Tuesday 29 March 2011

Love is...

...letting her borrow your favourite chair.

It's no mean chair. Not a great looker, a bit worn, but comfortable. Great for a cup of tea and a read. Half my students make a beeline for it, half feel that my great age and seniority mean the honour should be mine.

Trouble is, this chair is exactly the right height and shape for those who've just exchanged one knee-joint for another. Easy to get into, easy to get out of, back support without pressure points, allows the operated leg to do what it should. No amount of pleading about the efficacy of our existing Ikea models made any impression whatsoever. So home it came.

The Erin Mae came with a couple of those Captain's chairs you see in narrowboat adverts. They're very nice, good for a snooze when slightly tilted, definitely a grade up from the Ikea's. So I'm just hoping my best beloved doesn't develop the notion that the chair from my study is the only thing that will do should we manage to go boating in a couple of weeks.

Love surely has its limits...?

Sunday 27 March 2011

Scar tissue

One and two and three and ... and ten. This isn't the Oxford boat crew warming down. This is my best beloved counting the seconds for her leg lift. The most bizarre recovery exercise is when, sitting down, she pumps her arms alternately and enthusiastically into the air for a suitable period, apparently to help maximise cardio-vascular function. The most obviously productive exercise is standing up, organising the washing into stuff-to-be-dried-this-way and the rest. She's home!

Much of it seems to be about preventing scar tissue forming. Erin Mae already has a few scars from our boating operations, but nothing that can't be sorted by the subtle use of a paint brush. Surgical operations are a different matter – post-op scar tissue can compromise mobility if it prevents the flexing of the knee. So it's ice and exercises and pain control.

And then there are the other scars. Sometimes, in tutorials, my students explore with me the deeper scars they carry, and that can also be an exercise in pain management. Understanding themselves is a pre-requisite for working with other people. No superficial solutions here. Just hard graft, because old wounds become familiar but false friends, and dealing with them effectively can feel like surgery. Pain to confront pain – this is where the recent film of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader needed to stick more closely to Lewis's text about the healing of Eustace.

But, for my best beloved, Erin Mae beckons. The cost-benefit analysis has been done. Time for more ice!

Friday 25 March 2011

Pain and Privilege

Pain’s a killer. Sorting out my best beloved’s pain control after her knee exchange took a long time – analgesics do funny things to her, and she’s oscillated between agony and nausea. Yesterday she managed some physio exercises – really important for future mobility. Gradually they’re getting on top of the situation.

And then we see what’s going on in Libya, Yemen, Syria, you name it...  People getting shot instead of healed. We think about the dozens of places we know of where minorities are persecuted, imprisoned, murdered, legally or otherwise. So much pain. So little healing.

Bones said “I live in Paradise”, with a sense of wonder and privilege. For us, owning Erin Mae is a privilege. We thought about it long and hard before buying, talked it over with friends. How much we could do for hurting people elsewhere with the thousands to be spent on this boat!

In the end, you make your choices and live with the tensions. We are massively privileged to live in an age of analgesics, within a system where they are available. We are incredibly privileged to own Erin Mae, and want her to be a place of peace and joy and healthy growing. But we won’t forget those in pain around the world, for whose healing we can do so little.

Tuesday 22 March 2011


Today my best beloved exchanged her defunct right knee joint for another, crafted of wondrous modern materials which have no need of synovial fluid for lubrication. We were surprised when the consultant said new for old was the only option, but delighted that the NHS came up trumps so quickly.

So our helmsman’s course and my learning how to manage Erin Mae single-handed will come in the wrong order. At this point, expressions such as “thrown in at the deep end” and “sink or swim” aren’t helpful. But my beloved is very resourceful, and could probably manage two crutches, a tiller, a lifebelt and a boathook in an emergency.

Some, of course, do the single-handed bit all the time, and not just at the helm. Respect! And doubtless double respect in two and a half weeks, when our anniversary break comes around and we find out what it means in practice. Anyone with snippets of advice (apart from “Don’t!”), is welcome to leave a comment.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Real Boaters (Stage 1)

On Friday we had our first night on board Erin Mae. Temperatures were around freezing outside, so we kept the heating on low, just in case. Saturday was a glorious day, and we made 5 miles towards Stone before turning round.

This involved working three locks in both directions, the first we'd encountered since a week on the Llangollen canal in NB Jireh in 2003. At the first (Hoo Mill Lock) we had another example of the mixture of helpfulness and respect that you meet on the cut. As we were filling the lock to come up, NB Goosander was waiting to come down. I said sorry for the time it was taking as I made sure I was doing things in the right order, and they came over to help and to offer advice. Thanks guys! Later on, as we were hurrying back because of the hour, we were passing a moored boat we thought had no-one on board – until the owner came out and asked if I wasn't going a bit fast. It was a gentle reminder, and I duly apologised. Working out an appropriate speed for any given point isn't hard, but good judgement comes with experience.

Last weekend I said we wouldn't be proper boaters until we'd had our first night on board. Actually, as we made our way back to the marina, it felt that we wouldn't really be proper boaters until we were on a journey, not just a day trip. That's life.

Working Hoo Mill Lock

Stopped for lunch

The Bridge at Salt – patterns in the brickwork

Monday 14 March 2011

Banjo strings and memories

Tonight I put new strings on my banjo. My best beloved gave me this instrument as an engagement present about 4 decades ago, and I think this is the first time I’ve re-strung it. Something’s going on!

It’s a long neck, Pete Seeger style with a mellow sound, good for accompanying singing (pity about the voice). I’ve always loved having it – the problem was the transition from the guitar. Younger brother is perfectly comfortable on either, so it can be done. But the finger memory wasn’t there and I never took the time to build it in.

