[Ed’s note: Today’s post comes to us from the letters N.A.S. and the number 1.]
Given the average speed of a canal boat still, 100 years after the horse-drawn era, doesn’t stretch much beyond that of a strolling pony, it’s perhaps understandable that a landlubber such as I expected a gentle and relaxed pace of life when visiting Tom and Emily on their boat.
The reality was a highly active, physical experience. A lie-in extending no further than 9am, boat checks followed by someone taking to the bank to untie the boat and then shove all sixteen ton of steel out into the channel before jumping aboard. At regular distances the choice had to be taken whether to moor up (again, jump on shore, pilot tossing a rope to the bank, bank crew pulling the boat close then tying up) or to head straight into the locks. The locks themselves came in a variety of styles and sizes each requiring a tweak to the rhythm and routine. There were mechanisms it took my full body weight and both hands on the jack to get moving – a few lock gates of such weight it took full all-in pressure to drive them into position. And, of course, with the boat within the lock, someone then had to close the gates at the entry and dash to the front of the boat to sort the lock gates ready for exiting.
The intellectual occupation was, again, something I’d underrated. Before the boat goes anywhere the intrepid duo have already studied the map to gain a sense of the obstacles ahead and likely landing places. There’s a loose consensus on where they might park that evening based on consideration of facilities at various landing sites, or the need to re-fill the water tanks or source food. They step outside and, using a mnemonic I can’t recall at this point, they’re reloading the grease into the propeller mechanism then pumping the water out of it, checking their diesel level then the oil level in the engine, taking a look at the lubricant levels, attaching the tiller arm – all before they even consider moving. At other points in the weekend the written records of water, diesel, expenditure and date/location are updated and significant time invested in preparing the blog entries that it’s too easy to take for granted as a passive desk-bound consumer of the result. I appreciated it differently after an hour and a half sat in a pub observing the process of polishing just one entry that had, apparently, been living in Tom’s mind for days.
I think that sometimes people think ‘doing nothing’ is relaxing. I’d argue that the best way to calm the mind is to do something that fills the mind with tactile and enjoyably engrossing activity – something that stops all the stray thoughts firing. The physical and mental activity of boating felt similar to meditation or tai chi, a series of controlled motions and movements at required intervals with something always there with a challenge for the brain to digest whether that meant evaluating distances from other boats, or the precise moment to swing the boat into the relatively tight entrance of a bridge. There was not an ounce of stress to it all, just excitement, fresh motion, a genuine pleasure. It left me so blissful I couldn’t remember my work log-in on Monday morning.
The variety mattered too. Tom and Emily have successfully cast themselves free from the external pressure of normal life – this perhaps explained their constant smiles, I’m serious, I’d catch them out the corner of my eye simply stood smiling the way most office-workers spend at least a little time each day staring into space while frowning toward the floor/ceiling/window. Everything could happen at its own pace, there was no rush, no demand that it all happen at a pace they didn’t wish – they possessed total control which, at this level, proves to be synonymous with letting the tides decide. With the right equipment weather proved irrelevant – rain lent interest rather than unpleasantness; strong winds weighted fresh challenge on top of their expert steerage; the morning chill brightened the mind same as the touch of mist lent it magic; the sunshine dusted the day in pure glory. Pauses to explore towns and villages, heightened awareness of birds and their song, playing games, chat over a well-earned pint in a newly discovered pub, the effort put into each meal…The variety of each day was breathtaking.
I ultimately think ANYONE can do a job; work is easy. People will often throw themselves into work because, ultimately, work comes with clearly defined rules, processes, hierarchies, ways of deciding and clear objectives – it’s simpler than real life. To step out into the world, to decide that all 24 hours of their day are theirs to command and that they’ll do it all themselves…I think Tom and Emily are showing true guts, true courage. And, even better, they look so happy as a result. It summed it up for me when, during a night-time conversation about what any of us would do with unlimited money, Tom eventually shrugged and said “to be honest, if I had £100 million pounds, I’d have great difficulty telling you that I’d be doing anything different to exactly what I’m doing now.” This seems to me the definition of a life well-lived and greatly to be admired.