Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald
It is the 1960s. On Battersea Reach, a mixed bag of the temporarily lost and the patently eccentric live on houseboats, rising and falling with the tide of the Thames.
A damesnet follower alerted me to this charming little book, and it is a great read. Fitzgerald spent a number of years living on an old Thames sailing barge moored by Battersea Bridge in London, and Offshore is a story that is no doubt based on some of the quirky characters who lived alongside her.
At the centre is Nenna, who is trying to accept that her marriage is over and is scraping out an existence on one of the boats. Her two young daughters have become almost feral; they have stopped going to school and are expert at scavenging for items thrown up at low tide that have become stuck in the riverbank. They exchange these for cash at the second-hand shops on the King’s Road.
The other neighbouring boat owners include Maurice, a rent boy who mainly works through the night, and is contrasted with the correct and proper Richard, fresh from wartime service in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Richard’s boat is the only one in the book that has been maintained to the appropriate standards. The rest of the vessels are in various stages of disrepair, in effect waterborne accidents waiting to happen as soon as a particularly strong tide or storm sweeps down the Thames. It should be noted that Richard’s wife Laura endures rather than enjoys her river existence.
Almost as an aside, the entire community either is ignorant of or chooses to ignore the fact that Maurice’s boat is being used to store stolen goods by his mate Harry.
There is a wonderful description of Tilda, Nenna’s younger daughter, somehow seated at the top of their boat’s mast, some 15 feet in the air, watching and waiting for the tide to turn. A tremor runs through the boats’ cables, the iron lighters – flat bottomed barges – chock together, and the great swing round begins. The Thames has turned towards the sea.
Willis is in his 60s, a marine painter who has never actually been to sea. He has made a decent enough living as an artist, but the orders have dropped off in recent years. He is desperate to sell his barge so that he can move in with his widowed sister. The problem is that his boat leaks. Badly. So his challenge is whether he can put the boat up for sale without actually mentioning this fact. Hence his plan to show the boat only at low tide, and if it is raining at the time he will stand under the main drip, wearing a broad waterproof hat.
Woodie is another resident; he lives on his boat during the summer while his wife stays in a caravan in Wales. In the winter they both move back to their house in Purley. As Fitzgerald puts it: ‘Was there not, on the whole of Battersea Reach, a couple, married or unmarried, living together in the ordinary way?’
The joy of the book is that all the characters are making the best of the tricky situation they currently find themselves in, and steadfastly recasting their misfortunes into opportunities. The tragic elements are both comic and horrifying: Willis’s boat sinks and Nenna heads off to find her husband on the other side of London. Her expedition is fruitless and her return home fraught with problems. Richard encounters Harry on Maurice’s boat, and his attempt to clarify what exactly is going on lands him in hospital.
Offshore is set in the recent past, when rules were applied more loosely, when London was still swinging, and when you could get away with things more easily. A gem of a book.