Barge, on a tour of England's waterways, since May.

We went aboard near the bridge at the bottom of Broadway Market, on the day Sarah and her Book Barge were leaving London. Having been all over the country, she says that London living, down by the canal at least, is the friendliest she's found...

Name: The Book Barge (nee Joseph)

Age: 5

Length: 57'

Top speed: 'I'm not sure. It's got a 42hp engine - can you make that sound really exciting?'

Place of birth: Stone, Staffordshire

Name: Sarah Henshaw

Age: 28

Occupation: Book shop owner

Place of birth: Lichfield, Staffordshire

How long have you been a boater?
I've had the boat for two years: I wouldn't have said I was a boater until the beginning of May. Because I didn't move it at all, it was just stationary in Barton, a little village in Staffordshire. It's been open since June 2009, I just didn't move - I just used it as a cheap way to have a bookshop.

What were you before you were a floating book shop owner?
I was doing journalism before, in London, and didn't like it at all. I always fancied the idea of a bookshop but didn't think I could ever afford it. I'd looked into high street places and they were always too much.

It is a cheaper way to set up a shop, once you've got the boat. Because you only pay a trading licence to British Waterways, and mooring fees if you're in a marina. If you're cruising you don't even have to pay for that.

Mooring fees aren't the only difference between continuous cruisers and moorers, are they?
There's a whole class system on the canals, which I hadn't realised. Marina boats are kind of like the bourgeoisie, and then contiNuous cruisers are like the working class. I dunno, it's weird - I hadn't realised that at all, I just thought everyone was all very happy together.

It's territorial as well, especially if you get out of London. London's very friendly, I've found - like, the boating people. Out of London it's a bit scary. They're all a similar age group, a similar demographic. And if you come passed on a boat, and you're under fifty, and you've got a book shop on it, and you've got astro-turf on the roof - they really don't like it at all!

What made you go from static to cruiser?
I've just always wanted to do it. It was weird that the bookshop was on a boat and I'd not moved it - I felt like a bit of a fraud. I've been moving since May, and I'm doing 6 months. I'm slightly behind schedule, so it might be more like 7 or 8 months! But it's brilliant; I really, really like it - more than I thought I would.

It looks beautiful in here: is it too bold to ask where you sleep?

Half the week I sleep on the sofa, and I have to sleep very straight and not roll over. I'm swapping books... basically, I've got a barter system now for showers and meals, because I haven't got a kitchen either, and spare beds.

You used to live in London - how does it shape up by boat?
I worked up York Way and I used to do that walk from Kings Cross to my office every day and I don't think I even noticed the canal. It's another world. And I've had a much better experience in the last four and a half weeks in London than I did the two years I was living here, definitely.

It's a waterside thing. People are more curious, you have more conversations with strangers. You get invites onto other boats all the time. Loads of people ask me if I get lonely, but in the last four weeks I haven't really had a night to myself...