Over time, the Tinkerbell room became too difficult to work in, and so The Institution and I called a meeting to look for a solution, inviting all the local partners. In this meeting, a member of the local council offered me a barge to use as my studio. I explained I would be interested in that, but I had never worked from a barge before, and was worried I did not have the appropriate skills to keep it safe/running/afloat. The local council member expressed concern at this, and argued insurance papers would need to be signed that would guarantee the boat’s safety, but The Institution interjected, declared it a great solution and assured me that they would ultimately be responsible, and therefore not to worry: I should just focus on the work. The barge was promptly brought down the Canal the following week, and parked in the only lockable location, outside the town’s only pub.
The pub is truly a community hub – more so than the Community Centre. It seems to be the community’s beating, social heart. It was recently declared a Community Asset, protecting it from the very real possibility of closure by the franchise owners. It is also a fascinating place inhabited by fascinating people: the quiet, shy cleaner who pokes her head out at 7 am to empty her dirty mop bucket on the cobbles; Jimmie, who steadfastly arrives at 8.55 am each morning, waiting for the pub to open as if he were going to work (and why not? he’s retired!), then stays there all day, drinking; Trev pops by throughout the day for pints in-between his various manual jobs. Indeed, the whole community seems to end up at the pub: school kids come over after school to get house keys from their parents; locals crowd in from about 5 pm onwards until late at night; many tiny children fall asleep on the benches by the pool table as their parents finish their endless pints, their drunken laughter rippling off the quiet, still and dark waters of the canal. I had a good view of all of this, working from the barge directly opposite.
At first, they were hesitant about me, and understandably so: I was a stranger suddenly placed in the vulnerable heart of a social group. But, over the weeks, they warmed to me as I invited them onto the boat, showed them around, led workshops for their kids and began to engage with them and their context. Problematically, however, because the boat was opposite the pub, and pubs usually involve drinking and jovial craic, I would often arrive in the morning to discover the boat had been un-moored and was drifting somewhere along the canal. Almost every morning, I would have to walk along the canal to find it, somehow get to it, then pull it in, and re-moor it, ritualistically re-tying the ropes, re-aligning it, and examining it for damage. One morning, the entire mooring mechanism – a solid block of buried concrete – had been methodically dug up and chucked into the shallow, muddy water. Obviously, these daily events impacted on my working process and my comfort about leaving anything of value on the boat. However, while problematic – like the Tinkerbell room and the hollow shell of the house in which I lived – it had taken so long to get to this point, that I persevered despite the delays and distractions each morning’s re-mooring cost me.