Thursday, 4 January 2007

The Voices of the Boatmen

Having launched the theme of Succeeding and Belonging on a theoretical level, it seems right to move up close, to the level of lived experience. This article tells the story of the Thames watermen, licensed to captain boats on the river for generations. It is a trade which requires a long apprenticeship and detailed local knowledge, but which is likely to disappear as a new national waterways license (introduced this week) permits others with less training to work the Thames.

The voices of the boatmen capture the sense of relationship with a place and how this gives meaning to their lives - but how it counts for nothing in the process by which decisions are made:

Like many lightermen, Captain Andrews followed his father and grandfather into the trade. "You learn your alphabet, you count to 10 and then you learn your Thames reaches," he said."You sit in your dad's boat on school holidays because it's fun. Even before you're apprenticed you've got years and years of experience."

The boatmen deny the charge that they preside over a closed shop, which the new licence will finally open up. "Traditionally it was local work for local people but anyone can be apprenticed at any age," said McCarthy. "It's not a closed shop. It's just that it means something to us and it's a family job, something you wanted your son to do. Now my nephew is currently in the middle of his apprenticeship and we don't know where his future lies."

Aaron Evans, 20, will complete his five-year apprenticeship next summer. "I might have done all this for nothing," he said. The boatmen also fear for their jobs. "We could all be out of a job because less experienced people could come in. Companies can pick and choose the cheapest," said Andrews.

Watermen and lightermen received double rations during the war because of their crucial role. Traditionally, they are also the only members of the public permitted to touch royalty - to help them into boats. But despite their historic importance, they feel the government has not listened to them.

"All those little things. It's part of posterity," said Andrews. "We know it doesn't matter in this day and age but it should matter."

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