Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Of Boat Engines And Engineers

The engineer is coming today.  He's been helping me fix the boat's engine.  I've been here for nearly three and a half years and for most of that time I've been pinned to the bank - right here.  I was hoping to get about a bit more when I bought the boat.  Costing much of my late father's bequest and a matching contribution from P, who had just come into a little money from his late mother, it was expensive enough to have expected, quite reasonably I think, to have been able to pack up and taken off.  I've discovered that things don't quite work like that when a boat is involved.  The boat was made in 2002, or so embossed numbers under the front and rear decks claim.  By whom the boat was made I have no clue.  Boat makers seem to be a modest breed quite unlike car manufacturers who emblazon company logos, badges, brands, models, engine sizes and subtle sexism for all to see.  The majority of boats I've seen, admittedly I've not looked under the bonnets of many, don't even show which company built them.  Someone suggested to me that it must be "one of those Polish boats".  That may be so, but how would I know?  If I buy a new piece of music kit I know what I'm getting if I buy Lexicon, Neumann or Midas.  The chevrons fell off the front of my van a few weeks ago, but I still know what make it is.  Well into an age of corporate branding and with a selfie backlash in full swing even a discreet label might sometimes prove handy.  To whom do I go if I want answers to questions I can't even articulate?

That's where people like the engineer come in.  The engineer lives in a caravan on a farm in the next village.  I have lived in Norfolk and The Fens since the mid-eighties, but it is only since being here that I have discovered a surprising number of people who live in caravans on farms.  Even the farmer and his girlfriend live in a caravan.  The engineer has worked all over the world.  He has worked on two of the world's three largest supertankers.  He has also run a huge vehicle hire operation in South Africa and a pub in the village.  He recently bought a house in Bulgaria for £1,500.  The engineer's personal needs are modest, much like the farmer.  From what I can work out the engineer doesn't actually earn any kind of wage on the farm, but every so often his farmer will give him a cheque to tide him over for a year or two.  He fixes things; big farm machinery, little farm machinery, but mostly the personal vehicles of members of his farmer's extended family.  Every now and again he needs to get off the farm and away from the demands, so he comes here.  He likes to talk and his stories are always interesting and he knows what to do with the spanners and wrenches I have acquired since living on this boat.  I have also learned a lot about my BMC 1.5 engine from the engineer.  He likes older engines.  He can get at the bits and does not need to use outrageously expensive diagnostic devices where computers talk to computers and only let outsiders in on their discoveries on a need to know basis.

My BMC 1.5 Litre Diesel Engine
The problems I've experienced with my boat mostly involve the release of fluids into the engine bay.  Before I met the engineer I had fixed a lot of clamps, clips and new hoses to replace the perished and rusted ones already in place.  I found early on that fixing anything on a boat requires the skills of a contortionist and a willingness to work with one's head and arms below the rest of the body.  I discovered parts of the boat I didn't know were there until I'd pumped and mopped out the water, coolant, oil or diesel - often a mixture of everything.  I found out early on that attempting to take the boat on the shortest of trips involved emergency stops as the engine overheated and threatened to blow a gasket.  In fact, at some point it had blown a gasket.  We took bits (lots of bits as it happened) off the engine to get to the cylinder head gasket and replaced that after we saw small cracks in the old one.  We had already replaced the thermostat in an attempt to keep the temperature in the coolant down.  At least the thermostat operation was reasonably straightforward.  The engineer bought a sheet of "gasket paper" and made a gasket to fit, which I found enterprising and impressive.  "I haven't had to do that for a few years," he chortled with the satisfaction that only comes from proving that old knowledge is still in there somewhere.  There seem to be a lot of things he hasn't had to do for years when it comes to my engine.  After we'd sorted out the cooling system to a point where it was no longer the primary culprit for the accumulation of liquids in the bilges we found the fuel system needed looking at.  I had never heard of copper washers before, but I think I went through dozens of them as a I tightened loose nuts on every junction in the external system.  I had never heard of a spill rail before I had to order a replacement for the one on the engine with its tiny cracks in the joints.  Fuel was still leaking and it has been a job and a half finding the sources.  I seem to have developed a skill for tracing leaks, but I lack the confidence to know how to deal with them.  I started at the top of the engine with the bits that are most visible and have gradually worked my way down and further into the uncharted depths of inaccessible places.  One time I suspected that fuel was leaking from the fuel injection pump and the engineer confirmed that I was probably right.  Naturally it was in an inaccessible place.  For months we tried on and off to get hold of a timing gauge tool, because that was apparently what would be needed to put the fuel injection pump back on to with all the bits in the right position (see how technical knowledge now flows through me?).  I heard a rumour that Calcutts had one that they hired out, but they never answered my e-mails on the subject, although I have to give them credit for the speed with which they sent me a replacement spill rail.  The only spill rail available was for a 1.8 engine, but they enclosed the optional conversion kit to enable it to be fitted to my 1.5.  As it happened it didn't really matter since we ended up taking a tiny pipe cutter to it and chopping bits off.

