Sunday Telegraph | Why I swapped bricks and mortar for a boat

Helen Babbs

This feature was first published in the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine

It’s a chilly February morning and I’m struggling to get out of bed. That period of indefinite length between getting up and the cabin warming up is a difficult one to step into. So I stay horizontal, listening to a chorus of creaking rope and fender, the canal’s particular slap and gurgle, and the resident coots’ territorial shouts and squeaks.

It’s been a hard night. I got in late after dinner with friends and didn’t light a fire, didn’t even fill a hot water bottle. I thought a nightcap of single malt was enough and brushed my teeth in my coat. The cold crept in in the small hours, so penetrating it woke me up. My interrupted sleep was a cruel reminder that my home is actually a machine, one made of steel and partly submerged in water. Unless the fire is lit, the cabin temperature can drop dramatically if it’s cool out.

It’s hard to remember what it was like to wake up on dry land. I moved onto the boat almost three years ago, the year I turned 30, thinking a new decade demanded a new approach. After ten years renting rooms in shared flats, I was desperate for a space with only me and my boyfriend in it.

Buying bricks and mortar is far wiser, but self-employed, low earners don’t get mortgages easily and we live in a city where a starter home is considered affordable at £450,000. That isn’t to say living aboard is cheap – boats can cost tens of thousands of pounds to buy, plus there are annual licence fees, insurance, fuel and upkeep costs.

But living afloat was something we’d long daydreamed of. We researched it heavily, visiting potential craft across the country. I lodged aboard a friend’s boat for a month to learn the ropes. We eventually found ours in Derbyshire – she’s unremarkable on the outside but her cabin is lovely, all oak and pine and brass. Buying her was both terrifying and thrilling; the learning curve after moving in was steep.

The boat is allowing us to create a home in tune with the things we care about – respecting the environment, living sustainably. We have our own set of solar panels and a beautiful cast iron stove, our main source of heat. We’re no longer wedded to the grid, and life aboard has bred a conservatism with power and water that’s surprisingly liberating. The boat also brings us close to nature. We share the waterways with gothically good-looking cormorants and herons, dancing grey wagtails and pipistrelle bats.

London’s waterways are supporting a growing number of boats. The people who live on them aren’t hipsters or bums; they’re just decent folk finding creative ways to live in the city. Our neighbours are sometimes young families, sometimes couples or friends sharing, sometimes people on their own. It’s a low-impact community that I think we should celebrate. Boats bring boroughs welcome colour and character, an increasingly rare thing as London’s rough edges are smoothed over by a bland tide of chain stores and luxury flats.

Still, it’s important not to romanticise boat life. Residential moorings are rare and many boaters continuously cruise, moving to a new place every two weeks. Cruisers give up mains water, mains electricity and a flushing loo. We have to deal intimately with our own toilet waste – there are special sluices where it can be poured away by hand. It’s not for the time-poor, the impractical or the squeamish.

Boat life can also feel precarious. On an urban waterway your home is exposed to the anti-social antics of some towpath users – we’ve found strangers on our roof at 4am and been pelted with bottles and stones. Boaters are also vulnerable to changing licensing rules, reduced stay times in popular areas, and once public moorings being made private.

Without the security of a permanent postcode, banking and healthcare become complicated too. It was a shock to discover I had to register as homeless if I wanted to vote. I worry about my credit rating. While I’m happy living on a boat, and have no plans to retreat to dry land, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it. Sometimes it’s a joy but others it’s a drain. It is always a big commitment.

Greenpeace | London Can’t Wait for Solar

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‘London is failing on solar, risking its decentralised energy and climate targets. The new Mayor can change the capital’s poor performance record, and ensure the future is bright for solar in the city.’

Really proud to have worked as a copy editor on this report from Greenpeace UK and Energy for London, published in February, which looks at solar energy in my home city. It outlines how the new Mayor of London can start a solar revolution in 2016.

Connect | winter 2015

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As well as copywriting and editing this issue of Connect, I also project managed its production, collaborating with the campaigners, graphic designer and picture editor. Very pleased with how it’s turned out! The hawksbill turtle on the cover was photographed by Paul Hilton.

Review | The Wanted 18

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This review was written for Animations Online

Filmmaker Amer Shomali first found out about the Wanted 18 in a comic book, which he read while in a refugee camp. Inspired by the super hero antics of the ordinary people from his home town of Beit Sahour – which at that point he had never visited – as an adult he decided to seek out the main characters and retell the now forgotten tale in this, his first feature length film. The Wanted 18 are not who you think – they are not men but beasts. Milking cows to be precise.

A bittersweet story that proves how potent non-violent action can be, this documentary shows audiences a side of the Israel-Palestine conflict which we very rarely see. In ‘The Wanted 18′, the actions of a group of solidly middle class Palestinians are centre stage as they peacefully work together to boycott Israeli products and become self-sustaining. One way they attempt to do this is by buying 18 cows (from Israel) and setting up a small scale milk cooperative.

