Friday 28 May 2010

Arthur Ransom

Though Rolt is credited with saving the canals. There were other people who had a profound effect on influencing our thoughts and aspirations both as children and later as adults. Setting seeds about life afloat on canal, river, lake and broad. For many people including me the choice would be Arthur Ransom.

Arthur Mitchell Ransome was born on the 18th of January 1884 and died on my 20th birthday the 3rd of June 1967. Ransome was a man of many persona even in real life. In 1913 he spent time living in Russia learning about their folklore. In 1914, he became a foreign correspondent and covered the war on the Eastern Front. Ransome later remained in the Baltic states and built a cruising yacht, Racundra. He wrote a successful book about his experiences, titled Racundra's First Cruise.

I first came into contact with Ransome's writings whilst in hospital as a child. Done by selecting a childrens book picked by me at random from a pile. This set the seeds and I managed to read almost all of the Ransome books in the hospital library. Returning home from hospital, I looked upon the nearby river, with its small island and the canal at the other side in a different light. It did not take me long to make my way across to the island and to discover the ruined foundations of a building. However, I never did find any treasure!

Arthur was a prolific author to say the least. He wrote "Swallows and Amazons" in 1929 the first of the series of 12 that made his reputation as one of the best English writers of children's books.

The book and later film Swallows and Amazons was written at a time when political correctness was an unknown phrase. The story filled many a child's imagination. When we wanted to be one or other of the principle characters the Walker children John, Susan, Titty, Roger or the Blackett children Nancy and Peggy. Swallows and Amazons is a classic in a series of children's stories that will appeal to children of all ages.

The book is set in the Lake District between the wars. It tells of a time when a healthy imagination and freedom to roam was enough to keep youngsters out of mischief. The world was apparently a safer place and the story makes us realise just how much has been irretrievably lost. Full of an endearing charm that still comes across 80 years after the book was first published.

The Swallows and Amazons series.

• Swallows and Amazons (1930)
• Swallowdale (1931)
• Peter Duck (1932)
• Winter Holiday (1933)
• Coot Club (1934)
• Pigeon Post (1936)
• We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea (1937)
• Secret Water (1939)
• The Big Six (1940)
• Missee Lee (1941)
• The Picts and the Martyrs (1943)
• Great Northern (1947)

Other Publications.

• Pond and Stream (1906)
• The Book of Friendship (1909)
• Edgar Allan Poe (1910)
• The Book of Love (1911)
• Oscar Wilde  (1912)
• Six Weeks in Russia (1919)
• The Crisis in Russia (1921)
• Rod and Line (1929)
• Mainly about Fishing (1959)
• Coots in the North (unfinished 1988)
• Blue Treacle (1993)
• Racundra's Third Cruise (2002)

Much later for Ransome fans, we come to realise the profound effect that such books have in formulating our lives. Whether it was in drawing us into reading other books in the series. Just inspiring our imagination and for some just keeping us off the street.

Swallows and Amazons forever!

Many people interested in forming a society dedicated to Arthur Ransome had been leaving their contact details at Abbot Hall, where, following his death in 1967, his widow Evgenia had donated various articles, including his writing desk. In 1989 Christina followed up on these contact details by sending an appeal for funds to restore the dilapidated Mavis, the supposed prototype for Arthur Ransome's Amazon, The response to this appeal was overwhelming and in June 1990 The Arthur Ransome Society was formed.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Saviour of the canals?

This is not intended to be a diatribe against the book "Narrow Boat" authored by Tom Rolt. I actually view the book as a good first hand history, albeit written in a slightly confusing style. Rolt, by nature did not like the changes he saw taking place around him either on the land or on the canals, but he recognised the need for arts as well as sciences. 