One day the engineer phoned and said we are going to take off the fuel injection pump and have a look at it.  "But what about a timing gauge tool?" I asked.
"Don't worry, I have a plan; a cunning plan," he responded and in my imagination he was tapping the side of his nose.

Removal of the fuel injection pump was not straightforward, of course.  It required the removal of pipes and connectors, which themselves required the removal of other bits including the fuel filter and the rod that connects the cable from the throttle lever to the engine.  We hadn't got very far into the operation when the engineer confessed that repairing the fuel injection pump was no longer an option.  A spindle was wobbling where it shouldn't wobble and he diagnosed that it needed to be removed and taken to an holy place to be inspected, dissected, repaired, reassembled and extensively tested.  There was such an holy place about thirty miles away.  We went.  They greeted us with joy when we showed them our sacred artefact.  The engineer and another customer engaged in a conversation that made no sense to me at all.  I am pretty sure they were discussing my fuel injection pump, because another customer said, "I haven't see one of those for years," and I realised we were on familiar territory.  What followed though, was a discussion in an arcane language involving much swapping of numbers, brands, styles and processes and of which I understood not one word.

Three or four days later we returned to an holy place to retrieve the rejuvenated pump.  The engineer was worried that it might cost as much as £100, so I needed to be there with my credit card.  The engineer was wrong.  The full service and refurbishment cost £260 and, in a state of shock, we returned to the boat where the engineer could distract me from my silence once more with his amazing depth of knowledge and skill.  With no timing gauge tool (and I still have no comprehension of what one of these might look like or even do - I just knew we needed one) the engineer said that we were going to have to do this the old fashioned way.  In removing the pump he had left the rods in the rocker box in exact places with instructions to me not to touch anything until we got back with the pump.  Then consulting runic engravings we uncovered with the application of magic emery paper and muttering magic spells including the incantation, "22º before top dead centre," he manoeuvred and eased the crucial bits into place.  Once we'd refitted all the bits we'd had to remove it was time to crank the engine.  It turned, but wouldn't fire.  Damn!  It coughed into life on the second attempt.  We let the engine run for a while and then pulled the throttle back to tickover.  I know nothing about engines, but I am pretty sure I have never heard an engine run that slowly before and still manage to keep going.  It was a quasi-religious experience, a thing of beauty.  I had been blessed with a little insight into how some men get a bit excited about things like engines.

This seems an appropriate moment to take a pause.  This story is not over and I shall continue it because the engineer is coming any time now.

In other news, Jack was on his fourth vet by yesterday afternoon.  He may not have "concertina'd hisself" after all.  The latest suggestion seems to be

Monday, 27 April 2015

Of This Early Morning

By habit I am an early waker, but not always an early riser.  This is especially true after gig nights.  This wasn't a post-gig morning, but at six o'clock I tried not to open my eyes as the sun was preparing for a full attack through the cabin porthole I leave open for air.  It was a crisp one.  Checking the thermometer and shuddering a little at the indoor temperature of 9ºC I realised it must have been cold outside for Jack, who would normally have been led back to his stable for a night as cool as this one has been.  Sadly, of course, Jack was not planning on going anywhere and moving him was not a comfortable option either.  I hoped he'd got through the night.  Normally I would grab the laptop and dive back into bed to start the first of the day's battles in the war against spam e-mail, going on to respond to other messages as required and finishing with dispensing snippets of wit and wisdom across a web forum or social medium.  Under two duvets the temperature is bearable enough to stay there until the air warms up a little.  Of course, when I have reading or writing to be getting on with I can just as easily do it in bed, which is what I usually do.

Then I heard it.  That strange scraping, rasping noise I have been trying to identify.  A low, slow single scrape lasting for about a second at a time.  I rose much too quickly, went to the galley, raised the blind and slid open the window.  Of course, the sound stopped.  A solitary swan was sailing past with wings stretching like the solar panels on a satellite.  I abandoned the yawning duck theory and wondered if it could be the swan making some sort of drumming noise with his beak.  I didn't see anything moving.  I heard the noise again and it seemed to be coming from another direction.  The mystery sound remains unidentified.

