Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Rare Constants - Poetry of Canals

Yesterday's two screenings of my documentary A Humble Station? Branwell Bronte's Calder Valley Years were warmly received at Sowerby Bridge train station, where the film was played in the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms.


Named after a class of engine which was synonymous with Sowerby Bridge in the days of steam, the Jubilee, which features in the film, is owned by brothers Andrew and Chris Wright, and wears the history of the region's railways proudly.

Today's station is some distance from where the station stood in Branwell's time, when he worked as a clerk at the premises for the newly formed Manchester and Leeds Railway company, in post in time for the grand opening on 1st October 1840, an event at which the railway engine pioneer George Stephenson was present, and which is commemorated in the film.  The incredible impact of railways on British life is a major feature of the film, and being somebody who spends a good two thirds of my life either on board trains or waiting for them to arrive, I feel like railways are somehow in my blood, part and parcel of who I am.


The train this morning's like an otter
shimmying through shallows
inching into secrets beneath the reed-rich riverbank;

just gone seven, and the moon's a tin god, weakening
in mist that's peeling away to dandelion sky,
sun-threads woven into cloud

and I'm sitting on a train that's more a magic wardrobe,
spooling otter-like along this rivery morning, air moist
with threat of rain, fiant sprigs of it slowly scattergunned

like the spray of garden sprinklers; the window's open
to a panorama of new promises, and who knows what
lions, witches, and as yet uncovered loves

out among the woods and valleys, waiting.

Yet, A Humble Station actually begins beside the Rochdale Canal, this stretch of water being the thread which flows through the heart of the Calder Valley, and part of a network which of course made up the bulk of Britain's industrial transport system in the decades preceding the arrival of the railways.  It also runs directly beneath my own window, making the canal as ever present a feature in my life as railways.

 Barges, narrowboats, Sowerby Cruisers,
these shoe-shaped floating houses
balance on the water with a tilt to the towpath, moored.
Snugly, they always look asleep,
though one of them this morning's like a Viking skiff,
piled with logs, its wigwams of bunched twigs
ranked along the roof like totem poles,
skull-and-crossbones perched on deck.
Others nestle in still waters, smiling
at the ducklings scrambling by,
soaking in the sun of early spring
or sway like shrugs on balmy summer Sundays. 


The Rochdale Canal was constructed in the late Eighteenth Century, falling out of use by the later Twentieth, before its tunnel at Tuel Lane was re-opened as part of a project of regeneration in May 1996.  This juncture at Tuel Lane provides Sowerby Bridge with the deepest canal lock in the country - the reason I chose to name the company formed by myself and my filming partner Alan Wrigley for releasing the film Deep Lock Productions.  And rightly enough, a canal-boat scene is included in the film.

My neighbour George, who has lived on our road for seventy years, remembers barges transporting coal up and down the canal as late as the 1960's, and in Branwell's era, the early 1840's, it would have been a very busy stretch of water, full of boats carrying cargo between Lancashire and Yorkshire.   Families lived on the canal - the "bargees" with their unconventional lifestyles, a hard-drinking, gypsy-like trading people with whom Branwell was known to socialize, as described by Daphne du Maurier in her 1960 book The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte:

The canal ... was the chief means of transport for stores and material to be used in the construction of the railway. Every day barges traveled to and fro, anchoring for the night very often in the cul-de-sac, or 'basin, at Luddendenfoot, where the bargees would spend their evening at the Woodman, the Weaver's Arms, or the Anchor and Shuttle.  
These men fascinated Branwell. They were a law unto themselves, rowdy, rough, coarse, but of fine physique.   
Bargees - or 'boatees' as they were called - cared for nothing and no-one.   They were traveling gypsies, drinking, fighting, laughing.  Their way of life was crude, but it was free.  Branwell was at ease with them.  They did not know he was 'Parson's son' from Haworth. They did not ask who he was. They did not care ... he would feel anonymous, secure.  The knowledge, too, that his father would have disapproved, would have been horrified, even, would have been an added stimulant.

 Today, after several decades of disuse, when it lapsed into slimy decay, the Rochdale Canal is used widely by boaters and holiday makers. 


