Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Of New Ways To Get There



A few days ago ....

"I'm on the Eurostar heading south through France. I have just used my phone to book a rail ticket from Lyon to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine for the next part of my journey. Received wisdom is that rail travel is much better in France. It is great if you happen to want to go to one of the main destinations. Experience has proven that reality does not always match the myth on more local services (one six-hour journey on four trains for a ninety mile trip that takes ninety minutes by car comes to mind). This Eurostar and the TGV are very fast and efficient. I still can't get my head round the notion of having to book a seat on a specific train, even for local journeys, though. Miss that train and one loses the money. I'm sure there are probably more open options, but I'm not sure what they are.

I have made the journey between The Fens and Haute-Savoie most months for nearly fifteen years and today is the first time I have done it using the train. I will usually tell anyone that adventure is over-rated, but I have been looking forward to this trip for weeks and now it is happening it is exceeding all expectations ... mind you, I do have a few hours to go yet.

 I have always hated the whole flying experience, but I have endured it all this time because it has been significantly cheaper than the train when I am going to stay with P. First of all I hate the notion of leaving a huge carbon footprint every time I fly. I hate airports, airport security, being separated from my personal belongings (potentially permanently), all the hanging around, the marketing, the airport as shopping mall, the crush, the queuing, the pushing-in, the noise, the resentment of one's fellow travellers, the squashed knees in seats too close together, the reclining seats, the recycled air, the effect I find an hour and a half spent in a pressurised tube a mile up in the air has on me for days afterwards, turbulence, bored children and exhausted parents, children screaming in pain through changes in pressure on their ears and sinuses, the passenger next to you who throws up, the one behind who coughs and splutters over the back of your head the whole journey, not being able to see where you are, where you are going or where you have been, motion sickness ... I'm sure I could go on.

Today's experience, though,  has been a revelation. I've been staying with an old school friend for a few days while I have had things to do in London. I cannot dispute the convenience of being "in town". The transport infrastructure is very easy. Just load up the Oyster Card and go. It took me only half an hour to get from West Hampstead to Tate Britain yesterday. The horror of being crowded in on tube trains and jostled for pavement space in the streets does tend to take something away from the pleasure of convenience though. Standing crushed in a rush-hour tube to get to Notting Hill for a seminar on Thursday was horrible. I began to see the human species as a virus. We fill spaces and crowd out everything else. People piled on people. Like a virus we multiply until we kill the host that supports us. I feel contaminated and grubby by just being in London. I have never felt any pride through having been born there, lived there or worked there. For me, the best part of a visit to London has always been the train journey home when we pass through Ely and I can see real sky and water again!

Today's train trip was made possible through the introduction of a new rail service to the south of France. I'm on the train bound for Marseille, but I'm getting off at the first stop, Lyon Part Dieu. For some reason this service is much cheaper than previous rail journeys to France that I have researched many times over the years. I have been very keen to use the train, but have never been able to afford it. EasyJet flights have generally been at least a quarter of the price of travelling by rail. Of course flying has enabled the relationship that P and I have enjoyed this long to flourish, but I resented being backed into the flying corner.  I found the Eurostar experience to be pretty much the opposite of everything I hate about flying. Even security was painless. Border inspections were rather charming in contrast with airport border control. Once in the "departure lounge" I wasn't hassled to spend money. Caffè Nero and W.H. Smith were my choices. I opted to breakfast at the former.  The very fact that I am sitting in a double seat on the train and typing this is also an unexpected bonus. I opted for a standard 2nd class; extra legroom would have been another £40+, so I thought I would take a chance. Standard seating is painful on easyJet, but was perfectly adequate on Eurostar. As we whispered out of the Channel Tunnel (does anyone still call it "The Chunnel"?) and into France we picked up speed and when I checked the speedometer app on my phone we were flying along the track at 185mph. I had no idea we were going that fast and I could still type. Compared with the twelve minute waltzer ride on the single track section of railway line out of Littleport this was so smooth. It was also quite wonderful to be able to look out of the widow and pass small fields with trees and hedges. It is not until I see such things again at close quarters that I remember how our countryside used to look when I was a child.

video


I thought again about how I was going to manage the next part of the journey from Lyon to Bellegarde where P was going to meet me in the car. I thought I would see if I could find another app to help. The Trainline Europe app gave me details of times and an option to buy my ticket. I downloaded the app and as already mentioned bought the ticket for the next part of my journey all while travelling south to Lyon. Trainline Europe helpfully informed me that if I waited two and a half hours I could catch a final segment of the Nice to Geneva TGV Lyria which stopped at Bellegarde before it finished its journey in Geneva."

Lyon Part Dieu was the first stop after Ashurst in Kent. That in itself was pretty amazing. What was distinctly less amazing was the number of ways one may be hassled in a French railway station. Having a good couple of hours before my connection to Bellegarde I thought a sandwich and a wander around this city I have enjoyed a few times over the years would be quite in order. Immediately I set foot outside the station exit I was besieged by people wanting money. One wanted to sell me a newspaper, another - a woman in a headscarf wielding a baby in a pushchair and wearing her most pathetic and imploring expression - was repeating the same phrase over and over, although I didn't get what she was saying. The first time I ever visited Lyon was with P. We saw a number of women who brought, or sent, their children out on to the streets to beg for money. This woman was dressed the same. She kept pointing at the pushchair that she was clutching with her left hand and rolling back and forward as she repeated her words. She had the carriage turned away from me and I wondered if she actually had a child inside. It could have been the week's shopping for all I knew. I never know what to do under these circumstances and she could see my weakness. Whether what she saw was born out of desperation or professional expertise I couldn't make out. I gave her a two Euro coin and fled back into the relative sanctuary of the station building. A trip into the city, hauling thirty-five kilogrammes of luggage - i.e. the things I'd needed for three days in London, assorted computery equipment on my back and a lot of stuff for P. - was never going to be an option at the sort of speed I would require to reach escape velocity. Once inside the station, though, security was on hand to eject anyone soliciting money or favour. That did not prevent a young woman stopping me in my wandering and thrusting a clipboard into my face demanding that I sign whatever it was. This was far easier to reject. I've been hassled by far more professional clipboarders and chuggers on the streets of Manhattan and turned them down when they thought it appropriate to request my bank account details in lieu of cash. I had no intention of entertaining this pushy young woman. I may be a mug for pathos, but over-confidence is not in the least attractive. The next time I saw her she was screaming at a security man as he was ejecting her from the station. Clearly this scene was re-enacted many times daily. I saw her again on my return journey some days later.  

A few days later ...

"I am now on the return journey and, with P in school this morning I have had to undertake the whole trip by train this time. Fortunately P's apartment is only a fifteen minute walk along one street from the station. It's the one that passes through where our little cherry orchard used to be before the trees were uprooted and more apartment buildings grown in their place. I left plenty of time to get there and took a very leisurely stroll down the road.

La gare au bout de notre rue

I did not wish to spend the rest of the day in sweaty clothes. I am looking at six trains to get back to where I left my van over a week ago, on the front drive of a friend in Norfolk. I left P's apartment at 10:36 and I am expecting to arrive home by about 11pm. Long day ahead. The first train was a Rhône-Alpes TER back to Bellegarde.


