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')
Place of birth: Liverpool
Occupation: Juggler, unicyclist and Elephant Man tours guide.
Name: Wuff Bark Donkey
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.