Back to the Boats

Captain’s Log 14/09/19 13:49


I’m walking along the canal in Tottenham, on my way to Stonebridge Lock. Today I’m delivering the poems for Dave, Alex and Carl, who I met in some houseboats here 3 weeks ago. On a return journey, I’m reminded of how peaceful it is. It’s a really sunny day, people are lounging around by the still water. Everything is lazy and slow- it’s not what I first think of when I think about London.


The logistics of meeting people has been a little more complicated than usual. When you live on a boat, you don’t always know where you’re going to be. I’ve arranged to see Dave here at the Waterside Café at 2 o’clock but, when I first met him, he explained that he’d dropped his mobile in the canal, so I have no way of ringing to make sure he’s still coming. I’ve been in touch with Alex. She’s moved to Hackney Wick, but she’s kindly offered to meet me here at 2 o’clock as well.

This just leaves Carl. Carl is now in Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. So, once I’m done at Stonebridge, I’m going to walk back to Tottenham Hale station and take a short train journey to the countryside. It all seems doable, but my mobile battery is on the blink. I’m worried it could cut out at any minute, leaving me with no map and no way of contacting Carl.


After a 10 minute walk, I spot the café. I order a coffee and sit down at a little silver table outside. About 2 minutes later, Alex arrives. She’s wearing a long black wig and rose-tinted spectacles.
“I’ve been really looking forward to this,” she says.


When I asked Alex what was important to her, she talked about the environment. She was bothered by how many people throw their cigarette butts in the canal. She told me that every one that gets thrown in poisons about 2 gallons of water. I didn’t know this.

I started researching the #BinTheButt campaign and wrote a poem about that. It’s also heavily inspired by Murray Lachlan Young’s ‘Put it in the bag’. I read it out and pass her a copy. She seems genuinely pleased that she gets to keep this.

We get chatting about pets. It turns out we’ve both had pet rats. To anyone who’s never had one, the concept can seem a bit weird. But we talk about how they’re actually very clean, intelligent and loving animals, and they live a long time too.
“I had one called Poe,” Alex tells me, “after Edgar Allan. I taught him to spin on command, it’s really easy to do actually.”


After about 45 minutes, Alex needs to go. We get a quick picture and I wave to her as she heads off down the path.


Tim the shop assistant’s in the park on a break,
he throws his cigarette butt next to the lake.
Along comes a duck who has a little drag,
next thing you know it’s addicted to the fags.

You’ve got to bin the butt, Tim, put it in a tray,
a duck shouldn’t smoke 40 cigarettes a day.
You’ve got to bin the butt, Tim, make sure you bag it,
a duck can’t afford that kind of nicotine habit.

John’s on his way from a football game,
he chucks away his tab and it rolls down the drain,
it heads through the sewer to the ocean where it floats,
gets found by a jellyfish who starts to have a toke.

It’s all wrong, John, it’s not the way it’s done,
jellyfish aren’t meant to smoke, they don’t have any thumbs.
You’ve got to bin the butt, John, don’t be insane.
You can’t warn a jellyfish, it doesn’t have a brain.

So, the next time you’re going to drop a smoke,

Bin the Butt.



I’ve already had a look around for Dave, but I try one more time to make sure he’s not here. I don’t think he’s coming. But it’s OK, I know things can change. It’s hard to say what you’re going to be doing in 3 weeks at the best of times, never mind when you don’t have a mobile and need to constantly move your house.

Dave asked for a poem about the problems of a no-deal Brexit. Our conversation reminded me of a heated debate I got into on Facebook. Dave was saying it would be great if I could try to get the finished piece on the radio. If you’re reading this, Dave, I am working on that but, if it doesn’t happen, I hope it finds you here.

No Deal

The hospital’s stockpiling medicine,
while the factory floors are left quiet.
The police and the army are training
to deal with the oncoming riots.
You tell me it’s all paranoia,
constructed to make us afraid,
and I’m trying to see it through your eyes,
this country is rancid with hate.

But when you say that they’re getting the job done,
that your family’s future’s secure,
I can’t help but wonder what they’ve done
to make you feel so fucking sure?
When the queues for the foodbanks
are looped round the block
and the pound has dropped down
to half what it was
and the benefit cuts
have killed hundreds of thousands
and your company’s ending your job.

Is it possible they could be lying?
Is there anything they stand to gain
from making your life that bit harder?
Should they shoulder a portion of blame?
When a privately taught millionaire
who’s made fun of the poor and the weak
starts preaching the will of the people,
I see a wolf as a sheep.

And I don’t want to turn this against you,
I believe that we’re stronger together.
But when you tell me that this is the answer,
I say sorry, but we can do better.



I’m standing at a canal in Broxbourne. It’s pretty. There’s a winding hole full of families on pedal boats, and a big pub called The Crown, with chestnut trees and a busy beer garden. A little further down the path, I spot Carl waving from his boat.


I walk over and he invites me inside. It’s absolutely huge in here, it’s like the TARDIS. There’s a living area with a sofa, a wood burning stove and a rug over the polished oak floor.


Carl tells me his girlfriend is in Nashville, that she’s just had a poem written for her too.
“There was a guy on the side of the street with a typewriter,” he says. “Kind of similar to what you do. We’re going to frame both of them and stick them up on the wall.”

Feeling like the pressure is on, I get the poem out. I tell him I ran with the idea of what a true friend means, that it got me thinking about my best mate, Robin, who’s lived in China for a long time now. I read it out.
“It reminds me of some friends I have in Australia,” he says.

Carl tells me he lived in Australia for 8 years and he met some people out there that he’ll never forget. One even let him stay in his house for a year after Carl found himself with nowhere else to go.
“He’d just got married,” he laughs. “They’re settling down to a quiet domestic life, and here’s me, the surrogate son.”

With the poetry business suitably concluded, Carl asks me if I want to stay for a drink. I suggest we pop in the beer garden at The Crown. He locks up the boat and, jumping on to dry land, we head off down the sun dappled path…



We used to share a house,
we live on other sides of the planet-
waking up means something different.

In the evening,
as I wipe down the sides,
I know he is hurtling
head first
into a sunrise that hasn’t happened yet.

It hurts sometimes,
I don’t see him much.
I have never sat on his sofa,
or ate at his favourite restaurant.

But, when we speak,
we are synchronised clocks,
an unpaused film from where it left off.
He is still the friend I hold
above all those
who pass like childhood crazes.

For every day I’ve wished him back,
it was the long goodbyes
that showed this.
It was the space in-between us
that made me understand the closeness.

Rowan McCabe

This trip and the subsequent blog post has been generously funded by Apples and Snakes.



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