 At Sowerby Bridge, not far from the stretch of canal that paddles by beneath my balcony, the wharf bustles with bars, but is also a haven for wildlife, prompting much of my own poetry on the subject.  Herons are seen often, their stringy springs across the canalside canopies a kind of clumsy ballet, until one glimpses them in flight: gracious and ethereal, they appear more like birds of prey, yet are enigmatic, swift, and somehow gentle. 

More frequently, Canada Geese and smaller birds are seen -




...and, despite their man-made origins and industrial pasts,what fascinates me about today's canals is how they and the environments they engender have become havens for wildlife generally.

Rain subsides, rain falls, rain blends on a sky-like surface, 
fishes glittering below; ducks sail gently by.
Evening sun glows gently over the canal.

We are very lucky to live on this beautiful planet.

(Canal Haiku)


Autumn dusk; ducks huddle upon waters bounced on by a cavalcade of rain.  I stand and look over the locks and bridges, contemplate the complex network of canals stitched together to form the Aire and Calder Navigation, a watery web, linking my adopted town with the city of my birth.  Like tunnels burrowed by enterprising gangs of weasels, voles, or big, subsurface predators,
they split and sub-divide, a grid of burrowed waterscapes as if the veins of earth had somehow opened up.


A long distended network,
lines and joints complex
as an electrician's chart
this braided splay
of connected canals
is pinned together
at crucial points
just like the multi-stranded
sequences of blood
and twining
through us
like branches
of successful trees
somehow knowing how to work.

Usually solitary, often long, my canalside wanders have prompted poetry, much of it short, haiku-like thoughts inspired by unexpected or heartening sightings.

Like yellowy bubbles
ducklings bobble
along a sunshine-silked canal

...at other times, I have seemingly taken to compare canals with musical instruments:


Under pale March sky,
frosted leaves scattered on the surface,
you're a twisting cylinder of silty brown,
muggy as old whisky bottles rimed with cobwebs. 

On days like these
when winter hasn't given up,
when morning winds are bolshy as loud families on trains,
when even the hardy horses in the fields seem hesitant, half-questioning
and headlines hiss wth rumours of deepending unease
you are laid low, unspectacular,
but there. 

Unerring continuity of water,
simple but enduring twinning
of human hand and elemental,
natural truth,
against the fractured clamour of a harsh and jarring world,
amid the shove and jumble of insoluble discord,
upon a weathered, tattered stave
you are the sound of an oboe -
gentle but determined,
curving but neat-outlined,
serious but flowing,

...while at other times I have found myself getting lost on metaphorical tangents conjured by the canals' diversities of wildlife:


Sleep-shaped whisper,
curling curve of water
slowly proving yourself
like a soft meandering adagio 

and yet 

you slide along with purpose,
your course is more deliberate
than the swerving flutter of the fish,
your strong but slumbering gradualism
places you at odds
with skittering pondskaters, zipping bugs,
grabbing gulls and ducks that waddle even as they swim,
this way and that they waver beneath the jumbled
flight paths of restless pigeons,
while you aim onwards, even at a different pace
to the patient but spurtingly-inclined brigades
of minky mustelids hidden in the nettled banks
and briar-twined brackets skirting round
your sandy flanks,
the sniper-like
and hungry knives,
that dip and forage at your weedy fringe.

 But my canal poems, and walks, extend beyond my native ground.  The Rochdale Canal flows over from Manchester, and sometimes it feels quite surreal to think that the same thin lane of water ambling by the brambled towpath below my window, winds back through the neon-glistened streets of Manchester's canal district, a hub of nighltlife. Once, on wandering through the tapestry of balconies and stairwells bathed in florescent lighting spilling from the adjacent clubs, I began composing the following poem in my head under the stars of a Mancunian summer night, the canal silently flowing at the edge of my eyeline like a neat glass avenue.


1. CORE 

Oh bashful echo of impoverished pasts,
of men slave-driven by the gods of gold,
of a streamside hunger juxtaposed
by a city's self-sustaining wealth
re-envisaged in the glossy polish of false dawns,
you are a candle,
pellucid streaky flame
slivering in solitary romance,
shelled in cobweb-soft liquidy
with a core of coal. 


Trickling through the city
below balconies and bridges
where neon-spangled dancefloors spill
onto the riverside courtyards,
subtle in its sub-street seam,
this canal is shy and bookish,
is the quiet type
watching revelry and romance.

I saunter by the water
in the shade of strobes,
in the background pulsating music
and the thrill of rings of dancers,
but this distance is comfortable
as I cut beneath the underpass,
thread Deansgate and trace
the network of an inner-city's hum
and throb.

