Babbs, Helen (2016) Adrift A Secret Life of London’s Waterways Icon Books ISBN 978 1 84831 920 2

Back in the mid-eighties I lived afloat on the London Cut, more specifically on the Regent’s Canal.

Scan 7
1987, the cabin of ‘Lily Jane’ a Thames slipper launch, and my first London home…

Any book about the Capital’s waterways will grab my attention. And, Helen Babb’s Adrift is a wonderful addition to the library of London canal literature.

The publicity blurb pretty much captures it:

From deep winter to late autumn, from east to west, Adrift takes the reader on a tour of the people, politics, history and wildlife of London’s canals and rivers. Blending nature writing, social observation and memoir, Helen Babbs invites you on an eye-opening journey into a different side of the city. From Walthamstow Marsh in the east to Uxbridge in the west, Helen Babbs journeys along London’s waterways on a canal boat called Pike, putting down roots for two weeks at a time before moving on. Taking in the River Lea and the Lee Navigation, the Regent’s Canal and the Grand Union, she explores the London landscape in all its guises: marshland, wasteland, city centre and suburb. Adrift charts a year of Helen’s life on Pike, exploring the changes wreaked by the seasons as well as by developers, and recounting the practical trials of living aboard. It is a story of mapping and discovery, of escape and opting out, but also of making connections and finding home. Just as the coots and cormorants dodge the detritus of a large city, so too does Helen wend through the beauty and the dirt to reveal an intimate and unusual portrait of London and of life.

This is Babbs’ second non-fiction book after ‘My Garden, the City and Me’ they have urban nature and London in common, and a blending of nature writing, social observation and memoir. Adrift is an intimate and unusual portrait of London, and of modern life, through the lens of it’s waterways.

We have learned to call the canal ‘the Cut’. It’s a name that expresses its slim shape, its depth, its certain tang. It also invokes the past. This industrial gash, this wet wound, was sliced into the earth by hand. It may have more in common with a pond than a river, but the water’s character is mobile. Sometimes the Cut is stretched out as smooth and tight, a high-sheen sheet of smoked glass; other times it is sharply crumpled; others gently ribbed and ruffed. It’s moulded into shade and shape by the weather, and the creatures and boats that move through it. It is a chameleon, a waterway with what Ted Hughes might call a ‘picture skin’, one that absorbs and reflects back all that is around and above it. pg. 80 Adrift

A fixed line that is grim in places, inviting in others, slipping from hostile to benign, from romantic to weird, and back. All cities need something like it, something old and imperfect, littered but alive, an attractor of strange fowl and folk. The Cut is another volatile place then, another fault line along which to make a home. pg. 80 Adrift

Like all London’s waterways, the Cut offers us what Peter Ackroyd calls ‘liquid history’, which I take to mean a dynamic story that continues to accumulate; a story that isn’t tied to a single moment in time. The Regent’s canal collects around and within it a multitude of buildings, objects, people, memories and ideas. It courses, revolutionary, through the 19th century; it plods, depressed, through the 20th; and it emerges triumphant in the 21st. It time travels. It merges the present with the past. pg.160 Adrift

As Sarah Henshaw writes in the Waterways World:

It’s not just the quality of the writing that singles this out as one of the best waterways books for decades, but its timeliness too…mandatory reading for anyone considering a life afloat in London, and can’t come recommended highly enough to others with an interest in our capital’s waterways and the lives – human or otherwise – they harbour.

‘Beauty and dirt’, ‘mapping and discovery’, ‘escape and opting out’, Adrift is a sensitive and thoughtful polemic and a clear-sighted eulogy to a nomadic way of life that allows those on relatively modest incomes and a taste for adventure, a chance to live in the heart of the city.


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