Rolt observed (In his biography of I.K.Brunel) the changes in society due to the industrial-scientific revolution. "Men spoke in one breath of the arts and sciences and to the man of intelligence and culture it seemed essential that he should keep himself abreast of developments in both spheres. So long as the artist or the man of culture had been able to advance shoulder to shoulder with engineer and scientist and with them see the picture whole, he could share their sense of mastery and confidence and believe wholeheartedly in material progress. But so soon as science and the arts became divorced, so soon as they ceased to speak a common language, confidence vanished and doubts and fears came crowding in."
Rolt loved and had a natural engineers empathy for the basic skills learned as journeymen by the old craftsmen. As an engineer he recognised that the more efficient railway had dealt a serious blow to the canal carrying business. However, he was also well aware that the road transport would be the final killer blow. 

Rolt, romanticised the lives of a small section of people working on the canal. In the main the boatmen and their families, as well as the boat yards and the craftsmen boat builders. The reality is that life on the canals was not a noble existence, neither was it a virtue to be making a poorly paid living with long hours of work and terrible conditions.

However, he was not to know that the canals would later go through a protracted and slow renaissance to become a leisure amenity.

For me its the emphasis by the canal press who are actually guilty of overstating the "effect on the canals" of a single documented voyage aboard his Narrow-boat Cressy. Rolt is now being elevated by all the current "puff pieces" as Rolt the saviour of the canals. This therefore begs the question, in this the 100th year since the birth of Rolt and the almost "deity" standing being posthumously bestowed. Should we refer to the time when the canals were full of working boats as BR "Before Rolt"?

Tony Hales, chairman of British Waterways, said: "Having been the saviour of the waterways in the last century, the volunteer movement that Rolt inspired is set to be a key element for the running and operation of the canals in the years ahead as we progress plans to establish a 'national trust' for the waterways."

Clive Henderson, national chairman of the IWA, said: "Rolt’s words and actions, in co-founding the IWA, ensured the network was fought for during the middle of the last century, when there was a very real chance that the canals would be filled in and this important part of our heritage lost. He is the saviour of the inland waterway network as we know it today."

Surprisingly, in the "puff pieces" there is no mention of the role played by Robert Aickman as IWA co-founder. After all, without the financial support of Aickman the IWA would not have survived.

Rolt is often wrongly portrayed as being the first to do a pleasure and fact finding cruise along the canals. Other books have been written about the same subject matter. Some of them long before Rolt put pen to paper or hand to tiller.

The book "The Flower of Gloster" by E. Temple Thurston is a typical example of the genre.

Alternatively, the book "The Thames to the Solent by Canal and Sea" by J. B. Dashwood.

There is one quote in the preface which I find quite amusing in these times of political correctness. "This chapter is written solely for nautical readers, it is hoped the unsophisticated will not find fault with the nautical terms." 

Did anyone actually "save" the canals? Or did the canals just go through an accidental hiatus until the leisure cruising businesses came along to replace the old carrying companies. I am of the mind that the canals fell into a gradual decay as opposed to wholesale abandonment because it was a cheaper option than back-filling to recover the land.

Remember that a significant amount of natural land drainage such as streams had been diverted into the canal system to help maintain water levels. It was much cheaper and easier to leave the canals to continue as a drainage system rather than replace with something new.

The forming of the IWA (Inland Waterways Association) in which Rolt was a founding member went some way to publicising the lack of maintenance and the general decline of the canal system. However, Rolt was ultimately expelled from the IWA. I have a sneaky suspicion that this has given even more credo to "Rolt the saviour" than anything else.

We all have a debt of gratitude that we owe to Rolt. His book Narrow Boat struck a chord with people in the early days of post war Britain. But his elevation and beatification as a saviour is just taking matters a little bit too far.


Monday 24 May 2010

Is traditionalism another word for snobbish?

There seems to be a certain amount of snobbish, self indulgent, belittling of anything modern by some people who frequent the canal forums. Where, everything to do with the working boatmen of old is romanticised to an absurd degree. Which is in turn is a condescending attitude to the working boat-people of yesteryear. A hard-working group, who were for the most, illiterate or at best semi-literate. The middle class now to be seen aping their lifestyle, as if it was once upon a time, a virtue to be making a poorly paid living with long hours of work and terrible conditions.

