community among chaos in london

musings on community among chaos in london

Like most twenty-somethings, I spent the first portion of my adulthood searching for my place in the world, a nook where I would feel safe but challenged, where I would find balance. I found this increasingly difficult, for the first part because I wasn’t yet even sure who I was, and for the second part because I am a millennial in London. It is no great secret that London is becoming harder to live in, both socially and financially. I first moved to London in 2018 to do my degree, and was instantly sold the dream of endless opportunity, and felt like it was undoubtedly the place I needed to be. It turns out, as a freelance creative, London is the place I have to be to get any work in.

I grew up in a small seaside town in South Devon, where people know each other and you see the same faces out and about and there is a sense of belonging even when I just go back to visit. I believe that we need familiar faces around us because we see ourselves reflected back in other people, this is important to have a sense of who you are and how you fit in. I was always a bit of an oddball growing up, I wore stripy tights and pink patent Doc Martens, and I saw my difference reflected back to me in how people interacted with me. I didn’t really have a strong sense of self at that time, but this experience was important because it compelled me to follow my difference until I found a niche. So I did, I coasted around house shares and communal living situations, trying things on to see what fit. I think the whole time I have been in search of the small town community minded experience, but in one of the biggest cities in Europe.

I believe that London used to function as a mass of smaller communities, but in more recent years people have become atomised and alienated, particularly younger generations. I think the rise of smart phones and internet culture, working more hours for less money, and constant new builds and rising rent has left the city feeling oppressive and impersonal. This is my personal experience, and I know that a lot of people feel the same. It is sad to see how profit hungry industry has ravaged the country I grew up in, and this feeling of hopelessness and fatigue is hard to breach when climate change is more tangible and threatening, and the cost of living is ever increasing, while big conglomerates rake in more profit than ever. I think these feelings are the antithesis of belonging and community, and feed into alienation. These ideas set the backdrop against which I started thinking about buying a boat with my partner.

boating family

inside a narrowboat

Ours seems to be a common story among young people moving onto boats in London, certainly the group of friends we have gained through this lifestyle all seem to have similar values and experiences. One common theme is definitely the rising cost of living and ever increasing rent, although this is a contentious topic among boaters, so perhaps for another article another time. Another is the idea of self sufficiency, this is at the core of my own values, and at a time where we are so reliant on being plugged into the grid, moving not only off grid, but constantly travelling, seems like an escape from what feels bleak and hopeless. Closeness to nature is also something that comes up time after time, among blocks of flats and high rise buildings, little pockets of greenery and nature can feel grounding.

My demographic is one that is practical, motivated and attempting to escape the system in one way or another, but perhaps most importantly, we are community minded and take initiative to form meaningful connections with others. As I mentioned previously, I spent a long time feeling very alienated. The opposite of this for me is a sense of connectedness with a community, which is something I really struggled to find in London, until we got the boat. Something changed pretty much immediately, our neighbours talked to us, we started to see the same faces up and down the canal, people are so willing to help each other out in times of need. We have people round for coffee, we go for walks, share tools and exchange food, clothes, plants. This willingness to give to others is something I have not come across before, it is refreshing and makes me feel valued and able to contribute. We have our own space, and we are independent in that way, but share a unity. I think this balance between independence, our own space and integration with the community has been key to finding stability.

Lizzie Jones

boat moored

cruising narrowboat

Of course we haven’t got on with everyone we have met, we have come across our fair share of a****holes, and maybe some people thought we were the a****holes, and it is important to acknowledge that. This community is in no way perfect, we are all human, and where there are humans, there is chaos and mess, that is just life. For me community doesn’t just mean friends, it means building solidarity across difference. Friendships provide a sounding board for our beliefs and values, which is one of many reasons they are important, but without a wider community we can become trapped in an echo chamber of people who think just like us. I find it important to be connected to people beyond our friendships because this is how our beliefs and values are challenged or consolidated, and we search for common ground. As boaters we have common ground and experiences to build upon, but also are a massively diverse group of people from all sorts of backgrounds, which can be frustrating and mind opening in equal measures. Building solidarity across difference is the only way that we will get ourselves out of this mess we are in globally. Joining the NBTA has definitely confirmed this belief, it is challenging and rewarding to organise such a geographically and socially diverse group of people to campaign together towards a common goal, but it is the only way to make any real changes.

Humans are social animals, we are designed to live in villages or communities, and therefore the world we live in can feel overwhelming and authoritarian, and lacking in the human connection we are hardwired to need. Choosing to live this lifestyle has offered me ownership of my life, a connection to nature, but what I have found most nourishing has been the interconnectedness I feel for the first time. I have found this to be an antidote to the detachment I felt unable to shake for years.

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About Lizzie Jones

I moved onto our narrowboat ‘Harvest Moon’ with my partner 2 years ago as a continuous cruiser, mostly because the lifestyle appealed to both of us as outdoorsy types who dream of being self sufficient and off grid. Since moving onto our boat we have become involved with the NBTA, campaigning for boater rights as the community has been very important to us, and I feel that protecting this way of life is crucial.