Monkey-boats and Bargemen’s Songs

Billie Charity-Prescott, Photographer

Billie Charity-Prescott, Photographer

May/June 2017

I’ve been spending some time in the archives of Charles Dickens’ Household Words, a newspaper Dickens wrote and published for two years and which nearly destroyed him financially and mentally. Baffling though it may be that he had much more to say outside his enormous novels, Household Words is an addictive read, full of Dickens’ usual opinionated wit, intuition for the absurd and gorgeous description. He writes about neglected news stories, matters of local interest, character sketches, notes towards fiction, verbatim conversations, feeling a bit out of place during said conversations, and a lot about canals. Hundreds of thousands of words. I recommend losing an afternoon to it. The canal stories often take a fairly grisly turn:

“On Friday the 11th, as Mr. Charles Godwin, mealman, of Somerton-mill, Oxon, was returning from Bicester market, he met with his Death by walking or slipping into one of the locks on the Oxford canal, a very short distance from his house. It seems the deceased borrowed a horse of his brother-in-law to go to Bicester, and called and left it on his return; and the nearest road to Mr. Godwin’s mill being along the towing-path, and the night extremely dark, it is supposed he walked into the lock. When found, the next morning, his hat was on his head and his walking-stick in his hand.”  (January 1st, 1850, p.13)

Household Words is the first place I’ve come across the moniker “monkey-boat” for barge,

“so called we presume from being very narrow in the loins”, Dickens says, although it’s not clear whether he asked anyone connected to canals or narrow boats for clarification. And why would he? The last thing a man out of context ever does is ask for an explanation. (I’ve had many unedifying conversations about loft insulation, cars and football, where I believe I’ve left my interlocutor with the impression that I understand simply by agreeing with them). And monkeys are notoriously narrow in the loins. It’s one of the first things that comes to mind when you think of a monkey. They’re narrow-loined. Like a barge. Monkey-boat.

Dickens writes beautifully, poetically, about a barge captain “leaning on his great arms and elbows over the deck, and completely filling up the small square hatchway, so that […] it seemed as if this brawny object were some live excrescence of the barge, or huge black mandrake whose roots were spread about beneath, and, perhaps, here and there, sending a speculative straggler through a chink into the water.” (April 13th 1850, p. 92) He also writes powerfully about the graft and tedium:

“And here they were, no doubt, and here they lived from day to day, and from night to night; and a pretty wretched, dirty, monotonous life it was. Having once got into a canal, with the horse at his long tug, the tediousness of the time was not easily to be surpassed. From canal to river, and from river to canal, there was scarcely any variety, except in the passage through the locks, the management of the rope in passing another barge-horse on the tow-path, and the means to be employed in taking the horse over a bridge. The duty of driving the horse along the tow-path, as may be conjectured, fell to the lot of our young tourist. Once or twice, ‘concealed by the murky shades of night,’ as a certain novelist would express it, he had ventured to mount the horse’s back; but the animal, not relishing this addition to his work, always took care, when they passed under a bridge, or near a wall, or hard embankment, to scrape his rider’s leg along the side, so that very little good was got in that way.” (April 13th 1850, p.93)

A passage on bargemen’s’ poetry particularly struck me. I have been told, at various times over the last year, that I ought to look into the ballads and verses written by bargemen over many decades, usually written and recited while working. Somewhere between an oral and written tradition with as much in common as the folk song as poetry. My response has generally been to politely note some names down on my phone silently muttering what am I an archivist? and then to dutifully Google them later. This excerpt from ‘The Jolly Bargeman’s Song’ by Cicely Fox Smith (first published 1919) draws on the tradition and is fairly indicative of the customary style:

The Navy is the Navy, an’ it sails upon the sea,
The Army is the Army, an’ on land it ‘as to be;
There’s the land an’ there’s the water, an’ the Cut comes in between,
An’ I don’t know what they’ll call me if it ain’t an ‘Orse Marine.

The Missis sits upon the barge, the same’s she used to sit,
But they’ll ‘ave ‘er in the papers now for Doin’ ‘er Bit:
An’ I walk upon the tow-path ‘ere as proud as anything,
If I ‘aven’t got no uniform, I’m serving of the King.

Ignoring the fact that you have to stretch “Doin’” for three syllables if it’s to scan, it’s still a tight end-stopping ballad with an appealing sense of defiance. Writing on the bargemen poets as a living tradition, Dickens is marvellously snarky, both about poetry written for money and/or publication and poetry written out of necessity/boredom.