I ask directions from a guy
crop-haired, polo-neck
the colour of clouds.
Like tiny suns his eyes are saying
what neither of us can.

Cities, of course, are part and parcel of the routes of most canals, and not just here in the North.  The canals of London have long played a part in the fictional mythologies of that city, from the death described by Dickens at the Regent's Canal in The Uncommercial Traveler, to the fateful canal at Walford, in Eastenders.  In Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens places one of the principal and most intriguing villains - Rogue Riderhood - as a lock-keeper somewhere adrift of the Limehouse Basin, while elsewhere in the novel, a murder is attempted by a lock.  An altogether more lighthearted character is to be found living on the canal in Dombey and Son, where Dickens tells us Captain Cuttle lived on the brink of  a little canal near the India Docks, where there was a swivel bridge which opened now and then to let some wandering monster of a ship come roaming up the street like a leviathan. 
"Opened now and then," presents an image of casual ease - yet anyone who has performed or witnessed the process behind the opening of Locks will know that this is far from the case.  It is physically hard work, requiring  skill, strength and patience.


Closer to home, the only thing to sour my own proximity to canals is the regular sight of fishermen, and no matter how often I see them wreaking their pointless savagery upon the unsuspecting inhabitants of the water, I shall never get used to or "accept" their disruptive presences. 
Of equal ugliness are the areas where the canalsides, and canals themselves, have been left to fester in squalor and refuse.  But such sights are part of canal life, and have crept into my poetry almost as often as the canals' more appealing scenery.

Under the watchful half-eye of a crescent moon -
fox-holes soiled up in winter's disrepair,
scraps of feather, bones decaying in the hedgerows -
the water's lit, a lunar aluminium,
and bottlenecks towards the bridge
where, flowing through the darkness,
it emerges to a bankside, draining out.

Boats bob, dog-dirt rots on paths.
Here's terminus, a hectare of hardening sludge
as February, March commingle, and the diminishing stretch
of canal's exhibited for all the sorry mud-and-garbage it's become.
Midge-infested, coffin-black, the mouth of muck is speckled with coke-cans.
Redundant limbs of old machinery clog up as broken glass and plastic bags
waste away, as if the whole inflated blotch, a muddy microcosm
were some big bin.

Canals offer a unique combination of the human and the natural, the traditional and the unexpected. Beauty and ugliness. The paths which wind along side their worlds of water also paint different pictures of plant and animal life, different vantage points from which to observe the world around us, their colours subtly shifting through the year.

I cannot quite imagine now living in a place untouched by canals.  Possibly, I shall live above or within viewing distance of one for the rest of my days. Dug into the natural landscape in order to further the advance of man upon an already fragile wild world, I should not like them. But canals are also emblematic of a mutually enriching symbiosis, whereby - when channeled with due care and with sufficient respect for and attention to the living world, human influence on the planet need not always be destructive; indeed, that it can help to feed a people and sustain communities, oil the wheels of trade and link different areas to one another across a bond of water. In today's age of pollution, overcrowding, and habitat destruction, canals provide thriving belts for wildlife, at a time when these are badly needed.  And there is something fundamentally calming about their presence, their slow-flowing progress, and the fact I know that, whatever trials and difficulties may await me in my daily life, and my observations of the wider planet, the canal will be waiting for me when I return home, its quiet, patient presence a source of comfort.


The canal, a pewter moonbeam ribboning the town, is silent:

a sleeping sheep, it radiates
a silvered calm, beaded by bobbing
boats of blue and bushy green.

The barges may as well be lily-pads,
the unobtrusive rectangle of water
one of many stitched into a twined bone-structure

rimming parks and pathways,
soft like settling snow - canals endure
seemingly unendingly and simple

a stark reciprocity of gains,
un-squeezed harvest of persistent peace,
a long rain-coloured corridor

no longer used for coal or sacks of grain,
but resurrected from the slimiest demise
by holiday-and-home-makers, their boats

like tubes of childhood sweets
bobblingly slotted along waters
self-evidently tinselling a round, echoic course.

Shy relations of aggressive seas,
genteel cousins of the rivers, 

unselfconscious and subdued, reassuringly straightforward: 
in a world of continual uncertainies
canals are rare constants.

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