The Edge is everything
I live on the edge. And know it or not, you do too.
My edge feels pretty literal. The small, early-closing town, the unmanned train station, the rickety quay, the tethered boat I call home, and the quietly draining marsh that fringes the riverbank and ripples with reeds, suggest to me a life of tenuous borders between built and not-built, land and water, river and estuary, earth and sea. The beat and barley fields of the coast, 8 miles away, are slowly falling into the waves.
This is a ‘between-world’, a blurred margin, and a place where unequals meet: our presence is conditional; nature patiently bides its time. What’s the rush?
But there’s another edge, too, and it has the glare of strip-lights and whiff of hospitals about it. I’ve spent a lot time visiting and occassionally staying in them – the meeting place between my mind and body became a battleground in my 30s; the seamless unease marring my days combined with physical inheritance over time, and eventually informed my immune system (the defender of all internal borders) that I was, perhaps, my own worst enemy.
What followed was tough.
First, went almost all energy. Years passed in fog. Then joints stiffened and swelled, and I gradually creaked to a halt. Eventually, with a lot of help, I rallied, and ‘got on with it’, but didn’t understand what was happening when, much later, I became unwell again. This time, my kidneys came under attack and one early morning I found myself in a hospital bed– almost too late – my body plugged into machines, relying for life (for a while at least) on the delicate, pulsing interface between the two. The blood in the tubes was surprisingly warm.
Kidneys? Who ever had problems with their kidneys – I’d never given them a thought. But now, only months after throwing everything into the air, moving across the country to live on the river – a new way of life I’ve seized with both hands, and all my heart – I, my family, and my doctors are looking for a new one to join and relieve my own fading organs. At first horrified, now less so, I listen to tales of success and re-birth. There are many.
Is my path being swallowed by the sea? Am I really more ‘at the edge’, than I ever was – than you are, reading now? Or is this utterly precise place our only home, where life has always happened, and I have no choice but to be?
Posted February 8, 2017 12:50
Curlew, Tern, Egret, Stint; Cormorant, Sanderling, Snipe. The whine and whistle of the wind has rich competition here – the chatter, beep, squawk and trill of the ever-present birds. They’re everywhere.
They own the place. When I first arrived, I could name none of them, beyond ‘duck’, and ‘another duck’, and their cries were the noise of a crowd, anonymous, raucous, indistinguishable. One bundle of feathers was much the same as the next. But I was surrounded, and my ignorance felt like a barrier to belonging.
Was this a weird disease of the city? I’ve heard some children make no connection between milk and cows. And that the same goes for many country kids too. The inability and total lack of interest in recognising and placing other creatures displaces us too.
So I bought two illustrated bird guides. And at first, they only further niggled my sense of woeful, townie ignorance.
This was preposterous. How could nature come up with all this? Where did all these lovely, strange, time-less names come from? What makes a Godwit a Godwit, and a Shank a Shank? Who decided? Has a Lapwing always been more ‘lappy’ or ‘wingy’ than anything else? And who, any more, knows, or minds, what a Temminck’s Stint is?
Then I noticed something, and soon saw it everywhere. And names mattered.
The estuary is a rich, self-replenishing eat-all-you-can-find cold / wet buffet, and with each receding tide great bickering crowds of avian hustlers gather in the shallows to scan the water, to pick, stir, and probe at the mud. A beady eyed, intricately mannered mass dinner dance ensues; the full a la carte menu of worms and mollusks, snails, small fry and weed sought, winkled and hoovered in a frenetic hour or two of spikey competition – sustenance and survival decided by territory and pecking order, timing and luck.
And, to all of this, each member of every single species brings its own numbered dinner ticket - in the utterly distinctive length and shape of its beak.
So while the largest of our wading birds, the Curlew (see p105, RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds), with it’s stunningly long, downward-curved bill, may find itself sharing a freshly exposed beach (or bag of crisps) with a dainty, small-beaked Little Gull (p119), its place in the grand scheme of things will ultimately be shaped by the greater depth to which it can plunge its mouth parts for food. Whole sections of the menu dwell only in this strata.
