Tuesday 3 May 2011

Pride and Prejudice

Moored at Selby Lock Basin overnight, so I had a bit of time on my hands and gave some thought to the topic that has come up again in the courts - Constant Cruisers -v- Bridge Hoppers.

On shore or afloat life has its challenges.

Boaters, like their boats come with all kinds of idiosyncrasies. For some, their pride and joy being the equivalent of the floating stately home and for others a small holiday caravan. Boaters also come to the cut from all sorts of economic backgrounds. This is often the driver which dictates the size and condition of their floating home. People are on the cut for many different reasons, a boat used as a home is only one of them. Another driver might be to get away from the rat race and to live in quiet solitude. For others at the end of a working life it comes as a sort of floating retirement home.

The life in our communities is often mirrored in the waters of the canals and rivers. In both of these communities pride and prejudice is to be found. After experiencing life in a small village, for over ten years. In an end of cul-de-sac property, even after all this time we hardly know our neighbours a few doors down the close. Pride in the condition of their property is evidenced in the pool table lawns and the carefully manicured hedges. However, prejudice often comes into this community with the arrival a couple of times a year of Gypsy families. Gypsy Lane and Gypsy Marsh are local place names bordered by large agricultural fields. The gypsy name still carries something of the history of the area. From a time long before the properties in this area were built in the early 60's. Gypsy families have frequented the area. Usually providing labour at harvest time.

Only when the gypsy families arrive does the local community starts to talk to each other. The usual throng leaders gather "force du jour" including the local councillors. After a council of war, they decide to have the gypsy moved along. The councillors motivated by a weather eye for a future vote. The non vote of the gypsy does little to help their cause. The gypsy families however soon move on of their own choice. The people retire back behind their closed gates once more. Their perceived threat is over, until next time. People complain about the rubbish that the Gypsy families leave behind. The Gypsy families leave the memento as a reminder to the community about the shabby way that they were treated.

No one actually attempted to talk of their concerns to the Gypsy families. In the main because their concerns are based on perceptions and prejudice rather than true fact. For their part, the gypsy families have a healthy wariness of people in this area. The Gypsy's do not make any attempt to socialise with people. Why should they, a group of local people who are unable to socialise with each other anyway. The battle lines are drawn.

Depending on your economic status on the canal, you could be seen as a water gypsy. Especially if you lead and alternative lifestyle and don't conform to alleged waterways standards. Then you will be seen as a perceived threat to their expectations by the prejudiced minority. A pile of cut timber on your roof is "not the done thing". Not had your boat blacked for a few years "standards are falling". Brasses tarnished by weather and time or centre line not curled like a Catherine wheel on the roof, will gather a few tut-tuts. Being moored off line, hidden away in some small backwater is an anathema to the polished, gleaming, prim and proper boaters.

Complaints are made to British Waterways to have the tardy constant cruisers moved along. The self appointed cut cop seems to take some perverse pleasure from this. Immediately thereafter begins to cast around for the next problem from behind the chintz curtain. The water Gypsy's do not make any attempt to socialise with people who are after all, unable to socialise with anyone outside of their class circle. Their battle lines are drawn.

In a strange twist, many of the upmarket boat owners actually choose to live on the canal as a way of saving money. But everyone's costs are going to skyrocket sooner than later. Sally Ash, head of Boating at BW recently said “We will have to do something we prefer not to, and unwillingly accept that we must consider a person’s housing position. We are a navigation, not a housing body but we have to send the message that in future, living on the river will not be such a cheap lifestyle option.” 

This prejudice is nothing new, it is an age old story and has gone on seemingly forever. Jane Austen was a novelist whose books were, set among the landed gentry. Her novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) highlighted the issues of "them who have and them who have not". Its realism and biting social commentary of the rules and conformity's of the times, earned her a posthumous place in history. 200 years later. I wonder what a modern day Jane Austen would make of the life of the polarised boaters on the canals of today.

In a time of austerity and further financial cutbacks to come. Boat owners should be stood together to ensure the inland waterways survive and prosper. The fat-cats at BW (or whatever it gets renamed to) will continue to draw down their fat salaries and pensions. Petty differences between mooring fee payers and constant cruisers should not be allowed to act as a distraction from the daunting task ahead. The inland waterways of Britain are under a threat of continuing apathy and and the possibility of possible abandonment once more. Maintenance programs done by armies of un-recruited volunteers led by un-recruited leaders. A mini army of volunteers and leaders lacking in experience will not begin to stem the backlog of repairs. Repairs and maintenance in future will be everyone’s problem. I would not look towards the ivory tower in Clarendon Road for help in the foreseeable future. 

Is that wood smoke and fiddle playing I see and hear from ivory towers?



  1. a lovely post - we need more thought & less shouting on such matters. ;-)

    Tempted as I am, invoking Pastor Niemoller may be stretching a point, but I do hope that people will see that shiny boaters vs blue tarps
    could well be an irrelevance when we're all up against it. Admittedly pricing all but the wealthy off the canals would make some very happy indeed, I'm sure.

    Communities are so important - we should be building them, not tearing them apart.

  2. Simon, your comment on Niemöller touched a thought that I had at the time of writing the posting. What came to mind was the poem "First they came" I was going to make reference to being complacent and what happened in German in the 1930's. But like you I thought it was stretching the tenuous link a bit to far.

    But as they say, great minds think alike.



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