The fight against rapacious developers is at the heart of a new account of life on London’s canals, says John Rees
Helen Babbs, Adrift, A Secret Life of London’s Waterways (Icon books 2016), 304pp.
Adrift is a diary of Helen Babbs’ narrowboat Pike as it moves east to west, from Hackney Marshes via the Lee Navigation, the Hertford Union and Regents Canals, to Uxbridge over a single year. But it is really about London today, viewed from the certain angle of the Cut.
Sure, if you are interested in canals and canal boats there’s plenty here to hold your interest. From the practical (how to ‘black’ a boat; apply coats of bitumen paint to protect the underside of the boat), to the uplifting (the routine kindness of the canal community), to the familiar fears (getting stuck across the canal while turning the boat).
But there is also much more. London’s affordable housing crisis is seen from the angle of those liveaboard boaters who find no other way to get a place of their own than to take to the water. Babbs’ book is from 2014. It’s worse now. Late last year, one medium size marina in Staffordshire told me they sell three boats a week that get shipped to London as new homes. The price of narrowboats is now linked to the housing market.
The newly harsh enforcement of the regulation which forces liveaboard boaters to move on every two weeks, if they don’t pay for expensive permanent moorings, is related to the way the old British Waterways, whose predecessor took charge of the canals after nationalisation in 1947, has morphed into the more commercial Canal and Rivers Trust.
Some of Babb’s best descriptions are of London ‘redevelopment’ as it happens around the canal. The Olympic Park in Stratford ‘cleaning up’ the industrial backlot between Hackney and Stratford, but closing off the Bow back waters that run off the Lee Navigation in the process. They were supposed to be reopened to boaters when the park was complete. But they remain closed to this day.
And there’s a sharp eye for the environmental con. The deal in closing access to the Bow back rivers was supposed to be that building materials could be ecologically delivered by barge. In the end only two barge-loads ever arrived, leaving the vast bulk to come by road and rail. A similar story emerges from the redevelopment of Kings Cross around the Regents Canal where only a rearguard action by campaigners saved the Camley Street nature reserve, established originally by Ken Livingstone’s GLA. And that echoed the successful fight to stop Hackney Marshes, beloved by generations of east Londoners, being turned into a gravel pit!
There’s also much here about the amazing wildlife, both flora and fauna, that clings to the watery vein that runs through the city. The book is also part elegy. Babbs comes on to dry land to trace the canals and rivers that London has lost, from the Fleet river, turned into an underground sewer, to the canal arms filled in with rubble from the Blitz.
This book is an affirmation of how Town and Country can mix, but it is also an affirmation of the fact that rapacious development will eradicate that heritage unless campaigners defend and extend it.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.