Reflections from The Dark Side
31 July 2018 | or chickening out
One of Jean-Paul Sartre's witty, light-hearted aphorisms was the spiritually uplifting observation that "Hell is other people". Mind you, for him, other people were mainly French so his point of view is at least understandable. Our change of cruising from sea to inland waterway has given us some sympathy with his rather jaundiced views. Mind you, I've got more sympathy for Simone de Beauvoir. For her, other people consisted mainly of that gloomy bastard Sartre.
Three years we've been at this canal boating malarkey. Three years since we metamorphosed from weather-beaten, hoary old salts, ecofriendly reservoirs of the wisdom of the ages, blissfully drifting around the Med in harmony with nature, into boating Darth Vaders, scouring waterways in motorised Death Stars, hellbent on vindictively dragging all we meet down with us to the inner circles of petrol head Hell and looking upon it as a bonus if we can really screw the environment while we're at it.
In those three years we have matured into the role a little, and it has become apparent that the Inland Waterway Life is not quite as we had naïvely anticipated. That is not to say that we got it completely wrong. Even we would have difficulty with that.
Attentive (and long term) readers will remember that the original catalyst that triggered the decision to change lifestyles was another episode at anchor on a rising wind. The novelty of living in fear of sudden and violent death was starting to wear off. We fancied something a bit more sedate; something a tad more relaxing; something a smidgeon less terrifyingly stressful. The inland waterways seemed just the ticket.
In some ways, our prognostications were right. In three whole years, not once have we had to spend a night on anchor watch. This is hardly surprising, given that not a lot of anchoring goes on in rivers and canals. It's a lot easier to tie up to the side which, unlike an anchor, doesn't tend to drag and wander about in the early hours of the morning. Tying to the side also has the added advantage of not parking yourself in the middle of a narrow channel and thus giving the 120 metre cement barge a choice between ramming itself up the bank or ramming itself up your arse and steamrollering you into scrap metal. In fact, in the whole three years, our anchor has never been deployed in anger. As it happens, it has only been out of its hole once and that was while we were out of the water and wanted to check that it was, indeed, attached to the boat. Just in case we ever felt like using it.
So far so good then.
It's not all completely relaxing though. What you gain by not being vulnerable to the capricious and vengeful forces of nature you can equally lose by the greater exposure to your fellow man. Interaction with others is qualitatively different when cruising the inland waterways than when coasthopping. The latter is like strolling down the street politely peeking into people's front gardens whereas the former is more akin to tromping through their back yards peering in through their windows at the grubby intimate details of their tawdry, squalid, banal, daily lives. From the sea you see the sanitised façade that a country puts on to the rest of the world. From a river or canal you are directly exposed to the soft underbelly of the culture.
This effect is amplified by the fact that although rivers and canals wander through some of the most exquisite countryside to be found anywhere, they also frequently pass through some of the less salubrious areas, desolate industrial wastelands rendered hollow, skeletal and empty by the near extinction of the manufacturing base of most of western Europe. In France these waterways were the arteries of chemical manufacturing, tile making, cement works, felt production, steel making, steel working and logging. They carried raw materials one way and finished goods back the other. Now they are mainly tourist routes or watery playgrounds for dilettante fluvial nomads like us. On the plus side, though, they do act as havens and reservoirs for wildlife.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, cruising inland waterways does carry the risk of encountering some of the less savoury aspects of a culture. Such was the case for us in Nomexy. We had moored at an unserviced quay in what seemed like an innocuous enough spot, facing a pétanque ground and opposite what appeared to be the local sports hall cum * community centre. Wooden picnic tables and benches were scattered over the neatly trimmed grass, interspersed with brick barbeque units. So far, so middle class. We had lunch and settled down for a well-earned post-prandial snooze.
I was awoken by a rhythmic knocking, a regular one-per-second thud, slowly insinuating its way into my consciousness. I tried to ignore it, but it persisted so I went outside for a recce. Seated on the nearest table, with his feet on the bench, was an existential challenge to my wishy-washy liberal sensibilities. He effortlessly pressed all my prejudice buttons:
Calf-length combat trousers & khaki sleeveless vest
Extensive tattoos, including face & neck
Bloody great bovver boots
Enough piercings to set off an airport security scanner
All of these reinforced my original hasty and lazy judgement of 'Ultra-right Neanderthal, probably mega-xenophobic and almost certainly of dubious personal hygiene'. I did try to treat this obviously prejudiced assessment with the suspicion and caution that it so patently deserved, but this was made difficult by what he was holding in his right hand and what he was doing with it. **
What he was holding was a bloody great heavy-duty crowbar, about a metre long from its curved hook at one end to the wicked looking angled chisel at the other. What he was doing with it was gouging chunks out of the bench, swinging the crowbar from over his head in slow, regular, sweeping arcs.
This put me in a bit of a quandary. I considered my options. There appeared to be a choice of two approaches, The Authoritarian and The Sympathetic.
The Authoritarian approach involved waving a video camera about and shouting something along the lines of "Hoi vous sac antisocial de la merde! Arrête ça tout de suite. Je vous ai sur le film et j'appelle la police! This had the advantage of being short, quick, simple, and not at all intellectually taxing, which is why this approach is commonly favoured by the editor of the Daily Mail.
The Sympathetic, on the other hand required establishing a rapport with the poor man, who was obviously in the throes of social alienation syndrome, tempered with a touch of OCD and liberally garnished with a jus of bipolar disorder.
The correct response here would be to approach from the side in an obviously non-threatening and reaching-out manner and demonstrate that I felt his pain. After about four hours of soul baring he would see the error of his ways, hug me with thankful tears streaming down his cheeks and take his leave to reclaim his place in society and go on to live a full, satisfying and productive life. This tactic is favoured by Guardian readers who have the time for this idealistic hogwash, blithely ignoring the fact that months, if not years, of effort by dedicated, highly trained professionals have made little if any progress in bettering the lot of poor unfortunates like our crowbar-wielding friend here.
Both of these strategies, however, suffer from a common flaw (aside, that is, from the fact that neither of them actually works) and that is that they would bring us, and the boat, sharply into focus in the spotlight of his attention. This would not be a good thing. Events such as this make you realise just how vulnerable a boat on the inland waterways can be. Even if he decided against deploying his restyling skills on either of us, that wrecking bar would make short work of the windows and paintwork, two-part epoxy notwithstanding.
So I eschewed both The Authoritarian and The Sympathetic gambits and reverted to my default option, The Cowardly. I skulked in the saloon, despite the heat and stuffiness. studiously avoiding eye contact on the few occasions when I absolutely had to come up on deck. Every now and then I would do my Tunbridge Wells neighbourhood watch bit and snoop prissily through a gap in the blinds to see if he'd gone away. After about three hours he wandered off, having reduced most of the seat to kindling.
I still couldn't completely relax, though. How did I know he wouldn't come back at about two in the morning and try his hand at panel beating on the hull? I even spent the night in the saloon fully dressed.
I can't say I'm proud of myself, but at least the windows and paintwork are still intact. Well, they are until we hit the next lock, anyway.
*Enough of your adolescent smut. It's a perfectly good English word. 'combined with; also used as (used to describe things with a dual nature or function)."a study-cum-bedroom"
**I know what you're thinking, and you're wrong. I thought I'd said enough of the smut.