While the Ottermobile’s been static I’ve been doing a lot of walking, which is supposed to clear the mind.
I’ve rambled along miles of the Shropshire Union Canal and many more of the River Weaver, and still haven’t seen an otter. I’ve also failed to meet my old friend Alfie, who I hear has been worried about me and hasn’t been able to get hold of me. He and I used to trek for miles, or fish, on canals and rivers back in the good old days and I know he still likes to take a constitutional for leisure.
My walks are for leisure too, but they’re also to fill the time for I am now the archetypal tramp. If I’m not seen tramping along the waterways or huddled in a corner of the library for a warm and a nap, I’m to be seen on a bench in the town square, watching the world go by or writing or pretending to do a crossword I’ve already done.
It’s hard not to feel self-conscious at times because though I don’t (I think) look like a vagrant, if I meet someone’s eye it feels like they’re judging me; they see a man on his own whiling away his day, a man with nothing to do, an “idle spectator” of the world.
But that’s not true. My mind isn’t empty at all, it’s always abuzz with ideas, many of them good ones. It’s brimming with story and character, it’s still searching for new words and raring to put them down lest someone should be impressed enough to dare to give the author a job.
Talking of new words, one of the friends I made on the road, Trevor, offered me this:
Gongoozle – (v) to idly spectate, especially canal boats and canal activities.
I suppose that given the amount of time I’ve spent on the canals of late, and the miles I’ve covered and the many boats I’ve seen, I am your tramp and gongoozler. Yet as I say, I don’t idly spectate, I talk as well, I introduce myself to those I encounter, in the search for new friends and more importantly a story.
The other day I came across Harry, a 70-year-old who calls himself a boater. Hailing from Manchester, he retired from the police force fifteen years ago following the death of his wife. He sold his house, bought a barge and has lived on the cut ever since, meandering from Audlem to Wrenbury and beyond and back, loving the wildlife and the back of beyond. He has the biggest garden in England, because his garden is England. He likes to visit real ale pubs and favours The Wickstead for its goat curry. He knows everything there is to know about CAMRA pubs and everything there is to know about the ales they have on tap. Most important of all, his time will run out before his money.
He asked me what I do and I said I’m very similar – I enjoy the freedom of tramping, I deeply love the back of beyond and I have taken very much to gongoozling. I have often wondered how different life would’ve been had I chosen a clapped-out boat rather than a clapped-out van. Knowing my luck it would’ve probably sunk. But unlike him, my money ran out before my life.
“Do you like a pint?” Harry asked.
“Oh yes,” I said.
“You look like you do,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Next time I’m in this neck of the woods I’ll buy you one,” he promised.
“Thanks,” I said again, swapping numbers. Harry the boater in his green beret keeping the warmth in his head because he’s as bald as the coots that bob in his wake.
And as he chugged away it felt good to make a new friend. It also felt good to know that Harry isn’t lonely. I asked what he’ll do for Christmas and he said he’ll be happy to celebrate it by himself – he’ll go to church, he’ll have all the trimmings and he’ll get quietly pissed.
“And will you stay warm?” I asked.
“Oh aye,” he said with a mischievous grin, ” I’ll have me log-burner going and me chestnuts well and truly roasted.”