Sat in the rain on a muddy canal bank in Lancashire, my hands smelling of wet maggots, nails dirty with fish slime and my breath smelling of stewed Tetley Tea decanted from my Dads, Tartan patterned, glass filled work flask, I cursed as the long slender lines of a bright green narrowboat slowly chugged right through the middle of my fishermans ‘swim’. “Afternoon, caught anything?” came the chirpy greeting from a middle aged man wearing a wide brimmed leather hat and covered from the elements by a long wax cotton jacket. “Yeah, loads of Roach and Perch” I replied while secretly still cursing the 60 foot long, floating steel box and its propeller for scaring away all the fish I had been catching prior to is arrival in my ‘swim’. The engine made a very old fashioned ‘chunk – chunk – chunk’ sound with the exhaust following just a fraction of a second after each ‘chunk’ with a ‘pop’ sound. – Chunk Pop Chunk Pop…. The smell of burnt diesel hung in the air as the rain fell and the water wake splashed against the bank just inches underneath my mud covered wellington boots.
I watched that narrowboat as I had watched hundreds of others, glide past me, leisurely onward towards its destination and once again wondered what it must be like ‘Chunk Pop – Chunk Pop – Chunking’ along. My fascination with narrowboats began right here, when I was about 13 years old, in the early 1980’s on the Leeds and Liverpool canal in my home town, smelling of fish slime, maggots and Tetly tea. That fascination is still with me today in 2022.
My phone rang around 8am and woke me from a relaxed slumber. By the time I had fumbled for it, fought with the coiled charging lead and raised it to my recently pillow bound ear, it had stopped. Tony is a friend I met when I first moved out of London, a strong minded Ex Paratrooper and 30 year veteran of the London Fire Brigade, he has lived on his narrowboat for 22 years. We met on a bright sunny Sunday morning in November around the Cenotaph on Rememberance day, we’ve been friends ever since. ‘TONY PARA/LFB’ was on my missed calls list so once I had shaken the sleep from my eyelids and put on my slippers (the first pair I have ever owned), I called him back.
“Morning shit lips, whats up?” I asked. Tony’s strong East End accent came straight back without any hesitation. “Where’s this shit hole town you live in now, knob head, is it near Atherstone?” A strange question to ask out of the blue at 0810 in the morning, but I told him it was and less than an hour later I was showered, fed and mobile on foot toward the nearby canal to find him and his narrowboat ‘Pegasus’.
With the log fire glowing orange, a sunburnt face (also glowing orange), Hobgoblin Gold real ale going down well and a perfectly quiet, moon lit canal bank, Tony and I talked about stories from our Army days, his messy divorce, my breakdown, our drunken antics over the years and our own thoughts and memories of our mate Steve the firefighter that sadly took his own life. I’d spent the day with Tony as he passed through my new home town on a 3 year tour of the English and Welsh canal system, and I found him moored up just a mile and a half from my house, in a treelined stretch of deserted canal bank at around 11am that morning – first beer at 11:01 – It was a long day but absolutly one of the most enjoyable days I have had in a while. I ended up spending two more days with Tony just fishing, drinking and recharging the evening fire with twigs and logs foraged from the canal bank.
I waved goodbye to Tony at the bottom of the ‘Atherstone Flight’ of locks, which took us most of day three; 11 locks in all. Onwards to the Trent and Mersey he ‘Chunk Pop’d’ with nothing ahead of him but time and a now empty fridge.
That memory of my childhood fishing on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal watching the narrowboats cruise by and Tony turning up virtually on my doorstep in his narrowboat led to other thoughts and fond memories of my own water bound adventouurs.
I lived on a narrowboat for many years in the early 2000’s and it was undoubtedly some of the best years of my life. It was me. It fitted my personality and it fitted who I wanted to be at that time. I purchased the boat after leaving my service with Mi5 – The Security Service, wanting a simpler more relaxed way of life. Noisy naigbours above the flat I used to live in were no more. Parking problems and screaming children outside were banished and were swapped for the sound of duck quacks, bird song and the odd ‘Chunk Pop’ of another passing boat. It was me. I took a new job, made new friends and found a quieter and less cluttered way of life, one of which I’ve never forgotten.
Finding who you are is important in life, we’re not all the same and we’re not meant to be. We can all think about wanting to be somebody else, and throughout these 5 years of bankruptcy, I have wished that many times over. Remembering who you were is also just as important as it gives you structure to your future as you get older too. Wanting to be anything other than yourself is not wise, it will in the end lead to bitter disappointment and probably much heartache and soul searching too. Bankruptcy has shaped the last 5 years for me, but I havent forgotten the goal or the path I’ve travelled and hopefully I have always aimed at my own goals and not tried to be anyone else, except that is when I was with Mi5; and that is one of the reasons I called my narrowboat ‘Walt‘.