July 7th 2016
In the chaos of marking 1.3 million words of student assignments, exam boards, open days and numerous readings from my new poetry collection (which, being a pathologically insecure narcissist, are at once joyful and emotionally draining) I find I’ve needed the stillness and isolation of the towpath more than ever. I’ve also been working on the page proofs of my novel, in the knowledge that it’s now too late to change anything other than the occasional missing apostrophe. So most of my walks have involved imagining future bad reviews in minute detail.
It was a welcome change, then, to attend the Manchester and Pennine Waterways Outburst 2016, a conference which brought together the great and the good of the Canal & River Trust along with scores of people from the area who volunteer, use and maintain the waterways. I read a poem, stammered an introduction and then attempted a crowd-sourced poem. I distributed some blank cards and asked everyone to write down their favourite canal location on one side (with as brief or extensive a description as they felt like) and their greatest fear on the other. In business I think they call this a SWOT analysis. This provided me with a wealth of material and specific detail from which the following poem emerged.
WHAT WE CAN LEAST AFFORD TO LOSE
Written in collaboration with, and with thanks to, the attendees of the Manchester CRT Conference
I wonder if it is a stretch to say canals and poetry
share more than history or eccentricity:
Hiding in plain sight, a relic dwarfed by commerce,
towers of grey, dismissed by some as obsolete, but they
Have never seen Woodseave Cutting in the morning mist,
An overhead projector light as an owl in flight
Redeems the dawn. Or dereliction turned to treasure:
A community learns what it means to be community.
They’ve never weighed a line or rhyme or seen the way ahead
cycling Saltaire to Bringley clear as the silent fields
the boat cuts through and peddled like a maniac.
To share Dog Tunnel, Gordon’s Wharf, with a kit of pigeons,
no-one else. To moor on the flashes or fish in Ashton
surrounded by neglect and pulchritude,
flowers in the cracks, where the dip-net catches the perch.
The places where our forebears met.
And would they get why it’s important that the trees
Which lean in like respectful mourners to make
A wooded corridor so close to the prefabs,
blocks of flats, a sharp bend; two worlds, two visions,
needs recording, needs maintaining?
Disintegration creeps below the surface as above,
of all that we can least afford to lose.
A blessing uncounted, a life unexamined, no stock taken.
So a prayer that generations hence remember to slow down,
Adopt the speed of families, of pubs, of ales with names
As numerous as bargemen or as poets.
Listen: the water gurgles obscenely, it gargles serenely.
The vista of Tegg’s Nose unfolds as the boat clears
Leek New Road. The orange glow of sunlit
built-up waters. Come to love the ancient ribbon
of ever flowing waters, the bright magnificent mills.
Peak Forest towpath, Swizzels factory: the sickly sweet
Perfume of sherbet and Love Hearts transports
You to a childhood candystore (BE MINE or latterly TEXT ME).
A hustle bustle sanctuary; oasis of the way to work,
Mirage of the lunchbreak; the water glistens
Below the view of the hills, the commuter’s spectacles.
And Standage Tunnel, Everest of the waterways
Rock cavernous feat of modern industry.
The fresh asphalt smell at Bootle, a place to gather
memories, dream visions, see dreams,
and as we clear the waters, clear our heads.
And if we lose our tether to the past as we move on;
and if the aggressive goose-grey glass and metal towers encroach
and suffocate our impulse to explore the footnotes,
poems, marginalia. If water-levels rise like apathy
and litter gathers in the corners of the mind,
and if 100 years from now we hardly recognise
what we’ve become… As long as there’s the will
to search for calm, to wander from the road more travelled,
The selfless sacrifice of our own time just to
Maintain one thing then another we can hope…
At the stern there’s not a soul but me;
The world slides by, 4 miles per hour –
Past understanding, the tranquillity.