So, if I could ask a Curlew, “why are you here, and doing that?”, I like to think that, looking at me sideways, and suppressing a snigger, it would answer “well, my beak is approximately 20 cm long, slender, and as you’ll notice, shaped rather like a scimitar – all the better for finding and nobbling the most reclusive worms. What are you doing here?”
I'm sure I'd come up with something.
There’s a place for us all.
Posted February 5, 2017 14:44
From my window I can sometimes see the sea. And sometimes I can’t.
Twice a day the ocean swells the river, in agreement with the moon, and twice a day I watch the water rise up my garden, come to the door, and stay a good while, and do what it does, so totally.
Before folding back, like a drawn breath.
We are left skewed and undone –like toys after play, at bath time.
Posted February 5, 2017 14:28
Friday the 13th. Very funny.
A dense blanket of gun-grey sky. It’s snowing, sideways. Wind scythes across the river; rigging in the boatyard tinkling, clickety-click, whining round and through the boat – ‘Olive’ is whistling like Shackleton’s beach hut. More penguin anyone? Perhaps no surprise, few birds today.
The radio is delivering a ‘Severe Weather Warning’. Gale-force Northwesterly winds up to 70 miles mph are forecast along the Norfolk coast, and could produce big tides further south. A storm surge is expected in the estuary. Evacuation is urged in some exposed seaside towns, Suffolk and Essex.
As quay and jetty are due to flood, I’ve decided to stay put and ride it out (as have most of the neighbours). It’s a boat, after all, and I’m better off on it, than off it.
Or that’s the theory.
Hopefully my lines will hold.
Where can I buy some wellies? Is it too late to grow a beard?
Posted February 2, 2017 13:08
I wake to frost on board ‘Olive’. A night of hard, bright stars and crushed crystal air has passed, and I’m watching steam rise from the old jetty. An unexpected blast of brilliant winter sun liberates the furry coat of ice.
This morning it’s a different world. Living on the Deben river – on these tides and under these skies, at this unhurried edge of an east coast estuary town, our concerns seem to shift and roll with the turning Earth. Our amiable, shambling community is harnessed to weather and moon.
IA quaint way of seeing things? Or the original view of time?
Life here is undoubtedly basic and we’re scoured blithely, even cheerfully, by the elements. So, talk among us ‘river rats’ usually springs from what those elements are doing, or are about to do. And today, banter is mostly around how to keep our boats warm, and avoid quaintly freezing to death.
Looking among us describing heating arrangements, I notice some of my neighbours have doubled in girth. And catching my reflection later, I realise I’m giving them a good run for their money.
This is because we’re wearing our clothes. Or, to be more accurate, we’re wearing all of our clothes, all at once (and in some cases, I‘d swear, in no particular order).
It goes for everybody – no exceptions; from hardened, sun-burnished boaties, to newbie urban escapees like me. This costume marks the tribe, and makes sense. After a few rapidly cooling months here – in more than ones fair share of wind, rain and chill (and denied wardrobes of conventional dimensions) we just decide to put everything on. We actually go to the shops like this – dressed for a Force 8 with an optional storm-tossed night overboard.
It’s certainly clear we’re driven by similar simple needs. And that we could, in fact, be evolving into vaguely the same person.
And that person’s suffering from a mild emotional disturbance.
I have to say wood has never played a particularly big part in my life. I admit to admiring a good door, or an attractive skirting board, but recently having left houses and central heating behind (voluntarily, mostly), I felt the first true bite of winter and instantly morphed into a ravenous log fancier. It’s not complicated. My drafty home sits in freezing water. I am cold. And now, I enjoy nothing more than discussing the merits of a well-seasoned burn, enthusiastically comparing notes on kindling, and frankly, generally gazing at trees. (The wood versus coal debate, incidentally, is never, ever ending).
So logs, I discover, are the river rats’ currency of winter. And this year, log envy kicked in around the 17th of October. Gone was the hazy, rippling light and egg yolk sky of Indian summer. Suddenly cool beer was out, and boiling chicken soup was in. And the wood burning stove became the cast iron heart of the universe.
