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.

Dereliction turned to treasure

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.

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.

Richard of York was equally incapable

May 27th 2016

I had the good fortune of being invited onto the Kennet Barge for a day. Essentially a floating museum, the Kennet is one of the only working boats of its kind. One of two, I think. It’s much longer and broader than a narrowboat. In celebration of the Leeds- Liverpool Canal’s Bicentenary it’s travelling the complete route with a crew of volunteers, recreating the 1st passage and formal opening of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal 200 years ago. Pretty sweet. Anyway, my own brief sojourn on the voyage was to be 6-8 hours on a Friday 13th between Skipton and Barnoldswick. No poem this month as I’m still distilling the experience into verse for the Leeds Liverpool Biennial.

Skipton is a beautiful town below the Yorkshire Dales. Once you’re off the M6 it’s all drystone walls, sublime hills and forests without a soul to be seen, screeching down from 100mph for a cattle grid, that sort of thing. The Kennet was setting off at 8am Friday morning which meant I needed to stay over, which meant, like many young parents with an evening’s shore leave, I had a thirst tempered only by the fact that I needed to be at least 50% operational the next day. Unfortunately Skipton has many glorious pubs, some truly delicious local beers and a handful of micro-pubs, which are roughly the size of a living room and serve even better beer.

ale pumps
I mean c’mon.

Given all this I was proud of myself for only slightly over-indulging and, by 10pm in The Beer Engine, I had finished the penultimate chapter of Under The Volcano and was about to pack my satchel and waddle back to the B&B. I was, in fact, in the process of tucking my chair under the table when a man entered the room and announced that he was a lonely millionaire and wanted to buy everyone in the bar a drink. Two of the fourteen patrons stood and walked out immediately. The rest of us made excuses: it was a school night; his largesse, well-intentioned to be sure, was nonetheless somehow off-putting; winter is coming. I sat down and pretended to read again. The millionaire looked at his feet and said that he had never cleared a bar so quickly. And, well, I’m not made of stone. Come on, millionaire, I said. Take a seat. Buy me a drink.

By 1am I was on first name terms with everyone else who had taken pity on the millionaire, I had talked solely about religion and politics, I had wept openly, I had been told, by the millionaire, that I was like Hugh Grant but with big red ears (weeping not connected). I hugged everyone. I promised not to tell anyone in the south how lovely it is in Yorkshire.

I woke at 6am in my room with crooked hair, the taste of rubbing alcohol on my tongue and a headache which seemed to emanate from some distant, evil, desolate planet which had somehow locked onto orbiting me and me alone. My own voice went round and round my auditory centre like a foghorn. I stared at myself in the mirror and shook my head. Last night you were Hugh Grant with big red ears. Look at you now. It is this, I posit, which led me to forego the jeans and Hemingway jumper in my rucksack and to turn up at the basin wearing a suit jacket and button-down shirt, looking every inch the oblivious, ill-equipped poet I am. The captain folded his arms and said, ‘You’ll probably get a bit cold.’ I was fashioned with a fleece and waterproof from a small wardrobe, possibly the bequest of previous writers in residence.

The six-strong crew are either gentle, good-humoured souls in general or sensed that I was fragile and treated me with more respect than is my due. When they said, ‘You can put that in your poem,’ it was – and this is rare – good advice which I have mostly ended up taking. Harry and Ken, the senior members of the crew, told me that they used to play on the working barges as boys, jumping from the towpath to the deck, helping with small jobs. ‘We’re the closest they have to working bargemen now.’

Turns out a day on a boat is a remarkably good hangover cure. The wind in your hair, the relative isolation, the thrum of the engine vibrating through your bones. Also constant cups of tea and a tin of biscuits which contained, I’m not kidding, numerous sliced up chocolate bars. They keep a good tin. The scenery between Skipton and Barnoldswick is, the captain informed me, among the best on the whole Leeds-Liverpool canal.

idyllic 1idyllic 2







See? You probably feel less hungover just looking at these photos, right?

 There are 4 swing bridges and 14 lock gates  between Skipton and the Greenberfield mooring.

I learned about the gates themselves, that they are held closed purely by the angle of the wood and the weight of water (80,000 gallons of the stuff). I learned about the role of the lock-keeper; that their job was to look after and maintain the gate, the single gate their lovely house is next to. ‘And he’d come out and help open the gates?’ I asked. ‘Well… If he felt like it.’ At the risk of speaking out of turn, this strikes me as a pretty cushy job.

MONDAY: Watch boats

TUESDAY: Watch boats. Wave.

WEDNESDAY: Head to Wickes for some Ronseal. Wave at boats.

THURSDAY: Assess gate. It’s fine.

FRIDAY: Think about helping bargeman opening gate. He seems fine. Wave.

A lock-keepers cottage in London probably goes for around £3million these days. I gradually got the hang of the process of opening the gates. Given the crew there tended to be four of us to a lock, so I merely had to mirror what the more experienced fellow was doing on the other side of the water. Nonetheless it took me some time to perfect my technique.

locksmithMemorise this simple mnemonic: Richard of York was Equally Incapable of Opening Lock Gates (Right Or Yank – Wait… Eh? I… Oh. Look… Gah!)

Poets are notorious for our lack of upper body strength,  but mercifully having two children under the age of five has involved a fairly constant regimen of piggy backs, shoulder carries and sudden rescues, temporarily saving me from the donnish indolence and muscle wastage which is my fate. Also, once all the doo-hickeys are unfastened, you can operate a lock gate by pushing your bum against it, which is not dissimilar to a really hard sit down while you try to write a good metaphor. That said, there are 14 locks between Skipton and Barnoldswick and the six in the middle occur in rapid succession. This was both useful in terms of consolidating my learning (so that bit goes on there, so that’s the bit I don’t let go of in case it flies up and knocks out my teeth, etc.) as well as gradually requiring exertion beyond my usual habits.

The roar of the water as it filled the lock was a balm, and it was a delight seeing a boat the size and weight of the Kennet  (imagining the same when it was loaded with 40 tonnes of coal) bobbing up to the level of the next stretch of water, all in about five minutes.

ariseThe Kennet, a lock and a vanishingly small margin of error.

 The Kennet was built for the Leeds Liverpool canal and not an inch was wasted: it’s more or less the width and length of a lock and therefore a terrifying ordeal (or would have been had I been entrusted with the task) taking it into a lock without damaging the boat, or the gates, or the walls. Between locks I gazed at the horizon and filled several pages with notes. Poem to follow.