The new Trainline Europe App on my phone informed me that I would need to get the train from Bellegarde to Lyon from Quai E. Excellent.


Bellegarde has always been a very quiet place whenever I've been there, but today something was going on; it was serious, for sure. Making my way to the end of the platform where train one deposited me there was a bottleneck at the entrance to the slope leading to the underpass between platforms. As I approached some people were being stopped by uniformed militia wielding automatic weapons. I saw a couple of armed police at Lyon on my journey in, but this time there were seven men and women in khaki military camouflage uniforms wielding automatic weaponry protecting the several uniformed police officers who, in turn, were watching over the rail staff checking tickets. I have never seen anything quite like it, specially in such a small and usually quiet town. I slipped through without showing any papers. I was clearly not needed today.  I found my platform for the next train due in six minutes.



I noticed that the next train went through to Lyon Perrache so I had to remember to descend at Part Dieu - no falling asleep allowed. The carriage itself was a delight - old fashioned compartments! I haven't been on a train with compartments for many decades and now I had a whole one, with its eight seats, to myself. I like this.  I am reminded of much loved books from childhood - Emile and the Detectives, The Railway Children - and a very personable controlleur has just been through and scribbled on my ticket (that would have to be a scene from a much more recent story!).



The journey passes along valleys and cuttings with steep wooded mountains towering above us on both sides before flattening out as we approach Lyon. I know we must be near because we are running alongside the Rhône which, as always, is its distinctive chalky green colour. We cross the river before we arrive in the city at Part Dieu station. I make my way along the carriage to an exit door and stand back so someone else can deal with the handle. All train handles are different and I am in mind of the embarrassment I felt when I could not get out of a Swiss train. Handles that push up, push down, turn clockwise or anti, automatic doors or buttons to find and press. I prefer someone else to deal with the door rather than cause a queue of passengers impatient to escape the train. Horror or horrors, though. I have chosen the wrong side and I have to open the door! This one seems to have a turny handle, like the crank handle on the Lister Engine I had on my first boat, Loretta. It looks like there is a choice of two directions in which to turn the handle. Naturally I choose the wrong one first and nothing happens. Of course getting the door to unlatch is only the first challenge on attempting to alight a train. What happens next is usually just as confusing. In this case I get the door open halfway and it took me a moment to work out what indeed ought to happen next. The platform was a few feet below me and I think I was trying to get some steps to unfold which also involved folding the door back into the frame. Eventually I half-fell off the train followed by a stream of passengers alighting as elegantly as you like. I made my way along the platform and down more steps into the main concourse of la Gare de Lyon Part Dieu. Food outlets and shoe shops. It was lunch time. I walked up and down and the queues were very long everywhere, except for in the shoe shops. There is no way I was going to attempt exiting through Sortie Porte Rhône again. I could see chuggers, beggars and any number of people desperate to ask me for something. I went to the food kiosk where I had bought a nice filled baguette on my journey in. When I eventually arrived at the front of the queue I asked whether they had quelquechose vegetarien. No, nothing today, I was informed. Oh must be just on Saturday afternoons then! The man behind the counter pointed across the concourse at La Croissanterie. There was a short queue there this time, so I waited my turn while squinting at the tiny labels to see if I could determine what was in each filled delicacy. I failed and resolved to try out my French again in order to ask. Somehow my place in the queue became usurped by at least four people behind me, but eventually I was served. The vegetarian option today turned out to be a baguette filled with goat's cheese and apricot. Mmmm! Not something I would have thought of myself, but it was rather delicious.


Naturally my journey could never have all been roses! The first challenge once on the Lyon to Paris TGV was to find the correct carriage. Then I had to find my seat. The seat I thought must have been mine was already occupied, so I was obliged to ask an earnest and amorous young man to move away from the young lady he was engaging in conversation. He wanted to swap seats with me. I was quite happy with the one I had been assigned. It was facing forward and there weren't any others available. His would have been facing the wrong way.  The trip from Lyon to Paris Gare de Lyon found me sitting beside the young woman who was carrying some kind of document or art folder that she put on the floor by her feet. It spread halfway across my leg space. Being a double-decker train, the over seat rack space was very narrow and very limited, barely wide enough for a coat so my back pack also had to sit on the floor. Normally this would not have been a problem and I would have placed a foot either side of my bag. However, I discovered her artistic proclivities after I reclaimed my seat from her young male would-be suitor and spent the couple of hours trying to get comfortable, which probably didn't help the painful pulled muscle in my lower back that I had been not particularly stoic about for the past few weeks.


Arriving at Paris confirmed that the French have a cavalier attitude to vegetarian food and, in the main, either don't understand or simply don't bother. I couldn't find anything to eat at Gare de Lyon. I remembered a meal at C's house many years ago. She knew that P. and I were both vegetarian so had thoughtfully left one quarter of family-sized dish of lasagne free of meat ... 




















I had researched that the connection for the Eurostar at Gare du Nord involved a two-stop journey on the "green line" ... at least it was green on the map. I later found out that this was also known as route D on the RER. I stood in line to buy a ticket from the self-service machine and watching the woman in front of me struggle with the touch screen I realised I would be unlikely to manage it either so, bumping a few ankles on the way, I excused myself from the queue and found a ticket kiosk where a helpful woman was conducting face to face sales. Thankfully she understood where I wanted to go and even told me I needed platform two. I couldn't find any signs with platform numbers.




















Considering there must be a zillion first timers who have to connect between la Gare du Nord and the other Paris termini every week there is a surprising lack of information. Another plus for London, I think. Somewhere between the stations of Lyon and North my phone failed. The battery didn't die, the phone did. It's six months old. It's an iPhone. It shouldn't die; certainly not this soon into its life. No more timely alerts to trains and their platforms of departure. Maybe more importantly, no alarm clock tomorrow morning when I have to be in a school by nine. I had been taking photographs to provide you with some evidence of my door-to-door journey. I may lose all those photographs. The Gare du Nord also failed to provide any veggie sustenance. It was to be a long time till London, even longer when the train arrived late.


Paris Gare du NordParis Gare du Nord



I was afraid that I would miss the connection back to the Fens from King's Cross, but the exit from the Eurostar was as painless as the entry a few days ago.

This is definitely the way to travel. After six trains today I shall be home fourteen hours after I left P's apartment. Yes it is tiring, but I don't feel the kind of unhealthy exhaustion that air travel has always induced. Three more stops, a half-hour walk to my van, another half-hour drive back to the farm and I'll be home. I hope it isn't so cold I need to light a fire, but I might just do it anyway, because I can."