‘Olive’, my first ever floating home is, bless her – above the water line at least, ‘a bit of a crate’, and leaks heat almost as fast as I can generate it. (Her bottom half is, thankfully, leak-free). But it’s turned me into a ship’s stoker. So, where I’d once flick a switch to get warm, I now have to get dirty first, and spend time and energy in ways I’d never dreamed of to do it – hearth cleaning, ash dumping, fire setting, fuel carrying, log-splitting, coal shoveling, soot scrubbing, splinter-removing, minor burns-tending, coughing, hand washing, fuel-hunting, and general, all-waking hours fire-related jiggery-pokery.
It’s grubby, constant, and arduous. So why wouldn’t I change a thing?
Posted February 2, 2017 13:02
I’ve been here four days. I’m sitting in the sun on the viewing deck, the rays are searching my bones. The boat, I’m aware, is alive, like her estuary home.
‘Olive’s lines and gangplank creak as the tide rises, the in-flow lifting her almost 8 feet from the river floor. Her squat bulk strains at the leash, eager as a dog to meet the waters. A steady rhythmic bobbing, and subtle roll. I’m cradled and rocked in time to the movement of the Deben, and the occasional swipe of the wind.
Bellow deck, later, the light shifts and flickers, kindles and fails, only to flame again. The spectacle of the weather looms large in her big, flat windows.
I lie on the sofa, looking up, and through the glass. ‘Olive’s cinema is always open. An unfamiliar feeling.
I realise I’m as happy as a clam.
Posted February 2, 2017 08:41
Early days of sun. Everything is drenched in light and for now, I live the dream.
Alongside the headiness runs deep unease. It’s one of those dreams where nothing adds up, and your arms and legs are made of jelly. A benign disorientation reigns. Why is everything moving? What are those strange noises? Where the hell did I put my toilet keys / glasses / half-eaten sandwich / trousers?
And the boat moves a lot sometimes, which, quite unreasonably, comes as a surprise. My head swims. After the first few days of swilling around on ‘Odin' I attempted a trip to the Co-op and found myself weaving down the pavement like a committed White Lightening drinker.
And then, of course nothing works as it does in a house, which is vexing and tiring – welcome to the learning curve; but above all, there’s so little room. Going about my daily business, I might as well be organising a conference in a phone box. Just getting from one end of the boat to another without cracking a rib or altering the shape of my nose is a challenge – and when I get there, it’s quite easy to forget why I’d bothered. Where does everything go? A trip to the bedroom, amongst my half-unpacked belongings is a befuddling obstacle course. And sometimes only an exquisitely lowly placed door jam on the forehead offers the Zen wake-up bell required.
The doll’s house scale of things makes me feel like a giant, too. I begin to doubt my size, like Alice, and though nothing really lessens the problems of tallness, I’ve found altering my profile and adopting specific, task-related postures makes things easier and lessens the chances of a neck hernia.
These postures I’ve named.
Doing the washing up, for example, I find it’s advisable to pull a quick ‘Henry the Eighth’ and stand at the sink, legs akimbo, in full Power Pose. (Try youtube and Amy Cuddy on the other benefits of this. But that’s another, far more interesting story.) Not that Henry did a lot of washing up. It does work though – slightly reducing ones height, and I’m enjoying freeing the top of my head from the subtle downward pressure of the ceiling.
The Gardener. Here’s a question. Why crane your neck or bow your back getting through doorways, when you can walk around permanently bent at the waist? Doing so helps no end if you have to go through a door to look in a lowly placed cupboard in the next room, for example. No energy-sapping bending and righting up; become a right angle and let your knees take the strain. And consider taking up gardening.
The Limbo-dancer. Frankly can’t be bothered to assume a full ‘Gardener’, when, for instance, using the wardrobe-sized loo? The Limbo – that old shimmy favoured at slightly racy 1950s parlour parties – may be the answer. And it makes a nice change bending the other way. It certainly adds a dash of spice to basically ‘not hitting your head’.
