November 9th 2016.
As Nietzsche once said: when you send me an email, you hand me a tiny pebble and it’s reasonable that you’d expect me to be able to deal with it, and even get a bit cross when I haven’t painted a smiley face on the pebble and given it back to you the same day, but what you don’t realise is that eight thousand other people have also just handed me a tiny pebble and all the pebbles together weigh as much as a boulder and I’m so sick of painting smiley faces on pebbles that I actually don’t want to exist anymore.
It was shortly before the whole horse hugging thing.
It’s been tricky trying to get out recently, so my solution this week has been to walk the towpath to work instead of taking the train. Which I’m doing right now, notebook in shivering hand. And look, yes, I’m moaning, and I shouldn’t be. Academia is really lovely and rewarding; there’s just a lot of it. And the kids are 4 and 2, so the hours outside of work which I used to be able to dedicate to work (ah, bliss) are now mostly spent ensuring that we have exactly two of everything and that the rival Brio train tracks don’t fall foul of the competition commission; you can do quite a lot of damage with an adverse camber when you swing it at someone’s head.
As any academic will tell you, you need to be at your desk by 7am at the latest if you’re going to have a hope of dealing with half the emails, reference requests and questions which have come in overnight before the day’s teaching, pastoral and administrative duties begin at 9. This is fine because children wake up at 6am anyway. Unhealthy working patterns become kind of a habit after a while; personally I see it as a sort of dreadful computer game where the emails are a fleet of gradually encroaching aliens and me not having a nervous breakdown is the ultimate high score.
‘It must be,’ as my friend Janet sometimes reminds me, ‘so hard being a middle class professional. [Sarcastic hair stroke.]’
My two year old, when I’m carrying him, comments on every fallen leaf. And then says, ‘Bye bye, leaves!’ before commenting on the next tranche. ‘Leaf! Leaf! Leaf!’ Bye bye, leaves. Bye bye, emails.
I think fondly of the Head of English when I was an undergraduate in the 90s. He developed this system whereby he didn’t answer any emails, nor deal with any departmental or faculty matters at all – he just threw everything in the bin. I think he has a blue plaque now.
When I reach the point where the canal meets the University train station I find a big flat boat full of scree, several stationary machines and a complete absence of the usual staircase to street-level, about 25 feet above my head. An annoyed cyclist – one I recently pressed myself into the hedge to allow past – adjusts his clips and huffs before turning around and cycling back the way he came. I look around for some kind of make-shift grappling hook before reaching the same conclusion and walking back to Selly Oak.
There’s this amazing sequence of poems by David Hart about this stretch of the canal called The Titanic Café Closes its Doors and Hits the Rocks which may still be available from Nine Arches Press:
I’ve just rented a tuxedo for the Leeds & Liverpool Canal Bicentenary Gala Dinner & Awards which is taking place next Wednesday in Blackburn. My ability to make small talk usually deserts me at such events, but I really enjoy wearing a bow tie.
I’d been working on this poem for a while for the Leeds-Liverpool Bicentenary, but it ended up being too unwieldy for a postcard, and maybe also just not post-cardy enough, so it’s just as well I have this blog, really. In the event I think it’s going to be projected alongside some images of the volunteers and community projects the awards celebrate. It’s in Accrington, which I currently only know from the 90s milk advert:
-Accrington Stanley? Who are they?
80,000 GALLONS TO A LOCK
Skipton to Greenberfiled, 2016
In the roar of 80,000 gallons to a lock
The engine thrums through my bones
from ankle to temple.
I am an antennae channelling
a past I cannot know.
40 tonnes of coal via wheelbarrow
on a single plank, the bargeman’s equilibrium.
I wonder if he read the first signs of the freeze,
windlass in his hand, weighty and balanced
As a murder weapon or a perfect line.
Behind the reeds a scrawny cat
shadow boxes with a swan
and in the roar of 80,000 gallons to a lock,
I wouldn’t listen for your voice because
we’d live together in the hull;
I’d wait to feel your hand upon my back,
your light step from land to deck
and back again.
I wonder if the bargeman saw
The dandelions scattered in the ungrazed fields
like I do: city lights from an aeroplane;
Or if, to him, they looked like lanterns in distant inns,
Or shrapnel glowing in a battleground.
The same seagulls pinwheel round the plough
and all that’s really changed is the machine.