P.S. I resurrected my phone, halleluia! The external battery pack I carry for emergencies seemed not to be able to provide the required power to charge the phone. It simply failed to address the task even though the level of charge was showing as full. A quick burst of solar magic once back on the boat brought it back to life and has saved me a trip down to Cambridge to seek advice or redress. That also means that there are some photographs of the trip.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Of Boats And Brothers And Metropolitan Recognition

A few weeks ago, on 8th April, I attended a demo in London, "Boats Are Homes", organised by the National Bargee Travellers Association. Of all boating groups this one attracts more controversy than many and I have to admit that after my encounter with a number of the members I cannot fully decide which side of the argument I follow. On the one hand, they have some amazingly helpful, well-informed and committed members, who certainly seem to know their stuff. A couple of the members of their executive have been really supportive of our own campaign in the Middle Level. Without their input I would not have had a clue where to start putting my own arguments together in our attempts to modify what in Parliament were called "Draconian" measures by one MP during the second reading. The main argument one hears against the NBTA is that the campaign they are waging against some of the activities of the Canal and River Trust (CRT) supports wasters and scroungers who don't wish to pay for a recognised mooring. That kind of derogatory and inflammatory language is rarely helpful and it does appear that CRT are often exceeding their remit according to the law as set down in the 1995 Waterways Act. As with many causes these days, though, I cannot work out where the reality lies. 


It was from the organiser of the Boats Are Homes demo that I received an invitation to come and speak to describe our own campaign on the Middle Level. I have no idea of the ratio between those who choose to speak for a cause and those who have spokesperson status thrust upon them but I am definitely in the latter category. I have already described how I have been playing catchup with the campaign and the history associated with it. To have to speak in front of an unspecified number of people at a demonstration in London is not something I ever expected to be doing and the prospect filled me with trepidation. I spent most of my spare moments in the week leading up to the demo researching, reading and making notes. I filled about thirty pages of an A4 notebook with bits of information, charts, diagrams, lists, dates, asterisks and arrows and it wasn't until the day before the demo that I thought I had better start putting the speech together. Around midnight I finally thought I had finished. I read my speech through and found I had exceeded my allotted time by fifteen minutes. There followed a festival of striking out of lines and paragraphs. At three in the morning I had to call it a day. I fell into bed and resolved that I would have to continue the next day - three hours later.

The train to London was packed and I perched on a luggage rack juggling and balancing books and papers and continued a vicious editing of my text. Finally there seemed little left to edit, so I could do no more. I arrived at the meeting point in Villiers Street and met the group assembling in the park. I found a couple of people I already knew, but they were busy setting up for the event. When things kicked off some speakers read from their notes, others improvised. Some on the programme didn't actually show up. I had specific points I thought it important to make, but I hadn't managed to make a bullet point version of my notes. My performer instincts kicked in though and I felt the audience would be less interested in a read speech than one delivered to them. I kept my notebook closed and hoped my preparation would prove thorough enough to meet the demands of the occasion.

I got through it although I have no idea whether what I thought I said and what the crowd heard were the same things. I remember looking at my notes afterwards and realising there were points I had wanted to make which I had forgotten to raise. I also realised I had laboured other points - an image of overcooked Brussels sprouts comes to mind.

Following the speeches there was the march ... to Downing Street and Beyond ...! Petition with 35,000 signatures delivered, more speeches, more marching. It was the weirdest march I had ever participated in. The obligatory samba band had been replaced by an ensemble of djembe players playing a simple mono-rhythm on instruments that were in clear need of tuning. Some of the chanting was of better quality than I had heard on other occasions, indeed some of the chants were better too. I particularly liked,

"One, two, three, four. Where are we supposed to moor? Five, six, seven, eight, we just want to navigate."

What really made this march unusual was a distinct lack of police interest. We paraded unaccompanied along some of London's busiest and most sensitive roads - just days after the attack along Westminster Bridge and the murder of PC Keith Palmer - past the front of the Palace of Westminster to Smith Square where we delivered our second petition; this time to DEFRA requesting that they take more interest in how the the £39m they give to CRT is used. At that point the demeanour of some members of the entourage became a little more extemporised and the organised bits of the day had clearly come to a stop. I suppose I am like everyone else and I approve of individualism until someone else's behaviour starts to make me uncomfortable. We had no more business to conduct so that's when I left.

It seemed churlish to travel all the way to London and not honour Old Father Thames, so I went to sit on a bench in Victoria Tower Gardens to enjoy the view, quaff some water and nibble some nuts. As I walked back past the gates of Westminster I felt moved to offer condolences to one of the policemen on duty on the loss of his colleague. A couple of other officers overheard and thanked me. I have experienced many occasions when trust in the police has been seriously undermined, but no one should have to experience what I imagine they were going through.

What I wasn't expecting was a call, four days later and at just seven hours' notice, to return to London for another demonstration. This time it was a different cause and a different location. Sadly it was a location with which I have become familiar during the past few years. The small space outside the Russian Embassy in Kensington has seen demonstrations in recent years over the treatment of LGBT communities in Russia and other places within its sphere of influence. While President Putin has made a point of telling us that Russia has a long and proud history of tolerance and protection of sexual minorities we have also seen, under his watch, the creeping influence of religiously inspired homophobia.




That this condemnation comes from men who lead the orthodox churches and adorn themselves and their best party frocks with jewels and all manner of sparkly things amuses me. What is not amusing is the effect their preaching has on the lives of their innocent targets. Pronouncing their abhorrence of men who find love and companionship with other men seems also at odds with their belief in a supernatural being who commanded his followers to love one another. Many Pride marches have been banned in Russia and their version of our old and deservedly discarded "Section 28" (Section 28 of The Local Government Act 1988) bearing the grand title, "for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values" has led to the rise of anti-gay sentiment. A further consequence seems to have been to provide justification for the activities of unpleasant groups like "Occupy Paedophlia" who openly and mistakenly equate homosexuality with child abuse and who operate by luring gay men on to false dates where they are attacked, abducted and subjected to hours of  humiliation and torture before being released. Film of their victims' experiences is then posted to the web. Allegedly at least one person has been killed during this treatment. It is only a matter of time before more die if this continues. However the demo called on 12th April was for activity which has gone much further along this path of oppression.


The Republic of Chechnya, part of the Russian Federation, is a muslim majority region and the leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has both denied there are gay men in his country while rounding them up to place them in recently opened concentration camps where they are being tortured, interrogated and killed. Families are apparently being told to come and collect their offspring and "deal with them" or the authorities will do it for them. Families have been conditioned to see it as their duty to protect "family honour". Unfortunately simply having a gay man in the family apparently brings dishonour in the eyes of a significant proportion of Chechen society. Clearly, sexual minorities in the Russian Federation are under attack from religiously motivated sources of multiple origins.





I knew nothing about it beforehand but, on the day of the demo, at eleven in the morning I saw a notice that there was to be a vigil, demonstration and speeches along with the laying of a wreath of pink flowers in seven hours' time outside the embassy of the Russian Federation. Fortunately I had nothing else on that day, so the only arrangements I needed to make involved getting to the station for another trip to London. The organiser also mentioned that he needed volunteers to steward, so I volunteered, never before having done anything like it. I arrived at 5pm as requested for a stewards' briefing, which mainly involved being told to help keep part of the pavement open, so members of the public could get through. I was given a regulation yellow excruciatingly visible jacket to denote my new dogsbody status and chatted to the five or six other people who turned up. Then the reporters appeared. I was asked for my reasons for being there by someone from Pink News. This surprised me. I never realised that Pink News actually had reporters. Every article I have read seems to have been cut and pasted from somewhere else. I was, therefore very pleased to see with my own eyes some evidence of independent news gathering. There was also a reporter from BBC Radio One Newsbeat, who was on a mission and a strict time limit. There were only about four of us present when she first arrived. She had forty-five minutes to collect audio recordings and edit them into a report before transmission that evening. That indeed was pressure. She seemed keen, but relatively unflustered by a demand which I am certain would have turned me into a nervous wreck. Among the four of us gathered were three boaters, so we had plenty to discuss amongst ourselves. The others were all at least thirty-five years younger than me. Guess who was not interviewed by the Newsbeat reporter. When I pointed out that if she was looking for audio copy she might want to consider widening her demographic she started as though she had just noticed the old geezer in the crowd of the young, the edgy and the beautiful and asked me a couple of perfunctory questions. I don't think she had actually pressed her record button, but I no longer felt ignored.