Showering on ‘Olive’ requires focus, and a very strong desire to get clean. As the shower head delivers its drizzle from a height of around 5 and a half feet, one is faced with a choice: hunch or squat. So I bought a low stool, accidentally creating The Cossack – which, incidentally gives you a very low centre of gravity and raised knees. A willingness to get into the spirit here helps; don’t be surprised if you start humming ‘Kah-ling-kakaling, Kakaling’ as you soap up.
Posted February 2, 2017 08:08
I am delivered here on a wave of warmth, riding up front in a box-jammed Ford Transit driven by a kind, smiley, barn door-shaped Algerian, called, vaguely surprisingly, Andy.
And I'm fried.
After months of planning and packing – or, more accurately, shedding possessions, and worn out by long farewells and no small amount of worry, I am definitely finally here, sweating on the creaking jetty, under the hot summer sky, over a hundred miles from ‘home’, feeling like a one-man travelling circus, staring at my paltry, residual belongings, and ‘Olive’, the retired 35-foot sightseeing cruiser that is to be my new residence.
I’m considering quite how much I’m about to screw up my life. After all, I’m leaving my adopted hometown of 30 years, single, broke, and in less than rude health. I’m abandoning the place I lived as a student, where I got my first proper job, where I fell in and out of love, got unwell, soldiered on, had fun, got unwell again, largely recovered, played in a samba band, stopped playing in a samba band, left, came back, grew up late, and accidentally spent most of my days. Far away will be the many friends who sustained me; the grubby, frenetic streets I know better than myself. My backstory. My ghosts. My Oxford.
Andy With-the-Van, on the other hand, is a survivor of civil war, 12 years as an army boxer, and a life-changing journey of migration. He’s made of his own stuff. And he’s so enthusiastic about my adventure, not joining in now would be churlish.
Lugging the first of my bags across the gangplank and into the boat, he’s beaming.
“Oh, It’s beautiful, Mark! It’s beautiful!!
The quay comes straight from the double-spread picture pages of Richard Scary’s ‘Busy World’ – there’s so much for the eye, the other senses briefly give up.
Pan-tiled workshops and wonky sheds; masts, aerials and rigging; coils of rope, mooring lines and pipes; used tires, fat posts, rusty fittings, seaweed; old wood; an ancient dock crane; dog-walkers, workmen, boat-dwellers, and birds (everywhere) and as far as the eye can see – sky, and rich, rich, shining estuary mud. And the trawlers, lowland barges, cruisers, yachts, ex-navy launches, patrol boats, narrow boats, tubs, conversion projects and flaking hulks that, perhaps, 40 people are calling home.
The place is alive with wading birds and their small, dainty movements; snipe and sandpiper, shrill, cut the air.
Welcome to our world.
“Olive’, for all her merits, is not one of the prettiest vessels. Forget romance, and surrender hope of wood, sails, or fancy paint job. Think of the boat Martin Sheen took up-river to hunt and kill Colonel Kurtz in ‘Apocalypse Now’, minus the armoury – and cross it with a scaled-down, 1970s Sealink ferry. And you’ll have an idea.
A converted riverboat and coast-hugger, ‘Olive’s built in steel and painted a resolute North Atlantic grey. Her raked profile makes her look faintly aggressive – an impression softened, happily, by big picture windows, and a viewing deck with benches running half her length. Inside, the mood lightens. Around 12 feet wide and 30 long, her cabin is tongue-and-groove paneled and bright, cheerfully scruffy and eccentric, and provides a good living space for one, and could for two, and is equipped with everything you need. (This includes, prominently, a steering wheel in the living room).
Or equipped with almost everything. Greg, the owner (I’m renting in my first step off land) just informs me I’ll have to use the toilets on the quay ‘for number 2s’, as ‘Olive’s loo effectively has no tank - she flushes directly into the big wide world. Which, right now, happens to be a popular public place.
Christ, really? Will this be a deal breaker? None of the boats are allowed to empty their bogs into the river (though the estuary tides handily flush the mud-dock twice every 24 hours). Given the waterfront’s status as a heritage site and nature reserve – with its abundant, omni-present wildlife and year-round binnocular-weildng tourists, it’s fair enough. Probably.
Posted January 29, 2017 09:00