A constant source of delight to me are gongoozlers.
Gongoozler NOUN, informal – An idle spectator (Oxford English Dictionary)
My life wouldn’t be the same without them. I’ve had many conversations with many of them over the past ten years, and they’ve greatly enriched my boaty life. They’ve ranged from parents with small children, standing on the bank and waving excitedly as we pass, to the crowd of an estimated three hundred sunny Sunday afternoon drinkers and diners at Camden Lock.
Between those two extremes are the dozens and dozens to be seen at Foxton Locks and many other flights any weekend in half-decent weather.
Fascination is a characteristic that’s common to most gongoozlers. They just love to watch, sometimes for ages. But many have questions, too, and I’m very happy to answer them if I can. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
On one occasion, two American tourists at Foxton Locks were quite noisily in dispute with each other, and eventually went over to one of the vollies (volunteer lockies) and asked him to settle the matter.
“Boats going up the locks use their engines, yes?” asked one. “But coming down, they have their engines off, right?”
I was glad they hadn’t ask me to adjudicate.
Another time at the same place, a man in his thirties was watching as Grace manoeuvred Kantara gently into one of the staircase locks. They’re single width, barely wide enough for a narrowboat. The man looked over to me, and said, “Wow, that’s tight! How does a wider boat manage?” I thought he must be joking, and I started to laugh, but stopped abruptly when I realised he was totally serious. I changed my laughter into a kind of unfortunate snort-cough-splutter, and answered as best I could. “Well, it… erm, they… just don’t try.”
I was once told by another boater how she had met a woman who’d never seen a canal before. She thought it was absolutely wonderful, but it did look rather dirty. “How often do they clean them?” she asked.
The gongoozlers I most enjoy talking with are those who are the most enthusiastic. Going through Berkhamsted once, I met a young Welshman with a lovely accent and a girlfriend. He was particularly fascinated by locks. He knew nothing about how they work, but he really wanted to. I’d never met anyone who was quite so amazed by the mechanics of locks, and so totally wowed by it all. He’d heard of the Falkirk Wheel, and he was thrilled when I explained to him how it works. This was Mega Gongoozler Plus. He had lots of questions about boats, and about the canals themselves.
The girlfriend yawned and got lost in her smartphone.
“Do the canals pass through areas more peaceful than Berkhamsted?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, very much more peaceful than Berkhamsted!”
He obviously didn’t get out much.
By the time we’d finished at the lock, he was dead set on having a canal holiday. I was sure he’d enjoy it. He went straight off to tell his girlfriend. She was rather less enthusiastic.
“All the best with that!” I called out as I moved on to the next lock..
Actually, the girlfriend was probably a member of a growing sub-species of gongoozler – the gonGoogler!
I met my first gongoogler one sunny afternoon at Foxton. We’re often there. There were numerous gongoozlers of the normal type, with loads of questions and lots of talk, but one young man in particular caught my eye. He was different. He was walking slowly down the towing-path, ignoring everyone and everything. His interest in the boats and the locks was non-existent, his phone was in his hand, and he was deeply engrossed, busily tapping and scrolling.
To his shock and embarrassment, he was stopped very abruptly by the balance beam sticking out from the gate at the bottom of one of the locks. He simply hadn’t registered its presence, and they’re not in the habit of getting out of people’s way. The poor man swore, dropped his phone and felt foolish. He didn’t seem to be too badly hurt, but I did think the other gongoozlers were being just a tad mean when they applauded him.
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