on the surface of the water

I’m still on my Dad’s narrowboat, somewhere north of Oxford.

When I mention to people that my father has a boat, the usual reaction seems to be to assume that he must be very wealthy. In fact, it’s the opposite: he got the thing – the Lady Elizabeth, it’s called – for about five or six thousand pounds in 1983 and lived on it for a big chunk of my childhood, because he was on a science teacher’s salary with a divorce and two kids to pay for, and it was cheaper than living in a house.

But when he finally moved back onto land again, he kept it; not just as a frivolous luxury status item, but because for him not to have a boat would mean he would not be the man he is.

The Elizabeth, her travels and her upkeep, are a lifetime’s project for him. It’s a 63-foot extension of his personality. When I arrived at the boat yesterday morning, and I asked how he was, he said, “Well, I’ve had diesel bugs in the tank.”

(Diesel bugs, he explained, are tiny little bugs that live in diesel tanks, and breed at the kind of terrifying rate that pandas don’t. You don’t see them in diesel cars because they are burned up quickly, but in a vehicles with large tanks that sometimes doesn’t go anywhere for a few weeks – like narrowboats – millions of them reproduce and then die and leave a black sludge of diesel bug corpses that clogs up the engine. Fortunately, if there’s one thing that canal-folk know about, it’s how to dispose of corpses).

Anyway, boating is who my father is, boating of any and all varieties; he has been spending most of his free time on water since he went a boy, canoing and sailing dinghys and yachts as a student. I once sat with him and a map, trying to figure out if there was anywhere on the south coast of England that he hadn’t been to on some sailing expedition or other. There wasn’t.

But the most remarkable thing is the kind of feeling he has for the water itself. He says he’s always found it difficult trying to explain to people how to steer a boat, because he does it without thinking.

We were at a lock yesterday, waiting for another boat coming through the lock the other way. He seemed to be letting the Lady Elizabeth drift backwards, with the back end floating slowly towards the bank, to let the other boat pass. It looked like we were going to crash into the bank. Aren’t we going backwards a bit too fast, I asked?

“No,” he said, “the undercurrent from the lock will pull us forward in a minute.”

And slowly, almost magically, the boat stopped drifting back and came to a stop just before the edge. Then he gently nudged the reverse again to keep us from being pulled into the drag from the other boat as it passed us, and then forwards to glide us into the lock.

It might be that he’s got a physics degree and so he always knows what energies are pulling which way and why; but I think it’s more that he can just instinctively feel the water moving beneath the boat. The thing about boating is that even on canals there are so many deep channels and currents that you don’t see but that you have to feel, because you need to make the right slow, subtle movements, at the right time, to keep the boat steady and on course.

And it’s not easy to keep the boat steady like that when the water is moving all around and beneath you. I can’t do it; I always make too many rash motions, always overreact to every sideways drift. (My mother’s son.)

But my Dad always knows just which motions to make with the tiller and when, how much momentum is needed in every direction, to keep a 63-foot hulk of steel chugging steadily along.

It’s a strange family that my father comes from. Full of doctorates, political activists, intellectuals, transexual jazz musicians, you name it. When I was younger, I naturally compared my father – a teacher who likes boating and tea and biscuits – with the rest of his family. And I have to admit I wondered if maybe he was a little bit ordinary, a bit superficial.

I know now, of course, that’s not true – only a man with an acute awareness of what ferocious churning is happening in the depths could stay so steady; calmly and peacefully moving across the surface of the water…


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