“…much of the bye-way poetry with which we shall deal, has never been promoted to the honours and heartaches of paper and print—nor even taken the manuscript forms of  ‘longs and shorts’ […] We may—and shall—have to do with authorship in humble life, —but less, perchance, than those will expect, who have considered our subject merely from the outside of the bookseller’s window, or from the sum total of a rhymester’s subscription list drawing thence the charming inference that A. B. or C. is a poet, because he has found a publisher and extorted a public! […] How wide is the distance betwixt what may be called the unconscious Poetry of the People— and that meagre and second-hand manufacture, produced with a desire for fame, or under hopes of gain, which challenges competition with the efforts of men more favourably circumstanced, and which goes forth as virtually a solicitation for alms.” (May 11th, 1850, p. 152)

I think that’s pretty much all of us told.

householdwords Charles Dickens


As a notional project it would be great to re-tread some of Dickens’s journeys and recreate the folk history he achieves in the pages of Household Words but that would probably require more discipline and singularity of purpose, a pelican rather than a magpie; poets are magpies. All things being equal, I leave you with my own solicitation for alms.



The mirror side-step when you meet
a pedestrian as polite as you
is worse on bikes when one side’s water, so
affect a ruthlessness in your negotiations.
Murder bouquets, gravity-defying tags,
Nike prints of teenage dealers.
Go up a gear and never spare the bell.
But on the far side the arboretum makes
a sanctuary of deep museum light;
you think of Gatsby’s garden parties
or an al fresco study where you’d sit and read
in shade and period costume,
a strong drink in a long glass.
Devotional prayer that leaves out wretched,
some notional peace that leaves out lonely,
so give yourself the option in the
overhanging branches’ vast arrangements
of someone too perceptive for this world.
Their deckchair is a little to the left.
Right now they are, let’s say… sketching.
Because we spend more time with versions of each other
and our own minds’ avatars
than with our inconvenient, boring selves.
Sun concealed by clouds’ slow monkey-boats,
each breath a first/last quality.
How good it feels to long for you.

Been on your Holidays?

Luke Kennard

Billie Charity-Prescott, Photographer

April 10th 2017

Hello again. I’ve had to take some time out to tour Cain and my first novel which were published in something of a bottleneck. You know how you crave attention but then when you get it you think, on measure I preferred being left alone? I don’t know why I’m writing that in the 2nd person. Actually, when an earlier version of the novel was sent out by my agent three years ago it received one ‘maybe’ and six rejections and I realised that if I was going to pursue the thing at all it was going to need at least a year’s revision and re-writing. Dejected, I walked down to the canal from Bournville to Kings Norton with the 400-page manuscript in my backpack and followed the towpath until it disappeared in a watery crossroads. This is the only thing I’m good at and I’m not good at it. I sat on the ground and considered somehow sinking the document, maybe tying it to a rock with my belt. This would have been a particularly awful and gratuitous act of littering, so I made do with miming throwing an imaginary novel into the canal. I’d like to pretend I had some kind of epiphany at this point: a heron landed on my shoulder, heavy as a camera on a tripod, and whispered don’t give up.


A couple of weeks ago I had two readings in Holland, one in Maastricht and one in Amsterdam. This is one of my poems, ‘Chorus’ (2007)1, translated into Dutch by Bas Belleman (2017):


Het koor liet hem niet meer met rust sinds de eerste dag van zomer.
Bij het ontwaken zag hij het opgesteld rond zijn bed.

Op een dag kwam het koor en gaf geen waarschuwing vooraf en geen verklaring,
Zong het koor vierstemmig en gaf hem een geroosterd broodje.

Op zijn eerste werkdag stond het koor rond zijn bureau
En zong: Het koor maakt zijn werkzame leven onmogelijk.

Twee weken later verliet zijn partner hem voor een osteopaat.
Hannah kon het koor niet langer verdragen, zong het.

Die nacht beukte hij de zangers met zijn vuisten;
Gefrustreerd slaat hij het koor, maar ondanks blauwe plekken

En bloedende lippen zingt het twee keer zo fanatiek, zong het koor.
Toen zong het, Hij kan niet slapen, hij kan niet slapen,

Hij kan niet slapen, in zuivere kwinten, tot hij in slaap viel.
Op den duur raak je misschien aan ons gehecht, zong het zachtjes.

1. [Read Luke’s poem, Chorus, in English here]

The hotel I stayed in was right on the canalside and it was like a cross between a Wes Anderson and a David Lynch set. This was initially charming and later discombobulating after I unwisely decided, post-reading, that the best way to unwind would be to visit a café. I’m a poet, I reasoned, I’m expected to abuse my body and mind in pursuit of my art. To abridge a My Drug Hell narrative, I ended up weeping silently on the shoulder of my friend for upwards of two hours, unable to differentiate between the things I was thinking and the things I was saying out loud. We sat on the edge of the Keizergracht canal and she managed to stop me from falling in. I still felt quite odd flying home the next day. The man at UK passport control said, ‘Been on your holidays?’ and I muttered something like holiday holiday yes nice happy holidays. Passport officers should really ask you if you’re planning on having any good haircuts this year.