From modest beginnings, the crowd grew. Last time I was demonstrating in this spot I was part of a crowd of about fifty people. This time the people kept on arriving and I am pretty certain there must have been at least a thousand people at the demo. I found it an overwhelmingly emotional experience to be part of a community that could organise and muster this amount of support on a Wednesday in less than twenty-four hours. I truly experienced gay pride and solidarity on this evening. After speeches, our final act was to file across the road to the gates of the Embassy and lay the pink flowers that many of us had brought with us on a pink blanket folded into a triangle that was deeply symbolic of another time in history when gay men were rounded up, herded into concentration camps, tortured and killed.


I mentioned that I had never performed stewarding functions before. I was a little nervous about this part of the occasion. I spoke to the handful of the police officers who had also turned up. I suspect that, contrary to the previous Saturday, it was politically expedient for a visible police presence. I asked how stewarding functions might be most usefully carried out. They mentioned helping to keep a pathway along the pavement and trying to keep people off the road. During the event itself, the police were happy to be a quiet presence and by the end they were saying that this was a good event and there had been no trouble, especially considering the unexpectedly large turnout. I would like to thank the people who were on the receiving end of my reminders not to block the passage of others. Contrary to my fears, everyone was courteous and helpful. It can be done.

As the evening was drawing to a close and demonstrators were dispersing I was returning my yellow jacket when I fell into conversation with a young policeman who had apparently grown up in Norfolk, but who now obviously worked in London. We compared notes about places we knew and our experiences of the demo. Then he turned to me and said, "I have to ask you this, but three of us have noticed you and we all know you from somewhere. Where do we know you from?" I pointed out other occasions when I have been accosted by people who were convinced they have seen me somewhere that I don't recall ever having been. "I must have one of those faces, " I answered. Being recognised as a familiar face by three members of the Met was the only worrying part of the evening. I can see I shall have to be on my best behaviour when out in public. I've been noticed ... I wish I knew where from. Maybe they are all secret ceilidh dancers or fans of dissident songwriters.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Of Accidental Buskery And Close Encounters Of The Female Kind

I'm one of those old-fashioned types who feels a compulsion to vote. I have a postal vote, but I had left it late and missed the post. Consequently there were choices. Boat and bicycle won. An hour-and-a-half cruise along the river to March and I was pleased and surprised to find a mooring spot in the town centre. I indulged in a round-about cycle tour of the town and eventually arrived at the district council offices to deliver my ballot paper.

When I came back the sun was shining and I needed to do some practising for a friend's open mic the following night, so I took my guitar and drums into the Market Square to set up and play for a while. I enjoyed having some space around me. It was better than hitting the guitar headstock on a wall or the body of the guitar on my desk, chair or music stand every time I moved. People walked by and let me get on with it. I don't play or sing very loudly so I hope no one felt their space was being invaded. 

After about ten minutes three girls in school uniform walked past. To be honest I didn't really see them, but realised that is what they must have done when one came running back and wanted to give me 30p saying that was all the money they had between them. I was very touched, but a bit torn too. I wasn't busking, didn't have a hat or box for money, but she really seemed to want to give me something. I recognise that. I do the same if I like someone's street entertainment. I opened up my guitar case and let her drop the money in. I thanked her, let the lid drop shut and carried on. About an hour later a man insisted on putting some cash on top of my guitar case. I told him I was only practising, but he said he wanted to give me something anyway and insisted on leaving the money. Then a woman wearing patchwork trousers and handmade shoes arrived and stood to listen. 

When I finished the song I was on she said she had seen me and had had to turn her car round and drive back. She had been living a simple life abroad for several years and had come back to be near her young adult son whom she was missing and who, apparently, was missing her. She hadn't yet sorted accommodation so she was staying with her parents for a while and things weren't going well. She had had a terrible day, mostly triggered by a fierce argument with her father before having to leave the house. She had never expected to reach the age of fifty and still be living with her parents ... indeed owing to lack of space she was actually sharing a bed with her mother. Reeling slightly from this onslaught of information I couldn't help but sympathise. When I was fifty, many years ago, I was living with my own father. Fortunately he had a spare bedroom. She also said she had been learning to play the ukulele ... my heart sank a little. She was looking for a musical partner ... my heart sank a little further.

"Do you have your ukulele with you?" I asked. When she affirmed she had I told her, "Go and get it then!" I had to wonder what the hell I was doing.

While she was away I had nearly enough time to entertain the good passers-by of March with "Cruiser", my song about gay cruising. When I play this one to a captive audience I usually dedicate it to those who either understand or who have no idea what I'm singing about. March people kept marching and were either too busy, unconcerned, irritated or embarrassed to make eye contact or listen too obviously. The woman arrived back in time for the final two verses (perhaps fortunately, missing the climax of the song and arriving in time for the clinic appointment) with her instrument. "I'm not very good, I'm only a beginner ..." she said. I suggested she lead and I'll accompany on some of the things she liked to play. She started with Amazing Grace and seemed happy to have guitar, drums and backing vocals accompany her uking. Flushed with success we went on to Streets of London. Then she started talking about Bhajan songs. I'd heard the term, but don't actually know any so I asked her to play. She did. I think we were praising Shiva, but it sounded good enough for someone else to drop money.

By the end of our session I had been playing for a couple of hours and was cold, unexpectedly up by £1.74 (yes, one pound and seventy-four pence) and this hitherto unknown woman said I had made her day much better. I offered her the proceeds from the final donation, but she refused except to take one two-pence coin. "Id like to take this," she said, "as a reminder that no matter how awful my day has been, there is always a chance that something surprising will happen and turn everything around." I would have to call that a result of some kind.

I celebrated by heading to a favourite restaurant, the Shah Jahan. Even though I had to supplement them a little I ate my earnings by turning them into a delicious mango lassi and vegetable korma. I went back to the boat and decided a post-prandial moment was in order. When I came round it was nearly eleven o'clock. There was a pub adjacent to the town mooring and, although I am not a regular pub goer, I fancied something to drink. Taking advantage of being in a place where I could do exactly what I was about to do I climbed the steps from the mooring enclosure up the bank and entered The Ship. As I was ordering myself a drink a woman also at the bar gesticulated at me as though she were casting magic spells. She turned her head to a dangerous angle and creased her face as though she had just sniffed something and wasn't sure whether to be disgusted or not. If I looked how I felt she would have seen fear and confusion. 

