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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 September 2023

Years of sailing on the Broads has caused Malcolm Guite to reconsider his perspective

SAILING my little gaff-rigged boat on the Broads at the height of the holiday season is quite a challenge. It can be tricky enough, even without any other traffic on the water, to beat up a river, tacking just in time from bank to bank, winning one’s way against wind and current.

One is rewarded, of course, by close-ups of reeds and rushes, of skittering coots and moorhens, of swans’ nests, and, sometimes, sudden glimpses of a great heron standing sentinel, still and solemn as some grey-clad hermit. Those close-ups are mostly missed by the myriad motorboats, hired for the day or the week, ploughing noisily along in midstream, their wash disturbing the delicate nests hidden behind the reeds on either side, and the noise of their engines drowning out all the softer and subtler sounds of wind and water and wildfowl.

When I first sailed on these waters, inspired as I was by Arthur Ransome’s wonderful stories set in the Broads, books such as Coot Club and The Big Six, I was in full Ransome mode: all for the sailors and all against the motorboats. For, in Coot Club, the heroes sail and form a club to observe and defend the coots and other bird life; the baddies, nicknamed the Hulabaloos, are careless holidaymakers in an over-revved motorboat, playing inane songs on their wind-up gramophones. Think what Ransome would have made of ghetto blasters!

But, after a few years on the Broads, I think my take on things is a little more nuanced. If you go out in the evening, when the day boats are back in their berths, and the sometimes rowdy stag and hen groups that hired them (genuine hullabaloos) have staggered on to the next stage of their jollifications, then you find the other hired motorboats, the ones that have been taken for a few days or a week, moored up at the staithes, or at attractive pub-side moorings, the low evening sun reflected back from their windows.

And what you often see on board, then, are whole families, often extended families — three, sometimes four generations — relaxed and enjoying themselves. Grandparents are having a well-deserved evening glass together in the cockpit, watching the sunset; their sons and daughters, parents themselves now, are enjoying time with their own children, dads fishing with their sons (and sometimes daughters), showing them how to bait hooks, and, most importantly, how to unhook their catch cleanly and return it gently to the water; and teenagers are taking selfies on the bow in their captains’ hats, but, I dare to hope, also enjoying a little offline peace and pleasure. Somewhere, a mum with a toddler is feeding ducks, and the little one is utterly entranced.

Moored at the pub-side myself, and chatting over a pint with another old greybeard, I have learned that his family have been coming to the Broads for years, since he was a lad. They club together to hire the boat, squeezing everyone in, to escape dreary work and grey pavements for a week together on the water.

When I think of how many forces are at work in our world to set us against one another, to separate the generations, to split us off into niche consumer groups, the dreadful holiday firms with names such as Club 18-30, I am more than glad to see and celebrate these families afloat together. Maybe they have recovered a little of the wisdom of the Ark, the fundamental lesson of that story, that we are all in the same boat. Maybe the Church could do with recovering a little of that wisdom, too.

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