Some people have a genuine love of the boats and the machinery of the canals, in a Fred Dibnah-esque sort of way. Others are a trying to discover for themselves a long gone class system that has been romanticised beyond recognition. Living in a cloud cuckoo land of embellished feelings about the canals of the past and what life on them was like. Aping a life in the main built on anecdotes and historical inaccuracies.

Is this aping of the traditional skills of a real craftsman and his family something to actually cherish?

The history of the canals has been well catalogued by many writers. From a historical perspective the canals are well chronicled. It's time to move on, it's time from those in a time warp to come from behind their rose tinted goggles and smell the fresh brewed coffee of a new era. The time of the canal has been and gone, welcome to the new order of canals which are intended for people to enjoy as their leisure time.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Leisure Mooring

I am now in full pursuit of a BW leisure mooring for our new boat. I have downloaded a list of local sites up for auction from BW and I am slowly working my way through. Now, I know that BW would like to get a good price for the moorings. I would also be happy to pay a fair price. However, I would also prefer to pay an asking price rather than get involved in a bidding war. The next thing BW will be the auctioning of sites on eBay or other similar site.

What happens for instance if there are several moorings that I could bid on. Can I bid on more than one? There is always the possibility that I could end up with more than one mooring! What happens if I win more than one, should I just say to BW, I will only take this one. - Oh, by the way you can have the other four back! 

From the BW moorings site "Before you bid you should be aware that you will be charged 5% of the guide price for each successful auction or tender that you fail to complete. For this reason, we recommend that you wait for the outcome of one auction / tender before submitting a bid / tender for another vacancy."  Now call me old and cynical but it looks to me like BW are wanting their cake and intend to eat it!

There is also a hidden side effect of bidding wars rather than a first come first served policy. Bidding only creates a false "level of worth or economic value" for a given area. Whilst this might be good for BW it is going to be bad for the pockets of the punters.

I went to view another mooring location, the existing people on site are all paying different mooring rates. One person who has been in the same mooring for 13 years is paying up to £300 more for his boat, which is the smallest boat in the group! There are always vacancies at this place. So this year, everyone is going to give BW

From the BW moorings site "The Reserve Price reflects British Waterways' cost of providing the vacancy. It is the price below which it would not be economic for us to let the vacancy." This is no more than BW bean counter speak. No matter how one looks at it. A mooring not let is a 100%  loss of income. A mooring let at half the cost, is only a 50% loss. It is time to get rid of the reserve price which just inflates the starting bid.


Lurking on a forum near you!

I enjoy looking round the message threads on various canal forums and on-line magazines. On some forums I'm quite an active participant. However on others, I am what might best be described as a lurker. I read and digest quite a lot of the stuff, but I don't feel that I want to contribute a great deal. I still visit the ones I don't contribute to, because every now and then I pick up a useful tip, or maybe a way of doing something I had not considered. Not all forums are welcoming to outsiders, the unwelcoming experience is brought about by the childish antics of a small minority of their membership. It is just for this reason that I am a lurker on some forums and more active on others.

The actions of the Trolls is the main reason for my reluctance to contribute on some forums. Whilst there are some excellent blogs and traditional websites that are full of interesting information about some aspect or other of canal life. At the same time there are also a few canal open forums where the quality of the experience is sometimes spoiled by a small vociferous minority who make the "atmosphere" most unwelcoming. It would seem to me that as they have little or nothing of note to contribute for themselves, therefore they seek their need for fame through written belligerence.

However, one strange corollary is that at times the main protagonists would seem to be women. Now I know that this might make me sound like a sour old misogynist, however it could not be further from the truth.

The problem for the forums is that the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are broken down bit by bit. In an almost insidious, sly and underhand way. Until a point is reached where rather than be a sounding box for boating issues. The forum becomes a platform for the disruptive under the guise of freedom of speech. The reputation of the forum and its character soon become a byword for bad taste. I am not highlighting the well meaning and sometimes robust conversations that take place between the membership. I am talking about the disruptive minority who have nothing of any worth to contribute. Who’s disruptive behaviour would not be tolerated for a moment in our school children, and yet the perpetrator of such disruptive behaviour are supposed to be educated and sensible adults.

