Within London, it exists a community of nomadic people, which unfolds along and concurrently coexists with all the hustle and plurality of the vibrant urban life. London’s intricate architecture disguises the presence of a widespread network of canals and rivers that crisscross it, and it is within such intricate loom that boaters slowly and silently carry on their lives. It is a “secret town” (Cullen in Braithwaite 1976:8), that of boaters, a world on its own that, ever since the construction of the first narrowboat, has concealed a character of marginality and of partial separation from State’s institutions. While allowing a higher degree of freedom and independence, the freedom to be wherever you choose, to move wherever you want, the boat has also always gifted boaters with the self-sufficiency of resources. However, many are the implications as well as the contradictions that spring from the coexistence of such flexible nomadic lives within the bounded spaces and sharp structures of contemporary society.
Narrowboats where first built as means for the transportations of industrial goods, and where solely inhabited by workmen and their families. As time went by, the use of boats shifted from commercial to an almost exclusively residential one. Ever since its cultural origins, boaters’ lifestyle has always had mobility at its cornerstone: this is both mirrored and safeguarded in the 1995 BW act, which states that each boat should engage in thorough navigation and is thus not allowed to stay in the same “place” for more than 14 days.
By listening to boaters accounts of their own personal experience, as well as by looking at the diverse nature of paths and trajectories that led them to choose the water as either an ill-desired destination, or a provisional compromise, it becomes clear that nowadays, such a mobile lifestyle is not always freely chosen, but rather, often dictated by structural circumstances such as economic pressures. In the past few years, the city has in fact witnessed a huge increase in the number of boats, which proves to be partially related to the contemporary housing crisis as well as to issues of gentrification: the boat is thus envisioned as the only independent and affordable living in an increasingly pricy London. The manifold struggles of mobility thus disclose, while the Navigation Authority enacts enforcement policies to make people move more often and for longer distances in order to cope with boats increase as well as with boaters’ changing desire for a more settled life. In fact, beside the beauty of freedom, boaters’ mobile/static behavior often results to be dependent on factors such as seasonal changes, the proximity to work place, school, public transportations and hospital.
By being neither equally nor homogeneously appreciated by all, mobility does thus risks becoming a double-edged sword: both a means of voluntary escapism as well as an undesired problem that many have to face as a consequence of economical struggles. Looking at the different needs, contingencies and desires behind people’s mobility, we could on the one hand question its very desirability, and on the other the possibility of its existence within the settings of contemporary society. We could as well wonder, who are the nomads then? Is it possible to live a nomadic life at the corners of society without falling into the shadows of marginality? Can we still envisage the survival of a community that takes mobility as its most important value? No matter, boaters trajectories will always flow beyond our questions, that risk remaining unanswered.
Braithwaite, Lewis 1976. “Canals in Towns” London: A&C Black Publishers Lt
“British Waterways Act” 1995. available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukla/1995/1/section/17/enacted , web page, accessed 13/10/2015
Cullen Gordon 1965. “Townscape”, London: The Architectural Press