Boat LiftAmsterdam Canal

Look at the lift; it’s like a coffin!


Anyway, I’m delighted to have some more time and headspace to wander the towpaths of the UK again and to finish a couple of new poems before I pass the laurels onto another poet. It’s been a joy to be George Lazenby to Jo Bell’s Sean Connery. I have a couple of readings coming up in June where I’ve been asked to focus specifically on the dozen or so poems I’ve written as part of the canal residency. This is a good thing as I’m feeling quite sick of my other poems at the moment. One is June 10th 7:30pm at the Welshpool Poetry Festival with Helen Mort (who is excellent and has also written some excellent canal poems). The other is the Market Bosworth Festival on June 13th at 7:30 in a line-up entitled Music, Poetry and Laughter by the Canal. The latter is tied in with a school Viking theme, so I’m trying to write something about Vikings on a narrowboat. I’ll report back on both.

Lanterns in distant inns

Photo credit Billie Charity-Prescott

Photo credit Billie Charity-Prescott

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:

David Hart quote

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?


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.

Each small act of generosity

credit Billie Charity-Prescott

credit Billie Charity-Prescott

September 14th 2016

After several hours on the cussed M6 I spent a beautifully hot August day at Hillmorton Locks in the excellent company of volunteer lock keepers Kevin and Taryn.

The Hillmorton locks HQ sits before the old lock keeper’s cottage and faces a narrow set of double locks. It is the busiest in the country which can lead to a certain amount of boat rage, I’m sure, but that day people were relaxed and friendly without exception – I chatted to boaters from Sweden, Germany, Australia. It’s easy, I think, to get lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle pace, the puttering engines and bucolic splendour. As we watched a boy teetering on the roof of his parents’ boat, Taryn recommended this absolutely harrowing YouTube clip of a narrowboat sinking in 20 seconds:

I agreed that it should be a required viewing, maybe texted directly to anyone who rents a boat as part of the welcome package.


The day passed quickly. I learned a lot more about the sub-aqua operations of the lock, had to be reminded several times about the safety catch on the… windy bit. I kept the windlass in my hand at all times. I quoted some Vogon poetry. Kevin told me a chilling story about his former headmaster taking students to a chewing gum factory to put them off using it; it was very effective. 48 boats passed in total (the record is 120), some of them day-trippers who had never opened a lock before, hence in need of instruction/assistance. I said, ‘It’s my first day,’ a lot. I remember I used to say that at the hotel I worked in, like an English version of Manuel, even when I’d been working there for two years. ‘Here’s your pint of foam. Oh, I’ve dropped a baked potato on your shoulder. It’s my… first day?’ The tips were great.


A committed couple of swans were nesting about a hundred yards away, and next to them a single male swan who just hung around jealously. Occasionally they chased him, just to rub it in. Taryn suggested that he wasn’t putting himself out there enough, but supposed that there was no swan version of Tinder. I think I went into an overlong bit about a swan pecking left or right on a smartphone; the joke was already finished, really.

Luke Kennard - canal blog

Another key role of the volunteers is water conservation: there are so many boats coming from either direction that even with two locks it could easily turn into a circus of constant filling and emptying, rather than allowing a boat from one side to enter the empty lock once the boat from the other side has passed through. I’m not explaining that very well. You had to be there. If there’s a drastic change in the water level it potentially means someone has run into trouble further up the canal. They’ve accidentally let all the water out of it or something. I’d be a total liability if I was left to my own devices on a narrowboat, so it was odd to be in a position of authority conveyed by my quite unearned Canal and River Trust life-jacket.


The first couple of times you open a lock gate you’re all smug that you haven’t hurt anyone, that you’ve been of use in some tangible way (a rare enough feeling as a poet), that you’re partaking in this ancient marvel of engineering and that it wasn’t even that tiring. But like holding a bag of flour in the palm of your outstretched hand, you’re soon brought to the inescapable conclusion that you’re fairly out of shape. Halfway through the day I required frequent Twitter and vaping breaks.

Canal for blogCanal - lock gate for blog


The juxtaposition of immaculate, lovingly restored boats and gritty, functional, equally beloved boats is one I’ve come to enjoy. A giant, friendly/scary man occupied one of the latter. I swear the cabin was a train carriage. Some young American women had bought him beer. They were pathologists and talked mostly about autopsies.


There’s a café/bar here which is just perfect and I wished I was staying over. The English breakfast was transfiguring. You know when the tomatoes have the black griddle lines on them, but they’re still cooked all the way through so the tomato just explodes when you bite it? You can always judge by the tomato.


