Helen Babbs’ 2016 book Adrift was my choice of holiday reading whilst touring the Cornish coast in England last week. Describing life aboard a traditional canal boat named Pike , Babbs and her partner known only as ‘S’ tour London’s waterways, not for leisure but as an alternative to living hand-to-mouth in tiny, over-priced flats in the city.
This isn’t a romantic view of life lived off-grid, it’s a warts and all account of the stark reality of living an alternative lifestyle which is both demanding and rewarding in equal measure. Babbs doesn’t shy away from detailing the rationing of water for a shower, the worry about her personal hygiene or the unpleasantness of disposing of their own waste matter in view of passing public. She describes brilliantly the harshness of the winter months, the reluctance to emerge from a warm bed into the freezing cabin and the hurried act of dressing into thick layers.
But as winter fades into spring so the natural habitat of the marshland and wasteland which surrounds them grabs her attention and she details the diversity of wild flowers and plants to be found in the most unlikely of places: Burdock, Chickweed, Hemlock, Alexanders, Great Valerian, Hedge Mustard, Mugwort, Fennel, Cleavers, Cow Parsley and Elder to name but a few. It’s a reminder of what we miss in our own suburban backyards and more importantly, what we must fight to preserve.
And fight we must, Babbs makes a compelling case for radically rethinking how our towns and cities are managed and the effects of over development on both our natural habitat and the human cost of driving people further into housing debt or forced migration to city outskirts and beyond. She describes the hangover from the London Olympics and the irreparable cost to life as Londoners once knew it before the developers moved in and flattened allotments, the removal of marooned boats and the damage to the local river systems and its effect on the fish which inhabit it.
Not all is bad as Babbs, to her credit, points out. Trees have been planted and green areas created but at every turn that sense of place and belonging is being eroded by those who know best and the result, if we allow it will be a Singapore of sorts, a city stripped of its natural history and replaced by sculpted zones to appease the protesters and that is happening beyond London’s borders and waterways and into smaller towns and cities at a cost to our own well being and that of a continually confused and harassed wildlife whose landscape is forever changing.
Babbs makes a compelling case for rethinking how we live and what we truly value. Canal life is far from easy, laws dictate that they must move on from a chosen place every two weeks and work is taken wherever and whenever it can be found, it is a life which does not come with that sense of security and place which bricks and mortar can provide us but for those whose calling is a city like London then a life can be lived on its waterways and as a society we should ensure that tradition is maintained and treasured. We all too easily forget our not so distant past and especially the importance of our waterways before the age of the railway track. Babbs reminds us on the beautiful serenity a water system cutting through a town or city provides and we should cherish and nurture it before it’s too late.
Adrift by Helen Babbs is published by Icon Books Ltd.
Categories: The Reading Room
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