There is one curious and predictable action that always takes place on the less salubrious forums. If anyone starts to criticise the behaviour. And god forbid that anyone should highlight the short comings of some, especially their lack of acceptable behaviour. In no time at all, bristling with indignation and self denial come the main perpetrators and protagonists. The next trait displayed is what I call “sleight of hand”. The perpetrators then change the subject by hi-jacking the thread of the conversation. Bolstered with a few of their protagonists friends they deliberately “go off topic”. If that fails, it comes down to straight bullying and confrontational tactics. The vociferous and onerous few gather around each other trying to deflect the truth. They will then start to question the motives of individuals. Trying to blacken reputations and give themselves a falsehood to cling to.

In a nod to Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”* “The perpetrators of either gender doth protest too much, methinks, as well.”

*Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 222–230

Yet the likeness to Shakespeare does not stop there. The perpetrators can be become characterised in their own right.

Note to self, I must write one day about the different characters.

Stop Press: I did and its here Click Me

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Choosing the right boat.

Now that we are almost new owners, I have been thinking back over the trials and tribulations of finding the right boat.

The idea of spending part of our retired lives on board a boat always appealed to me. However, i'm not sure that a narrow-boat was high on the criteria of Mag's retirement plans. I had spoken of my interest in a different low key lifestyle after retirement, but we did not discuss outcomes in earnest.

When we did get around to discuss the retirement phase of life we both had a few ideas in mind. Buying a second home in India (a place we both love and have friends) where we would spend up to six months of each year (October to March) was one idea. Mag's had in the past owned a place in Spain so that was off the radar. Turkey and the Turquoise Coast was another possibility for a six month winter-summer turn around. The South of France in the Languedoc-Roussillon area near to Carcassonne was another possibility. (I had once owned a holiday cottage in Capandu, a small village between Narbonne and Carcassonne)
But as usual, I digress.

Who knows maybe we could even retrace the steps of Terry Darlington (Narrow Dog to Carcassonne) and take our boat and Fox Terrier dog along the European canals. Even down to Carcassonne and then go a few miles further to re-visit Capandu. (Book title: "Skinny dog to Capandu" it has a certain ring to it) But I would certainly avoid the dash over the channel. It might be a pipe dream, but I can pipe dream for England, or France in this case!

Whoops, I digress again.

The specification was quite simple, or so we thought. In hindsight, it took hundreds of miles, many visits to view frogs before we found our princess.

  • Our specification was for a 50-55 foot narrow-boat. This was in keeping with the space available in the place where we hoped she would eventually be moored.

  • We also wanted a pram cover, to give some additional space to sit out and to offer some protection from the vagaries of the English weather on the move. So this almost dictated that we would need a semi trad boat.

  • Our specification also included a reverse layout. It seemed so sensible to have the eating and cooking area close to the stern.  

  • We wanted the bathroom just forward of the central position, if only to provide a natural boundary wall between the living area and the bedroom.

  • After some experience on various hire boats, we knew we wanted a cross bed layout.
We did the usual round of web sites such as Apollo Duck and ABNB plus a number of others. We found a few boats that one or other of us liked. We found a few boats that we both liked, but it required making some compromises. What did become quite obvious was that a number of "brokerage" were putting a significant price premium on what were in our opinion a load of old tosh.

We had got to the point of considering a new build, we started to investigate our options. When out of the blue we saw some pictures and description of a very nice looking boat. The description was exactly as we wanted the layout to be. The internal and external photographs looked to be very good. A phone call to the broker and a viewing was arranged. We were both very impressed. I asked Mag's what she might want to change she answered "I would not even change the curtains".
We placed a conditional bid and it was accepted. We then had an out-of-the-water survey done. The survey, confirmed our first impression. There was not a single fault to be found, not even a bulb out!
The down side was that our employer mucked us about for a while, first with an offer of voluntary redundancy - which was cancelled a couple of days before the due date. Flexible retirement was the next offer - which was also cancelled within a week of making the offer. So we needed to borrow from the bank to make up the shortfall which was intended to come from our pension or redundancy package. Today we got a positive text from the bank that everything looks good. We are now busy cashing in some of our investments, life is generally looking very good.