The tale dates back to the 1980s, during the first intifada, and the period just before the first Oslo Peace Accord was signed. It was a time when the residents of Beit Sahour felt empowered, despite regular army-enforced curfews across the West Bank designed to depress and suppress. The documentary recreates the amusing moments of the cows’ arrival and how local people learned how to milk and care for the herd. None of them had ever looked after cows before.

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Using interviews with Israelis and Palestinians, live action reconstructions, hand drawings and stop motion, the mixed media documentary is deeply engaging. The animation is used to explore the cows’ perspective and adds a welcome lightness and silliness to the proceedings, especially as the story darkens towards its absurd and unhappy ending. The puppets are appealing, cartoon-esque creations with much personality. Their big-eyed innocence underlines the ridiculousness of what comes next.

The Israeli army decides local milk production is illegal and a security threat, and insist the operation be closed and the animals disposed of. The cows are forced into hiding and the milk has to be distributed in secret. When the army realises what’s going on, the cows become the Wanted 18, as the soldiers desperately try to find them. They bully and harass as they attempt to stop the Palestinians’ attempt at milk independence.

The slow crushing of ordinary people’s attempt to keep control over their own lives is heartbreaking to watch. The sense that, from a relative high point of peaceful resistance, things have got much worse is strong. But there’s a glimmer of hope. This sparkling film is full of quiet heroes – men and beasts – and is surely a call to action of sorts, designed to inspire a new generation about what was once and still might be possible.

Review | CELL

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This review was written for Animations Online

A collaboration between two small theatre companies – Little Cauliflower and Smoking Apples – ‘CELL’ uses puppetry, light, shadow and very few words to explore the implications of being diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND). Through a series of often poignant and amusing flashbacks, it charts the slow deterioration of Ted, who can no longer speak or move but has a vivid collection of memories to draw upon in his darkest moments.

Ted is a large, pillowy white puppet, about five feet tall and operated by one to three puppeteers. Although he walks with an awkward gait that I think is as much a symptom of the puppetry as the illness, he is otherwise utterly convincing. His head, arms and upper body are manipulated with great skill and the black-clad puppeteers quickly melt away. We watch him pursue his stamp collecting habit with enthusiasm, develop a sweet and funny relationship with a rather demanding goldfish and, post diagnosis, make the decision to go travelling in Europe while he is still well enough.

As the MND slowly takes hold – Ted begins shaking, dropping things and gradually becomes confined to his chair – he retreats further into the memories he banked up during his trip. He particularly thinks of Annette, a woman he met in France. She is represented simply but effectively with just a white head and a single white hand. She is a creature of imagination and memory, as well as a solid fact. Their relationship is sweet, and gently plays out between the two puppets and also in delicate shadows on lit-up screens.

As the performance slowly unfurls over an hour, I find myself craving for Ted to narrate (he does this only twice, at the beginning and the end), or to hear him and Annette speak. Although the puppetry is adept, the purely physical approach somehow doesn’t tell us quite enough. I often wonder what Ted is thinking and feeling; is he frustrated or angry or sad? That said, ‘CELL’ is an interesting and moving exploration of a debilitating disease with no cure, and puppetry seems the perfect medium with which to tackle the subject.

Review | Red Riding Hood and the Wolf who tried to eat her

This review was written for Animations Online

In Deborah Jones’ new version of the well known tale (and her first script for marionettes), the Wolf and Granny take centre stage. He’s a complicated character, in the midst of an existential crisis and, ultimately, on a journey of reform. She is a faded opera diva who is retreating more and more into her glittering past. It is their frustrations and sadness that give the story its interest and depth, perhaps particularly for the adults in the audience. Using wooden, long string marionettes on their signature Puppet Barge stage, Movingstage carefully unfurl Jones’ layered story of love and loss.

The play begins with Red Riding Hood, in crushed velvet cape, twisting out her first wobbly tooth. She is determined to give it to her grandmother, because Granny has a gap in her own teeth that lets the wind whistle through and ruins her singing. The tooth fairy – a bored spirit called Stan made of silver and glass – is unable to resist and whisks the tooth away. But in the end he agrees to let Hood have it back as long as he can accompany her on a brave trip to Granny’s cottage in the woods.

Red Riding Hood here is a feisty character, with Robin Hood style ambitions to grow up into a highway man who robs from the greedy rich and gives back to the poor. Her first encounter with the Wolf sees her quickly realise she’s not scared of him and, in fact, conscious of his misery, resolved to make him happy. It’s a fearless kindness that makes the Wolf wild.

