November 21, 2011

My new urban life

Filed under: Canal,Oxford,Politics and history — Duchess @ 10:17 pm

Agenda 21 mooring sign

Way back last summer I started to blog about how I had a new mooring.

“These days,” I wrote, “when the British Waterways inspector strides down the towpath in formal dark trousers and white short-sleeved shirt with navy epaulettes (which I guess someone in HR thought made their employees look proper nautical), I neither duck out of sight nor race out to offer him coffee and biscuits, my former alternating strategies for dealing with Pangolin’s semi-legal mooring status.  Now I don’t care when I see him tapping my license number into his hand-held electronic thingy.  He can whistle for a biscuit.”

It seemed a promising enough start, though a little unkind, and not, in fact, even true, strictly speaking.  I wouldn’t have denied the BW guy a biscuit, if I had expected him.

I’ve seen Richard (we are on a first name basis now I know how many sugars he takes) only once since I moved the boat nine miles south to just inside the Oxford city limits.  It was one of the few hot days of the summer, and I was trying to turn the clumps of nettles, brambles and ivy that line the towpath into a garden.  Every time I stuck my spade in the ground it hit rubble.

I was resting on my shovel and surveying the mound of rocks I had uncovered when Richard appeared with his epaulettes and electronics.  I glanced nervously at the rocks.  The BW rules say that I am not to alter the mooring in any way, and my biscuit tin was empty.

“I do 15 miles,” Richard replied, in response to my surprise at seeing him this far south – I thought it would be someone else’s patch — then, nodding at my boat, “I heard you moved down to Agenda 21.”  He glanced at the mound of rocks and added reassuringly, “You’ve got to make the environment friendly, don’t you?  Well, friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.”  Then he looked only half expectant before he said cheerio and headed down the towpath.  Three more miles to Oxford centre and the end of his shift.

That’s a simple enough story to relate, but I got exhausted thinking I had to explain the Byzantine rules of how British Waterways allocates moorings (in theory and in practice), how I went from squatter to semi-legal to legal, and what on earth is Agenda 21.

My exhaustion lasted all summer and well into the fall, but now I think I can explain it just one, two, three:

1. In the Old Days, when we were all Socialists, there were waiting lists.  I came to England in 1979; there were waiting lists for a telephone, for a cooker, for a car.  Thirty-some years later waiting lists were long since abandoned for almost everything, except moorings and medicine.  I think they just forgot about moorings.

2. As soon as Pangolin changed hands, her moorings were forfeit. I went on the waiting list and squatted sanguinely; it probably would have been my turn eventually if some wise guy civil servant hadn’t spent too much time on eBay getting bright ideas: as we are all Capitalists now, why shouldn’t the government throw out the lists and auction moorings on the internet instead?

3.  Meanwhile, I made a deal with Purple-Haired Emma to sublet her mooring while she went off cruising.  Subletting is not allowed, but “berth sitting for short periods” is, which Emma and I decided was much the same thing. I was well into my second year of the “short period” when the Agenda 21 mooring came up for auction. I probably could have carried on for another decade or two plying inspectors with biscuits, but I never knew when Emma would want her spot back, and anyway, I am mostly naturally law-abiding.  After four and a half years, I really wanted my own space. As is the way with auctions, I bid a little more than my absolute top price.

Which just leaves me to explain Agenda 21, an action plan that came out of the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio.  Right around the time of the summit, some developers wanted to buy the Oxford boat yards, throw out all the boaters, fill in the basin and build flats.  There was a great big fight that went on for almost a decade.

In the end the boat yards did close and the flats got built, but the boaters weren’t evicted: a long stretch of residential moorings was allowed along the canal, from the centre of Oxford to the Ring Road on the edge of the city.  The moorings were designated Agenda 21, in honour of the summit’s by then nearly forgotten plan for sustainable living. Ever after, anyone joining these moorings had to agree to “respect and take up” 10 “aspirations” and “abide by” another 6 “guidelines”.  (I’ve copied them below.)

Despite a lamentable failure to embrace the subjunctive, the original drafters of these aspirations and guidelines meant well, though I am not sure they were a lot more careful of their science than they were of their grammar.  Diesel engines and coal fires, almost universal fittings on canal boats, are not environmentally friendly.

Another ten years on, a good crop of nettles growing up the side of the boat and a clandestine electricity feed seem the most obvious mark of an Agenda 21 boater.

Pangolin has neither! (though I plead guilty to the whopping great diesel engine and the coal fire).  Nevertheless, I am willing to do my best toward the aspirations and the guidelines:  I haven’t recently threatened anyone with violence or persecution, or ever thrown ashes in the canal, and I stand ready to respect any vole or Interested Scientist who should happen by.