Since I was up I decided I could hang out the washload I'd put in before I went to bed.  I have a line stretched the length of the mooring and I do like to take advantage of maximum airing opportunities.  I hauled myself quickly into joggers, jumper and topped off the ensemble with a fleece and hat.  I zipped the fleece to the neck because I didn't want to risk meeting anyone who might form an opinion about the boatman who keeps his pyjamas on under his clothes.  I could get dressed properly when it warms up a bit more.  "You have a very colourful washing line," Yappy-dog Woman once said to me before her eviction.  I like my tie-dyed and primary coloured clothes, but having someone observing my smalls felt creepy.

However, before hanging out the linen I wanted to have a word with Jack.  I was hoping he was still with us.  Despite the farmer's sister managing to wrap him in two horse coats it had been a cold night.  There was a light mist on the river and a light frost on the decking.  A heavier layer of ice had formed on the roof of the boat and it was not yet warm enough to begin melting.  As I climbed the steps up to the top of the bank I looked into the low sun to see if I could spot Jack where I'd seen him last night.  He wasn't there.  My heart did one of those momentary quickening things and then I saw him in silhouette.  He was standing, grazing at the far end of the field.  Hooray!  I had to go and have a word and let him know how pleased everyone would be that he had made it through the night.  As I drew closer he looked uncomfortable and seemed as though he wanted to move away, so I backed off and he relaxed.  I didn't want him to have to move about unnecessarily if it still hurt to move and certainly not on my account.  From a distance I told him that I was pleased to see him up, if not quite about, and I think he was listening.  He had stopped grazing anyway.

A light mist on the river

Sunday, 26 April 2015


I have known Jack for a year or so.  I don't know how old he is, but like many of the characters on and around the farm he just appeared one day.  Whenever I come home to the boat Jack is usually here.  He doesn't wait for me, but he is often simply - well, here.  We stand and mardle a while.  He is a stunningly good-looking lad and I'm sure that somewhere, sometime, he has probably set some lady's heart a-pumping.  He is strong, broad in the shoulder and stands tall; tall, dark and very handsome.  Frequently, and when he thinks I'm not looking, he rushes about and he can certainly put on a turn of speed.  He runs so fast and so hard that, even from the boat moored below the narrow field that is his racetrack, I can hear his feet pounding.  He tries to break his own personal best getting from one end of the field to the other.  As he listens to an account of my day I think he would usually rather be somewhere else.  Often he'll just wander off when I'm in mid-sentence, but not too far.  He'll look over one of those broad shoulders to tell me he's still listening.  I know he doesn't want to though, so I peter out and bid him farewell.  Then he'll resume whatever it was he was doing before I interrupted him.

If I go up to the farm to collect my post Jack will often be standing on the bank that rises above the boat.  I always share a few greetings with him and sometimes he even approaches as though he wants to confide.  After a year, though, we still haven't got to the stage where he feels able to tell me something of any real importance.

A few weeks ago Jack was standing in his usual spot where he often likes to contemplate the Fen skyscape or gaze at the horizon and I realised I hadn't seen him for a while.  I felt terrible that I hadn't noticed he hadn't been there.  I could have asked after him, maybe even sent him a postcard to let him know I was thinking about him.  I don't suppose he missed me for one moment.

The farmer's sister, who brought Jack home again, told me once that he was very wary of men.  Apparently as a youngster he was abused - by men of course.  Why is it nearly always men?  Sometimes I am deeply ashamed of my sex and yet I cannot fathom it.  I have never felt the need to abuse another and the thought that I may have got close to losing my temper a few times, even under extreme provocation, fills me with shame and horror.  If I feel so powerfully that I should be above such behaviour what is it that is missing in men who can abuse?  Or what is it that is missing in me?

I realise now that everyone here loves Jack.  I think that even the farmer may have a bit of a soft spot for him, although I'd never suggest such a thing to his face.  The farmer's sister told me she wept for two days when Jack went away.  She was so pleased when he wanted to come back.

