The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

Tiller girl

[NB you can now listen to my blogs as well as reading them. Find this one here on Soundcloud.]

We’ve all had a chance to think quite hard about what ‘change’ and ‘continuity’ mean in recent days. If you heard my Radio 4 programme Slow Machine you’ll know that for me, continuity means living on the canals of the UK. Change means the transition from beloved boat #1, Tinker to my new love, boat #2.

The tiller pin is the bobbly brass thing at the top of this picture

The tiller pin is the bobbly brass thing at the top of this picture. The stripey bit is called a ‘swan neck’ for obvious reasons.

Every home gathers a collection of objects, mementoes, scars and souvenirs. It’s a sort of private archaeology. If you had to choose one artefact from your old house as a memento for your new one, what would it be? Maybe the door knocker. That’s the best equivalent for the tiller pin – a small, essential piece of kit which holds the tiller on so that one can steer. That DINK as the pin drops home means ‘we’re off on an adventure’.

Tinker had two tiller pins – the lucky one and the unlucky one. When the unlucky one was on, we would hit large obstacles or find ourselves trapped behind a slow boat steered by a drunken stag party dressed as Jack Sparrow. When the lucky one was on, we would miraculously find that all the locks were set in our favour, or that a 70ft mooring space appeared right outside the pub.

I’m only superstitious in the matter of boats. Every time I ignore ‘silly superstition’ I end up in deep shit, including two occasions where the boat nearly sank. So I decided to take Tinker’s lucky tiller pin, and bring it on to the new boat. It would be a gift from the old girl to the new bug. It would be a gesture of continuity and good faith. It would be a lucky omen.


Yes, that thing.

It would have been all of that. But I forgot. Tinker sold so quickly that I left one or two things behind. The new crew find themselves in possession of a fine lump hammer, the envy of all who have tried to strike a mooring pin into a hard piece of ground. They also have my tiller pins. Damn. I hope they use the right one.

If the new boat had to have another pin, I wanted a meaningful one. Something from a defunct boat, something made specifically for me by a kindly welder – I dunno. But something special. And here’s the rub – it had to be a gift, not sought but freely given. That felt important. Someone would just have to know that I was in need of such a thing, and make that gift without so much as a hint from me. It was a dilemma.

I didn’t mention any of this to boat fitter Andy Dence, who is working on the new boat as it takes its final shape in a dim Nottinghamshire shed. He’s doing an amazing job on every last item from the wiring looms and central heating to the curtain rails and beautifully worked wooden fittings. Andy is stressed because I keep stressing him, and he can’t get the damn sink to fit in the kitchen, and he has another boat to work on you know, and he wants to go boating himself but can’t because my boat needs finishing. As I looked around, asking silly questions and giving inconvenient answers to his own, he said quietly – “By the way, I’ve got a little present for you. Only if you want it, like.” I took the little paper he gave me. It was oddly heavy. “It’s from our first boat,” said Andy. “We never quite found a home for it.”


Ship’s cat

And there it was. A worn brass cat on a steel pin, freely given. I didn’t have to ask. It just needed another boater to know what was required. So, here is the ship’s cat. He’s not at all the sort of thing I would have chosen: which is just as it should be. A tiller pin with its own history, ready to become part of ours. The first part of the new, collective archaeology of myself…. and New Boat.

[The boat name was revealed for the first time during a jovial interview with Jonathan Ross last week. Click here to hear it. We start talking about one minute into this recording.]


4 comments on “Tiller girl

  1. I hope you don’t mind but I shared this with my cousin’s wife Rosemary Bimson – they lived on their narrow boat for years, including one specially commissioned and built for them.

  2. Jonathan The Voice
    June 28, 2016

    Not many things can be relied upon to have me feeling better about life when I leave than when I begin. Riding my old motorbike ‘Evadne’ is one: reading anything written by you is another. For the sake of my own sanity I beg you – keep it up. No pressure, then.

  3. christo46
    June 28, 2016

    Whatever is the canal-boating equivalent of Break A Leg in the theatre, Jo.
    And please don’t call the fresh vessel Barge-ee-McBargeface.
    Esperance, perhaps ?

  4. john gallagher
    July 4, 2016

    Hello Jo


    With luck you are well and enjoy the freedom on the waterways, good wishes




    Sent: Tuesday, June 28, 2016 at 7:29 PM

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on June 28, 2016 by in Boating life.
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