|Boat-building at the Nottage Institute|
The Nottage Maritime Institute, beside the River Colne in Essex, is an unexpected and delightful place. It was founded in 1896 from a legacy left by a keen amateur yachtsman, Captain Charles Nottage, who wanted to offer “Colnesiders [..] the opportunity to improve themselves in navigation primarily or make up their skills generally.”
The Nottage is housed in a former sail loft on the quay at Wivenhoe and runs a range of RYA and other courses. It's also a museum, a library and a boat-building centre. What I loved about the Nottage as soon as I met it last month, was the sense in which it's an embodiment of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm and skill and pride in craftsmanship.
First there's the overwhelming atmosphere of the volunteer ethos. When I was doing an internet search before my visit I happened upon some oral history accounts by former users and committee members. Rank off the page came the time and effort they'd expended: the squabblings, the triumphs, diappointments and personal feuds. Volunteers who run an instution, if they run it well, are privately passionate about what they do. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're also relaxed and charming about it. My heroine Margery Allingham lived not far from Tollesbury on the River Blackwater, the next river along from Wivenhoe, and there's a passage in her authobiographical The Oaken Heart where she is talking about local societies and small freedoms. “A people who really will die for freedom […] must reasonably be supposed to squabble, quarrel, sulk and otherwise live for it also.” Sulking for Freedom – what a great concept!
Nevertheless there was nothing in the least quarrelsome or sulky during the evening I spent at the Nottage. An elderly curator welcomed us and pointed to exhibits with as much delight as if they'd been his own. He was equally enthusiatic about the new set of chairs that had recently been donated and the throughly efficient modern projection system which I'd be using for my talk. The night outside was dark and cold, my audience sparse but commiitted. They were from the Eastern region of the Arthur Ransome Society and had trustingly invited me to talk about my Strong Winds trilogy.
“Whatever you like really – and your boat of course.”
“Aha,” I thought, rubbing my chilly hands with glee “Encouraged to talk about my books AND my boat … we could be here some time!”
|Exhibits at the Nottage Institute|
The true heart of the Nottage, as far as I was concerned, wasn't the former sail loft in which we were sitting -- every inch of wall-space crammed with ship-portraits, photographs and models -- it was the working space below us, dedicated to the building of wooden dinghies. It made me think of the opening to Racundra's First Cruise (1923) Arthur Ransome's first book about boats. Racundra was built for Ransome in Riga -- possibly with dirty money from his complex undercover activities in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, or so the author Roland Chambers suggests.
This was 1921, Ransome was in his mid-30s, finally living in relative safety with the woman he loved. The creation of Racundra was cathartic and transformative. It was also expensive, irritating and profoundly emotional. The book begins with disparaging remarks about houses
“Houses are but badly built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them.”
Gathered in a former sail-loft beside a muddy river, how could we not agree?
“The desire to build a house is the tired wish of a man content thenceforward with the single anchorage. The desire to build a boat is the desire of youth unwilling to accept the idea of a final resting place.”Ransome couldn't have known then that he'd continue buying and building boats for most of the rest of his life
but if he'd read his own words carefully he might have guessed it would be so.
“It is for that reason perhaps that when it comes, the desire to build a boat is one of those that cannot be resisted. It begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky so that you can think of nothing else. You must build to regain your freedom. And always you comfort yourself that yours will be the perfect boat, the boat that you may search the harbours of the world for and not find.”
Now let's just re-write that passage …
“It is for that reason perhaps that when it comes, the desire to write a book is one of those that cannot be resisted. It begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky so that you can think of nothing else. You must write to regain your freedom. And always you comfort yourself that yours will be the perfect book, the book that you may search the libraries of the world for and not find.”
I think we all know what he's talking about here.
And, as long as you accept that this elusive quality of perfection is perfection in the eyes of the individual, then instead of Ransome's "build a boat" you could equally well substitute paint a picture, plant a flowerbed, bake a cake, establish a maritime institute – any personal creative activity, that is dependent on craftsmenship and comittment (okay, obesssion, if you prefer).
