London. It’s not exactly a place where people are renowned for talking to strangers, is it? A few years ago, I was doing a show about Door-to-Door Poetry at the Edinburgh Fringe. Afterwards, a lady came over to tell me what she thought about it.
“It’s a great idea,” she said. “But it would never work in London.”
Rightly or wrongly, I decided I was going to give it a go. To help me narrow down exactly where to visit, I tried to think about what the place stood for to me personally. And when I think about London, I think about space. In such a large, historic and busy city, space is at an absolute premium; Metropolitan London has some of the most expensive house prices in the world.
One of the unusual side effects of this is that an unprecedented number of people are now moving into canal boats. The number of boaters applying for continuous cruising licenses- where they have to move every 2 weeks- has gone up by 246% since 2012. Some waterways are now blocked with boats and some boaters are claiming to have been bullied out of certain canals, as the mooring space becomes premium property in itself.
I was interested in finding out what kind of people were living on canals in London and having a chance to write a poem for them. After speaking to a friend who lives on a boat, I decided to visit Tottenham Lock. It sits on the east side of the city, is fed by the River Lea, and I was told it had a good mix of people from all different walks of life.
But I couldn’t help but feel a bit worried about the warning I’d had. Was the anonymous audience member right? Would anyone actually take the time to talk to me? For better or worse, on a bright and clear Friday morning, I jumped on a tube to Tottenham.
Captain’s Log 23/08/19 11:51
I’m standing at Tottenham Hale station. It’s not really what I was expecting. I thought I would find something a bit more suburban- houses, pubs, post offices. Instead, I’m looking at a huge bus station, a retail park and the massive concrete skeletons of tower blocks being erected around me. The whole place is buzzing with the sounds of drilling, sawing and hammering. It does not feel like the kind of place you’d find boats.
I spot the road towards the canal and head down it. Today is the start of what’s been predicted as the hottest bank holiday weekend on record. The temperature is now approaching 30 degrees and the sun is catching on my black camcorder- I’m genuinely worried it’s going to start melting.
In a few minutes, I’m at the river. Standing on a bridge and looking north, I can see the still water stretching off into the distance. On the left of this is a thick row of trees and, on the right, is another half-finished tower block, surrounded by giant cranes. Along the water are lots and lots of boats of all shapes and sizes, which is good news. But, now I’m faced with the immediate task at hand, I’m suddenly forced to consider the particular complications of actually doing this.
At first, it seemed like finding someone on a boat would be a bit easier than a house. After all, they are smaller. But then, how, exactly, do you knock on a boat? You can’t get to the door without jumping on it first, which feels like a sure-fire way to annoy someone. So I consider the other options. I could throw something at the window? Or shout? I don’t really feel comfortable with this either. It seems like the only way forward is to look for people outside.
I walk down a few steps onto the towpath and get started. The very first boat I pass is white, with a deck covered in all different kinds of plants. As luck would have it, there is someone in a white t-shirt stood outside. But I get the feeling that this probably isn’t a good time- he’s very busy, drilling big wooden beams into a doorway.
“Excuse me, is this your boat?” I ask.
“No,” he replies, with a slight Dutch accent. “But I could take a message?” I tell him it doesn’t matter. “Are you sure?” I tell him it’s an art project, but I’d need to speak to someone who lives here. “An art project? Well, you want to come and speak to Alex then, she’s the arty one.”
The man immediately puts down his power tools and locks the boat up.
“I had to drop this off for her anyway,” he says, nodding to a plastic bag with a plant in it. “She’s the one who grew all that stuff on the deck.”
We walk along the river to a spot where there’s 2 boats tied together, a brown one with solar panels, then one covered in blue tarpaulin. The man jumps on to the first one, then across to the second. He signals for me to follow. I find myself standing in a little cabin next to the steering wheel, while he shouts for Alex.
She comes out, a lady in her early twenties, with short brown hair and huge expanders in both ears.
“There’s a poet here to see you,” the man says, nonchalantly, before handing the plant over and heading off to finish his work.
I start to explain what I’m here for. I do a special boating version of my introductory poem* and Alex seems really keen on getting involved. I ask her what’s important to her.
“I’ve only lived on a boat for about 3 months, but I’ve become a lot more aware of the environment,” she says.
We get talking about littering. Alex tells me that she knows someone nearby who always throws their cigarette butts into the river.
“I think for every one you throw, it poisons something like 2 litres of water,” she says. I ask her if there’s a lot of rubbish in the canal in general. “An awful amount. You wake up and look out of the window and you see a coot chewing on a bit of plastic.”
I ask her if she thinks corporations play a role in this story.
“Definitely. India is one of the biggest contributors of litter in the oceans. But it isn’t the people’s fault. There’s not enough systems in place, like a proper recycling plant, waste disposal. The manufacturers don’t care and the government aren’t really involved either.”
We talk about what needs to be changed. About the role of education, of protesting, and the importance of making small changes in your own life. I think this is a very strong subject for a poem. I make plans for delivering it, then jump out of the boat and on to dry land.
“Happy gardening,” I say.
“Happy poeting!” she replies, waving.
I start to walk north, away from the nearby construction site. After a few minutes, it begins to feel very peaceful. There’s no more buildings or roads, just lots of open space, bushes with wild blueberries on them and, for the first time, I notice how clear the water is.
