I’ve just opened a book that I levered off the heaving shelf in the next room, unconsciously perching on the threadbare pew that’s nudging the backs of my knees as I turn the bruised and pleasingly used pages.
“The first light of morning barely illuminated the sky as Gustad Noble faced eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The hour was approaching six, and up in the compound’s solitary tree the sparrows began to call. Gustad listened to their chirping every morning while reciting his kusti prayers. There was something reassuring about it. Always, the sparrows were first; the cawing of crows came later.
From a few flats away, the metallic clatter of pots and pans began nibbling at the edges of stillness…”
Certain pages are bent and folded; stained where fingers have traced over the ink of complicated passages or favourite phrases that have been memorised and pocketed away for later. Music from Porgy and Bess is spilling around, warming the whisps of the dank, winter’s day that are seeping in through the open door, dragging themselves along the dark floorboards to sit grey and heavy on my chest.
When the wind changes the air is flooded with an acrid tang of burning fuel that briefly masks the comforting smell of old dust and second-hand paper. Someone’s feet startle me out of the corner of my eye, stamping through the passage I was reading as they pause, somewhere between my head and the low ceiling.
As they continue past, I realise that the floor underneath me is moving. It lurches gently as the books on the shelf that were once perfectly level are suddenly and disconcertingly skewed and my stomach takes a slow tumble. Although I should have anticipated that really, because I’m on a Dutch book barge, where words float on water.
Keats’ chosen epitaph was “here lies one whose name was writ in water”, but luckily this watery writing hub has a little more permanence. Founded by affable owner Paddy Screech as a solution to the threat of rising overheads involved in owning an independent shop in the capital, this 100-year-old barge has been converted into a book-lovers’ paradise with shelves groaning under the weight of reasonably-priced (two paperbacks for £5, if you were wondering) books penned by everyone from philosophers and criminologists to Booker Prize winners.
Word on the Water changes location every so often, but for the time being it can be found moored on the murky canal just below Granary Square in King’s Cross. Marooned on the greyish waters, this is a little shop quite unlike any other and is full of little eccentricities that make it disarmingly charming – like the resident little buddha with its tattered prayer flags or the forlorn Noah’s Ark bookends propped against the encyclopaedias above the old, coal-blackened stove.
Kai the whippet seemed like a regular customer and was very at home on the leather chair, even if he wouldn’t keep still long enough for an in-focus picture.
Word on the Water might not have such a happy ending, however. The Canal & River Trust, which awards permanent moorings to worthy applicants, has just decided to give preciously rare trade moorings in Paddington away to a multi-billion pound property company British Land instead of this floating world of literature.
There’s a petition on Change.org you can sign if you think the council should reverse its decision. I’ve already signed it and urge others to do so – they only need 313 more signatures and it would be a real shame if this unique shop had to close.
The book barge is cash only – I stupidly forgot to bring any so couldn’t leave with the book I started.
If you get peckish, there are lots of brilliant places to eat a stone’s throw from Word on the Water. Try Caravan for exceptional coffee and brunch grub; The Grain Store for interesting all-day nibbles like spiced lentil cake with cucumber salad and banana ketchup or my favourite, Dishoom.
Sitting in one of their summer house cane and leather chairs sipping chai and smelling incense feels like visiting the days of the Old Raj. Don’t leave without trying one of their impossibly creamy mango and fennel lassis or their chargrilled paneer and green chilli Roomali roti rolls.