Two days ago I came home after a day of running workshops and something was not right.  Jack was standing in his favourite field with four women, but there was something about his bearing and demeanour that was definitely not right.  The farmer's sister was standing close to Jack while someone I didn't recognise was feeling her way along his back and applying pressure to an area around his hip.  Jack was looking very unhappy.  I stood a way off for a while and then slowly approached the other two women who were sitting on the grass behind Jack in an attitude that seemed almost as though they didn't want to distract or disturb him.  Something was definitely up.

"He's concertina'd hisself," said the horse lady who was sitting next to the farmer's girlfriend.  "He went into one of the bigger fields today and we think he was chasing round after the other horses."


When I left for the band rehearsal this morning, poor Jack was lying on his side in the field.  As I drove past he raised his head, but he was clearly in pain.  When I returned, some hours later, Jack was still in the field, lying on his side.  This time he did not raise his head.  I parked the van and walked back to where he was lying.  As I got closer I was relieved to see that he was breathing and when I spoke in greeting he managed to lift his head and twist his neck to look at me.  I thought I could see his distress, his pain and his confusion.  We communed in silence for a while.  Then I went to see if the farmer's sister or the horse lady who lives next door could tell me the latest.  Both were out with other horses at a show, but the farmer's girlfriend came out and said she could see I was worried about Jack.  He had managed to get up a few times during the day, but it was too painful to stand up for long so he got down on his side again.  She'd come out to sit with him for a while and the farmer was going to bring some water close enough for him to reach.  The vet will be here tomorrow.  

Of Drumming And Dancing

I should be feeling elated.  I was worried about the rehearsal I had organised for this morning.  Among my performing projects is a community band with some exotic dancers.  I never set out to have dancers, but for the past few years they seem to have appeared from who-knows-where at all our performances.  They are sometimes a handy distraction if the band is a little under-rehearsed.  Their strategic use of feathers and beads and often little else has been the cause of alarm and joy since we welcomed them into our midst.  Often the dancers are not the same ones who came before.  They are a Terpsichorean enigma.

People notice the band, but rarely for the music.  Sometimes we perform from a forty-foot tractor-drawn trailer.  As we glide at head level past the crowds out to enjoy a carnival I love to see the responses in the audience.  There is a range of both audience members and responses.  Young lads ogle, older men try not to be caught ogling, particularly if partners are present.  Young women shake their shoulders, shimmying and bobbling in solidarity.  Many times we have seen wives cover husbands' eyes with both hands until we have passed by.  One time we attracted a prolonged tirade from a woman.  As she was screaming something incomprehensible into our percussion groove she had her hands over the faces of two small children in an attempt to stop them witnessing what I assume she thought was our debauchery.  The poor children must have been terrified by a mother who was beside herself with indignation and the fact that they could not see what was going on.  Since that time the local Round Table that organises the carnival has provided us with an armed escort.  I consider a flank of young men dressed in medieval knight outfits and wearing swords to be an armed escort.  It may not be convenient, but we are invited back every year.

For the third year in a row we have also been asked to provide a rhythmic accompaniment for a local charity sporting event.  The community band is quite a different breed of band from all my other projects.  For a start, people take part primarily because they enjoy it as opposed to taking part because they enjoy it and it's a job.  I've run this band for about twelve years, but not once have I known for sure who will turn up for a rehearsal or even a performance until they turn up.  One of my players posted photographs on Facebook a couple of days ago. She posted them from Turkey.  There aren't many places she hasn't visited and we are used to her being on a different continent.  One of the other players is prone to injury.  She is very active and, in her sixties (although I didn't just write that), she has recently achieved black belt status in Tae Kwon Do.  She also likes to ski.  Both activities have left her incapacitated and in plaster from time to time.  Today, she came in limping and unable to raise her arms beyond the height of her elbows.  Another of my loyal and committed players came with both eyes almost closed from hay fever induced swelling.  The Turkish holiday-maker had arrived back in the UK with her body, from neck to hands and feet, covered with itchy, strawberry-red blotches from some unknown allergic reaction.  The rehearsal room at the local sports centre had been booked for us by an officer of the local council who also coordinates this event.  I have copies of all relevant e-mails regarding the arrangements so it was with some surprise that, just after we started our first piece, two burley staff members came to ask what we were doing.  It's not as though I hadn't already had to negotiate the road barrier to get my van-load of instruments round the building or the people barrier that keeps non-payers from going further into the centre than the reception desk.  We weren't "on their screen" and they wanted to know who we were and why we were there.  How amazing it was that I could just walk in with a stack of large percussion instruments and a dozen other people and start playing without being challenged, particularly since we weren't "on their screen".  I may just try that somewhere else ...

