Thursday, 23 April 2015

Of Boats And Fantasies

I've lived on the river for nearly three-and-a-half years.  I'd entertained a fantasy about living on a narrowboat for a long time.  For several years my favourite time of the year was was always the one week when I would be invited to come and be part of the crew for the "Summer Storyboat".

The Rose of Essex
The Storyboat started out as a project organised by a group of literature-loving teachers and librarians in Hertfordshire some time during the 1980s.  They formed a working committee and hired the county's 72' Youth and Community Services narrowboat, "Belfast" for the week and took to the Grand Union Canal spending the week stopping off at several points between Watford and Bulbourne.  The first year must have been successful, because they repeated the project and it ran for several years.  I think I became involved after the project had already been running for two or three years.  When the committee changed, as invariably happens, and a majority of the fresh members lived and worked on the opposite side of the county the group decided to change waterway.  This was a big decision and I don't think things were ever the same after that.  They found "The Rose of Essex", owned by Essex Youth Service, and we took her along the Rivers Stort and Lee to run the week's activities between Hertford and Waltham Abbey.

My unique role on both routes turned from just leading a bit of community singing to providing musical continuity between performances by some of this country's most gifted authors of children's
In typical pose?
tales, illustrators and storytellers.  I was also quite useful when we needed to divert people away from areas of the site to move heavy equipment about.  I'd start singing and people would come.

The week was hard work - long days, hard on the voice, physically demanding, always having to think on the fly, but so satisfying.  The reward was partly seeing the families that used to turn up at the same riverside patch of green as us.  Sometimes they would follow us along the river and we'd see them several times during the week.  I don't really know where they came from.  The whole process struck me as akin to magic.  The biggest rewards, though, were more personal including actually being on the canals and rivers, seeing a very different-looking world from the water, seeing my first kingfisher in real life, being allowed to "drive" and learning the mysteries of negotiating locks.  Something bit me then and didn't let go.  I think it was a vision that peace was a possibility.

June Counsel
I met some inspiring people and was privileged to work alongside some brilliantly creative minds.  I hope I shall never forget the after-work wind-down at Waltham Abbey one year where June Counsel and Julia Jarman sat in the shade of the hawthorn hedge and decided to weave a story spontaneously.  They didn't do it for an audience, most of whom had gone home for tea anyway, but simply because they could. I don't remember the plot or the characters, but I do remember watching and listening to the twists and turns of their separate imaginations and wondering how they managed to think of such things, seemingly plucking them from the air without faltering.  It was like a game of "let's pretend", but on a far more sophisticated level.

Another performance I found totally absorbing was James Mayhew telling the story of the Firebird.  He spoke very quietly, so we had to draw close.  He had a sketch book on his lap and while he was telling the story he drew a most beautiful illustration of the Firebird ... but from his point of view he was drawing it upside down so we could all see the picture.

The wonderful John Ryan was another regular.  He showed us how he created the early BBC animations for Captain Pugwash from his books.  He always went through the same routine, but I never tired of hearing and watching him.  An absolute gentleman at all times I was really angry when characters with sexualised names became part of popular culture and everyone thought it was him, which it most certainly was not.  I think he was deeply hurt by all the smutty innuendo.  I take every opportunity to defend his honour when anyone brings up those characters whom he never invented and who never appeared in his stories.  I have one of his drawings of Captain Pugwash.  I wish I'd asked him to sign it.

One year on Boxmoor Common, Jan Pienkowski turned up to supervise the painting of a 16'x4' painting on sheets of hardboard.  One of my closest musician friends now, here in the Fens, was a child at the time and was there too, although I didn't know that at the time.

Some encounters were a little offbeat.  When Colin and Jacqui Hawkins turned up one day at Berkhamstead (Colin dressed in full pirate outfit, of course) I seemed to spend most of my spare moments chatting to Jacqui about considerations for choosing schools for children.  I realise that we may have been talking about their daughter, Sally, who is now enjoying a successful acting career.  Errol Lloyd and I worked up a double act.  He would tell his Caribbean stories and I would bring out my West Indian song repertoire.  He'd bring his flute and we'd sing and play "Linstead Market" and "Dis Long Time Girl".  Grace Hallworth, the grandmother of the storyteller revival was another wonderful lady who referred back to her Caribbean culture.  We worked together a few times outside of Storyboat time too.  One or two writers were not really suited to the chaos of the Storyboat routine and one in particular needed "medicinal help" before doing her routine.  It was terribly sad that some people are forced into roles by their publishers for which they are not suited .

I don't think I have ever laughed so much as the time Tony Ross and Andrew Davies shared the community picnic lunch.  Brilliantly funny people.  Some authors expected an annual invitation and were such good value that they received it.  Unfortunately for us, Andrew became much too busy and famous after a while, outgrowing his stories of Marmalade Atkins, but it was certainly fun while it lasted.

I was in awe of Jan Mark.

Jan Mark
Sometimes one meets someone who knows a lot about a few things, or someone who knows a few things about a lot of subjects.  Jan knew a lot of things about a lot of subjects.  I felt like an intellectual toddler in her company.  One of my most treasured possessions is a photocopy of a two-stanza poem she wrote under the shade of a tree when we were moored at Ware one year.


The Storyboat has berthed at Ware,
The handsome Colin West is thare,
And Robert Leeson bright and fare,
And also I, with windswept hare.
At Ware.

The handsome Colin West

The second stanza followed the same form, but was mainly about me, the mis-spellings being a reference to the spelling of my surname.

Mick Gowar with Robert Leeson, "bright and fare", in repose 
Robert Leeson stayed on The Rose of Essex with the crew one year.  He wanted to research life aboard for a book he was writing in a series called "The Zarnia Experiment".  I don't think he enjoyed it very much, but a year later the fifth book in the sextet, "Hide and Seek" was published and featured every member of the crew under other names.  I became "Sam" who seemed always to be dressed in red t-shirt and rainbow braces and singing the Jan Holdstock song, "Buttercup Farm".  Bob thought the song was traditional, so he quoted it freely throughout the book.  The description of me was pretty accurate for the time though.

I made some friendships on the Storyboat that have lasted; others never really were, have faded or people have passed away.  I still see Mick Gowar and occasionally Rob Lewis.  I met Kevin Crossley-Holland on a train back from London and we talked the whole way back.  I am in contact with the man who first got me involved.  He is a head teacher in Tower Hamlets now.  We first met when I went into his school and ran some music workshops.  He also owns a narrowboat, but hasn't taken the plunge to live afloat.

Mick Gowar liked using my guitar.  He said it had a "fifth gear"

No comments:

Post a Comment