"I've seen you," she slurred perhaps louder than she intended, "You were in the Indian ..." A man, perhaps her companion, pointed out that it wasn't unusual for a man to want a drink after a curry. I had to fight the urge to point out that I had actually been eating korma and not curry, but they wouldn't have heard anyway because the discussion opened up to contributions from the other half-a-dozen or so customers sitting around the bar. They all seemed to have an opinion about the appropriateness of a strawberry-lime Rekorderlig as suitable post-curry refreshment. The barman settled the matter by declaiming that he thought it was a very good choice after such a meal. I retired to a corner where there was just enough light to see the free Towpath Talk I had taken from a pile of this week's edition and squint at the news. I wished I had remembered to bring some spectacles.

Leaving the pub I noticed the sky. There was a bright moon, the brightly lit face of the town hall clock and a streetlight all in alignment. This is the view from the boat. I'm certain that even through my single fruit cider they didn't look as fuzzy as this. Maybe my camera had been indulging while I was away.

From the top - moon, town hall, lamp-post, river bank.

I stayed overnight and headed back to base the next day. Here I am, still cold, and leaving March behind as I headed to where I had left my van.

Leaving town, heading home.



Thursday, 13 April 2017

Of Yet Another Loss

I started writing this a few weeks ago. I just couldn't finish it at the time, being so upset, so I thought I would edit and finish this short essay and post it.

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I did not expect to be writing another note about bereavement quite so soon. I found out today that a dear friend died last week. He was two years away from his seventieth birthday and that just seems wrong. Then I gave some thought to the people who lived under a public spotlight and who, over the past couple of years, have also died far too early.

It doesn't seem possible that we knew each other for more than thirty years, but I've just done the sums and we did. I met him through work. He was a teacher and I had a job flitting about from school to school doing musical things as I went. Somehow we just clicked. He invited me round to his and I met his wife, while they were still together. Occasionally over the years I have encountered his now grown up children. All of them are lovely people. When I was dealing with coming out, he heard about it over some kind of bush telegraph and he was one of the first to phone me up, arrange to meet and to offer support. He understood my situation exactly, because the same thing had happened to him.

We were not the kind of friends who were always on the phone or who met up very week, but he was the kind of friend who always had a listening ear and I hope I was able to reciprocate from time to time. I think I did.

One day, soon after the news I had an almost overwhelming urge to phone him. I needed to talk about my loss and he is the friend I would often choose for such delicate conversations. It was like a punch in the chest to realise that he wasn't going to be able to take my call and that never again would we be able to share these intimacies. It's not even as though I could claim we were best friends because I don't think we were. We did, though, have a connection and we could mardle for hours face to face, on the phone, or typing in an internet chat room.

His friend count was remarkable. He knew everyone. He networked without any of the pretentions that often accompany networking. Parties at his cottage on the coast were wall-to-wall people of whom I knew perhaps only one or two. The guests were invariably male, professional, partnered and gay. Gay and "sorted" - or at least giving the impression of being sorted. I wonder how many had ever played matchmaker for him. I wonder how many had at one time, or perhaps many times, been his lover. He often found a man to love who turned out to be a bastard. I have sometimes wondered if I was one of those men, but I've been told by a few people that he thought fondly of me. I'm surprised I even came up in conversations. I don't know if that made it worse or better. He went through a long phase of returning to being with a man who often treated him badly by going off with someone else. I used to tell him he deserved better treatment, but he was loyal and kept letting him back into his life.

The trouble with my friend was that he never knew how not to be a friend. I don't think he found the off-switch for friendship and ex-lovers mostly remained friends. We talked about it a lot. 

The funeral was extraordinary. The large parish church was full and I was one of maybe fifty or sixty people who had to stand throughout the service at the west end of the nave behind the pews. So many people, like me, were able to confess that he had been one of the first to make contact when we moved into his area - even the vicar who led the service. Unlike the parties at his there were many people at the funeral I had not seen for years. Some, as is usual, had faces I couldn't match with names and, of course, I had to deal with the embarrassment of failing to recognise some people I thought I knew well. However, we all had similar feelings. He loved people and he was gone too early.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Of The Funerals Of Strangers

Talking about memorials I have recently been to another funeral. There's not much that is surprising in that, specially at my age. The man whose funeral it was died in January and was only about four months older than me. His own father died just two days before him.

I suppose, like many who were at the funeral in King's Lynn Minster, I didn't know the man and I never had a conversation with him. This wasn't really for the want of trying. He never seemed the chatty type. He was, though, a feature of the town centre landscape in King's Lynn for many years and on the day of the funeral I discovered a little more about him. Before that day I didn't know that he was born the same year as me in a village three miles from where I lived for fifteen years. I didn't know that he had a history of participation in local amdram performances before mental ill-health and changes in personal circumstances led to his very individual route through life. I do know though that I formed opinions and responses to him based on the public person as he went through his routines in his tatty old macintosh fastened with string, his Father Christmas bobble hat and his ever growing collection of broken props and instruments that he used in his rituals and routines. I had no idea until recently that his routine was actually a very carefully choreographed and complicated show. From the moment he set up outside Clark's Shoe Shop in the morning till the time he packed up in the late afternoon the routine was timed to last the day. His reality was quite different from the place I think I inhabit. The vicar who delivered the eulogy suggested that the broken props were a metaphor for the life he experienced.

His focus was so unswerving that he never acknowledged a greeting as he nearly juggled, nearly danced, nearly sang idiosyncratic melodies with lyrics only he could understand, played little snatches of tootling on a descant recorder and strummed a broken and otherwise unplayable guitar. Most people like their guitars to have a set of strings, a headstock or a back. The lack of all these never seemed to bother Juggling Jim. Each segment of his daily routine, at some point became  punctuated with Kung fu moves, where he sparred with an invisible asssailant. I can't remember when, but I am sure I have seen him roar at people. I have certainly seen him on the end of ridicule and occasional mild abuse. However, over many years and reliability he became a fixture in the town and everyone knew him. The thing is though that few knew him at all. For a man that everyone, yet no one, knew the funeral was well attended. I cannot fully explain why I felt the desire to attend. All the pews in the Minster were occupied. I sat at the side in the back row watching as the seats filled from the back towards the front of the church. Just before the wicker coffin was brought in on the shoulders of four pall bearers from a local funeral parlour, to a recording of Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer", a crocodile of people entered the church. Many were wearing Santa hats and this was a cortege that had formed at the far end of the High Street to make solemn procession past Juggling Jim's performance spot of preference. It was a King's Lynn Event for sure with the people of the town paying respect. When I read of the plans to process along the High Street to the Minster wearing Santa hats, I suspected the involvement of the cohort of students who had recently made a film about Juggling Jim's life. I was wrong. I don't know who these pilgims were, but few if any were students from the local FE college.


Many years ago I started work on a dance tune, which I called "The Man Who Couldn't Juggle", a reference to someone about whom I had made uninformed assumptions. I may go back to the tune and do a bit more work on it ... and have another think about the title.

In a world that seems to be becoming increasingly selfish, cold, detached and dangerous, I thought that Anthony Bowen's funeral was an extraordinary occasion. It was a day when the people of King's Lynn showed their kindest side. I would like to acknowledge the students from the College of West Anglia who had the inspiration to make a short video that changed my perceptions and prejudices. If I believe that no one can be wholly an angel, it must follow that no one can be wholly a devil either.