I used to rehearse this band weekly, then fortnightly, but owing to the above-mentioned unpredictable attendance I now run rehearsals as required by the project.  At least this is affordable.  We haven't played this music together since last July.  They remembered pretty much everything in the five pieces I planned to rehearse.  I was very worried that I would not have enough players to cover all the parts, but somehow it always comes out okay and today was no different.  I should have been elated and I was for a little while.  Then I came back to the boat and saw Jack.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Of Losing Gems And Marbles

I have set myself a little challenge to write something a few days each week.  This challenge is probably doomed to failure.  I realise that goals are supposed to be specific and given more precise time references.  Whoever made that rule doesn't live in my world.

I didn't realise I have started so many blogs and had so many accounts.  I have often set up something and then made the log-in details so complicated that I have eventually given up trying to access them for a second time.  So it is that I have discovered two other Blogger accounts set up for Marshlander and I have no idea how many e-mail accounts there could be.  I set up another e-mail account this week to link to my new blog site (the other one I set up this week, I mean) and within five minutes had managed to lose the log-in details and am now locked out of it ... until, I suppose I can remember something.  It is to Google's credit that accessing an account for which the password or account name has been forgotten is convoluted and tedious.  I gave up trying to work it out.

I don't consider myself to be entirely scatterbrained.  I can be quite organised and with all the passwords and details required for hundreds of websites these days I have to have a system for keeping them to hand.  Sometimes, though, things get away from me.  I suppose it happens to most of us.  If it doesn't happen to you I am sorry, but we may never be able to be close friends.

I had quite forgotten that one of my blog pages was even linked to Marshlander's Facebook page and I noticed it this morning when checking to see if I could add links to external websites.  This may be why that blog page has only one entry dated August 2012.  This is my explanation for the late appearance of two entries from 2012.  As an aid to myself and to any passing stranger I shall copy old entries into this blog so it may look a little unstable for a few days as I discover old essays and rants.  Then I shall see if it is possible to delete old accounts.  I fear, though, that Google along with Facebook might be forever.

In the meantime, please enjoy this photograph of one of my kingfisher neighbours.  This blurry image is the best my iPhone can manage, until the day that one of the kingfishers sits on my mooring rope, the tiller arm or the prow of the boat when I actually have my phone in my hand.  I'll get a decent photograph one day.

Friday, 24 April 2015


Lots of people make lists.  I make lists.  I like to tick tasks for the joy of scoring a line through an item when I've completed it.  I always considered myself to be an expert procrastinator, but a few months ago I came across the concept of precrastination.  Apparently it is different from procrastination.  Say, for example, I make a list of things to do. Then I do something today that doesn't need to be done until tomorrow in an attempt to put off a rather more urgent task I'd rather not start ... that is precrastination.

I'm currently working on a song.  the working title is "Grey".  Owing to lassitude verging on laziness that is probably the title it will keep forever.  A first draft of the lyrics came to me fairly quickly, in a single day, a Monday if i remember correctly.  However, redrafting, editing, adding a tune, working out a harmonic structure and learning the damned thing are mostly in various states of progress.

I don't need to be writing this diary (apparently I should call it a "blog", which undoubtedly means something special) and I should be working on the song and a few others that I plan to sing tonight.  I really should think about eating something more nourishing than an almost finished packet of dried apricots.  I may make myself a cheese sandwich to which I shall add a few raw and pickled vegetables.

I think the reason I decided on keeping a diary like this is that I shall end up making myself write something.  I believe that unless I practise I don't stand much chance of hitting a mark of any kind.  I think that is what "Grey" is about.  If I sing it tonight, you could hear it on West Norfolk Radio - there's also an "app" - heaven help us - to listen in on your telephone.  As I try to explore in the song, music comes to me more readily than words do.  I really do have many books of incomplete tunes, poems and song lyrics.

In the meantime here's a bit of


Untroubled I am by the burden of genius
I struggle with words to find something to say.
Life putters on - a distraction from boredom,
An attempt to stay solvent and living each day.
I'd like to be original; I know I'm derivative.
I wear my influences on open display
I grew up in colours I liked it that way.
Now I look in the mirror
And only see grey.

Look out of the window
Watching the river flow by
Look up to the skyscape
Clouds making shapes in the sky.
Make rhythms and colours from sounds that surround me
Watch how the wind shapes the river.
It changes each day.
Turn back to the blank page
Ink out a doodle.
I’m thinking in colour, but everything’s grey.

