I am other.
I am white, well-educated, middle class and other. 4% of the population of the England and Wales are similar to me according to the 2001 census 1 (which is somewhat out of date; however, if I wait for the 2011 results to post this the moment will definitely have passed). There are always variations in any externally imposed grouping however, so my statement that I am other may seem a bit odd. Surely everyone is different in some way or other? Yes, they are and that is why I am writing this.
You see, what I have missed from my social précis is that I am a traveller. I live on a boat, a narrowboat to be precise, and a rather scruffy one at that. I’ll answer all the usual questions about the practicality of living on a boat later. For now it’s enough to know that I do.
Prejudice comes in all shapes and sizes, against all groups and sub-groups, and frankly I’m a bit sick of it. Some of my friends fight prejudice every day, some of them are in danger if they go to certain places or walk home on a dark night. I am not one of them and I am lucky. I have chosen to live the way I do. Some of my friends are not so lucky, they’re gay, or transgender, or disabled, or Muslim, or Jewish, or black. And, sad to say, there are some places where all of these things still matter. What matters to me is that I love them for who they are, and I enjoy spending time with them. Prejudice is an ugly word and I don’t bring it up lightly, in fact I wouldn’t bring it up at all if I hadn’t just come across some assumptions that bordered it.
So, the point of my starting this: some things that are not necessarily true about travellers:
- Just because I live on a boat does not mean that I am unskilled. I have been a manager/senior member of staff in a variety of different sectors. I have also done my fair share of unskilled work – even students and writers in their turrets have to eat/pay the bills. If I’m on a winter mooring I’m not going to doss for the whole time. If I do that I won’t be able to afford to eat and neither will my dogs, which is probably more to the point.
- I am not claiming benefits. When you move around a lot it’s very difficult to claim benefits – what with not having an address. I am a traveller, not a bum. I choose not to live in a house; that doesn’t mean I’m a drop out and I don’t pay my way. There are quite a few retired people living on the water, cruising from place to place; their boats are usually shinier than mine – would you assume they hadn’t paid their way?
- I do not necessarily have an alcohol problem, abuse/use drugs or have severe mental health issues. Someone who goes out every Friday night and drinks themselves into a stupor has an alcohol problem, as does someone who drinks a bottle of wine a night every night and the person who drinks vodka for breakfast – I bet you know at least one person with an alcohol problem, whether or not you know it. And they probably live in a house, possibly a nice house, in a nice area and have a full-time job and don’t really seem to have a problem. So, drugs. I know quite a lot about drugs as it happens; I used to be a youth worker. That means I know what can happen to you if you take them. And frankly if I don’t know what’s in it, then no thank you. Which leaves mental distress. According to Mind’s website 2 the ONS estimates 1 in 6 people will suffer mental distress at any one time, though the more commonly quoted study suggests 1 in 4. Either way that means someone in your life, someone close to you, will suffer from some form of mental distress at some point. Does that make them any less of a person? Several famous people have ‘come out’ as having or having had mental health issues: Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax, Gok Wan to name three3. Since 1 in 6 people don’t live on boats it’s not that likely that I have a mental health problem is it? Having said that, as a proportion there probably are more people living on the water who have some or all of these issues, just remember not everyone who chooses to live this way does.
- I am not a hippy. I do burn the odd joss stick, I travel mostly by bicycle or on foot, I’m an ecotarian 4 (one of many labels for my lifestyle choices) and my choice of abode may be a little less than orthodox. This does not make me a hippy. I’m not entirely sure what would make me a hippy but I’m fairly sure I’m not one. Joss sticks are very common in certain cultures but that doesn’t make everyone who lives on, say, the Indian sub-continent, a hippy. Hundreds of people travel by bike, usually in or around cities and most probably don’t cover the distance I do but again this doesn’t make me a hippy (I can feel a post about cyclists coming on in the near future too). So why the ecotarian? I like vegetables; it’s better for the planet and is an extremely healthy diet. I don’t eat meat substitute, I just eat less of it (I can’t remember the last time I ate meat actually but that’s a different story). As for the boat: I like it and living this way is my choice.
- This one’s closely related to two: just because I’m scruffy doesn’t mean I’m poor. Actually currently I am poor, but that’s because I’m an unknown writer rather than because I’m too lazy to work. My clothes are quite often dirty; there is a reason, and if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know what I’m about to say. I live on a boat and canal banks are muddy. I also have dogs, and dog walks are muddy. I’m not dirty all the time; quite a lot of the time you’d never know but if you meet me on the tow path or out with my dogs I’m likely to look quite scruffy. Yes, my dog walking jacket has a hole in it. It’s an old jacket; I use it for dog walking because it’s an old jacket. I bet some of you have gardening clothes, people don’t often see you in your gardening clothes because your garden is your space. My deck is my space, it’s just that you can see my space. I don’t sunbathe naked on my back deck but I do fill my coal scuttle there. This is a dirty job so I’m hardly going to do it in a suit now am I?
- For any other boaters reading this: I have a current cruising licence and I’m looking for a mooring. The one I was going to take turned out not to be what I’d been told. Any other questions? Not all live-aboards object to paying to use the water just as not all holiday boaters are happy about it.
It may seem like I’m making a bit of a mountain out of a mole hill here. The prejudice those of us who choose to live on the water suffer may appear to be really quite minor. But the truth is that prejudice is prejudice. It’s not OK to be rude or patronising to me because I choose not to live in a house, I used to and I may do again one day. That’s my choice and I would really appreciate it if you would respect my choice. I respect yours. You may think that my priorities are screwed. I’m sorry that I don’t think owning a 50 inch flat screen HD television and an SUV are the be all and end all of life. You may not either. You may only buy fair trade and organic; I’ve got news for you – I buy local, fair-trade, organic. I’m like you, some of you anyway, I’m not any-woman and neither are you.
Census information available from Office for National Statistics: Neighbourhood Statistics. Percentage of the population calculated in terms of ethnicity, approximate social grade and qualifications. ↩
All three have pledged to help end discrimination against those suffering mental illness on time-to-change.org.uk. Gok Wan has talked about the effects of bullying and having anorexia nervosa in his autobiography Through Thick and Thin (Amazon.co.uk link) ↩