The coffin left the Minster to a recording of Leo Sayer's "One Man Band".

The video documentary interview with Juggling Jim is here if you want to watch it.

Of Turbines, Memorials And Collapsing Mics Now Open For Business

I went to the first night of a new open mic evening on Friday. The event was intriguingly named the "Collapsing Cabaret" and was held in the café at the Green Britain Centre in Swaffham, Norfolk. I once knew this venue very well. In a previous life it was called The Ecotech Centre and a community music organisation for which I undertook a number of projects had a broom-cupboard of an office and an equipment store there. If I was never really sure of the main function of the place then any specialist function is now even more obscure. In its defence I think it is looking for a distinctive purpose and identity and it shouldn't really have a problem because, physically, the building is very distinctive. For a start it's big and the sloping, south-facing wall made entirely of glass is designed as a solar collector and provides heating. One enters the building from the car park (now fitted with recharging points for electric vehicles) into the extensive exhibition space behind the glass wall. In Ecotech days there was an exhibition focusing on aspects of generating power and there were also opportunities for temporary exhibitions too. A friend of mine once curated a travelling exhibition on the lives of travellers. This was especially appropriate because there is a traveller site at the bottom of the hill and directly below the A47 bypass - one of those off-the-shelf brick and concrete traveller sites banished to the outer edges of a town where it could not be seen, forced into a space where no one I know would want to live and consisting, as has become customary, of hard-standings and utility buildings divided into plots by the local council that look as permanent and as alienating as the modern overspill housing estate where I grew up. Nowadays, though, the exhibition space in the Centre exhibits little other than tables and chairs.

The original Ecotech Centre was built in the shadow of a large wind turbine, Swaffham's first of two, which claimed to generate half the town's electricity needs. I always suspected it was more complicated than that. It was never clear to me how this worked, or how fluctuations in power requirements were met. There was no sign of storage for the 3.1 million units of electricity being generated annually from its 1.5 megawatt turbine. I suspect it was more a statistic for purposes of comparison than any real description of function. One of the music projects we worked on came to a head in a performance under that same shadow. Working with the excellent composer, Duncan Chapman, schools and community groups devised a piece using (as many of Duncan's compositions seemed to at the time) barrels of water, stones and submersible microphones. Alongside these were other tools of his trade, including early (and by that time superseded) samplers and signal processors for live sound manipulation. In contravention of any health and safety nonsense we had sent a fearless fellow musician up the tower to lean out of the access hatch some sixty-seven metres above the ground to suspend a microphone somewhere near the hub of the turbine with a view to capturing and processing, in real time, whatever the sound turned out to be. The trail of daisy-chained XLR cables down the stairwell and back to the mixer used all our available cable resources. The concept was as audacious as it was pointless. Try as I might, while artistically dropping and aesthetically swishing stones around in buckets of water, I could not hear what we were supposed to be amplifying and processing beyond a bit of humming and wind noise. Perhaps the single dynamic vocal microphone was not fully up to the task of picking up the subsonic subtleties of the sixty-six metre rotor span of the turbine, or perhaps the basic p.a. was incapable of reproducing the more dramatic elements of the sound colour palette, but everyone else seemed jolly pleased with the outcome. My confidence had already taken a recent knock when, at a music technology conference, no less a person than the founder and president of the Roland Corporation, Ikutaro Kakehashi, had made me sit in several strategically microplaced chairs when demonstrating his new invention of 3D sound from a pair of stereo speakers. I had to stay behind for several sessions while my fellow voyagers oohed and aahed in appreciation of aeroplanes on the screen that apparently flew over their heads. In the end he gave up and I felt like the little boy in The Emperor's New Clothes. I carried the burden of my own impairment into future projects and he went on to sell the massively expensive RSS (Roland Sound System) to discerning audio facilities.

Friends once held a memorial service at The Ecotech Centre for Ooblydoobly - The Fenland Fool - who died tragically early while living in France. Ooblydoobly, a professional clown with his trademarked makeup painted on an egg somewhere - was once the partner of my ceilidh band's original fiddle player and on nights off from fooling he occasionally played violin himself albeit in a different ceilidh band. Even more occasionally I'd be drafted into that band to dep on guitar. The first time I played for them the band was playing for a private ceilidh in the ballroom of the Great Northern Hotel hard by Peterborough Railway Station. During a break from the dancing Oobly (I hope he wouldn't object to such a familiar form of address) reappeared with a number of implements and began a juggling routine - a rubber chicken may have been involved as were a number of sharp or otherwise dangerous objects. The climax of his performance came when he produced some hitherto hidden torches, set fire to them and proceeded to juggle them on the expensively and inexplicably carpeted ballroom floor directly under one of the ballroom's ostentatious and expensive crystal chandeliers. He knew exactly what he was doing and how to provoke a response. Lovely man that he was I don't think I could have coped with him in my class when he was a teen. My own modest efforts to provoke my aggressively unpleasant, boring, coffee-breathed, quacking French teacher would clearly have paled beside any japes he could have devised. My best effort arose when I found a copy of the textbook we used in class at a jumble sale. It was the best thruppence I ever spent. I would sit at the front of the class in contravention of custom and write notes in it, in ink, which unfortunately mostly went ignored. It was only when I hit upon the sonic ecstasy of tearing paper very slowly that my purchase evoked the desired result. I was sent out into the corridor regularly thereafter. My misbehaviour was ultimately somewhat self-defeating in terms of language acquisition though - how was I to know I'd end up with a French boyfriend decades later? However the same acts took on a considerably more successful outcome in terms of my chosen career, which has often made effective use of unorthodox sound sources. Sadly I didn't find out about Ooblydoobly's memorial until months or maybe years later. I felt I knew him well enough to have been invited, but I wasn't. Conversations that begin, "Do you remember ... ?" always provoke a little twinge and I would like to be able to remember, but of course I can't. It was by all accounts an event laced with unintentional mishap fully worthy of Mr Doobly, and I would like to have witnessed the ingenuity of the parcipants wrestling with how to sink a nine foot pole bearing the memorial plaque into frozen earth when no one had a ladder, a hammer or indeed any tool beyond a spade and a post driver to facilitate the task. During fallow times for fooling he would take supply teaching work, specialising in modern foreign languages (French and German). He said he didn't like teaching, but I suspect he was good at it. However it clearly fed his depression and his heart problems and we spent many hours discussing approaches to tricking bored adolescents into learning. He did have a huge advantage over me though. He could, and often did, resort to juggling. Just as I wasn't there for Ooblydoobly's memorial I wasn't there when the drummer of the same band was similarly remembered some time later. His distinctive feature was his circus drumming style and an array of dreadfully unimpressive-sounding home-made woodblocks mounted on his kit. That band was one of a kind.

