one of the dark places of the earth

Last night we left the canal and joined the Thames.

I had an argument with a girlfriend once, about whether the Thames could be counted as ‘great rivers of the world.’ It was a foolish argument, the kind of thing that lovers argue about when they can’t face whatever it is they really need to be arguing about; but I remember it vividly.

We were in Paris, and I’d claimed, without really thinking, that the Seine, like the Thames, was ‘one of the great rivers of the world’, and she said it couldn’t be because even though the Seine – and the Thames too – have got some interesting human settlements on them, they are nowhere near as long as the Amazon or the Mississippi. And I pointed out that length isn’t everything, and to her credit she resisted the obvious barb and said it is when you’re talking about what makes a river ‘great’.

But somehow it became quite an unpleasant argument. Like I say, there were probably other things we really should have been arguing about.

The point is, I still think I was right. Obviously we were just using different standards of ‘greatness’ (she was using a fairly narrow geological measure of value, wheras I was linking it to human culture and history). And however dumb it might seem, we weren’t the first people to have that same argument – when John Burns famously called the Thames “liquid history”, it was in response to American who had compared it unfavourably with the Mississippi (which is good, because on its own it would be a bit of a fatuous thing to say from an otherwise remarkably smart fellow).

But the Thames is a strange and wonderful river; when you’re travelling down it you do feel like you’re re-travelling a very very ancient and beautiful path that hasn’t really changed in three thousand years.

I think one of the reasons that my lover in Paris might have held the Thames to be of less value – in addition to its size, although it is the longest river in England – is that it’s so familiar. We know the Thames, we know where it goes and what its banks look like (idyllically rural – from Oxford on, it’s almost all trees and cottages and cows and pretty towns until you hit London). Unlike the Amazon, there is little that is exotic or strange about it for us.

But that’s just because of the perspective we’re looking at it from. As Marlow says of the Thames in the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, “this also was once one of the dark places of the earth.” For anyone trying to get into England – the Romans in particular – the Tamesis was, for centuries, a strange and terrifying river, wide and deep and with a danger of tribal attacks around every turn. For one of Claudius’ men trying to get inland in the first century, It must have been terrifying.

Perhaps we’ve become numbed to that now.

And yet, there are still strange and terrifying experiences to be had on the Thames for those who look. Between Oxford and Reading, we passed bunches of the kinds of houses and gardens that people are only supposed to live in when they have won the lottery. But the people who live in them, with their twenty-room mansions and huge riverside summer-houses and boat-houses, live in an entirely different world to me. The fact that these folk are wealthy enough to live next to the river meant that we were able to see, from the river, into a world that I would normally very rarely see.

What did they do to come to posess such houses and gardens? Where did all that wealth come from, and where is it going? Who has been, and who is yet to be, harmed in the process? What darknesses are hidden in that money and that power?

(I’m not saying wealth is necessarily bad; I’m just saying that for those who don’t have it but who do ask questions about the causes and effects of it, it is very strange and a little terrifying.)

I love the Thames; my family have lived on and around it forever, and I will always think that it is one of the great rivers on earth. But for most of us, it still contains strange, dark worlds that are impossible for proletarian explorers to penetrate.

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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…