Monday 17 May 2010

I have a theory.

Carryng on from my last posting about canal rage...

I have a theory, it goes something like this.....

Canal boat people fall into three personality types as distinguished from personality traits. There are also a few minor sub species. The three main groups are the social boater, the lonesome boater and the anal personality boater. Each has their own virtues albeit with the anal personality boater its impossible to find.

The social boater, is someone with a wide interest in boats of all kinds. Something of a party animal and extrovert, easy-going and relaxed individual. Social boaters don't have any preconceived ideas or carry any particular prejudice. Usually they like to enjoy a good conversation with anyone, usually but not exclusivly about all things boats. They enjoy a few beers on or off the boat and can be found in most boat clubs or in the more popular canal side pubs. Often to be found helping at locks mucking in by giving a hand.
  • There is a sub-species called the semi-social boater. This is a boater who has a small circle of boating friends with which they spend most of their time. Uncomplicated and loyal to their peers  They also enjoy a drink, but prefer to keep their powder dry and are more of a listener than an orator.

Then there is the lonesome boater, often an introvert, a private person who just wants to be left alone. Shy, withdrawn and having an inhibited temperament. Happy with their own company and returning a tacit nod to your cheery hello. Open conversation does not come high on their list of life skills. They value their solitude as much as others might value their social lifestyle. Serious and quiet, interested in peaceful living. Preferring a book to people.
  • There is the sub-species what I call the eco-boater. Environmental activists that adopt a lifestyle to advance some ecological ideology. Boaters who generally cock a snoot at all things involving regulation and conformity to the norm. They seem to collect together on backwaters away from the more busy areas. Not overly concerned with respecting laws and rules if they get in the way of getting something done.

The French have environmental activists called the Les Dégonflés who protest by letting down the tyres of SUV type vehicles. Maybe its the British Les Dégonflés' contingent who let go our moorings?

Left until last is the anal personality boater. The big fat hairy faced men and women who seem to be constantly on the point of purple faced rage. Assertive, outspoken have little patience with what they perceive as inefficiency or disorganization. Often creating more problems than solutions. The APB like to point out to everyone their opinion as fact and that theirs is the only opinion of any note.  They contribute nothing but poisoned spleen which is seemingly inspired by misplaced jealousy and irritability in equal measure. They are unfortunately to be found everywhere. Their greatest gift is to appear as if by magic at the most inconvenient time. Barking out unwanted advice almost as orders, with a stubbornness and a compulsion for control. Which in turn causes irritation and exasperation for the recipient.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Canal rage

I have seen a few references to canal rage on various canal forums and blogs. I started to wonder if this was more common than one might think!  I think it takes a certain type of personality disorder to enter into the canal rage arena.

I look upon canal rage as a heated discussion between two or more people who are travelling aboard different boats. I make this distinction as you might meet up with me and the Memsahib when she is in full flow. Wrongly you might misconstrue the situation as canal rage taking place on a single boat. The Memsahib looks upon this verbal battering as a form of attitude correction or modification rather than rage.

Have you ever found yourself thinking over a past encounter, re-playing in your mind what happened. Then in a moment of inspiration thinking "now that's what I should have said!" The French have a phrase for it "l'Esprit d'escalier" the spirit that passes on the staircase.

Now, for canal rage to break out, it requires more than one active and willing participant. I often think that this sort of behaviour could be curtailed or negated by making a funny remark. Funny in the sense of laughter rather than as a retort intended to wind up the situation further. In the heat of the moment I can always find the right words. The last one was. Them, "you think you're so clever" Me, "I try not to disagree with public opinion".

Saturday 15 May 2010

The Memsahib returns.

I seem to have been somewhat remiss of late in keeping the blog up to date. But, comparing Wits-End the blog with other canal based blogs it would seem that it is in keeping with the occasional hiatus in postings.

