One boating experience common to most of us who chose to live afloat is the sudden, unexpected and total loss of power from the engine. There we were, happily trundling up the canal when – conk. Our boat, MacGuffin, moved to her inertia, rather than our will. Much mystery ensued. Was it the gearbox? Was it the oil? Fuel? Fortunately we were within a thrown rope of the bank, and once secured, Skipper pored over his engine manual, hoping to find answers.
The answer was not, however, in the manual. It was in the weed hatch. If you don’t know what a weed hatch is, it’s behind the engine, a rectangular opening, enabling the intrepid to inspect the propellor. In the past I’ve found weeds (surprise) impeding our propellor, and also plastic bags, and on one regrettably memorable occasion, a dead rabbit. Such things have slowed us down, but never before brought us to such a grinding halt. I have to say, Skipper was the one who discovered the duvet while I had gone to get a bottle of wine – my imperfect solution to any conundrum. I returned to find him crouched in the back of the boat, up to his shoulders in water, wrestling with a large, white, amorphous substance where our propeller had once been. Evidently, it had been in the water, found it’s way under MacGuffin, and wrapped itself around the blades. Skipper had taken two pairs of scissors to it, and after an hour and a half of hacking, produced rather less white fluffy stuff than would make the meanest Santa Claus beard.
We slept on the problem, moored where we oughtn’t, but unable to move. The next day I went in with grim determination, rubber gloves and a freshly sharpened pair of scissors. After an hour and a half of cutting, twisting, unwinding and pushing, I eventually stood up in the back of MacGuffin (slightly startling some passing tourists) and with a mighty heave, birthed upwards an entire waterlogged single size duvet (which startled them even more). I hauled the lumpen mass out, slopped it onto the steel roof of the boat, and, wet with canal water and sweat, and slicked with grease, sized up the fruits of my labours.
Who is it that dumps duvets in the canal? You might ask, but we are all guilty of doing something similar. Around Camden, where you’d hope the hippies and groovsters might be more environmentally conscious than most, there is a dispiriting slick of beer cans, takeaway wrappers, and other things too grim to think about too much. Skipper and I were once walking along the Lea, and saw a girl, no older than ten, chuck her litter into the river. Skipper remonstrated with her; she looked blank. After all, in a minute, the litter was gone, wasn’t it? No longer a problem. Out of sight and out of mind.
I may have a touch of OCD when it comes to hand hygiene (believe me, I don’t root about in the weed hatch without a profoundly troubled mind) but I remember even as a very small child walking a long way with an unpleasantly sticky Wham wrapper in one hot hand, eventually having to bin it at home because there wasn’t anywhere to do it on the street. My heart sinks when I see people littering. I suppose in the middle of London, it can’t actually do any harm, but even so, I think it’s a principle. In particular, I worry about the clear cellophane around cigarette packs. I’ve seen smokers rip this off the top and scrunch it up, then open their hand and let the breeze take it away to – well, who knows or cares?
Littering is just a failure of the imagination. As we operate the locks in summer, there might be an audience of six hundred people watching us work the boat, the ropes, the gates, and all of it amidst a flotsam of fag packets and empty bottles. Who is it that looks down on all of that and thinks nothing of adding a chip wrapper or polystyrene cup to the floating collage of crap? I once worked in a pub that employed a girl to collect glasses and clean tables at the weekend. At the end of her shift, at about six o’clock, she would sit at a table with a bottle of beer, drinking it, and slowly picking off the label until the table was covered in small shards of paper. This she left for someone else to clear up. After all, her shift was over – right?
We are all guilty of this one way or another. It’s a dazzling thought that my Wham wrapper, and indeed every other sliver of foil or sandwich box, or skin of cling film ripped from the top of a carton of mushrooms, still exists out there somewhere, and will probably still be doing to the environment what that duvet did to MacGuffin long after I’m dead, but at least it will be where the council have chosen to put it. We are miles from sorting out our relationship with the environment, but litter matters. I know it’s a small thing next to nuclear power leaks and CO2 emissions, but if the inevitable consequence of a crowd is a mess to clear up afterwards (and I’ve been to music festivals, concerts, political demos and the like and never HAD to drop my trash on the floor rather than in a bin), then I’m afraid find it hard to be optimistic about the future of this planet. The human race, I fear, is on a collision course with the wet duvet of destiny.