I hear my friends talking like proper songwriters
Of choruses, verses, key changes and all;
Of intros and outros and middle-eight solos,
Of descending bass lines and dominant chords.
I just tell stories or capture a moment
And fool myself it’s my inimitable way.
I imagine the colour in all that I say.
Then I look at the writing and only see grey.

Look out of the window
Watching the river flow by
Look up to the skyscape
Clouds making shapes in the sky.
Head full of music.  It’s all just the same tune.
The rhythm’s are boring and everything’s in the same key.
Turn back to the blank page
Ink out a doodle.
Another creation that nobody needs!

If I get close to finishing something important
I'll go and make supper though cooking’s a chore.
I could be at practice, or even rehearsing,
Or finishing something I started before.
I've books upon books of half-started writing
Or half-finished music that sits in a drawer.
The songs I’ve completed don’t leap off the score
I've started to practise them ten times or more.

Switch on the computer
Download the e-mails and weed out the spam.
Log into a forum,
Post in a thread, show how clever I am.
Share things on Facebook (too much information)
Laying down evidence nobody needs.
One game of Tetris, one hand of Spider
Leaving a legacy nobody reads.

... etc

"Grey" copyright Marshlander

Somewhere out there ...

... is a creature that croaks or rasps and only does it in the morning, some mornings. I don't know what it is yet, but one day I shall find out.  Friends have suggested it is a frog, a snipe, a corncrake ...  My theory this morning is that it is a duck yawning.

I've been living on the river for more than three years now.  I've only just remembered that I had started this blog soon after moving.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Of Van Radios And The Rewards Of Teaching

I am shedding a little tear. A couple of years ago I treated myself to a radio CD player for my van. It has been a rather brilliant piece of kit and I have enjoyed using it. Yesterday I watched as it progressively stopped working throughout the day.  First it wouldn't read the contents of my phone.  Then it couldn't read a compact disc.  Then it stopped charging the phone and by evening it wouldn't even switch on. 

Today I called back in to Halfords from where I bought it to seek advice. I'd rather hoped that something made by Kenwood would last longer than 27 months. The lady on the till called for assistance and a young man approached greeting me by name. I couldn't place him and had to confess so after a while. He said I'd taught him djembe drumming in Year 3 (that must have been at least ten years ago) and he credited me for his interest and engagement with music, which had become very important in his life. It was a lovely acknowledgement, however exaggerated it sounded, and I was a little overwhelmed.  His memory of what we did together was pretty sound, including a performance that I had completely put out of my mind. He now plays in several bands and ensembles and his standard of playing on trombone and guitar has earned him offers on degree courses at the RCM and at Music Tech in London.  He is weighing his options and deciding whether he can afford to further his education in this way. My delight in his joy is tempered by an anger that affordability has to be a consideration at all.  It's a pity he doesn't live in Scotland or Finland or any other country where education  is considered important enough to make it available to all people who want and deserve it.  I was fortunate enough to receive a statutory higher education grant when I was starting out.  I found surviving on that with a young family was tough enough and came close to dropping out when at times we were struggling to find enough money for the week's groceries.  The thought of entering a career with a huge financial debt weighing heavily on the shoulders must truly be daunting.  One of my own children took his higher education in the USA and left university and dental school with astronomical debts well into six figures.   It looks like that is where we are heading in most of the UK.  Whatever Chris decides to do I wish him luck.  

This got me thinking. Much as teaching is a bread and butter option and hard grind (which is one of the reasons I keep it to a minimum these days, preferring to spend my energy indulging my own creative needs) there are still times that I leave a workshop on a high.  Sometimes it is simply the expression on a child's face when they finally "get it".  Sometimes it is the sense of achievement that comes from a truly uplifting ensemble experience.  Sometimes it comes from a child wishing to share a personal moment of musical enlightenment.  Sometimes it is being able to give a child some space to deal with a shattering emotional response to music.  I feel a solemn weight of the privilege in sharing those experiences.

Now I'm thinking about past pupils; the reception child with Asperger's Syndrome who spent the first few years crawling under tables and screaming who, by the time she got to Y6, was so keen and dedicated to achieving in music that her face lit up when I came into the classroom for a music workshop - the joy of her participation in music shone in her singing; or the boy in another school, again with AS, who hated the noise in my workshops when he arrived in Y4. In Y6 he took a lead role in a class composition and at one point was trading 4s in the midst of thirty classmates playing the groove, mostly with djembes, congas and noisy bits of metal.  I think also of some of the adults and teachers I've worked with over the years and whom I've seen grow in musical confidence and skill.  I honestly find it difficult to relate their progress to anything I may have done though.  To me, their achievements have come from their own efforts to acquire knowledge, understanding and skills. If I've done anything at all it would be simply to have opened a gate to a path they have subsequently followed.