Well I am back and so is the Memsahib from her trip to the Canary Islands. She was booked on one of the first flights out of the East Midlands Airport after the big whoo haa! over the dust cloud coming down from Iceland. A change of weather opened up a clear passage and she winged it off to the sun leaving me and poppy to manage as best we can. So I have not been sunning myself or indulging in a few beers whilst living on Pizza or Fish and Chips. No! I have been very good and replaced the soffits on the house.

Later the Memsahib was on one of the last flights to come back to the UK as the dust cloud was carried off in a different direction by the prevailing wind patterns. It seems that flights in and out of southern Europe continue to be at risk.

So what's been happening on the narrow boat front.
We finally have all the bits and pieces in place after a long struggle and we should finally take ownership in the next month or so. We had the boat lifted from the water, pressure cleaned and a full survey was then carried out. It proved to be an exceptionally good survey as Ian Lumley who did the survey was unable to find a single issue, not even a broken bulb. Ian, who was recommended to us provided a very comprehensive report of the survey including pictures of the boat out of the water. We cannot recommend Ian's services highly enough.


Monday 3 May 2010

Living in a daydream!

I'm having one of those days! A day when I just feel like writing. Just writing to break the tedium of an everyday life. In a way, It's a welcome break from daydreaming about a life afloat. I suppose we all have dreams and aspirations of one kind or another, but for me a life living on the canals and rivers is the one.

My daydreams are always full of soft warm early morning sunshine, reflecting off the breeze dappled surface of the water. The margins full of reed and white flowering lily. Bordered by endless flood meadows of tall swaying grass, being grazed by sheep and cows. The river bank covered in tall willow trees, with branches weeping down to the waters surface. Tiny circles forming on the water from feeding fish just below the surface. Beneath, the willow is a colourful carpet of sweet scented wild flowers. All of this is accompanied by the slowly trailing off dawn chorus of springtime birdsong. Ahhh, now this is what idyllic daydreams are made of.

However, reality has shaken me from my half slumbers.
Bringing me back to a different time and place. Yet, real life still has an interesting slant to put upon my daydreams. I know it will rain and some-days the rain will be driven horizontally by the wind. These will be the quiet days, holed up sitting out the weather. Sometimes it will even snow and the cut will even freeze over. These will be the few and far-between days with a winter-scape to enjoy, from the proximity of a warm stove. From time to time I expect the wind will blow just to make steering a bit more interesting. Then there will be those days when the weather will be hot without a breath of a cooling breeze. In contrast there will be other cool and cold days that will be shrouded in mist and clouds. But, I am still anxious for it all to begin.

What will I leave behind.
I will be leaving a job that I loved for the first twenty years. That was until higher education was messed around with, to the point where it became almost a battery farm producing “dolly the sheep” like graduate clones. I will leave, good friends, that now seem to be almost frivolous attachments that we will for the foreseeable future only see infrequently. Leaving behind a family home that has changed forever, now that it is devoid of any family. Its just become an asset that we are waiting for times to get better before selling and downsizing.

Its almost a Harry Potter existence in something of a parallel universe.
Yes, I know that I will have to comeback to the world of “muggles” from time to time. If only to pay a few bills or forage for food in the nearest supermarket. But technology also allows me to do many other things in isolation from the comfort of my long awaited daydream life. I can call friends or better still, they can call me. I can surf the web at will, if only to keep abreast news from the tow-path telegraph.

What will I gain from a life on the rivers and canals.
I don't honestly know and what's more, I don't even care if I only break even or if I make a loss for that matter! I do hope that life aboard, by its very nature will slow me down. That the ticking clock that has ruled my life for so long, will be replaced by the clock we call the seasons. My home will be everywhere and nowhere in particular. For some people I will be living the dream – for me I will be just enjoying life

What will I do with myself.
I will do more writing, just because I will have the time to write about what I'm doing now. I will do more watching of wildlife, just because I will have the time to watch. I will do more painting just because I will have the time to paint. I will listen to the world around me, just because I will have the time to listen. I will even daydream about my old clock controlled life, just because I will have even more time to daydream.

The question is – when will it all begin.