Meanwhile, back in the Green Britain Centre there is a space that serves an excellent purpose. The café serves delicious vegan food and, once the intrusively noisy cold drink refrigerators were switched off, it was a good space for a cabaret, even a collapsing one. The evening was fronted by the always delightful John Preston and it was good to share the stage once more with him and other friends including Nico Dobben (whose cd album, "Songs Of Misery And Pain", has sold very well in Downham Market) along with poet, playwright, author and activist Jonathan Toye and to encounter some new voices too. One passionate performer delivered a lengthy homage to Pete Seeger without actually mentioning Mr Seeger's name and, having listed a number of his famous protest songs, handed out hymn sheets and bade the audience join him in singing an unaccompanied "Puff The Magic Dragon". That was a first for me, especially in that key. It is a song I have generally tried to avoid, being ideologically at odds with much of its sentimentality and artificial rhyming and on account of it being in possession of a tessitura beyond the range of most who might find the melody otherwise attractive. I would have been happier to sing "Where Have All The Flowers Gone", which I consider clever in its simplicity and clear in its message, but our passionate performer had an advertisement planned, which was somehow connected with a dragon. Unfortunately, by then I'd lost the thread. Onward. While not the first time I have encountered a karaoke singer at an open mic it was intriguing to enter another performer's world that was definitely more showbiz than folk. I was forced to confront some of my own prejudices for sure. On the other hand this audience was forced to deal with Marshlander's world for the first time when I sang "Flying" (about throwing people off buildings), 'Grey" (about precrastination during the writing and composing processes), "Cruiser" (about clandestine bisexual encounters in a woodland setting) and "Dear Mr. Carter" (my response to an inarticulate and hilariously upsetting letter from a local functionary three days after I buried my father in his cemetery). I like to think that I am more fun than I make myself sound. Most definitely a first for me, though, was having a human microphone stand - there being no boom stand available. All in all, a fun night in good company with some good music, idiosyncratic performances and great food served throughout the evening.

The plan is for these evenings to continue on the first Friday of the month. I shall probably go again, specially if the juggler who closed the evening with "something more cheerful" and undoubtedly more fruitful comes back too 🍊🍊🍊🍊🍊. Jannine, the powerhouse behind the vegan café, thought much of the evening was rather dark. "That's what you get for calling your child, 'Irritable'," observed Jonathan.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Of Level Middles, Rights Of Passage and Bills Of Fair (Part 2)

The Nene-Ouse Navigation Link is part of what is primarily a drainage system known these days as the Middle Level. The Middle Level drainage and navigation functions are administered by a body known as The Middle Level Commissioners. When I lived in a house I received annually a bill from the Commissioners for the services I received in terms of drainage. I think this may have been on account of having a narrow dyke (known everywhere else as a ditch) marking the boundary at the bottom of my back garden. The dyke was overgrown and rarely tended by anyone during the fifteen years I lived there, but the bills kept coming ... at least I assume they kept coming because after a while they were absorbed into council tax bills and it all happened rather less visibly.

I don't have to spend long thinking about the number of houses in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, to realise that drainage money for not actually doing very much probably brings in a tidy annual amount. On top of this farmers and other landowners pay per acre for drainage and they pay again if they want to take the water that has already drained off their land and into the waterways to use it for irrigation. Commissioning must be nice work if you can get it.

The Middle Level Commissioners used to have offices in March (a town in the Fens, not the month ... they do actually have the offices all year round) and they still do, but a few years ago they sold off the old offices by a busy set of traffic lights in the town centre (the building is now The Hippodrome Hotel owned by Wetherspoon's), and borrowed a large sum of money to design and erect a new building next to the river. It is a very nice building as modern buildings go. There are, allegedly, some eighty-plus to ninety-odd miles of navigable waterway on the Middle Level according to the guidebooks, or a hundred according to the MLC website, and it is acknowledged pretty widely that one has to be a certain kind of person to enjoy using them. I count myself in that special breed although a high boredom threshold is a necessity since travelling along most of the wider drains, such as the Sixteen Foot, The Forty Foot and probably even the Twenty Foot (although I haven't yet tried that one out in the boat) is akin to riding those boring bits of train journeys that pass through cuttings with high embankments on either side permitting neither a view of the adjacent countryside nor any kind of mobile phone connection. The reason for this being, of course, that the Fens have lost so much top soil in the centuries since they were drained and used for growing crops that many fields now lie below sea level, below any roads that pass beside them and below the rivers and drains that keep the arable land in a fit condition for arable farming. Water needs to be pumped up into the drains to prevent flooding in some places. Without the drainage work that has been carried out since the middle ages, but most dramatically during the seventeenth century at the behest of successive Dukes of Bedford and under the direction the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, the Fens would not have developed into one of the most important and fertile agricultural areas in England.

People tend to be wary of change; history has often shown they have good reason.  Those who for centuries had learned how to live in the Fens, through wild-fowling, fishing, eeling or collecting reed for thatching found their livelihoods greatly diminished as the newly-reclaimed land was being sold off or given in favour to interested parties and vested interests such as the fourteen Adventurers who underwrote the reclamation. These adventurers awarded themselves 43,000 acres, gave 12,000 acres to Charlie Wag (King Charles I) and rented or leased off another 40,000 acres that was expected to cover the costs of the upkeep of the drains. The Fourth Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell, acknowledged that there was an imperative for recompensing people for removing their freedom of movement and their livelihoods. The continued sabotage of drainage works by Fen Tigers must have helped focus his mind; it is unlikely he acted wholly altruistically. He set in place, through an Act of Parliament, the rights of the people to enjoy free passage in perpetuity. This applied to a class of traveller known as the "pleasure boater". Boats engaged in commerce or trade would be required to pay for a license with the exception of those carrying specified goods and raw materials, including pigeon dung! Reading though these details recently has reminded me of the opening spoken section of the Lonnie Donegan song, "The Rock Island Line", one of my favourite songs as a child (and one of John Lennon's too if the stories of him playing the record so many times he wore it out, getting through several copies, are true). In The Rock Island Line the engineer (train driver) has to declare what goods he is carrying. He claims, "I got all livestock, I got all livestock, I got all livestock," but as he passes the toll point and picks up speed he calls back, "I fooled you. I fooled you. I got pig iron!" pig iron being subject to a toll whereas the livestock weren't. I wonder how many commercial vessels on the Fens carried cargo that went undeclared?

The Middle Level Commissioners were set up as an independent body by another Act of Parliament in the nineteenth century. This had the effect of separating them from the Bedford Level Corporation that had been established two centuries previously . The rights of people to use their boats through the navigable part of the drains has remained. It was ever so from Roman times, enshrined in Magna Carta and confirmed in all subsequent Acts from the drainage programmes of the seventeenth century onwards.


