In the latter part of my archaeology career, I got a job overseeing the conservation of ten historic narrowboats. I barely knew one end of a boat from the other, but I was used to learning about different industries or artefacts in a short space of time. No sweat. Treat them as Large Artefacts, I thought; and stepped through the mirror into an entirely different life. Reader, I fell amongst boats and those who knew most about them. I went native, bought a 67ft narrowboat and became a dot in the canal culture whose little inhabitants move around each other like amoebae in a Petri dish.
Fifteen years later, I’m on honeymoon. My new boat has arrived. We’re out on the canals, getting to know each other. I have bruises all over from walking into cupboards where there didn’t used to be cupboards. I struggle to unremember the shapes of the old boat, whose every move I could anticipate. Stoic has a few scrapes too, from being steered into concrete corners by a clumsy skipper who doesn’t yet know her curves and angles. The honeymoon analogy is not facile; this is a courtship of sorts, a learning of each other’s rhythms. It will settle in its own time. Nothing that happens on water is entirely predictable, and I like it that way thank you very much.
The English canals are familiar and slow and unglamorous, so we sometimes forget that they are one of the greatest achievements of human civilisation. The country and culture we live in now would be impossible without them – first industrial, and then post-industrial, with all the baggage of both. Every time I work a lock, I take pleasure in its hefty elegance; the reduction of function to necessity, the perfectly simple machine that works with water to convey the one instruction, UP or DOWN.
A new boat seems almost an obscenity here; a shiny new cog in an old machine. She’ll scuff soon enough. Throw a handful of rice, and wish us well.