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Who pays the piper calls the tune

The concept was very simple.

When the travelling musicians came to our village we could pay them,  or not.
If we paid them we could ask for a tune,  to which we might dance.   If others in the village wanted to listen and dance to the same tune we might let them,  or not;  it was our money.
Often we would put money into a small chest so that everyone paid the piper.
Before the author was born,  of course.

But the concept was similar when the author was a young man.
If I put sixpence into the jukebox I could choose which record was played.   If you paid,  you chose.
Occasionally the local bully would intervene and,  using his superior strength and inferior sensitivity,  would wait until the sixpence was inserted and then press his predetermined button.
But we didn’t let that happen often;  if he was in the cafe we went elsewhere.   If he came in,  we went out.   The cafe proprietor (no fool!) quickly understood and banished the bully.   Henceforth,  “Who inserts the sixpence calls the tune”.

And then the author was no longer a young man.
He bought a boat.

Actually,  over the years he bought several boats;  sometimes more than one at a time.
He paid his money and bought the boat he wanted.   (or thought he wanted!)
Some were very small,  8 or 10 feet (say,  3 metres);  the biggest was 22 feet (7 metres).
He sailed on the Avon,  on the Severn Estuary,  on the Crouch and in the North Sea.   He was troubled by Authority once.   On the Avon he was asked for his river licence;  who knew?
It seemed fair.   The river needs maintenance and those who use it should pay.   The licence fee was a bit high,  he thought,  for a single use:  could he pay by the day or even by the hour?   Sadly no;  by the season.   So he didn’t go back.
No authority on the Severn,  the Crouch,  the Deben,  the Orwell or the Stour ever asked the author for a licence.   You don’t need one for the North Sea.   The author understood SOLAS,  the IRPCS and insurance (he’s taught navigation for some years).

A legacy (from M’s father) paid for a narrowboat.   A fairly cheap boat,  with ply inside rather than wood,  and with a BMC/Thorneycroft diesel under the cruising deck.   The Conservators of the River Cam demanded a licence fee which,  again,  seemed fair.   They pretended to maintain the river,  although in reality they focussed entirely on the rowers and especially on the needs of the Cambridge crews.
The concept of paying the piper and calling the tune was stretched a bit thin.   It seemed that the boatowners paid the piper to play the only tune he knew.
It rather reminded the author of the BBC.   In his youth and early middle age owning a wireless (radio),  and then a television meant that you must pay a licence fee.   This entitled you to listen to,  and watch,  the very few programmes (channels) which the BBC broadcast.   The radio listener paid the piper and listened to the only tune he played.
But the BBC licence-payer had some influence;  public opinion persuaded the BBC to broadcast the programmes which the public said it wanted.   Of course,  not all individuals of the ‘public’ agreed on what they wanted,  but the individuals had some choice,  and,  over time,  the choice broadened.

The author and M (and their sons) enjoyed the narrowboat for many years.
It was insured,  of course.
This is a scheme whereby the owner pays a company which promises to repay the cost of the boat if it’s lost,  damaged or stolen.
At least,  that’s broadly the idea.   Within certain limits the owner can pay for whatever insurance cover he thinks he needs.   The insurance company retaliates with ‘small print’:  a long list of things with which the owner must comply if he’s to recover his money when the boat is lost,  damaged or stolen.   If the insurance company thinks you didn’t look after it properly,  you won’t get your money.
Imagine the piper coming to the village with a pre-prepared list of tunes.   You can pay for one,  or any;  but you must sit still and listen carefully.   If you cough,  or your stool squeaks,  you’ve broken the contract and you don’t get your tune.   Dancing is extra.   If you agreed to the contract,  that seems fair enough.

And then Authority decided that boaters were not safe.   (The people,  not the hats)
One or two boatowners had allowed gas to leak into their bilges and had blown themselves up when they lit the stove.
One or two had kept their engines running overnight,  for warmth, and had killed themselves with Carbon Monoxide.
If they don’t blow up,  or poison,  anyone else isn’t that their prerogative?

And so the Boat Safety Scheme was born.
You won’t get insurance or a river licence until your boat has passed the Boat Safety Scheme Inspection.
If you don’t get a river licence the Conservators of the River Cam will hound you for a few months and then impound your boat.

As the author types this the Boat Safety Scheme Inspector is inspecting the narrowboat.
He’s a remarkably pleasant,  affable young man,  quite unlike the chap who came last time.*

If he is the piper,  we have paid him,  whether the boat is deemed safe or not.
We have absolutely no say in the tune being played,  if any.

As an RYA instructor the author decided to use the narrowboat to teach Inland Waterways Helmsmanship.
The RYA licence fee (to be an instructor) is almost as much as the river licence (which is much more than it was because the boat is now a commercial vessel!).   This RYA licence allows the author to teach and to issue certificates.   It also covers the cost of an inspector to inspect the boat and the instructors.
We’ve seen this before,  with the BSS:  we pay the piper and the piper calls the tune.

He was pleasant and affable both before and after the boat passed its inspection!

John Starkie

August 2022

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