“We’re running a project called Locklines,” said Kate Maddison from Chrysalis Arts, “bringing poetry into the fabric of the canals – would you like to be involved?” Why, yes I would. Yes I would. For eighteen years an industrial archaeologist, I had long been involved with the history of canals, and I came to boat-dwelling through a project to conserve working boats.
The canals are where I live, and they are one of the most perfect examples of low-tech, high-spec engineering in the world. In building them, Brindley and Jessop, Wedgwood and Telford, laid down the engine-bed for the Industrial Revolution, and shaped Britain in ways which influence every part of our daily life now. But today, the canals are not just industrial waterways. They are something more, and less. They are certainly more than the sum of their many working parts.
Yes, the canal system is a machine still, a watery network connecting Ripon to London, York to Bristol: but the canals are also green corridors in grey places. They are still the historic structures that I love and respect: but they are also slender strips of thinking space, carrying with them both history and the present day. The canals and rivers of the UK belong to boaters and walkers, heritage-lovers and the other sort of lovers; even, (and I say this as a boater) to anglers. So yes, I wanted to be involved in a project which would set my words and those of other poets into the wooden beams of four locks, during the winter works programme.
The other poets involved were giants of my poetry world – the jovial Ian McMillan, a model of humanity and playfulness in writing, and Roy Fisher, whose poems on Birmingham and its canals I had long admired. Short phrases from our poetry would be built into lock gates at four locations across the Midlands and North of England; and the artist who would carve the lettering was Peter Coates, whose beautiful work with Ian Finlay Hamilton’s words make the Little Sparta garden a poetry landmark. So of course I wanted to be involved.
This is not the routine work of the Canal and River Trust, and it is funded quite apart from their usual budget, with help from the Arts Council. No bend of the Kennet & Avon will go undredged because of this project (and I speak feelingly) - no bridge will go unpointed as a result of it. Still, not everyone believes this project is a good idea, and the people who object to it are as deeply committed to the canals as I am. I will address that in my next post. But I ask canal-lovers of all types to read this plea:
I think there is room in our narrow space for occasional, high quality artistic intervention. Not everywhere, because we don’t want our working monument to be a theme park or an art gallery. Not anything, because whatever we put here must respect, not mock the canals. We don't want to daub irrelevant lines into places where they are fixed for ever. But Locklines puts the words of established poets in the hands of a fine artist, and gives to four sites a long-term but temporary sample of poetry.
If we want the canals to thrive, we need to make more people see them as valuable and wonder-full places. We won't bring in new people - or their money - by doing what has always been done. We have to do new things as well. Language changes by having new words added to it, and we all get grumpy because we liked the old words. Heritage, too is a cumulative project, constantly growing and shifting focus. Locklines, I believe, is a really good but light-handed intervention, in four carefully chosen sites. And the sculpted lines, thanks to Peter, are beautiful works which will become part of our heritage.
My own words are going in to a lock at Milnsbridge, Yorkshire: one line reads straightened, straitened, boxed and sluiced. The other line, taken from my poem The Archaeologist of Rivers, reads the slow machine that England was. There's more about this lock in another page on this site.
I’ve already led some workshops at canalside locations, with the help of Chrysalis Arts and the Canal and Rier Trust. In Birmingham and at Hillmorton we saw some stunning new work from adult writers. In Yorkshire, a lively bunch of schoolchildren fell over themselves to write A Long Thin Poem for the Canal inside the community barge Kennet (below). More on this next time – and soon, I hope news of my first visit to see my own words in situ at Milnsbridge!