In the meantime I grow flowers and feed the birds.  As the BW guy said, You’ve got to make the environment friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.
The Aspirations:

Energy and natural resources are used efficiently.
Pollution is limited to levels which a natural system can cope with.
Waste is minimised.
The diversity of nature is valued and protected.
Local distinctiveness and diversity are valued and protected.
Health is promoted by clean, safe and pleasant environments.
People live without fear of personal violence and persecution.
All sections of the community are empowered to participate in decision-making.
A wide range of living styles is accepted.
The existence of environmentally sensitive areas such as vole habitats and the Sites of Special Scientific Interest are respected.

The Guidelines:

There are no site-specific services (e.g. mains electricity, water, phone lines, post boxes
There is no towpath lighting.
Be aware of generator use.  We adhere to the British Waterways regulations and in addition prefer to use solar and wind power where appropriate.
We undertake not to put harmful waste in the canal (i.e. engine oil, ashes).  All waste is disposed of appropriately.
We endeavour to share knowledge and skills for environmentally conscious living (i.e. awareness of waste disposal, biodegradable detergent, etc).
We will continue to meet and discuss relevant issues for our community in an open forum.


  1. Geez, Duchess, I just live in a house and pay property taxes. The natural gas and electricity just keep coming in as long as we pay the bills. Total no brainer. I had no idea hanging onto your accommodations was so byzantine… Hold your ground, er, slip, er, moorings. Whatever.
    Glad you’re back.

    Comment by msmeta — November 22, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

  2. There’ve been other changes too.
    Once Omnium was an exotic combination: foreigner describes unusual mode of living in our green and predominantly semi-detached land. But 1979 to 2011 is an aeon. There would have been a time when, as Thurber’s psychiatrist said, England was your meat. Those waiting lists and especially phones. Before you arrived I’d gone to the USA and come back (1965 – 1972) and I’m still dining out on the differences. How horribly depressing for us (but not for you as a writer) to discover that England had obligingly postponed its transformation into a land of convenience for all sharp-eyed East-Coasters who had their way to make here. Parenthetically, I’m basing that guess about your birthplace on one simple fact: you understand the subjunctive.
    But I read your piece as if it were a score: melody (the facts) and accompaniment (the style of telling) and I’m going to have to go back and do it again.
    Aha. License. Yes but that’s a fact not a matter of style. And in any case, almost immediately adjacent there’s a reference to biscuit and it’s quite clear it’s not one of those squeezy things one eats with breakfast, sometimes to mop up gravy.
    Fall, same thing.
    And how about sanguinely? Great protective cover.
    Berth sitting. I have an instinct about this one. You learned the concept (of bringing together two words for greater conciseness) where you were born and yet you’ve sneakily applied it to a British phenomenon. Wouldn’t stand up in court, though.
    Plying. More excellent camouflage, especially with that meaning.
    Und so weiter. You can see where I’m going of course. Once you were two things. Now only strenuous textual analysis reveals one of them. And in another thirty years it will need an eye far sharper than mine to do it again. A Henry James transformation but, it must be said, more congenial.
    Fortunately as your origins slide gracefully away, the factual side compensates and you’ve got this wonderfully ramshackle contrivance to sharpen your teeth on. Welcome back.
    PS: I suppose I could say your Sallinger-like view of fecundity ultimately betrays you.

    Comment by Barrett Bonden — November 24, 2011 @ 7:29 am

  3. Hm, what happened? You’ve been gone a long time?
    Does a permanent mooring mean there will be no further tales of adventure on the high seas, or, at least, the highways and byways of the English canal system?
    Happy Landings!

    Comment by friko — November 24, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

  4. Hello Julia,
    I’m glad you haven’t abandoned the blog. I was down to checking every month or so. You are always interesting, and you write well. Keep up the news flow. Best wishes, Diane (Lummi Island MJ)

    Comment by Diane — November 27, 2011 @ 10:19 pm

  5. The idea of being able to move about if you want to has always pleased me. I am glad you have been able to navigate the complex regulations

    Comment by rosie — December 9, 2011 @ 3:29 am

  6. Please write more often so I won’t lose my own moorings.

    Comment by ruth pennebaker — January 9, 2012 @ 8:31 pm

  7. I work in Oxford, I often cycle past the Wolvercote moorings and observe the boats – it’s very interesting to read an inside view.
    I recently met a smart gentleman who was moored up just below Donny Bridge on the Thames. His very tidy blue barge’s roof was completely covered in solar panels, not an inch to spare, and a lovely smell of woodsmoke wafted up from his chimney.
    He explained that his engine is electric, so when his batteries charge enough he can silently move on – of course in the summer he can move a lot more. His appliances are efficient so he doesn’t need a generator or mains connection.
    He burns wood to keep warm which is much better for the environment than burning coal – if it has been obtained from sustainable sources it’s completely carbon neutral. He doesn’t need to burn much because his boat is well insulated.
    Of course converting your boat to do all this would cost a small fortune. But having read about the Agenda 21 and your reliance on fossil fuels I just had to chip in.

    Comment by Touring Piano Tuner — April 10, 2012 @ 4:42 am

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