Yesterday, a Y4 girl came up to me with the news that she has started work on an "album".
She wanted to show me several sheets of A4 she'd stapled together, each containing the lyrics and illustrations for songs she'd been composing. She showed me four completed songs and has got as far as the title for song number five. There were some intriguing ideas among them, not to mention some beautifully balanced lines in the lyrics. As we sat down in our class circle to set to work I asked her if she would sing one of her songs before we started. She was too shy to sing in front of the class, so I asked her if she would feel braver if I sang a new song I've working on in return.  I had to carry out a quick memory scan to check that the lyrics of the verse and chorus that I could actually remember were appropriate enough not to initiate a crocodile of pitchfork waving parents carrying flaming torches to escort me off the premises!  She agreed to this and sang the first song in her album. Her class mates responded with enthusiastic applause and cheering. Those moments are precious. After her success I was hoping she would forget our agreement, but she turned to me and said, "Now you have to keep your side of the bargain." Priceless!

My children tell me that sometimes they meet their contemporaries and occasionally someone will remember something I did with them twenty or thirty years ago.  Sometimes I am remembered simply because I wore rainbow braces or shoelaces.  I had a teacher in my junior school who changed my life.  His name was Mr Perry.  He encouraged my engagement with music and I shall always be grateful to him.  He offered me options that would otherwise have been unimaginable in our working class family.  Even if I didn't continue with playing the clarinet beyond the Grade 3 through which he took me I ended up returning to the recorder and taking it to diploma level.  A few years ago I tried to find him to thank him face to face and to let him know what he had unleashed.  Sadly I was too late.  He had apparently died a few years previously.  I don't think he would have been more than fifteen years older than me.

Why did Chris' comments affect me so?  For a start I don't think anyone has said anything like that to me before. Maybe my years of going into schools and leading workshops haven't been wasted completely. Not just that, though, he fixed the radio with a new fuse.

Of Boats And Fantasies

I've lived on the river for nearly three-and-a-half years.  I'd entertained a fantasy about living on a narrowboat for a long time.  For several years my favourite time of the year was was always the one week when I would be invited to come and be part of the crew for the "Summer Storyboat".

The Rose of Essex
The Storyboat started out as a project organised by a group of literature-loving teachers and librarians in Hertfordshire some time during the 1980s.  They formed a working committee and hired the county's 72' Youth and Community Services narrowboat, "Belfast" for the week and took to the Grand Union Canal spending the week stopping off at several points between Watford and Bulbourne.  The first year must have been successful, because they repeated the project and it ran for several years.  I think I became involved after the project had already been running for two or three years.  When the committee changed, as invariably happens, and a majority of the fresh members lived and worked on the opposite side of the county the group decided to change waterway.  This was a big decision and I don't think things were ever the same after that.  They found "The Rose of Essex", owned by Essex Youth Service, and we took her along the Rivers Stort and Lee to run the week's activities between Hertford and Waltham Abbey.

My unique role on both routes turned from just leading a bit of community singing to providing musical continuity between performances by some of this country's most gifted authors of children's
In typical pose?
tales, illustrators and storytellers.  I was also quite useful when we needed to divert people away from areas of the site to move heavy equipment about.  I'd start singing and people would come.

The week was hard work - long days, hard on the voice, physically demanding, always having to think on the fly, but so satisfying.  The reward was partly seeing the families that used to turn up at the same riverside patch of green as us.  Sometimes they would follow us along the river and we'd see them several times during the week.  I don't really know where they came from.  The whole process struck me as akin to magic.  The biggest rewards, though, were more personal including actually being on the canals and rivers, seeing a very different-looking world from the water, seeing my first kingfisher in real life, being allowed to "drive" and learning the mysteries of negotiating locks.  Something bit me then and didn't let go.  I think it was a vision that peace was a possibility.

