Radio 4's adaptation of novel Offshore is marvellously layered

A tragi-comical story set among the houseboat community beyond Battersea in the 1960s.

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“He said he couldn’t understand why I would want to live on a boat, and I said to him, no I couldn’t either, but there it is.” To a new adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker-winning 1979 novel Offshore (6 January, 2.30pm), a tragi-comical story set among the houseboat community beyond Battersea in the 1960s (then a semi-derelict, near-Dickensian, eel-thick spot). All the characters’ individual predicaments sounded thickly and marvellously layered. The rent boy doomed to be the local agony aunt; the heartbroken ex-wife of an intransigent war hero; the man whose great talent is folding maps correctly; the oil-slicked cat threatening a visiting priest. There was such an appealing atmosphere: the mooring had the air of a strange hideaway.

Having lived on a boat myself for 15 years (along the Grand Union Canal), many lines made me whoop. Chiefly: “She’s looked the postcode up and now thinks we live in one of the most expensive areas in London, rather than in the actual water.” And ah, the menace of tour boats! At one point in the play, a guide with a loud speaker declares: “Believe it or not, people live on these!” Precisely such a vessel haunts my locale. “Every day the barges used to carry coal from Bow,” intones the guide as it passes my window, to tourists perpetually shrouded in cagoules, gazing upon wharf beetles chewing up hulls. “Day after day, dawn to dusk. Relentless.”

Most of all, I liked the way the children repeated, almost as a prayer, the names of the boats they lived among. Rochester, Bluebird, Dreadnought – these names were given when the boat was first launched, sometimes many decades before. (To change it is bad luck and done at one’s peril.) Boat names have portent and meaning. They must surely frame the humans inside. And perhaps they do. Round my way in summer, two teenage lovers regularly camp out on the breezy, miniscule Wiglett (just enough room for one bed and an ice-box of beer). And a very old boat called Shalom was recently towed off in the dead of night, as though such a sentiment has no place in society for the foreseeable. I’ve lived on Wandering Lady most of my adult life. Pick the bones out of that!

BBC Radio 4

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old

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