Illustration: Alan Baker
Look upon any group of moored narrowboats and you’ll see a community of people who live almost on top of each other: packed like ants into colourful colonies in bustling marinas or rubbing alongside each other, serried ranks of boats sitting cheek-by-jowl on towpaths. Live on a boat, and you’re rarely more than a few metres from your nearest neighbour, whose presence can be sensed even when they can’t be physically seen. As a result, you become strangely familiar with the daily routine of complete strangers who soon, almost unavoidably, turn from neighbours to friends. It’s quite possible that somebody could live on a boat and not get on with their neighbours, but it wouldn’t be a lot of fun given how much time you end up spending in each other’s company. There are times when you are literally tied together – a mutual bond with a symbolism that’s hard to ignore.
When you live on a boat you will hear so much – sometimes a little too much – of what is happening on the boat next door, no matter how carefully your neighbours try to keep things under wraps. The sneezes, the clatter of dinner being prepared, the noise of the TV, any conversation where voices are even slightly raised. You’ll know when and how frequently your neighbour takes a shower by the gush of water entering the canal and you’ll quickly learn to tolerate or even enjoy their favourite music or TV shows. You’ll soon find out exactly what time they leave for work, when they return, how they greet their wife, husband or dog, when they go to bed and how heavy their step is. The minutiae of their routine will became as familiar as your own, acting almost like an alternative clock. It’s a pattern against which you can map the comings and goings of your own day.
There are times when living in such close proximity to your neighbours brings a curious kind of distance, exaggerating the differences between you. This is particularly the case in the summer, when doors and roof hatches are left open to the heat, allowing delightful smells and the sound of clinking wine glasses and conspiratorial giggles to waft across from next door’s evening feast while you sit alone with a cheap ready meal watching Eastenders. Given how easy it is to eavesdrop on each other, discretion is often required. Blackmailers would have a field day on the towpath were it not for the fact most boaters accept that secrets won’t stay secret for long, and pretty much expect the best gossip to spread from one end of the mooring to the other before the morning is over.
Neighbours are not just for listening to. When boats are moored abreast of each other windows will often sit face-to-face, often with barely six inches of air in between. On such occasions, it’s worth keeping the curtain closed at all times, for fear of your neighbour suddenly looming into view at the least appropriate time. Even with close friends, there’s something spectacularly awkward about standing at the sink doing the washing up while trying not to make eye contact with a neighbour standing mutely a foot away doing exactly the same. Perhaps it’s the mundanity, but frankly nobody looks their best when scrubbing dishes.
There’s also the wobble, the reassuring little bounce and roll that comes from the physical interaction of boats that are moored to the same pontoon or directly alongside each other. To put it simply, if you touch one boat, the other will react. There’s something rather pleasing about this, a tangible reminder of the presence of other people and the effect they have on you simply by sharing your space.
As a result of all this, boaters tend to form close bonds. Your neighbour is not an abstraction, they are somebody who you see, hear and feel on a daily basis. That’s fed by the fact you share a lifestyle, a way of life that’s strange, possibly unique, and as a result is hard for non-boaters to ever fully understand. They’ll lend you coal, medicine or milk, or let you use their shower if your own is kaput. Nothing is really out of bounds and you get to know friends and family as you live in and out of each other’s pockets. As with so many aspects of boat life, there’s something liberating about this. You can’t really hide anything – you cannot pretend your life is any different to how it really is – and as a result you are able to share so much.