The summer boozers

This, then, is how we take our leisure when the sun comes out in 21st-century north London. We are at the canal, where the Victorian architecture rots and crumbles and a crowd has gathered to soak up the sun and alcohol. On the canalside, vodka bottles, beer cans and boxes of Pinot Grigio denote fractions of social hierarchy. But whatever their status, everyone here ultimately has the same levelling objective - to get very pissed by the water.

One group has had particular success in this endeavour. All in their twenties, the men wear vests and trousers that finish just below the knee and the women dangle Brazilian flip-flops over the edge of the quay. They are not drunks, but they are drunk and the air around them is thick with dope smoke. The combination of this, the heat and high-octane wine has rendered them imbecilic. As each boat comes past, they appear freshly delighted that there should be boats on the canal, and call out greetings.

The narrowboats that queue up to come through the basin carry cargos of intoxicated Englishmen and women, and the captains are nervously aware of the proximity of people to the potentially deadly gap between the boats' hulls and the quayside. Holding their tillers tightly and concentrating on the combination of locks they must navigate, the captains wear fanciful approximations of naval uniforms, which attract the mocking attention of the watching crowd. Several have peaked caps. One, without apparent irony, wears a Captain Birds Eye beard. The crowd cackles and points; he sets his jaw and looks ahead.

A lone leisure-seeker, baked and browned and wearing only his underpants, is constructing a spliff. He sits inside a glass circle of empty bottles, smiling at everything and everyone until, overcome with pleasure, he begins to laugh openly. It is a deep, mirthful chuckle that delays further work on the narcotic cigarette.

Through this scene drifts a narrowboat-based wedding party. The groom is in good spirits; confronted with that rare and wonderful thing, a dazzling day of hot sunshine at the beginning of his married life, he has done the only thing that he can do and drunk far too much.

Ignoring the wiser voices that recommend he stay below deck, the groom sways along the edge of the narrowboat, holding a glass of champagne in one hand and gesturing at the onlookers with the other. He teeters and threatens to fall, but the brown man in underpants yelps in recognition of a fellow traveller and throws out a hand. The groom clasps the proffered limb. For a second or two they are united over the churning water, before the force of the engines pulls them apart.

The bride looks at the groom and, for the briefest of moments, doubt flashes across her face. The boat chugs on.


Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party