Anyway, I wrote this poem about the experience and it’s still a work in progress, but so’s everything, really.


for Kevin and Taryn

A mechanism I am yet to understand,
but wind and push and mimic
the contraflow, the reading of the depths.
Hello. A cheerful, solemn duty.

To differentiate from its namesake
we say a pair of compasses, like trousers;
the lockgates make you part of their machine,
the boat a bubble in a spirit level.

Prepare the quarter circle you describe.

The smell of lighter cubes and sunblock,
hollow knock of crack willow.
Dayboats return with a cargo of sunburn,
we turn and turn the windlass.

when a boy balances on the roof,
stamps as the corner hoves into view, I think:
how quickly we presume the safety-catch,
how we might leave it off this once,

how one day we might run aground or sink
without a wave or nod or how are you?
The soul’s maintenance we hardly notice,
with each small act of generosity.


A silent movie reshot and restored

photo credit Billie Charity-Prescott

photo credit Billie Charity-Prescott

August 16th 2016

Managed to take half a day walking the Oxford Canal towpath. Only for a few of its 78 miles towards Coventry. Planning to return with more time and better shoes soon, not least because I want to see an endangered water vole. The rollerball pen I am using is not of the usual brand and quality.


Four herons. Heroni? Anyway, within the space of half an hour this is as many heroni as I’ve seen in my lifetime up to this point. The way they take off like someone struggling to put up an umbrella on a windy day. Then they use their necks in a kind of retching motion to… reel themselves towards the sky. And after that they look impossibly graceful.


When I was first approached about the canal poetry role I suggested using the work of 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō as a model, which I’ve more or less stuck to, insofar as Bashō presented his relatively brief poems amidst pages of anxious, doubt-riddled prose, thus his work is roughly 30% poetry and 70% self-loathing which is a ratio I can get behind.

“In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. […] ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another.” (The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin, p.71)


It occurs to me that I never wrote up my day at the Braunston Historic Boat Show, or, indeed, put up the sonnet to the winning boat (Hadley). It took a while for the votes to come in and the herding cats analogy was invoked and I said, oh, I work in academia, my thesis was on cat herding. The hours went by, and I had a ride on the Nutfield, and a delightfully garrulous boy told me in great detail about the most difficult missions in the computer game Skyrim until I started hallucinating weird snake goddesses and people with swords for fingers and iridescent unicorns on the towpath. And then I ate a bacon sandwich, anxiously checking my watch. I was starting to regret committing myself to the sonnet, but in the event, scrunched into the driving seat of my car so I could charge my e-cigarette, the form provided the necessary discipline to write something I wasn’t completely humiliated to read out two hours later.

Photo of Hadley by Tim Coghlan, the managing director of the marina.

Photo of Hadley by Tim Coghlan, the managing director of the marina.


Hadley seen from land or when aboard,
Your blue and yellow as bright then as today
A silent movie reshot and restored.
Roses and castles carry the eye away
As far as any valley, East or West
Cut by your steel when you were Willow Wren’s.
We read the double-meaning of the crest,
We polish and rotate the camera lens,
You feel the engine’s thrum within your bones.
The smell of coalsmoke draws us to connect
The present to a past we might have known.
To redefine our course and our effect:
A swan defends his nest against the spray
Pecks at the aft and watches us obey.


What I really like about Bashō is that he mostly writes about feeling like a fraud. Feeling like a fraud is pretty much my factory setting. The cherry blossom trees at Braunston Marina are gorgeous and made me think of this bit. “I had a chance to see the cherry blossoms at different hours of the day – at early dawn, late in the evening, or past midnight when the dying moon was in the sky. Overwhelmed by the scenes, however, I was not able to compose a single poem.” (ibid. p.84) He puts in stray thoughts, worries, flights of fancy; as if the pattern of thoughts were as relevant as the landscape he was walking through. Which of course it is.


You will be pleased to learn I have secured funding for a project to travel the world studying untranslatable ways of saying I miss you. The project is to take 7 years and will involve local dialects, proverbs and metaphors, as well as an investigation of synonyms and nuance. I threw something at you and I missed you. It is anticipated that I will begin to transfer my feelings to the collaborative partner, a linguist, who will do most of the actual work and with whom a natural rapport will develop and because of whom the focus of the project will change irrevocably to ideas of emotional fidelity whereupon it will end, behind schedule and over-budget with few if any contributions to the field.


This month I’m doing a day’s volunteering at the Hillmorton Locks as penance for having previously suggested that lock-keepers spend their time ‘waving at boats’. Also, a friend alerted me to Dickens’s Household Words, a two-penny weekly he wrote and published, and a labour which almost destroyed him (lovingly scanned in here: There are some great bits about canals and I plan to use it as some kind of template for a future entry.