Accepted paper:

London boaters: the narrowboat, the new traveler and the rhetorical creation of "nature"


Ben Bowles (SOAS)

Paper short abstract:

Itinerant boat dwellers on the waterways of England position themselves as close to ‘nature’ partially due to a particular understanding of temporality (called “boat time”) and partially due to the way in which they experience their own marginal position vis-a-vis the state and sedentary society.

Paper long abstract:

Boats are complex objects, not least as they are important foci at which boaters position themselves between a sedentary society which they partially reject and a vision of nature which they attempt to draw. Literature on UK traveling populations has tended to focus exclusively on Gypsies or New Age Travelers. Such a limited focus, however, neglects a traveling community who have been growing in number since the 1970s; the itinerant boat dwellers (or 'Boaters') of the UK inland waterways. Boaters often speak about their choice of dwelling as allowing them to enjoy a closer relationship with, and proximity to, 'nature'; this despite the fact that they have chosen to live aboard man-made vessels floating upon waterways made or modified by man. What leads boaters to make such claims of proximity to a 'natural' order? This paper proposes a two-fold answer. Firstly, boats are described as places where a specific type of elastic or fluid temporality can be experienced. This "boat time" is taken to be closer to 'natural' ideal rhythms. Secondly, boats are intriguingly positioned as both vehicles and as places of dwelling. They are the intermediaries through which boaters experience all of nomadic life, including the boater's problematic relationship with agents of the state and boater's marginal position with regards to a pervasive sedentary society. Faced with this conflict many boaters align themselves towards a rhetorically invoked 'nature'. This paper provides a portrait of boats as sites of alterity as experienced by a marginal traveling population.

panel P23
Humanity at sea: hybridity and seafaring