A blog, an old boat and the Slow Boat approach

I see this blog both as a storage box containing a collection of playful, inventive strategies for exploring a personal response to an old boat and themes relating to the Water Road; and a dynamic means of sharing and savouring just a few of the things I’d like to hold on to as we rush headlong into the 21st century.

In previous posts I shared my thinking about what I’ve called a SLOWboat approach. Being a bit of a ‘list person’ I found it helpful to sub-divide my thinking into six sections: boat, silence, seasonality, sense of place, simplicity and savouring.

Over the next six SLOWboat posts I’m going to explore each of these sections in more detail, starting with boat.

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The first thing to stress is that each section is meant to be seen expansively, so the boat section isn’t just about boats, no more than modern nature writing is solely about a particular landscape, flower, bird or animal.

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In the boat section I’m hoping to extend the idea of boat to include not only the specificity of an actual old iron boat but also the symbolism of boat as a vessel for ideas or as a means of keeping afloat.

In fact I see the boat section as a place where I describe a journey of exploration into better understanding and appreciating the world around me. A space for making creative, imaginative, even playful connections between a personal involvement in a piece of industrial heritage (ie. the physical renovation of the boat) and different disciplines such as industrial, social and natural history.

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I decided to use the word boat rather than the more specific narrowboat or barge as a title for the section because of its wider cultural associations and idioms: ‘slow boat to China’ / lifeboat / ‘all in the same boat’ / pleasure boat / ‘missing the boat’ / sustainable transport / ‘rock the boat’ or ‘pushing the boat out’

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I’m hoping that the boat section will also reflect my interest in, amongst other things psychogeography, which seeks to combine subjective and objective knowledge with the study of the effects of environments on people’s feelings and behaviour.

Psychogeography is all about a hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge a space.

I touched on psychogeography when I reviewed Nick Papadimitriou’s book Scarp.

Papadimitriou is a key member of a cluster of nerdy, poetic and  inexplicably trendy local historians who make a career out of going on long rambling walks and then writing and talking about them. His work was the subject of The London Perambulator, a 2009 film by John Rogers (who’s own book ‘This Other London’ I’ll be reviewing shortly) featuring Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Russell Brand. The London Perambulator is probably the most accessible and fun introduction to modern psychogeography and, hopefully can be seen in full here…

Or more briefly in this Newsnight clip:

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Papadimitriou’s focal point is the Middlesex-Hertfordshire borderlands of North London. He’s fascinated with every detail of it no matter how bizarre or commonplace, and explores it through archane and accidental knowledge, through maps, found artifacts and the remnants of human lives. Papadimitriou calls himself a ‘deep topographer’ rather than psychogeographer and provides six tips to help kick start your very own ‘deep topography’ experience:

  1. Go walking. Stay away from bright lights.
  2. Explore second hand bookshops. Buy books on topography – on areas, regions, counties. Study them. Then walk around and see whether you can make sense of the present landscape in relation to the past. This way you’ll get more tension and depth in your engagement with the landscape.
  3. Go out on your own without any maps and without a digital camera. Digital cameras are the death of the imagination.
  4. Go in any direction that suits you. Go in unfamiliar directions. Go in familiar directions and try and see things in a new way.
  5. Develop a sense of contours. They tell you a lot about the tensions and releases of the landscape and the way the ancillary aspects if the landscape (such as sewage and drainage systems) are organised. It will build up your sense of place.
  6. Develop a poetry out of the commonplace. The two aren’t opposites. The inexplicable and the obvious reside alongside each other.

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With a respectful nod to Nick, here’s my take on deep topography as might be applied to the boat section, what you might be called water coursing or deep charting?!?

  1. Get afloat. Stay close to the water. Go inland.
  2. Explore second hand bookshops. Buy books on the inland waterways  – on social, industrial, natural history; on navigations and folk art etc. Study them. Then walk the Water Road, or sit aboard the boat, or gather around the stove and talk, and look, and see whether you can make sense of the present in relation to the past and your own engagement with the landscape.
  3. Go out on your own with old maps and a digital camera. Digital cameras can frame the imagination.
  4. Let your thinking take off in any direction that suits you. Go in unfamiliar directions. Go in familiar directions and try and see things in a new way.
  5. Develop a sense of the transience of things. Enjoy the moment and the history. Build up your sense of place by valuing the senses, knowledge and feelings equally.
  6. Develop a poetry out of the commonplace. The two aren’t opposites. The inexplicable and the obvious talk to and reside alongside each other.
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