This, however, hasn't stopped the Middle Level Commissioners trying to change things. They have long seen boaters as an untapped source of income. There are about two thousand miles of navigable  inland waterways in the UK. The Middle Level Commissioners claim to be the fourth largest authority looking after (let's be generous) one hundred of those miles - i.e about 5%. They are also the only navigational authority in the country to receive money from the Environment Agency for flood defence. There are seven locks associated with the system, two of which (Horseway Lock and Welches Dam Lock) have not worked for years and are, therefore the effective end of navigation on the Forty Foot River.  Bevill's Leam is also useless as a navigation because there is a pumping station near one end that prevents it being an aquatic thoroughfare and Old Popham's Eau is similarly sealed off at Nordelph, only this time by a weir - and so it goes on. Most of the operational locks are also required for sluicing, i.e moving water from one place to another to prevent flooding. Some of the Middle Level sluices also keep tidal water out and there are huge pumps to move excess water, including Europe's largest at Wiggenhall St German, near King's Lynn - however, I am not sure if this one comes under the direct authority of the MLC. While I am not moored on a tidal stretch, the depth of water around and under me can vary greatly and change very quickly and is affected by what happens at St German's. Two nights ago the level went down very considerably overnight. I keep my mooring ropes loose because this is not uncommon. There is no mechanism for warning boaters of sudden and severe changes. Last summer I took my boat to a festival. Twenty-four hours later I got stuck under a bridge through which I had passed unhindered the previous day and only got out with some damage to the boat. The story was that someone had inadvertently left a gate open at one of the pumping stations. About a year ago I wrote in this blog about the devastating effect that unnotified changes in water level can have on the property of boaters when six boats that I knew of ended up being sunk after being caught up in sudden fluctuations of water level. One of those was a cruiser moored nearby. I had to notify the owner and, when he could finally get back to his mooring from working away, I helped him refloat his boat. These fluctuations are clearly functions of the vital drainage operations for which the Commissioners are responsible and from these actions it is clear that drainage and flood defence are indeed the priorities.

Regarding facilities specifically for boaters, there aren't any. The Middle Level Commissioners have no towpaths to maintain; they provide no facilities for boaters - no moorings, no refuse collection, no sanitation or pumping out facilities or indeed any water points for taking on fresh water. They certainly don't provide any laundry, shower or refuelling facilities. There are three privately owned marinas, two near March and one near Ramsey. I only know about one of the facilities at March, which I have used on a few occasions and where I have refuelled and used the water, sanitation, shower and water points whilst having work done on my boat in their yard. Any facilities, mainly 36-hour moorings - few and far between as they are - are maintained by the relevant town or parish council, a local trust or a pub.

The Middle Level Commissioners have tried a few times over the years to get the law changed so they can begin to charge boaters. At the moment there are no means of registering one's boat and no requirement to buy a licence. Any change in this arrangement requires a new act of Parliament. People who own property adjacent to one of the rivers have traditionally been able to use their river frontage as they see fit. They have, after all paid a premium to own the property. If they have a property where the waterway frontage is one of the drains the situation is different and they do not have those same rights or ownership.

Two weeks ago the MLC sponsored a Private Bill through its first reading in the Commons. This Bill is their latest attempt to get the law changed so that they can start milking boaters for money in return for ... well, nothing actually. There is nothing in the proposed Middle Level Bill, which offers boaters the facilities available on other waterways. They claim they may undertake to provide some services, but there are no binding commitments on them to do anything. They seek to force upon boaters many obligations though, through obtaining powers to introduce new bylaws. I could maybe accept something for something (albeit grudgingly), but that is not on offer. Instead, the MLC are wanting the power to make me pay them to register my vessel, charge me an annual license fee, pretend they are a "local authority" without any of the obligations a local authority has to observe, accept new powers for them to enter my boat, to confiscate it, to sell it along with my personal belongings, and propose a number of ways that I can be turned into a criminal which do not exist in statute for either house owners or road vehicle users. I find this is not acceptable and I fail to see the fairness in their proposals. The proposed bylaws also seek to firm up the power that the Commissioners claim to have to tell people how they can use their gardens or fields if they are close to a waterway.

The MLC claim to have notified all interested parties of their intentions in a consultation which, quite by coincidence I am sure, ended a week after last year's EU referendum. I am pretty sure most of us were preoccupied with other matters at the time. The first I got to hear that the long-rumoured Bill was actually ready to roll and had a date for its first reading in the Commons was just before Christmas, about two weeks before it was due to happen. Of all the "interested parties" that had responded to their consultation last year only one boater's club was represented and three angling clubs; other respondents included some genuine local authorities. No unaffiliated boaters were represented and certainly no one who lives full-time on their boats was consulted; strangely, neither were farmers who pay to drain and irrigate their fields nor the property-owners who pay annual drainage rates to the Commissioners.


It may just be that I live with my head in the sand, but I don't think so. The Commissioners seem not to have given much thought to the very serious consequences their proposed changes will impose on people and the security of their homes. Perhaps I am being unfair; maybe they did give lots of thought to us, but in the end they don't really care?

I have seen the work they do at close enough hand to know that if they get more power they will want to use it. From my boat there is only one tree visible. It is a home or a shelter to many birds, including my beautiful kingfisher neighbours, and who knows how many other species too. More than once Middle Level workers have come to cut it down because it interferes with the park-like quality they wish to impose on their "easy-care" river banks. If I kept the river bank next to me in the state the Commissioners would like to see I would be very surprised if the grass-snakes, lizards, buntings, warblers and the variety of small mammals (all of which I have seen in the past twelve months) would stick around. I was under the impression that plant life held river banks together. We know that here near the farm their scorched earth gardening style has caused the bank to subside and slip into the river. That caused the bank to start leaking, a serious threat to the credibility of their flood defence responsibilities.

More controversially, when I first arrived I used to see a particular boat pass by quite often. I never met the owner of the boat, but I did exchange a few e-mail messages with him after a very sad incident when his boat was broken into and his engine stolen while he was on a mission taking one of his dogs to a specialist vet many miles away for treatment. Without this treatment the dog would have been put down. After stealing his engine the thieves set fire to the boat, presumably  to destroy any evidence. Everything the man owned was lost in the fire and he was too far away, in Yorkshire, to do anything about it immediately. Obviously there are more details and at least two sides to the story, but the Commissioners salvaged his boat and confiscated it until he could come up with nearly £6,000 to cover their "costs". The man had pleaded for time to recover the boat himself, which was not granted. When the boat owner could not come up with the salvage money the boat was advertised and eventually sold on eBay for £3,000. The Commissioners continued to demand the balance of their "costs". The man did not only lose all his belongings in the theft and fire, but what was left of his home was taken from him and sold at a price that left him with less than nothing. He had been prepared to recover the boat and he was prepared to re-fit it so that he could have his home of fifteen years back. There was a campaign on one of the funding-type websites which raised nearly enough to cover what the Commissioners eventually accepted on eBay, but to no avail! What a tragic state of affairs.

I would hope that no "local authority" would have it in their power to evict a home-owner and sell off the paid-for home of anyone living in their area with absolute impunity. A local authority would also have to take some measure responsibility for anybody that they themselves had made homeless. The Middle Level Commissioners, through this Bill are seeking the power to take people's homes, but seem to be very quiet about responsibilities that must come with new powers.

Those of us living on and using the Middle Level waterways are watching the outcome of the petitions that have been lodged against the Bill. While HS2, a similar style of Bill, may have attracted hundreds of responses in opposition, the relevant office at Westminster consider the Middle Level Bill campaign unusual in that this relatively unimportant Bill has attracted as many as six petitions against. Most Private Bills go through unopposed. The office has mentioned that representations in person are made against Private Bills maybe only once or twice a year. The six petitioners against this Bill presented themselves at Westminster on two consecutive days. This alone is an indication of the strength of feeling. The campaign is continuing.