Coaxing musical sounds out of almost anything is one of my ideas of fun, and retirement will bring opportunities for getting my fingers around some new instruments. If they’re to spend half the year on the Erin Mae, however, they’ll need to be of a size to suit, especially having to share a cupboard with the guitar. The penny whistles will come. I’ll probably find a blues harp that I can try to bend like older brother number one does. There may even be room for a melodeon if I can work out which system I want. But the banjo’s been staring at me all these years with a sad, neglected look, and this may be its opportunity.

When we started on the journey that led to the Erin Mae, one of the motivators was the potential for building memories for our Norwegian grandchildren. It seems I may be working just as hard at building memories for my fingers.

Sunday 13 March 2011


Obsessions are energy-sapping, even one as innocent as ours with the weather forecast for last Saturday – it didn't help that it changed every day. But, come Saturday morning, we were on the road early in bright sunshine, and found Great Haywood cloudy but dry. Finally we had to choose between getting on with the spring clean there and then, or going for a first cruise. Hm...

The engine started sweetly, and we manoeuvred through the rows of boats and the narrow marina entrance. Left to the junction with the Staffs and Worcs Canal, and then a mile down to Tixall Wide. It was a slow journey, partly because we were getting used to the boat, partly because we weren't in a hurry, and partly because there are a lot of boats moored around the junction, and it's etiquette to pass them with a minimum of disturbance.

Tixall Wide, for those who don't know, is where the local landlord insisted on the original cutters two centuries ago widening the canal to the dimensions of a small lake, to enhance the view from his house. It's a fine spot, and we'd earmarked it as our target. The highlight of the day was when, watching us execute a nice 180 degree turn to end up by the towpath ready for mooring, a walker out with a dog said "That clearly wasn't the first time you've done that." Oh yes it was! But then she hadn't heard the all the revving in reverse further back up the cut to avoid sliding into one obstacle or another.

So we had celebratory coffee and cake, photographed the wild life and just enjoyed being out in our boat. The drizzle began on the journey back, but it didn't matter – we'd had our first cruise, short as it was. The next milestone will be to have a night on board, once the equipment is all installed and the water system is back in operation after the winter break. Then we'll really be able to call ourselves boaters.

Monday 7 March 2011


Christmas Carols are getting less predictable. Trendy new ones substitute traditional old(e) ones. Classic arrangements get upstaged by the avant-garde. TV Carols, on the other hand, are completely predictable. You can guarantee that Carol Vorderman will solve that maths problem quicker than you can say “detox”. And you can guarantee that Carol Kirkwood, no matter what meteorological disasters she informs you of, will do so with the brightest smile on the breakfast show. It’s worthwhile having a really complicated weather system (the stormy details of which therefore need a long time to expound) just to get a double dose of the pleasure with which she notifies you of your impending doom, even if her “Good morning” doesn’t take quite as many seconds now as when she first started showing us what a breath of fresh air really meant.

If only the actual content of the weather forecasts was as reliable. We’re planning a visit to Great Haywood for this Saturday. The first good clean of the Erin Mae’s living space, and the transfer of a deal of domestic equipment ready for spending some quality time with this latest addition to the family. Possibly even our first saunter out of the marina – an experimental cruise down to Tixall Wide and back would be brilliant! So what’s the weather going to be like? Will we just look at rain through the windows? Will the wind prevent us getting safely out and back? Accuweather.com – now there’s a name. 15 day forecasts, and they know about Great Haywood. Oh – 11 hours of rain predicted and a wind gusting to 25 knots. Not so good. Check again today. Now it’s just occasional rain and drizzle, for only 4 hours. Go to the BBC – they aren’t acquainted with Great Haywood, it seems, but they know about Stafford and Rugeley. Just white cloud for Rugeley, light rain for Stafford. Well, it’s all a bit more promising than yesterday’s Accuweather forecast, but who knows what it will actually be like?

So we’ll report back after the event. Assuming we get there, of course. No accidents on the way. No last minute change of plan. Nothing untoward to make people think we didn’t keep our word. For this Saturday, we’re aiming at a minimum of 50% predictability.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

St David's Day – Licensed at last

So finally we're legal. If, that is, we were in a position to travel to Great Haywood, get everything ready for cruising, summon our courage, manage the marina maze and manoeuvre out through the entrance on to water owned by BW, without causing permanent damage to our boat, someone else's boat or the local ecosystem.

What I really mean is – I sent the fee to BW and they haven't yet returned it as being the wrong amount, or for some error on the application form. Mind you, they haven't sent me the licence yet either. Well, it seems from the blogs that waiting for a licence is a fairly normal part of a boater's life.

But now that the cruising part of this adventure has come upon us, at least in theory, I'm nervous. The engine switch and tiller are the least of my concerns. I don't yet have a sensible checklist of must-have equipment, but in my imagination it grows daily. It's both comforting and scary to visit the boating forums – they're filled with the friendliest people, who all seem to be intimately acquainted with the skeg and quite happy to weld a piece of tubing where it's needed. I'm a weird mixture of the impetuous (we decided on the Erin Mae in an hour) and the pernickety-cautious (analysing all the reasons not to do something). If something goes wrong with a house, at least you're not usually drifting towards a weir or getting claustrophobic and deisel-fumed 300 metres into a tunnel!

So I think we'll sign up for an Inland Waterway Helmsman's Certificate course. Anyone who knows a good place to do one is welcome to leave a comment. As is anyone who remembers how they felt on the run up to their first trip in their own boat.