When I was a child, more than fifty years ago, my father was a yacht broker. I had difficulty explaining to my schoolfriends what this meant, exactly. Dad would have said it was finding the right boat for the right owner – though when I look at the slim racing yacht with towering cloud of canvas that he sold to my mother as a suitable boat for a beginner, I do wonder whether the need to earn his agent's commission didn't sometimes conflict with this search for the perfect owner / vessel fit …
|With my brother in a yacht designed by my uncle|
Anyway as far as I was concerned as a child Dad's job meant lots of hanging around in boatyards. His brother was a naval architect and if Dad could find a customer who wanted a boat BUILT – well that was a proper project for all the family.
My talk at the Nottage, in that shrine to old-fashioned craftsmanship, then launched merrily into an exposition of the structure of book-writing using the technical language of boat-building: the laying down of the keel as the writer's lived experience (conscious or subconscious) as well as the work of previous writers: the steaming of the ribs as the essential elements that give unique shape to the book. You can muck about with all sort of other things when you're building a boat / writing a book but not with your keel and your ribs. That's who you are – for the purpose of this book or boat. You can of course try to build things differently next time.
People asked questions about the physical process of turning a story into a book and I answered by burbling on about the skills of the book-designer, the printer, illustrator etc etc and it was all utterly congenial. In the sawdust-filled air of the Nottage no-one was discourteous enough to say – “But Julia, that's not how they do it anymore. Yachts are mainly plastic. You get a mould and pour it in. Books are all going to be electronic. You press a button and it up-loads ...”
My father used to say that he gave up enjoying his work as a yacht broker with the advent of fibre-glass as the primary material for yacht construction. He resented the increase of standardisation and mass-production – no longer was he selling boats of character to people of character, he claimed. He was wrong, of course. Wooden boats could also be built to standardised designs and even plastic boats vary one from another according to the way that they are finished and used. He just wanted more time to paint water-colours or restore Thames sailing barges. Talk about Sulking for Freedom – Dad was a master!
He had a point, however – and I suspect that Ransome might have agreeed with him. The twentieth century saw huge change in all aspects of the yachting industry, as the twenty-first is seeing renewed change in publishing and the media. Yesterday my mother and I attended Claudia Myatt's gallery opening in Waldringfield Boatyard, Suffolk. This was an uber-location of my childhood -- except that, as my mother reminded me, the grunpy old shipwrights who were in charge when I was a tot loathed the cluttering up of their premises by women and children and didn't mid saying so. Yesterday we were warmly welcomed to the yard by new owners Emma and Mark and their family and soon they'll will be selling me and my grand-children ice-creams and fizzy drinks as well as Claudia's pictures and books.
I took a photo of the modern yard and compared it with one of my black and white museum snaps.Every boat in the modern shot seems to be white with a metal mast and blue keel, just as (currently) one ebook read on your Kindle or your Kobo looks superficially very like another.
But they ain't – we all know that. And what my photo doesn't show was all the individual owners who were working underneath or inside their yachts preparing for the sailing season ahead. Spring is “fitting-out” time and we all have our agendas. I personally am obsessed with my current project to freshen-up Peter Duck's bilges so that our summer sailing, particularly after any shake-ups in rough seas, is less malodourous. It's a grubby job but I dream, as I do it, of the adventures and the sunny days that lie ahead. All those yacht-owners at Waldringfield will have been doing the same, hoping and planning as they crawl around the cramped and awkward spaces, feeling every aching muscle and cursing stiff backs or arthritic knees.
|Inside Peter Duck|
The main oneupmanship of the non-wooden boat owner is that they get out there and get sailing while people like me are still callousing our fingers with the sandpaper. That's true of course and it may also be true of the most obvious difference between the stroppy, obsessive, hopelessly optimistic self-publishers and the contented souls with a large advance and an umpteen-book publishing contract with a multinational company. Commercially published writers have more time in which to write.
I'm still enjoying a book-reviewer's judgement that my self-published novel, The Salt-Stained Book, has “the endearing wonkiness of a wooden toy”. I contend however that the differences between traditional and independently-published writers are more apparent than real. As with boat-building or yacht-maintenance or gardening or cake-baking, we are individuals in the grip of our obsession. Exactly as the Great Man said, “It begins as a little cloud on a serene horizon. It ends by covering the whole sky ...”