We first meet Granny chopping wood, with her delightful pet owl in attendance. Every second word is “damn” or “blast” as she bemoans her inability to stay awake, and admits the past holds more appeal for her now than the present. It’s immediately obvious where Hood gets her feistiness and ambition from. Forgetful Granny sets out into the woods, leaving her cottage empty and ripe for the Wolf to pull off his trick.

The set is simple but effective, small in width but long in depth, allowing for gauzy layers and good perspective. The main characters are all marionettes but there is shadow and rod puppetry too. The production is atmospheric, maybe even a little scary (in a good way) for younger ones; the puppeteering nuanced and adept. The ending is a happy one, of course, with Red Riding Hood now blessed with two grannies, one of which is distinctly wolfish.

Review | Plexus

imageThis review was written for Animations Online

A collaboration between director Aurelien Bory and dancer Kaori Ito, ‘Plexus’ sees Compagnie 111 wowing a London International Mime Festival audience once again. Bory presented his portrait of flamenco dancer Stephanie Fuster at the Barbican in 2014; this year he seeks to portray something of the life of Ito.

It’s a performance that is epic and yet confined, personal but impersonal. The stage is occupied by a huge cube formed of tightly strung, flexible wires, which Ito moves within. The structure has microphones embedded in it so it is both a set and an instrument. Swathes of fabric move inside the space like creatures, some manipulated by Ito and others independent of her. The lighting is architectural and the deep shadows geometric. Combined, the light and sound design have a powerful effect – obscuring, transforming, pixellating. Both are incredibly tactile.

Trapped inside this landscape, Ito writhes. Her physical prowess, her frustration, her pain are all laid bare within this box. Her movements speak of conflict, mastery and power. By the performance’s end I think we are all in awe of Ito. So yes we learn about her – the way her muscles rip and her mind ripples – but we also remain distant. She is shadowy, an enigma; sometimes huge, sometimes small, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes mighty. Always hard to grasp hold of.

Bory explains in his director’s note that the word plexus has several relevant meanings: originally it meant intertwining, then networks of nerves or blood vessels, and now it is used in anatomy to refer to the muscles’ inner mechanics. He says that, in portraying Ito, he wanted to explore the “innermost marks her art has carved into her living body” and how the “external entity of dance has entered her”. He achieves his vision, creating a piece of physical theatre that is both muscular and cerebral. For those of us watching, the effect of Ito suspended inside this strange stringed space is fascinating, hypnotic and visually stunning.

Review | Light

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This review was written for Animations Online

Theatre Ad Infinitum’s pacy new show takes us on a journey into a dark, dystopian future where we have gone beyond the smart phone and embraced the implant. Using no set and barely any props, the company cleverly uses brights lights and deep darkness to construct a terrifying future where everything we ever think of is collected as data.

The invasive new implant technology will apparently free people from terror, crime, any evil you like. Except torture by the authorities of course. The implant isn’t optional but if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear. Sounds strangely familiar… ‘Light’ was inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden and starkly explores a possible outcome of our willingness, or otherwise, to give up our personal information.

The show is technically brilliant. The actors use torches and LED strip lights to create the futuristic landscape they move through. Little red lights cleverly show thought data being sent and captured; green lights represent freedom from being watched. A dirty red light indicates we are in someone’s ‘mind space’. The humble torch becomes a star here, casting fantastically atmospheric beams of light that pick up every dust particle swirling on stage.

The sound design (by Chris Bartholomew) is equally powerful and incredibly effective – both the sound effects and the music. The actors are completely in sync with the sound, which adds the essential extra layer to bring their world to life. The cast are brilliant mimes, convincingly occupying the light and sound space they create, and communicating without spoken words. There are voiceless shouts, sometimes deciphered by surtitles, but most of the meaning comes from their stellar movements.

The enveloping darkness that hides the hands behind the moving lights is a vehicle for a kind of puppetry – the actors manipulate the beams and tiny handheld lights in way that gives them independent life and new meaning. A torture scene behind a white sheet uses shadow play to powerful effect, illustrating psychological torture especially well and recalling the catalogue of techniques used by the CIA and recently made public. This is a vision of the future but it is very much rooted in the present, a present where David Cameron is currently pushing for the police and secret services to have even more access to our data.

Within all this is the story of a relationship breakdown and a soap-opera style revelation about who an agent’s mother is. In itself the story isn’t groundbreaking stuff, but as a piece of visual, physical theatre you will be gripped. Director George Mann says he was “filled with a sense of urgency to make the play”, describing it as a way for him to “express his deep concern about the kind of society we are sleepwalking into.” He does a good job. I recommend watching ‘Light’ in conjunction with 1927’s ‘Golem’ (the delivery is completely different but the message strikingly similar) and ‘Citizenfour’, Laura Poitras’ Oscar nominated documentary. It would be a triple bill of viewing pleasure but one that would really make you think.