After about 10 minutes, I get to Stonebridge Lock. I stop to catch my breath and head over the bridge to the other side of the canal. Outside a huge green boat, there is a man on the path fishing. He’s wearing shorts, a grey vest and has big reflective 80s sunshades on. My first impression is that he’s probably not going to be up for this. He looks like a serious fisherman. And, for all I know, he might really need to catch something today. But I decide it can’t hurt to try, so I head over.
He actually seems quite interested. I shake his hand and he tells me his name is Carl, in a broad cockney accent. I ask him what’s important to him. He pauses.
“I’d probably say family.”
“Do you see your family quite often?” I ask.
“Not really. My parents live in Norfolk. Not in the broads or nothing, in a horrible little town called Thetford.”
Carl tells me that his parents used to run pubs, so they moved around quite a lot when he was growing up.
“We’d stay until the takings were up and then we’d move on. So I lived in lots of places- Ipswich, Thetford, Peterborough, Beccles.” We talk about how this shapes you as a person. “In school you didn’t try as hard to make friends, because there was always a feeling that you’d be moving on. I don’t really keep in touch with many people now, and I think that stems from that.”
But Carl says there’s certain people in his life who he’ll always be close to.
“You know your real mates because you don’t have to keep in touch every day. You might not speak for 10 years and then, when you do, you pick up exactly where you left off.” I really like this idea, the meaning of a true friend. And it makes me think about people I have in my life who I feel the same way about.
Before I go, we get chatting about fishing.
“Do you catch much?”
“I’ve never caught anything in my life,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve ever got the rod out.” We both laugh.
This is great, I’ve only got one more person to find to reach my self-imposed target of 3 people and, so far, the success rate has been 100%. I carry on up the canal. Most of the boats I pass are empty. Up ahead, I spot a young man on a roof but, before I get close enough, he goes back inside. A little further ahead, two girls are chatting outside another boat but, again, as I get closer, they head in.
A minute later, I pass an older man who’s sat on the deck of a long red boat under a parasol. He’s wearing a green khaki cap and looks exactly like the comedian Simon Day. Judging by the pan and various utensils, I think he’s just had a fry up. I pitch the idea and he says he’s up for it, in another broad cockney accent.
He tells me his name is Dave and I ask him what’s important to him.
“Brexit,” he replies, immediately. My stomach drops: The last time someone asked me for a poem about Brexit, I found it quite hard to write. I’m hoping there’s something in here we can both agree with. I ask Dave what’s important to him about this. “The uncertainty of what’s going to happen,” he says. “There’s talk of food and medicine shortages.” Well, it’s something I can agree with.
Playing devil’s advocate, I ask Dave what he would say to someone who thinks this is all scaremongering.
“I would say we’re a small island with a lot of people and what we produce here isn’t enough to sustain a country. There’s a lot of wealth in London, and for them to talk about shortages here means it’s major. I’m a construction worker for a company called Grangewood, they do work for the Queen. They’re not taking on any more jobs until after Brexit, because of the uncertainty.”
Dave believes this is the beginning of something much worse.
“I honestly think you’ll be writing poems for people in the riots,” he says. “It’s more major than that too. I think there’s going to be a war. A world war.” It’s a grim vision of things to come and, terrifyingly, it now feels very possible. On that sobering note, I make plans for delivering the poem and head off.
Apocalyptic visions aside, this has been amazing. I’m finished and this is the best success rate I’ve ever had. I’ve been surprised by how enthusiastic the people of Tottenham have been, and the suggestions I’ve had have covered such a broad range of subjects too.
But I can’t help but feel like I’m not quite finished in London. Tottenham Lock seems more rural than I thought it would, which isn’t the first thing I think of when I think about this city. This is also my first day out trying houseboats, and I can’t help but wonder if knocking on a boat is easier than visiting a house. Can I really say I’ve proved that this can work in London if I don’t visit a house as well?
As I head back towards the half-built tower blocks, I decide I need to try this one more time.
*I’m a Door-to-Door Poet,
which sounds like it’s a nuisance,
but this could be worse-
I could be a photography student…
I’m not here looking for a scoop
on boating culture’s flavour.
I’m just here to ask a question
of a much more general nature.
In school they taught me poetry’s bust,
wrote by toffs who’ve turned to dust
on country manors, deathly shrouds,
serious lords and fluffy clouds.
I found it quite hard to relate,
I grew up on a rough estate,
walls thin as paper used to trace,
the clouds an endless tone of grey.
I’m here to make poetry exciting,
like bungee jumping, but less frightening.
So I’m at your boat to find
the subjects that flow through your mind.
Tell me about yourself,
OK, maybe not the whole of it.
I’ll stick it in a poem or at least
have a decent go at it.
Maybe you heard a great story
you’d love to hear in rhyme.
Maybe your blood is boiling
from a recent mooring fine.
Maybe you dropped your smart phone
and it fell in the river,
I don’t know, if you help me decide
then it’s much quicker.
So cheers for listening to these verses,
I hope I got across my purpose,
don’t sail away, don’t be nervous,
the Door-to-Door Poet is at your service.
This trip and the subsequent blog post has been funded by national poetry organisation Apples and Snakes. They are also supporting a performance of the show about the project, which is happening this Thursday 5th of September at Canada Water Theatre. To find out more, click here.