June Counsel
I met some inspiring people and was privileged to work alongside some brilliantly creative minds.  I hope I shall never forget the after-work wind-down at Waltham Abbey one year where June Counsel and Julia Jarman sat in the shade of the hawthorn hedge and decided to weave a story spontaneously.  They didn't do it for an audience, most of whom had gone home for tea anyway, but simply because they could. I don't remember the plot or the characters, but I do remember watching and listening to the twists and turns of their separate imaginations and wondering how they managed to think of such things, seemingly plucking them from the air without faltering.  It was like a game of "let's pretend", but on a far more sophisticated level.

Another performance I found totally absorbing was James Mayhew telling the story of the Firebird.  He spoke very quietly, so we had to draw close.  He had a sketch book on his lap and while he was telling the story he drew a most beautiful illustration of the Firebird ... but from his point of view he was drawing it upside down so we could all see the picture.

The wonderful John Ryan was another regular.  He showed us how he created the early BBC animations for Captain Pugwash from his books.  He always went through the same routine, but I never tired of hearing and watching him.  An absolute gentleman at all times I was really angry when characters with sexualised names became part of popular culture and everyone thought it was him, which it most certainly was not.  I think he was deeply hurt by all the smutty innuendo.  I take every opportunity to defend his honour when anyone brings up those characters whom he never invented and who never appeared in his stories.  I have one of his drawings of Captain Pugwash.  I wish I'd asked him to sign it.

One year on Boxmoor Common, Jan Pienkowski turned up to supervise the painting of a 16'x4' painting on sheets of hardboard.  One of my closest musician friends now, here in the Fens, was a child at the time and was there too, although I didn't know that at the time.

Some encounters were a little offbeat.  When Colin and Jacqui Hawkins turned up one day at Berkhamstead (Colin dressed in full pirate outfit, of course) I seemed to spend most of my spare moments chatting to Jacqui about considerations for choosing schools for children.  I realise that we may have been talking about their daughter, Sally, who is now enjoying a successful acting career.  Errol Lloyd and I worked up a double act.  He would tell his Caribbean stories and I would bring out my West Indian song repertoire.  He'd bring his flute and we'd sing and play "Linstead Market" and "Dis Long Time Girl".  Grace Hallworth, the grandmother of the storyteller revival was another wonderful lady who referred back to her Caribbean culture.  We worked together a few times outside of Storyboat time too.  One or two writers were not really suited to the chaos of the Storyboat routine and one in particular needed "medicinal help" before doing her routine.  It was terribly sad that some people are forced into roles by their publishers for which they are not suited .

I don't think I have ever laughed so much as the time Tony Ross and Andrew Davies shared the community picnic lunch.  Brilliantly funny people.  Some authors expected an annual invitation and were such good value that they received it.  Unfortunately for us, Andrew became much too busy and famous after a while, outgrowing his stories of Marmalade Atkins, but it was certainly fun while it lasted.

I was in awe of Jan Mark.

Jan Mark
Sometimes one meets someone who knows a lot about a few things, or someone who knows a few things about a lot of subjects.  Jan knew a lot of things about a lot of subjects.  I felt like an intellectual toddler in her company.  One of my most treasured possessions is a photocopy of a two-stanza poem she wrote under the shade of a tree when we were moored at Ware one year.


The Storyboat has berthed at Ware,
The handsome Colin West is thare,
And Robert Leeson bright and fare,
And also I, with windswept hare.
At Ware.

The handsome Colin West

The second stanza followed the same form, but was mainly about me, the mis-spellings being a reference to the spelling of my surname.

Mick Gowar with Robert Leeson, "bright and fare", in repose 
Robert Leeson stayed on The Rose of Essex with the crew one year.  He wanted to research life aboard for a book he was writing in a series called "The Zarnia Experiment".  I don't think he enjoyed it very much, but a year later the fifth book in the sextet, "Hide and Seek" was published and featured every member of the crew under other names.  I became "Sam" who seemed always to be dressed in red t-shirt and rainbow braces and singing the Jan Holdstock song, "Buttercup Farm".  Bob thought the song was traditional, so he quoted it freely throughout the book.  The description of me was pretty accurate for the time though.

I made some friendships on the Storyboat that have lasted; others never really were, have faded or people have passed away.  I still see Mick Gowar and occasionally Rob Lewis.  I met Kevin Crossley-Holland on a train back from London and we talked the whole way back.  I am in contact with the man who first got me involved.  He is a head teacher in Tower Hamlets now.  We first met when I went into his school and ran some music workshops.  He also owns a narrowboat, but hasn't taken the plunge to live afloat.

Mick Gowar liked using my guitar.  He said it had a "fifth gear"