IT'S A LIFE! is presently only available in cinema form, the next screening is at Waterman's Arts Centre, Brentford on May 15th. Box office 020 8232 1010
IT'S A LIFE! will feature in the TotallyThames 'Living Afloat' event at the Watermans Centre in September 2016. For this event, in association with the Geffrye Museum of the Home, Totally Thames link is organising an archive of oral history interviews with people, including myself, who live, or have recently lived on houseboats. Here are some notes that I made ahead of their interview with me that add to or clarify what I have to say in IT'S A LIFE!.
What's so attractive about living afloat in London? It has enabled me to live on the margins of the mainstream social and economic whirl, to be under its influence but not of it. For certain kinds of psy-formation such as mine, finding a niche alongside of, or adjacent to this mainstream can be essential, it was for me. Living on a houseboat, tied up to but not belonging to the social ethos around us, helped sustain a precarious balance between the essential creative agendas of doing what we like and liking what we do.
Living afloat tends to require a range of practical skills. However secure the vessel is, the water, the tides and the weather can bring challenges that people living in brickwork rarely face. As she moved up and down on the incoming and receding tides, the Leonard Piper was under the constant influence of the moon, she was lunar-powered. A very minimal version of her earlier working life under sail perhaps but the lifting and settling of 150 tons twice a day is not a minor matter.
Pilots and sailors have to respond immediately and intuitively to winds, currents, visibility and urgent challenges to the routine and familiar. They use an intuitive, body-based form of intelligence, mêtis, a capacity to improvise, to guess accurately, and to learn from the lived experience of previous incidents. Living afloat on the Leonard Piper required a local version of this, however, as her history shows, not all challenges are on a scale that can be anticipated.
The Leonard Piper was moored with two other boats and for such a group, living afloat tends to require and generate cooperation, mutuality and reciprocity. As joint lease-holders, we and our neighbours were chained up together legally and physically.
As the years rolled on, each of the participants contributed resources, expertise and practical help when and where it was needed. Later in our time on the mooring it became clear to me that this was a form of 'commons', i.e. a resource managed by the users and inhabitants for our mutual benefit.
The living afloat ethos
Living afloat on the Thames alternates stillness, when the tide is out, with the restless motion of the water when the tide is in, and reflections on it of the sky. Of course everybody has a sky but living on a river seems to amplify its endlessly changing presence.
People once lived near the river because it provided transport for travel and goods. Ferries and slipways handled delivery of food, coal and raw materials, vessels including the Leonard Piper were built, products were shipped out. However, its transport role, at least upstream, is now limited almost entirely to rowing.
In the relentless riverside property development of recent times, warehouses, docks and slipways have been re-purposed, cleansed of their utility and due perhaps to their disappearance, the Thames now seems to function as scenery, so that for people living in the glass-fronted canyons that now line some parts of the river, these have become observation platforms on the Thames as a kind of theme park, its splendour something to be enjoyed from behind glass in a living room.
Here and there where house-boat communities of vessels are clustered together their diversity can add a picturesque quality to the Thames scenery. If we find this picturesqueness attractive why might this be so? An intuitive recognition of the boat people's different ethos? Or are we touched by nostalgia for something lost? Or even a desire for a less alienated lived reality?
Hmm, A less 'alienated reality'? Is this perhaps only a justification of my life decision? Occupying a living-afloat niche attached to, but adjacent to the mainstream was what we could then afford and we were a good match for it.
But back to living 'in-the-scene' on the Thames, what is that is so attractive about it, that makes it worth the effort and commitment it requires?
As we began production of IT'A LIFE, and more recently this web-site, I looked at what I would miss through leaving the 'Leonard Piper' and its mooring. I gradually realised that a huge part of the attractiveness of 'living-afloat' and 'in-the-scene' was due to my experience of the Thames being a wilderness.
The Thames is a wilderness? This may not be immediately apparent. Why so? Much of the Thames is trapped between the property, corporate and administrative empires of Central London, the tides don't make that much difference to how it looks from day to day.
Upstream of Hammersmith, where the remnants of the water-meadows remain and where I lived for forty years, I discovered that the Thames was not just wet but it was also 'wild'. It has 125 different kinds of fish, and living in the mud (fed not infrequently by untreated sewage overflows) an abundance of worms, snails and larvae. A wilderness.
As a wilderness, the Thames mirrors other life forms; the in and out breath of the tides fill and empty London's lungs; and it is also a digestive organ, it digests the debris that falls or is thrown into it, it digests the life cycle detritus of fish, birds, trees and people, plus as I discovered (detailed in IT'S A LIFE!) it also digests structures, especially wooden structures.
This experience of wilderness, arising from living afloat on the Thames provided a platform for a take on the life around us that was less dominated by the value of consumption, wealth-production and the ethos of competition as intrinsic goods, I found myself with a new and shocking social, political, and I suppose, spiritual, perspective.
Not only was the Thames a wilderness but so also was the civilisation that is so often seen as in opposition to rivers, meadows and forests, in opposition to 'nature'. The distinction between 'nature', eg the Thames, and civilisation, eg The City of London, now seemed to me to be a massive category error.
I began to see that treating the planet better isn't just a question of easing out of our human power-over control of 'nature' but of realising that like birds that build nests and foxes and rabbits that create underground homes, Canary Wharf, Heathrow and Port Talbot are just as much part of 'nature' as the Thames.
In our need for nourishment, reproduction and growth, we mirror the bugs and worms and fish and birds in the Thames, we seek to evade and defend against predators, we build nests, we migrate, we eat, we sleep, we reproduce.
This is not an argument for an apolitical stance about the human condition i.e. let it all be, but rather, as it begins to seem, an argument for ending the nostalgia for a damaged and disappearing nature, which leads to a lot of trying to care for 'nature' as if it is some kind of victim. We fail to see that any belief that we could be outside of nature, is a huge mistake, and that because of this category error, we too are victims of our deficiencies.
If indeed we are 'nature' can we get out of this victimhood? And if so how? I suspect it means taking care of both our wilderness within and, taking a lot more care with our contributions to the infinite varieties of wilderness that we inhabit, use and make, as they seed, flourish, fade and die on the surface of the only planet we have.
This are fresh and unexplored notions, more another day....